A Blenheim winter bites hard. Especially when you’re sleeping on the floor of a warehouse with only mice for company.
Sleeping on a fold-out futon on the concrete floor of his brewery warehouse was the only option for Andy Deuchars. As head brewer and part-owner of Renaissance he worked at the Blenheim brewery Monday-to-Friday before returning to spend the weekends with his family.
“Why was I sleeping on the warehouse floor? We had no money. And when you have money you do what you have to do.”
“I’d drive up to Blenheim every Sunday night, sleep on the warehouse floor, and drive back to Christchurch on Friday night.
“In a Blenheim winter it can get quite cold in a warehouse. But on a positive note I was also able to get rid of all the mice … eventually.”
When the Kaikoura earthquake destroyed the main highway between Christchurch and Blenheim, the travel added one more layer of stress to the itinerant lifestyle and in March 2017 Deuchars left the company he’d founded with his brother-in-law and fellow San Diego native, Brian Thiel. He remained a shareholder but took his brewing skills to Wigram Brewing in Christchurch. Six months later Renaissance – a veteran of the New Zealand craft beer scene having started in 2005 – went into voluntary administration.
Wine and spirit distribution company Brandhouse stepped up to buy Renaissance and a year later Deuchars returned to his “spiritual home” has head of operations. He splits his time between Christchurch, where he works two days a week, and Blenheim, where he no longer sleeps on a warehouse floor.
“When Brandhouse bought Renaissance they realised there was a slight disconnect between having production in Blenheim and a warehouse and sales team in Christchurch. They decided they needed someone who would be happy working a couple of days in Christchurch and the other days up the brewery. I was the logical choice for that – it’s a good fit for both of us.”
Deuchars’ return to Renaissance coincided with the brewery’s one thousandth brew and they used to mark the rebirth of the brand by bringing back a host of former assistant brewers to help – and those assistants have turned out to be some of the most talented brewers in the country. The 1000 brew crew included Soren Eriksen from 8 Wired, Jason Bathgate from McLeod’s and Matt Dainty from Boneface, Jim Holly from Twisted Hop and current head brewer* Sean Moss.
“It was so cool to have those guys back here – all of our assistants who have their own breweries now, and in some cases are quite famous. We have all these rock stars with a cult following and we can say `I knew him when he was still a home brewer!’.
“It was just so good to see them and talk about the industry and what’s working and what’s not.”
The beer is going to be a partially barrel-aged imperial version of Elemental Porter – something of a flagship beer for Renaissance.
“We wanted to do something that was a representative beer of Renaissance – and we thought ‘well that’s Stonecutter’. But we’ve done a few things with Stonecutter so what about Elemental Porter? How about we do an imperial English porter – not a Baltic porter, an English porter at around 10 per cent, and barrel-age a part of it. Everyone said ‘yeah, that sounds about right’.”
The beer should be ready later this year – around August – and by then Deuchars hopes Renaissance will be as strong as the imperial porter.
Why ‘the wheels fell off’
He’s already seen a massive difference in having a distribution company as an owner because they have a vested interest in moving product.
Looking back to just before “the wheels fell off” Deuchars knowns he and Thiel made a few mistakes with the brewery they’d nurtured for so long.
“Both of us know our strengths don’t lie in sales and it’s fair to say we’re not the best businessmen either – but we also found out that there are a lot of people who think they are great at business but they’re not.
We found out that there are a lot of people who think they are great at business but they’re not.
“We had a distributor who talked a good talk and we were in bed with them but they just wanted a craft beer to put in their portfolio just to say they had it – so there was no driver on sales. Now Brandhouse owns us and have sales people who will go out and frickin sell Renaissance beer. The brewery is busier than when I left but Brian is less stressed because he worries about making beer not selling beer.”
Deuchars said he and Thiel also took bad advice, including trying to push out exports at some considerable cost.
“We followed a lot of advice from so-called
experts that was just bullshit. Some of that advice that will make you a winner
in the wine world won’t work in beer. A lot of people think export is going to
save them but unless you have something unobtainable elsewhere, like Marlborough
Sauvignon Blanc for example, you’re screwed. A local brewery on the other side
of the world can make a beer with Nelson Sauvin hops in it … and it will fresh
versus a tired beer that’s come across the equator without refrigeration.”
The other problem is that the Renaissance brand that was strong in 2005 had less relevance a decade later. “Our brand wasn’t sexy and hip and new and tomorrow. But it costs money to come up with new branding, new labels – so you’d be in this horrible Catch-22 where you can’t afford not to do it, but you can’t afford to do it.”
The reborn Renaissance will still find it tough in an ultra-competitive domestic market, with both brand awareness and the problems associated with selling beer out of the South Island, thanks to the freight costs of crossing Cook Strait.
‘We are in a correction now’
“Our brand represents quality craft beer,” Deuchars says. “We’re not trying to be the most cutting edge but we plan to have enough seasonals and new releases for those chasing novel. We’re still, all of us, trying to get a bigger slice of the pie from the big guys. But the Kiwi ethos of jump in and have a go is hurting us all – having 218 breweries in a population the same as a mid-size city in the United States is just crazy. The growth of the consumers hasn’t outpaced the growth of the producers. We are in a correction now and the good news is that we might see some good quality but inexpensive brewing equipment for sale soon.”
Deuchars is only half-joking when he makes that last observation, because Renaissance would kill for some modern equipment. Anyone who’s visited the brewery can attest to the fact it has a slightly rustic feel. “Our equipment is obsolete compared with what’s available now – new guys starting out now with no knowledge can buy a turnkey system from China that has all the bells and whistles we can just dream about … we still stir the mash tun with an oar!”
Despite all that Deuchars is rapt be back in his element.
“I am really happy to be back here I have to say. It’s a spiritual homecoming.”
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly called Sean Moss the assistant brewer. Apologies for that error.