Caitlin Sykes ' Opinion

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Craft brewers - Ralph Bungard, Three Boys Brewery

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Ralph Bungard spent some serious time in the corridors of academia (he has a PhD in Plant Science and degrees in Viticulture and Oenology) before setting up Christchurch-based Three Boys Brewery a decade ago.

Ralph Bungard of Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch.
Ralph Bungard of Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch.

What's the story behind Three Boys Brewery?

Three Boys Brewery started in 2004, which I guess makes us one of the old team now!
It really started with my desire to get out of academic science. In New Zealand at the time it was difficult to really do what scientists love to do - that is, science. Instead of being at the lab bench, you progressively end up on the computer writing grant applications for inadequate pools of money. To avoid getting too bitter and twisted, it was time to move on.

Brewing was a really attractive and exciting option after returning to New Zealand from the UK in the early 2000s. For a start, the local beer selection available in New Zealand was generally diabolical. Secondly, I had spent quite a few years in the UK drinking some fantastic locally brewed beers. But probably most important was that I could work in a business where you take beautiful ingredients and create a product that people really love.

We established Three Boys gradually.

At the beginning I still worked in science full time, then went part time as we grew from what I now call the 'tin pot' brewery to what we have now. Like many of the original small New Zealand breweries, we built our own plant from converted tanks and dairy equipment. I found that stage rewarding - piecing together bits and bobs to end up with a plant that worked. We are now in our third brewery and I can say that I have loved every one of them - in their time!

What are the challenges to growing a craft brewing business?

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge in any microbrewery is maintaining quality and consistency. Making one great beer from time to time is exciting, and perhaps enough to attract some followers, but when you are asking punters to fork out good money on a regular basis, you need to make sure you are delivering them value time after time.

To make sure we produce a consistently good product means we have often not been able to keep up with demand. We just won't push out beer when it is not ready, or if the quality is not good, simply to fill an order. I think that is good for the long-term name of the business - although it can cause some heated discussions with our distributors and retail customers. I have to remind myself that if you produce a good beer, a few people might talk about it, but if you make a bad beer you can be sure many people with talk about it!

What has worked really well for you in terms of growing the business? Has winning awards helped?

We do well in competitions, but it is not something we really push on our labels or such. In fact, Three Boys Oyster Stout is New Zealand's most awarded beer in the history of the New Zealand International Beer Awards. Alongside quality and consistency, branding has been really important for us. Even after nearly 10 years I think ours still looks fresh and attractive. I love its simplicity and style.

Has your science background helped you in the brewing industry?

Being a scientist has been a great background for brewing. Not simply for the obvious reasons of the chemistry and biochemistry involved, but also because science is a great mix of being logical and methodical, but at the same time thinking and working outside accepted norms. Brewing is a great mix of science and art, with a little bit of engineering and economics thrown in. Perfect for a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type!

What's your vision for Three Boys' future?

I guess we were lucky to get established so early in the rebirth of microbrewing in New Zealand. It has meant we have been in a position to capitalise on the growth in the sector while at the same time having ironed out all the issues that come with starting a business and time to work out production and quality issues that come with small-scale brewing.

The future is very difficult to predict given the number of new breweries popping up. I guess the advantages that Three Boys have are we have worked really hard to develop a reputation for a consistently good product and we are well established as a family-owned business now. It is exciting time in the industry, without a doubt. With that, it is important that we make sure that we maintain our integrity by continuing to supply quality products to our customers.

- NZ Herald

Caitlin Sykes

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Caitlin Sykes has been a business journalist for more than a decade, including eight years at the award-winning Unlimited business magazine, where she was writer, deputy editor and, most recently, editor. She currently is the Your Business editor of nzherald.co.nz, specialising in issues relevant to small and medium enterprises in the New Zealand economy.

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