What the hell was Tuatara thinking?

The past week should have been a very good one for Tuatara Brewery. They won a swag of medals and trophies at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand awards, took out Champion Brewery, and no doubt celebrated like champs on the night. All this after a tough period during which someone they contract brewed for called them out (in a polite way) for their brewing practices.

Unfortunately, those happy, happy days did not last. In fact, it all went a bit crap. The positive media stories and social media attention soon flipped, and they were trying to cure a headache far different from the ones staff members possibly had the morning after the awards. And while the causes of said headache are different from each other, they are also very closely related.

Firstly, everyone I talked to after the awards was wondering the same thing – what the hell are these beers Tuatara won all these awards for? I had never seen Mot Eureka, Weiz Guy or kAPAi anywhere, and neither had anyone else. Beertown.nz overlord Martin Craig’s calculated guess, at them being new names for old beers, was confirmed by Tuatara a day later. In the next few weeks you will see a refresh of Tuatara’s brand – the same branding the company has used since I was serving its range in a restaurant a decade ago is going.

I am all for rebrands. Townshend’s label update was desperately needed, while the recent changes on Emerson’s bottles and tap badges move the same way – taking a dated, English-looking-in-a-boring-way brand in a modern direction. But, to quote Martin Craig, “a rebranding should improve recognition of your beers, not create confusion”. Both the Emerson’s and Townshend’s rebrands kept the same beer names, but improved the look.

But Tuatara is taking a different route. The company is going full-on Prince/ Prince logo.svg, right down to the ‘artist-formerly-known-as-Prince’ bit. The website proudly touts the beers: Mot Eureka Pilsner (known as Bohemian Pislner); Weiz Guy (known as Bavarian Hefe); Helluva Lager (Helles Lager). Ugh. It all got more cringe than a series of the British version of The Office.

If Tuatara wanted a good example of a rebrand done right, they should have checked out ParrotDog’s latest work.

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Exhibit 1: Old dogs

See Exhibit 1. ParrotDog’s name is nice and big, and so are the beer names. But, honestly, who is going to know the difference between a BitterBitch and a DeadCanary if they know almost nothing about brewery?

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Exhibit 2: New tricks

The rebrand still shows all the beers are from ParrotDog, and has the names on the front. But the emphasis is now directly about telling people exactly what they are getting. If I’m ordering for my friends at a pub, I don’t ask “do you want a DeadCanary or BitterBitch?”. I ask if they want a pale ale or an IPA. Why? Because they know what those things are. For me, that has always been the strength of Tuatara’s brand and beer names – they do what they say on the tin/bottle/keg/tap badge.

The fact is, Tuatara has effectively already conceded the rebrand is a stupid idea. On this webpage I keep hyperlinking, they say they are going to “put some stickers on to make sure you can still find your fav!”. (Yes! Your fav! Not your fave!). Pro tip: people are lazy. If they can’t find what they want, their “fav!” they will probably give up and buy some Panhead Supercharger instead.

So why is Tuatara rebranding? Maybe they did some market research. Maybe they got bored. Maybe, as one person close to the industry suggested to me, they wanted to have trademarkable names. Which is rather ironic, as an attempted trademark is what really got Tuatara’s reputation in a bad place this past week.

Tuatara made applications recently with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand to trademark all their new beer names – and fair enough. You have to protect your brand early on, or you end up with Radlergate 2.0. While the Society of Beer Advocates has a decent pot of cash lying around, I imagine they have better things to do with it than fight trademark battles for the good of the New Zealand beer scene.

Anyway. It all hit the fan for Tuatara when a former SOBA president tweeted what a few people in the beer industry had figured out/been informed of.

For those that do not know, Amarillo is the name of a hop variety. I have had a go at people trying to trademark hop varieties before. That ended well, with the brewer withdrawing the trademark application. And I can forgive them, because they were being benignly ignorant. But Tuatara engaged the services of AJ Park, an intellectual property law firm, to make their applications.

(Now, I have a soft spot for lawyers. I see them every day undertaking stressful work, like bail applications. Some lawyers simply do not do their job well enough, and end up shocked when they get told their client has 20 previous convictions for breach of bail. But then there are the ones who open their submissions with “I have been instructed to apply for bail”. They know it is a lost cause before they have started. In legal parlance, it is referred to as ‘throwing yourself at the mercy of the court’.)

Things went rather predictably. People got angry, social media got a bit feral, and Tuatara backed down, withdrawing the Amarillo application. They also withdrew the application they had made for Tomahawk – another hop variety – despite nobody getting up in arms about that, so kudos to Tuatara where kudos be due.

But the heat is still being applied.

Yes, Tuatara are trying to trademark Kapai for kAPAi. The issue is Aotearoa Breweries – you know them better as Mata – has made a beer called Kapai for quite some time.

The best thing Tuatara can do about the Kapai situation is withdraw its application. Mata had its Kapai first, and even manged to get its trademark application in a few hours in front of Tuatara’s. It’s just the nice thing to do, ya know?

And if Tuatara is worried about anything – the cost, the need to find another name and/or design, or whatever – then its bosses should look towards one of its major competitors: Moa.

Moa has undertaken a media campaign for the launch of its first canned product, a session pale ale. And the cans look great!

fish-can_animated

But remember back when Moa initially wanted to call the product Paradise Pale Ale, despite the fact McLeod’s had the trademark on Paradise? Well guess what? The session pale ale is not called Paradise. There was a bit of social media beef about it at the time, but it appears Moa and McLeod’s sorted things out.

I believe New Zealand’s beer industry is made up of people who, by and large, what to work together to create a “rising tide raises all boats” environment. Tuatara is one of the biggest boats out there, firing great products out at a very competitive price point. But doing stupid things – stupid is the only word I think sums it up properly – undermines the great work Tuatara does. It makes them look silly, and makes people say silly things about them.

Further reading:

*Moa’s cans fit well with its move away from the myopic misogyny they were famed for, to a friendlier ‘outdoorsy’ look. Graphic designer Todd Wilson was behind the move, which was featured on Design Assembly recently. His CV reads much like most New Zealand freelance journalists’ – work for company, leave company, get freelance contract with that company.

*I wish Shane Cowlishaw would spend less time walking around decommissioned prisons and more time writing about beer. I also wish for world peace, a 1960s Fender Bass VI and a fridge full of Hallertau Funkonnay magnums, but none of that is happening anytime soon. Anyway, his recent piece on New Zealand brewery rebrands is a good read.

*If Martin Townshend is thinking about another rebrand, (by my calculation, it would be his fifth), this student submission into the Best Design Awards looks sharp.

Soundtrack:

*Het played their debut set at Palmerston North all-ages venue The Stomach recently. The debut album provides an excellent soundtrack to morning dog walks, cooking tofu, and punching through writer’s block.

It’s the end of the world…and I feel fine

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“I know a good hoppy beer when I drink one” – Luke Nicholas.

By now, you may have read the results for the 2016 New World Beer and Cider Awards. While the awards are surely, at some level, a ploy to make money, it is also great to have more things which can spark conversations about beer. Awards attract media attention, which presents people in the beer industry with a great chance to share the passion they have for beer with the wider public.

There has been an interesting trend in beer awards lately, which was continued with the New World awards. It seems that, no matter what competition it is, Epic Brewing Company overlord Luke Nicholas will walk away with the Champion IPA trophy in his hop-lined jacket pocket.

Take this for example:

  • BEST IPA – Brewer’s Guild of  New Zealand Awards 2015
  • BEST IPA – Australian International Beer Awards 2015
  • BEST IPA – Stockholm Beer & Whiskey Festival 2015
  • BEST IPA – New World Beer and Cider Awards 2016

He has won all of them in the past year with his 6.66 per cent ABV Armageddon IPA.

I called him for an interview a few days before the New World awards were announced, oblivious to the fact Armageddon had netted a fourth BEST IPA award within a year. Then he told me he had won, and his thinking behind netting four awards in less than a year.

“It has to be becoming a bit ridiculous, or it actually is a really good IPA,” he says.

“There are some days I drink Armageddon, and it’s so well balanced you can’t pick it apart. Not like ‘there’s the sweetness, the bitterness, dryness’. It’s just one whole experience on your palate from start to finish, and it’s pretty joyous. I just want people to enjoy it and it be really complex and seamless. Just one joyous experience.”

Armageddon first hit the market in 2008, and was put into bottles about a year later. But its genesis goes back further than the birth of its younger sibling, Epic Pale Ale. The first award-winning hop-driven beer Luke produced was Cock & Bull’s Monk’s Habit.

Monk’s Habit is confusingly labelled as a Belgian IPA by some, thanks to it allegedly started life as a Belgian-style abbey ale. But Luke describes it as being closer to an American amber ale, or a red IPA. Either way, it was damn good, winning the Supreme Champion award at the New Zealand beer awards twice.

“Armageddon has been around in 2008…but go far back enough and I was making the biggest, hoppiest beers in New Zealand back in 1999,” Luke says. “That’s a whole chapter that has been forgotten, or is not talked about, or is not known. I have had people saying Epic Pale Ale is a mainstream beer; ‘it’s always been around, so I’m going to be drinking new beers’. And people say, ‘I had Armageddon or Epic Pale Ale for the first time in ages, and it’s still great’.

“I have seen a number of brewers who seem to get the hops they have got, put in a hand and pick them out at random. They are not thinking about the flavours that marry together, but come up with one that work against each other and are quite unpleasant.

“Just because it’s new doesn’t make it good. I know a good hoppy beer when I drink one.”

Just like many beer drinkers, Luke graduated through a range of ever more hop-driven beers. While Sierra Nevada’s gorgeous Pale Ale – a brilliant showcase of US-grown Cascade hops, just like Epic Pale Ale – was the first hop-driven beer Luke tried, it was the same brewery’s Celebration Ale that really got him going.

“There was a lot more caramel sweetness, but it had that big burst of American resinous hop character. That had a big influence on Monk’s Habit and, years later, Armageddon.

IPA was not the insanely popular beer style it is now when Luke was first getting into brewing beers like Monk’s Habit and Epic Pale Ale. He says there were 199 beers entered into the New Zealand beer awards when Monk’s Habit took home a trophy under his brewing stewardship. However, there were 213 beers solely in the IPA category at the 2015 Australian International Beer Awards (which, FYI, included IPAs from Ballast Point and Lagunitas).

“Everyone wants to be making IPAs. It has the most entries in all the competitions you enter. To win that, it’s a big fucking deal.”

Luke has a rather interesting analogy for how his IPA brewing methods evolved – extreme sports.

“You can probably compare it to skateboarding or BMX or motocross. Until someone has done that triple flip, it hasn’t been done before. You’re the guy going up and down the ramp and then woah, someone does a 360 or 720.

“Over time, hops became more and more important. Now, it’s just stupid.”

But the key to a good IPA has not changed over time for Luke.

“Probably one of the things I learned very early on, back in 1999, was that the feedback [on his award-winning hoppy beers] was ‘very balanced’. It is not about ‘let’s make it brutally bitter’ or ‘massively alcoholic’.”

The other way to make a good IPA is really rather obvious.

“Just use the best ingredients you can. A lot of the time, that means you are going to have to pay a bit more. You can’t make good wine if your juice is crap to start with. It is the same with beer, and I think a lot of people get caught up with the romance of certain types of malt and hops. They have brought into it for whatever reason, but is that the best ingredient they can use? Do you want the cheapest or the best beer? If you want the best, why would you even make mediocre? I want to make the best, and if it’s going to cost more then that’s it. At this price point, I can hopefully provide your value.”

If a single beer like Armageddon keeps cleaning out awards, despite the fact those awards are being won with different batches of that beer, and you can pick it up for less than $10 a bottle, it appears you are getting good value for money. But there is one award Luke has yet to grab – a gold medal at the World Beer Cup. Unlike most beer competitions, which award multiple bronze, silver and gold medals depending on how beers conform to style guildelines, the World Beer Cup runs like the Olympics of beer: one gold, one silver, one bronze.

Luke is hopeful of a medal at the World Beer Cup, for the only beer he can realistically enter – Armageddon.

“All my other beers come back too hoppy for style, but if put above or beside that style, it’s not enough malt or ABV or something. Armageddon the only one in the sweet spot for the style we make.

“It’s probably got a chance, but a long shot. It is a 1-in-500 chance.”

 

He also points out the fact the Armageddon which will be judged in late April/early May will have been brewed in January. It then had to be shipped to Australia, then sent to the United States, then held until it is sent to the location where judging takes place. Luke acknowledges packaging is probably more important than brewing skill at that point.

But for him, it seems making delicious, hop-driven beers is his goal, regardless of whatever medals or trophies he wins along the way.

“As long as you are doing something you are passionate about, you are going to succeed. And I Just love pale ale and IPA.”

Further reading

*A Cock and Bull Story is a good place to discover the depressingly Capitalistic reason why you can no longer drink Monk’s Habit.

*This piece by former Epic Brewing brewer Kelly Ryan (now of Fork Brewing fame) gives a great insight into how important it is to pay attention to how a beer – Epic Pale Ale in this case – can change over time.

*luke.co.nz is the place to keep up with anything Luke Nicholas thinks is worth reading about.

Southtrack

*It’s The End Of The World by R.E.M. gave me the title of this blog. Get it? End of the world…Armageddon…I feel fine…because Armageddon is yummy…yeah. It’s also a banger of a tune.