“This is not just about brewing the beer, you’ve got to think about how you are going to sell it. That’s absolutely crucial or you could be throwing your money at nothing.”
Tracy Banner knows a thing or two about brewing and selling beer. She’s been a brewer for 34 years, starting her apprenticeship as a teenage girl in the UK.
Today she’s the co-owner and head brewer of Sprig & Fern Brewery in Richmond, southwest of Nelson. While brewpubs are popping up all over the country, Sprig & Fern has been operating its chain of neighbourhood pubs for years.
Tracy’s path from Liverpool to Richmond is well-recorded: apprentice and brewer at Greenalls, Bass and Cains in the UK; arriving in New Zealand in 1994; brewing for Lion, Mac’s, and Speights; buying-in to Sprig & Fern in 2009.
She also patiently responds every time the media wants an “OMG, women can be brewers!” piece, and for much of her career Tracy was the first woman to hold the top brewer position at different breweries.
Tracy now leads a team of 11 men and women. “We’re making 2000L batches, double batching and brewing pretty much every day. Even through winter it doesn’t slow down much.”
Sprig & Fern brews 16 in its core range: “Throughout the range we’re quite international. We’ve got an English IPA, we’ve got a Scotch Ale, APA, we’ve got some very New Zealand styles, and our limited releases have done West Coast IPAs, Hefeweizens, Dunkelweizens, Dopplebock.
“We haven’t got into sours and I don’t intend to at the moment because I don’t want to introduce an infection. It would make no sense for us to do that.
“We use two yeasts and occasionally bring in others to do a limited release. Our ale yeast was re-propagated a couple of years ago, but I know our plant is so clean it will be safe to keep using it. I used a lager yeast in the UK that went to 4000 generations and my belief is, ‘Why change it if you’re looking after it and it’s still working?’”
Most of the brewery’s output is sold through the chain of nine Sprig & Fern taverns in Nelson/Tasman and Wellington. “They are only pouring our products so we are guaranteed sales every week of the year.”
“In our taverns we do not do pokies, we do not do pool tables, and we do not do TVs. It’s all about good old conversation. You’re going to the pub for the products and the ambiance. With 16 in the core range and two limited releases at any one time, you’ll never get anyone walking into a Sprig and leave because they can’t find something on tap that will suit them.”
Having tied taps has allowed Tracy to plan production growth years ahead. She says forward planning is essential for every brewing business.
“One thing I’m pretty good at is production planning. In all the years, we’ve never not delivered one keg, we’ve never not delivered one rigger, and that’s because every Monday morning without fail I block out two to three hours and just work on production planning.
“Looking at what you want to do with sales growth, you’ve got to understand your capacity and what you’re capable of doing, and what size tanks you’ll need. You have to plan for the cost of those assets as well, and when you can afford to grow.
“I think, for a lot of the news kids on the block, this is not just about brewing the beer, you’ve got to think about how you are going to sell it. You’ve got to know how you’ll sell it before you even start to brew. That’s absolutely crucial or you could be throwing your money at nothing.
“My philosophy – bite size chunks, do something well and move on. I’ve known too many go too big too fast. Take medium risks.”
Tracy’s currently overseeing a major expansion programme at the brewery, doubling the floor space with room for storage, new equipment and more fermenters. This month they’re commissioning a new bottling line for the 1.25L riggers sold through supermarkets and bottle stores. Tracy was in Wellington yesterday talking to the design agency managing Sprig & Fern’s rebranding.
“It’s going to be a busy winter. I am a bit of a workaholic, but I so enjoy this industry, I love it! Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’ve been in it for so long.”