Mike Neilson took up home brewing eight years ago. This year he will make 1 million litres. In five years he plans to make 10 million. Mike tells Beertown.NZ about the rise and rise of Panhead Custom Ales.
“I stated home brewing in 2007 just for something to do. It was one of those life-changing-epiphany moments when I made my first good all-grain beer. I went out and spent three grand on all the equipment and it took over my life.”
Mike joined other local home brewers in the Wellington Brewers Conference. “We nominated a beer style and then we were judged against each other and the style guide. It was a good way to gauge what we did. Home brewing to a style is a pretty hard task and I won it once in six or seven attempts.
“Craft beer was starting to forge its own little path in 2008, 2009 and it was time to make a move into the industry. We planned to start our own brewery but the opportunity came up at Tuatara. I worked there for three years, learning the ins-and-outs of making beer on a commercial level. It was basically an apprenticeship in one of the best breweries in the country. It was a good move to wait before we started.
“When it was time to do our own thing I left there in January 2013. We brewed our first batch of (Panhead) beer on the First of July 2013, ready for Beervana in August.”
Even in an industry experiencing double-digit growth, Panhead’s expansion has been dramatic and very public. Now producing a million litres a year, Mike expects to be brewing 1.7 million L/yr by the end of next year. We’re going to need a bigger brewery!
“Our next planned step is to move and open a 5 million L/yr brewery with room to expand to 10 million L/yr. It will definitely be in Upper Hutt – the Council is very good, we live here, I was born here. There’s not much point us going into Wellington to pay $150/m2 when we can pay $60/m2 here and use those savings to benefit the customer.
“We’re definitely not levelling off. It would be nice to sit back but we’re passionate about beer and growing our category. Every person I see not drinking a Heineken gives me a big hard-on! If I can get people drinking good beer I’m happy. We said right from the start our target was to change the mainstream market and now we’re producing enough good beer to do that.”
Panhead’s growth obviously hasn’t meant any reduction in quantity. At the recent Brewers Guild Awards it won one trophy, four gold medals, four silvers and a bronze – making it the most acclaimed brewery after Lion. The distinctive Canhead range has been widely praised, and there’s a intriguing collection of barrel-aged brews awaiting release.
Some craft brewers create value by keeping their beers rare, but Mike takes the opposite approach. The long-term goal is to turn the beer industry on its head by making quality craft beer easy to find at a good price.
“I believe being available creates value. People aren’t stupid – they won’t pay $9 for bad beer in a pretty can twice. It has to be good beer and it has to be available where people can buy it.
So does Mike plan to be the biggest craft brewer in New Zealand?
“I don’t really worry about that. If we’re making 10 million L/yr and Tuatara and Steam and Harringtons and the others are all making 10 million L/yr too, that’s fantastic. I really hope they do and we can all pat each other on the back and have a hug! It sticks with our philosophy of changing the beer category and getting people drinking better beer. Kiwis are early adopters and it doesn’t take a big swing to change things. We think it will take three or five years to swing away from the mainstream but there’s a lot of work we all have to do to make that happen.”