Craft beer wasn’t a big thing when Hawke’s Bay Brewing Co started out way back in 1996.
In fact, the company’s CEO Greg Forrest jokes that in those days, “craft” was probably a homebrew beer and drinkers didn’t even know how to spell the word.
It was a time when the brewing industry was all about volume production of a very limited range and style of brews.
Hawke’s Bay Brewing Co, or Hawke’s Bay Independent Brewery as it was previously known, was initially established to take on the big producers at their own game – in a small way.
The company built a new brewery in Onekawa, Napier, where it pumped out draught and lager under the Mates brand, which it distributed to pubs and clubs around the region via a small fleet of beer tankers and kegs.
“Back then you could only buy take-home beer from a wholesaler or bottle store and people would take their flagons in to be filled. That was the market when our brewery was built so that was the market we had to be in,” says Greg, who joined HBBC in 1998.
“We had to make beer styles equivalent to Tui and Speights. That was the style of the time and if we hadn’t made something in that vein we wouldn’t have stayed in business.”
Over the past 22 years the company has developed a strategy for surviving in what has been a constantly changing industry.
“We had to change our business model when supermarkets began selling beer,” Greg says.
“The whole scene changed in a short period of time. We lost a large percentage of our sales volume in the first six months after supermarkets got beer. People could pick up a variety of bottled beers from the supermarket, and we weren’t players in the packaged beer market.”
So by necessity, HBBC began to evolve. The brewery moved from Onekawa to the Ballydooley Cider brewery site on Awatoto Road, Meeanee, in late 2006 and opened The Filter Room in 2007. It also began producing bottled beverages.
“We had to be different to take on the big boys, hence the direction and investment in the bottle style – something Lion and DB weren’t doing.
“We also targeted a market they weren’t targeting: high-end restaurants and cafes.
Those establishments took on our products because it worked alongside what they were already selling – it complemented wine without affecting wine sales.”
Initially, the company feared the new strategy of packaging its products, in what people now recognise as its distinctive green bottle, may have been a disaster.
“While running The Filter Room, we had purchased 120,000 bottles and in the first month we sold one dozen. I wondered if I’d committed financial suicide. But then the craft evolution started and beer that had been $20 a dozen was suddenly selling for $60 a dozen and that helped us immensely. All of a sudden, we were in that price bracket. It made people start looking at our products more.”
The company also benefited by having a ‘cellar door’ next to the brewery. HBBC initially ran The Filter Room itself but it is now leased to an independent operator.
“Prior to moving to Meeanee we never sold direct to the public, but The Filter Room educated us about the market. Over the three years we ran it ourselves, we found out what the public were wanting, what styles were popular, what were not, and through that we developed a lot of our non-beer products that we found the public accepted.”
Like Greg, HBBC’s chief brewer Geoff Edwards had years of experience working for the major breweries before joining the Hawke’s Bay company.
HBBC is always looking for new product ideas and new formats for its existing products, which includes a range of ciders, ginger beers and sangria.
“We have recently released a new non- alcoholic sparkling apple juice and we are currently moving forward to a bigger size option from our 330 ml bottle that will fit nicely to satisfy our retail demands,” he says.
While there is always a need for innovation, don’t expect any “radical change” to HBBC’s business model, which Greg describes as solid.
“Our sales are consistent. We don’t change the world, but we want to be around for at least another 22 years to see what happens when the world does change. We’re about conservative brewing. Maybe that’s because Geoff and I, as a team, have been around a long time – we don’t operate on a whim or the latest fad.”
It’s a strategy that “comes with having a few miles on the clock” and it’s an approach that’s seen a major Hawke’s Bay brewery survive in an up-and-down industry for more than two decades.
“We are very lucky to have a team in the brewery and in sales that have been with us for a very long time and are all involved in our long-term development, from manufacturing to branding, as and when we feel a change is needed.