Kelly Ryan is the kind of brewer other brewers admire.
He is famous among brewers and beer judges for his finely honed sense of smell – and it’s not just good luck.
“I had formal training and learnt to name the aromas and compounds in the beer, but I’ve always had this advantage of having a really good nose. While I was a student I used to collect aromatherapy oils and aftershaves. My other dream job would have been a parfumier.”
Kelly trained as a microbiologist at Otago University. “I really enjoyed it but the thought of testing body fluids all my life didn’t appeal.” He switched to food science and picked up a trainee brewer role with DB.
After he completed the two-year course, Kelly and his partner Catherine travelled to Korea and then to the UK. There Kelly got his first taste of craft brewing, with Fyne Ales and Thornbridge. “This was 2006 and there was a resurgence in small breweries, but there weren’t a lot of trained brewers. I could take my pick and Thornbridge sounded the most interesting, but it was in the middle of nowhere and the money was terrible.
“So they offered Catherine a job managing their pub – she won Pub of the Year two years in a row. I became the brewery manager and it was pretty amazing really. I got it up to doing 30,000L a week. It was a brand new bespoke brewery and lab, and we took the craft brewing model and professionalised it as much as we could in terms of quality control.”
While working at Thornbridge Kelly first met Epic’s Luke Nicholas. They caught up again in 2010 when they were both judging at the World Beer Cup. “Luke said, ‘Dude, if you’re ever looking for a job in New Zealand let me know!’ and I was, so I ended up with Epic for just over a year. We came up with six or seven new beers in that year including Hop Zombie, Mash Up, and the Coffee & Fig Stout. But it’s a contract brewery and I missed being on the tools.”
Next stop – Hamilton! “So Good George beckoned. We started with a little shell of an old church and built a brew pub.”
After Hamilton – retirement! “I was there for 20 months and then moved back to Taranaki after my father passed away, to help my mother take care of the house.” And, just for fun, help his brother open a brewery – Brew Mountain.
Kelly’s latest gig is in Wellington at Fork Brewing, inside the Fork & Brewer brewpub. Kelly describes the small brewery as “physical and manual”. “It’s an incredibly compact kit, upstairs, and no goods lift. I’ll never need to pay a gym fee. I’m about 12kg lighter than I was when I left Epic, put it that way!”
Unlike many craft brewers, Kelly’s career path has been a progression towards smaller batches and more variety. After brewing 100,000L of Tui in a day as an apprentice, he’s now making 1000L batches, plus a 50L kit for experiments.
“In two years I’ve brewed about 60 beers and 130 batches. We had 25 Fork Brewing beers on tap at the same time last week so I’ve had carte blanche to develop what I like.”
“Drinkability would be my house character. Brewpub beer needs to be drinkable because it’s not like you’re buying a bottle to share among three mates on a special occasion. The challenge as a brewpub brewer is that you need to get fresh throughput of your beer.
“I’m careful with the packaging and getting zero oxygen into the beer. I use more carbon dioxide than other brewers. If a pump's seal is a bit degraded it can let oxygen in. So I use CO2 to transfer the beer. Our beer is never pumped – I only pump wort and once that’s cooled it’s never pumped again.”
Fork Brewing won the pale ale trophy at the 2015 Brewers Guild Awards (for Godzone Beat), along with a gold medal for Yoghurt & Brusli sour, and ten silvers and bronzes. “It’s good to get that external auditing process to tell you you’re getting it right.”
Six things you didn’t know about Kelly Ryan
- Kelly’s father, Pat Ryan, represented New Zealand at the 1972 Munich Olympics, boxing as a featherweight.
- Kelly was taught at Otago University by Jean Pierre ‘JP’ Dufour, the man who Emerson’s JP is named after.
- Kelly doesn’t read Untappd. “It is a lot of rubbish. The feedback for me is that the sales continue to increase and I get busier, and that wouldn’t happen if the beer wasn’t good.”
- As a trainee brewer Kelly lived in a brewery house on Highway 2, Mangitainoka, “where motorcyclists would miss the corner and crash into the front door”.
- At 37, Kelly has worked in at least nine breweries, but then, he’s probably forgotten a few others.
- He is not responsible for the nickname Brewjesus.