When the New World Beer & Cider Award winners were announced last week, media focused heavily on the winning IPA, Epic Armageddon. Coverage was also given to Good George and Bach Brewing, the only entrants to collect two trophies each.
Behind the news stories though, was another story – that Steam Brewing in Auckland had brewed Epic Armageddon (trophy IPA trophy), Bach Driftwood (trophy pale ale) and Bach Witsunday (trophy wheat beer). That’s three of the eight NZ-made trophy-winning beers.
Steam Brewing is, quite literally, a brewers’ brewer. Almost all of its production goes out under other brewers’ labels, with a client list that also includes Birkenhead Brewing and others who are cagier about their contracting-out. It has won the Brewers Guild Champion Manufacturer trophy twice, industry recognition of its contract-brewing chops.
The relationship between Steam, Epic and Bach is long and tangled. This year’s Awards are the result of complex teamwork between Steam and its winning clients.
Steam’s production manager Shane Morley says he’s happy with the range of beers that collected New World Awards. “Armageddon was half-expected, but for it to carry on winning is quite amazing. And Bach Driftwood being the only pale ale to win gold was good. Witsunday’s category is a hard beer to make because if you get the phenolics out of balance it just becomes nasty.”
Shane says it’s been a challenge to produce a heavily-hopped, clear IPA in Epic Armageddon. “Brewing an IPA can be tricky with the amount of hops being used and getting the right characters out of those hops, and being able to filter the beer clear and still retain those characters. Epic uses some the biggest volumes of hops in New Zealand.”
Steam’s links with Epic go back 20 years – Epic owner Luke Nicholas started his brewing career at Steam in 1997. “That’s where I won Supreme Champion Beer of New Zealand for the Cock & Bull Monks Habit,” says Luke.
“When Steam purchased Auckland Breweries it was on my recommendation, because I was overseeing the contract brewing of Cock & Bull beers at Auckland Breweries. Cock & Bull’s owners purchased that brewery in 2004 and put me in place as brewer and general manager.
“I proposed a new craft beer brand which became Epic, and we came to an arrangement where I bought the Epic brand from them, and I could continue to use the brewery, which I still do today.”
Some contract brewers hand over money, name a beer style, and wait for their beer to arrive. Luke takes a much more hands-on approach, developing recipes, sourcing ingredients and overseeing production.
“On a weekly basis there’s a lot of micromanaging to present the beer in the condition that we want. They do a lot of hard work but they are essentially my employees and they are doing what I want them to do. If you’re looking at contract brewing the smart money is to go to Steam because they have a great track record, and that’s taken us a long time to build up.”
Bach Brewing also has an extended relationship with Steam. Owner Craig Cooper has had a long career in the booze biz, and was co-owner of Limburg Brewery with Chris O’Leary in the early 2000s. Limburg brewed its own beer, but when Craig launched Bach he wanted to take a different path.
“I’ve known Steam since the Limburg days when Luke Nicholas was running it. We contracted-out a couple of beers to Steam back then. Steam is an outstanding brewery with people with wonderful knowhow, and in Shane Morley’s case several decades of brewing, and I couldn’t have achieved that on my own as a start-up.
“I come up with a few ideas – some are good and some are downright bad – and work those through with Shane and the team working through the technical, so together we’re a very tight team. I can’t imagine any other way. I don’t have any desire to own a manufacturing brewery.”
Craig says Steam’s brewers avoid falling into a house style, making a bunch of beers that all taste alike. “Bach’s style is driven by the malts that we use from New Zealand and England and Germany. I would defy anybody not to pick the difference between Epic’s range and the Bach range. Take our Tailfin American IPA or Kingtide Pacific IPA and line them up against, say, Armageddon and you’ll say these are from a different brewery.”