Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Niche alehouse raises the bar

After a tough start 20 years ago, Galbraith’s owner toasts his success

Keith Galbraith travelled to Britain to learn the secret to brewing beer the traditional way. Photo / Greg Bowker
Keith Galbraith travelled to Britain to learn the secret to brewing beer the traditional way. Photo / Greg Bowker

When Keith Galbraith first threw open the doors of the Mt Eden Rd pub that carries his name, not everyone was impressed with the English real ale he brewed.

Back then, in 1995, one of his first punters took a swig of Galbraith's best bitter before spitting it straight out in disgust.

In much the same way that the New Zealand wine scene has boomed as drinkers' tastes developed, it took a few years before people accepted different beer styles to those mass-produced by the big breweries.

It was wine that gave Galbraith his start in the industry, both selling and making, but trips to Britain gave him a taste for real ale, he says.

In the mid-80s he booked a one-way ticket to Britain with a plan to learn the secret to brewing beer the traditional way.

He wrote to 180 breweries offering to work for free and heard back from two, taking the job with the one that said it would pay him $1 an hour.

"I wanted to make beer styles Kiwi drinkers hadn't seen for 50, 60, 70 years. Old-style beers but made fresh in New Zealand, not dragged halfway around the world to be stale and manky and crappy."

Returning in 1988, he spent time getting the business plan sorted, saving $60,000 in start-up funding and looking for the perfect building.

Galbraith says he'd almost given up when a real estate agent rang him about a historic building that had formerly housed the Grafton branch library.

It was the perfect space, but to make it financially viable to brew his style of beer, he needed to put the likes of Lion Red, Steinlager and Guinness on tap in the early days.

Even then the numbers didn't stack up, and with set-up costing more than Galbraith calculated, he sold his house and lived upstairs in the brewery for the best part of a year.

"I didn't know the hell what I was doing. I thought I did; I thought I had enough money and I didn't."

He'd also banked on expats flocking to his pub to drink his beer but the reaction was lukewarm.

"They would rather have drunk imported, real English beer. It was pretty hard for a little while there."

What kept him going was a fear of failure more than anything else, he says. "I would have felt pretty crap had I failed. It would have done my ego no end of harm and I have a rather large ego."

With the benefit of hindsight, Galbraith says he would have been smarter to have started five years later when drinkers were becoming more adventurous with their beer choices.

Two decades on, the next generation of brewers are making craft beer "a bit more cool and groovy", says Galbraith, and business has taken off again.

"I'd like to think we've had some small part in bringing people to different styles."

While English beer styles are his passion, Galbraith's brewing has evolved to encompass European beers.

"I tend to make beers for me. I don't make them for a market and if people want to buy into that, that's great."

As well as producing to the original recipes and methods, Galbraith sources ingredients from the same regions and adjusts the water to reflect what would be available locally.

A German-style lager uses malt and hops from the Munich area, whereas an English bitter would have malt from Salisbury and hops from Worcestershire.

Galbraith says he's built up a relationship with growers so a beer's provenance can be traced almost from field to pint glass.

"I would rather use local ingredients if I could make a genuine Czech pilsner or genuine Baltic stout, but you can't."

A lot of work goes into making the beer, with large upfront costs, but the results give Galbraith's a "little niche" that not too many other people are keen on jumping into, he says.

For about five years, beer aficionados haven't needed to make a pilgrimage to Galbraith's Alehouse in order to swig his brews, which are available in bottles at retail outlets.

Galbraith, who brews the alehouse beers on-site in Grafton, has contracted out the bottle brewing while still sourcing the ingredients and overseeing the brew process. He says margins are low, but he originally saw the bottled beers as a way of advertising the alehouse that paid for itself. The plan is to create bottled beer products for nationwide distribution and perhaps start exporting.

In Auckland's tough hospitality market very few ventures make it through into their third decade.

Asked what the secret ingredient is to staying in business, Galbraith replies: "Just blind stupidity".

- NZ Herald

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