In 2005 Ralph Bungard started a one-man brewery in Christchurch. Ten years on he leads a team of nine producing 300,000L of beer each year. He says his brews are distinctly Canterbury beers, and he tells BeertownNZ the Three Boys story.
“Our first location was behind where Cassels & Sons is now, where their car park is. There was a dog food factory and a vege processor, and I think they both got shut down for health reasons. We were in a a real simple small shed behind them. Our first brewing equipment was the usual first brewing equipment in those days, ex-dairy equipment and modified stuff.
“We were so small we didn’t have to sell much. I’d bottle by hand, then take the dozens of bottles home to label them at night with stickers. I found a photo of what I thought was a great wall of beer that I had to sell the next day, and it was like eight dozen! And that was exciting!
“The Twisted Hop had just opened and that was our first keg beer outlet. Christchurch restaurateur Jonny Schwass took our beer on very early as well. He still takes our beer in his restaurants. There was certainly nothing in supermarkets in that time, even in off licences.
“Our plan was that our labels would be ahead of their time by being distinctly not beer-like. They looked more a like a wine label. The outlets we wanted were independent restaurants, and people could have them on the table and not be ashamed of having a beer instead of a wine with their dinner. That worked quite well, the fact we could get free advertising because people were looking at the bottle and showing it off.”
Three Boys soon outgrew the little shed and moved to a larger site across Garlands Road. “That was a really nice site. It happened to be an old battery factory, so the soil underneath was highly toxic, but it had a sealed floor so that was OK.”
OK until 4 September 2010, that is. That morning marked the first earthquake in a series that would shake Christchurch over the next two years.
“It makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck just thinking about. It doesn’t seem like half way through our life – it seems like only yesterday. In other ways I look back and it seems like a lifetime ago. Of all the places you wouldn’t want to be in a big earthquake, a brewery would be near the top of the list – heavy liquid that doesn’t like moving, in tall tanks, on legs. It taught us so much about how strong an earthquake is – you think things are tied down, and they’re not at all.”
An aftershock cut power during a brew, leading to a one-off Aftershock Golden Ale. “We had a kettle half full of wort and we just winged it. We reduced the volume to be 6.5% and put it in bottles with a little fragment of brick glued to the top. Some of them went on display in Te Papa.”
A more intense shake in February 2011 caused 185 fatalities in Christchurch. No one was hurt in the brewery, which Ralph puts down to pure good luck.
“That day we had five people in the brewery and we were just lucky no one was killed. Two of our big 4000L fermenters fell over, other gear collapsed and liquefaction was coming up through the floor.”
With lots of support from family, friends and suppliers, the brewery was back in action within three weeks, but the building was damaged and it was time to move again. A vacancy on Ferry Road gave Three Boys a chance to expand. “It was a nice interesting challenge of designing a brewery from scratch. We’d never done it up to that point but this time we actually got out chalk on the floor to see where things fitted.”
We should be getting our Brewer’s Reserves out there, showing Three Boys is ten years old and not just making IPA, wheat beer, oyster stout and pilsner. It’s probably quite a Canterbury-reserve thing.
The current site covers nearly 1000m2, houses nine full- and part-time staff, and now produces about 300,000L per year. “That suits us. We don’t do a lot of export, and I’d estimate 50% of our sales are around the Canterbury region. It’s easy to envisage our market when they are locals.”
Ralph says Three Boys’ most distinct beers give recognised styles a Kiwified twist. “We added lemon to a typical Belgian wheat. When we first made it, people would send it back because they’d never seen a cloudy beer before. Our oyster stout has South Island oysters, but it is still recognisably a stout. It was great to start adding Kiwi ingredients like oysters and lemons to make local beers while still staying true to their roots.”
He believes Three Boys’ future lies in developing distinctly Canterbury styles using local ingredients.
“I think Canterbury has a distinct brewing style and its typically South Island in that we don’t blow our own trumpets enough. We should be getting our Brewer’s Reserves out there, showing Three Boys is ten years old and not just making IPA, wheat beer, oyster stout and pilsner. It’s probably quite a Canterbury-reserve thing.
“Canterbury is New Zealand’s home of malt and I think we should be known for those maltier beers. That’s not the trendy thing to do right now, but times change, and we need to stay true to our local ingredients and create the distinction we really love. So when people start thinking there’s more to beer than hops they will discover the flavours and aromas and styles coming from this region.
“We still drive our beers with hops and maintaining a balance is something we strive to do. I think people appreciate that when they have a Three Boys it will be a balanced, good drinking beer, so you come back and have another pint.”