It has been a fun summer for Carl Vasta.
Last October Tuatara Brewing was named Champion New Zealand Brewery for an unprecedented second time, then it attracted criticism for attempting to trademark ‘Kapai’ despite knowing another brewery had first dibs, then it was bought by DB for tens of millions, then Carl bought a new wakeboarding boat and a new Audi to tow it, and now he develops new brews and keeps Facebook updated on his kiteboarding adventures. Phew!
Carl began commercial brewing at Lower Hutt’s Parrot & Jigger in 1993. He’d been a homebrewer, building his own kit in about 1990. After two years at Parrot & Jigger, Carl established his own brewery, Polar Beer, in the nearby Petone Working Men’s Club.
“I’m a qualified electrical engineer, so I had mechanical and electrical background. I was going to auctions and buying up ex-dairy tanks that would suit to be brewing vessels and I fabricated a 3000L brewery together. The Club was a partner and the goal was to produce good beer at a low price – they wanted a Lion Brown. We also did a lager, and that evolved into the pilsner of today and it was well and truly out of the box then in flavour profile.”
Polar expanded its range to include a 6% IPA and a 7% stout, and picked up some awards on the contemporary Brews, Blues & BBQs circuit.
“The bulk of the beer coming out of Polar was draught and price driven, and there was a lot of pressure coming from the bigger breweries in that price bracket. The big boys came in with $90/keg second-tier club beers. We moved out of the Club in about ’99. We ended up selling the brewery to a place in Margaret River (Western Australia) and went there to set it up.”
Carl and his wife Simone moved to Reikorangi, inland from Waikanae, where Carl built a house and got bored. “It was costing me an arm and a leg buying commercial beer. So I got together with Fraser McInnes from Bar Bodega and Sean Murrie from The Malthouse. They were looking for a brewery that was producing consistent beer, because at that time craft was all over the place in quality and consistency.”
Carl, Simone, Fraser and Sean established Tuatara Brewing in December 2000, with a 600L kit on the Vasta’s lifestyle block. “I figured I could brew beer, but route-to-market was my problem. They provided the route-to-market and solved their problem with inconsistent beer. Pilsner quickly became our biggest seller.
“What helped us grow in Wellington was Grant Jones from Regional Wines – he was very much on board with trying to grow craft beer along with his wine portfolio. All the little cafes in Cuba St and Wellington got their boutique wines from Regional, so they also took our beer. It was at the very beginning of the craft beer revolution.”
And the tuatara learned to fly. It’s core range of hefeweizen, lager, pilsner, IPA, porter and Ardennes combined recognised styles with New Zealand ingredients and established Tuatara alongside its peers at Sunshine and Emerson’s. Sales took off and Tuatara ranked in the Deloitte Fast 50 fastest growing businesses in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Carl says the emphasis was on keeping up with demand for the core range. The brewery was along a narrow winding road and up a narrower winding-er driveway. “It was a logistical nightmare. And we started to truck water in and wastewater out, just because of the sheer volume of throughput, so that was expensive. I think we spent quarter of a million dollars getting water in and out one year, so it became quite obvious that we needed to relocate to town.”
Tuatara’s Paraparaumu brewery opened in October in 2012. It included a taproom/café, and the extra space and tanks had enough production capacity to do some contract brewing and spend time on product development. Carl worked on new IPAs, revisited his love of Belgian styles, and experimented with some big boozy numbers for the cellar.
2012 also saw the first Hopstock, launching Conehead fresh-hopped IPA and three other Tuatara IPAs in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Craft beer’s transition from craft to corporate took another step in 2013 when Tuatara sold a 35% stake to Rangatira, a private equity company owned by a group of charities. In 2015 Tuatara opened Third Eye brewpub in Te Aro, and brought in its small brewery where Carl now works on pilot brews. DB bought 100% of Tuatara Brewing in January this year.
“Up until 2011 we were the only Wellington brewery with stainless steel. Then over that next year or two Panhead, Parrot Dog, Garage Project, Kereru, Baylands, they all started up with a hiss and a roar and it’s kept going. The Wellington-based breweries were starting to refer to us as an Up-the-Coast brewery, so we needed some tie to Wellington, and we opened Third Eye two years ago. We’re brewing here [at Third Eye] about three times a month, we get the brew team to come in and get a bit of experimentation.”
Several Third Eye pilot brews have gone to production at Paraparaumu, including Amarillo and Outrigger. “Centennial Highway was brewed here for the West Coast IPA challenge at the Malthouse and it was received very well so we launched that. It is definitely a trial brewery.
“It is nice to be able to experiment. I’ve got a contract with Tuatara for five years at least, so I’m pretty happy to continue on. I see my role here as very similar to a lot of contract brewers – really it’s no different. As long as the recipes come from the brewers and not the accountants then we are craft beer.”