Small Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Craft brewers - Craig Bowen, BeerNZ

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Craig Bowen is the founder of dedicated craft beer distributor BeerNZ and chairman of the Brewers Guild of New Zealand.

Craig Bowen of BeerNZ.
Craig Bowen of BeerNZ.

There's a growing number of them around, but what actually is a 'craft' brewer?

There's been a lot of debate in the industry recently about what actually defines 'craft' beer, because you'll have even the big breweries calling some of their brands 'craft'. It depends where you draw the line. But probably the best description I've heard of a craft brewery is where the business is controlled by the brewer, not an accountant or a board or the likes - a place where the brewer has the final say in the beer. But brewers are tough to pin down; if you put them in a box they'll try to jump out of it.

How did you get into the beer business?

The idea for BeerNZ was hatched nearly seven years ago, when the market itself was in its infancy. I saw that you had brewers who were really good at brewing beer, but they hadn't set up a brewery because they liked dealing with supermarkets or freight companies and that sort of thing.

And when I did my research and talked to customers and asked 'if you could get a whole lot of beer from different breweries from one place would that work?' they said 'yeah'. So it was about filling the gap at both ends. To start I bought one pallet of beer, then two, then four and it kept growing and growing from there. We've now got six staff, 35 breweries and about 250 different beers in stock at any one stage.

What kind of growth has the industry overall been experiencing?

Overall beer consumption is not increasing, but the craft category, which makes up around 5% of that total number, is growing about 20% a year. People aren't drinking more beer, but they're drinking better beer.

So what's driving that growth?

Look at wine and coffee. Once upon a time people would buy cask wine and we'd only drink instant or percolated coffee. But now it's nothing to buy a few bottles of good quality wine a week and we're happy to spend $4.50 a day on a coffee from a cafe. The same thing is happening with beer.

Also a lot of cafes and restaurants are now identifying that they've put a lot of effort into their food being locally sourced and fresh, and they'll have great wine to go with it, but only three or four bog-standard types of beer. People are happy to go out and pay $10 or $12 for a nice glass of wine, and there's now a growing realisation that same opportunity exists with beer. Lifting the knowledge overall of bar and restaurant staff will further help growth.

Regionality is another trend. We distribute nationwide, and we might get an enquiry from a customer in Queenstown, for example, who'll want something from the South Island, especially if there's a tourism focus to their business. On the bottle store side of things they tend to support their local breweries well.

Some of the growth has also been around the diversity of flavours and brewers are experimenting more with new flavours people haven't seen before. For example, there's one beer we've got that has Earl Grey tea in it. There's a fair bit of innovation out there.

What makes a successful craft brewer?

It helps when brewers have a presence in the marketplace; when they're happy to do tastings and be seen in bars, rather than hiding behind a label.

Good branding and marketing helps and that's also about telling the story of the brewery. What makes you different? Is it your passion, the way you do things, if you've got a dog that sits on the front porch and barks every time someone walks by? What is it about you that will make the customer want to pick your beer?

- NZ Herald

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Small 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 Small Business editor of, specialising in issues relevant to small and medium enterprises in the New Zealand economy.

Read more by Caitlin Sykes

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