In an era where brewers feel compelled to double down on the DDH with a new hazy IPA every month, Auckland’s Liberty Brewing is happily bucking the trend.
New Zealand’s champion medium-sized brewery is a glaring non-starter in the hazy arms race but there’s no fear of missing out for owner-brewer Joe Wood. In fact, the brewery is celebrating huge gains in grocery by sticking to its core range and refusing to buy into the haze craze.
They do have one hazy beer in their core portfolio, Jungle Juice, but Wood baulks at the idea of trying to match the likes of Garage Project, Behemoth, Epic, Deep Creek and others with a stream of new-release hazies.
Wood said his resistance to buying a ticket on the haze train is down to maxed-out physical capacity at his Helensville brewery and a more subjective fear that the trend is unsustainable, noting “only a small percentage of the market” wants a revolving array of new beers.
“It’s not that we’re lazy,” Wood explained.
“First we can’t keep up with our core range and second, when we do make seasonal beer we’ll put it into keg only as I don’t want to put anything into pack when I don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
“When you’re playing with new hops varieties, different yeast varieties – if you’ve been doing it for a long time you’ve got a better idea of what you should expect as an outcome but if you don’t do it a lot, it might be a flop.
“It’s the fear of the unknown, I guess. If you produce a bad one, how are you going to justify selling it? We certainly can’t afford to ditch a single batch.”
Liberty has around 10 beers in its core range and Wood accepts one or two might be dropped to keep pace with demand for his most popular trio: Knife Party IPA (7%), Yakima Monster APA (6%) and Jungle Juice (6.6%).
“We’ve got some SKUs that don’t perform as well as others – it’s question of whether we pull those ones out to focus the ones that are performing exceptionally well and to take pressure off the capacity.”
If there was one beer Wood is tempted to add it’s a 4.5% abv hazy pale ale modelled on the Stone & Wood Pacific Ale. The style had a brief surge of popularity a few years ago in New Zealand but it has petered out in recent times.
“But if you call it a hazy pale ale and put it in a six-pack it would just go apesh*t.
“We’ve been talking about that – but it’s just finding time to do new product development and the artwork and all the paperwork for supermarkets … and if it’s a flop well you’ve wasted all that money.
“But the short answer is yes, we’ve been thinking about it because we saw what happened with Jungle Juice,” he said.
“It was an obscure beer in a single 440ml can with our old branding on. Before the rebranding it said ‘unfiltered’ on the label and now it says `hazy’, and now it’s selling more. He recipe hasn’t changed but it’s gone from being a flop to something massively popular.”
At a deeper level, Wood is also happy that his family-run business is in a sweet spot size-wise, and any further growth or additional SKUs would bring unnecessary headaches.
“I don’t see the need to be overworking and over-committing and getting to a level where business becomes a risk,” he explained.
“If your beer’s in demand, you’re brewing to capacity and distribution is under control why try to be the biggest, baddest man on the planet.
“We’re a family business and I want it to be sustainable. I don’t want it to keep growing and growing to the point our margins are compromised.”
That said, Liberty experienced massive growth in past year – winning New Zealand’s champion medium-sized brewery and champion exhibitor at last year’s NZ Beer Awards helped, as did a strong rebrand that coincided with the awards.
Another part of the growth puzzle is competitive pricing for 330ml six-packs of Knife Party ($28), Jungle Juice ($26) and Yakima Monster ($24).
“Yakima Monster is growing at 150 per cent. It’s tripled in a year.”