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One of the Boys

Cityscape caught up with Ralph Bungard, head boy at Three Boys Brewery, to talk all things suds and how he uses his science background to brew a better beer.

How did you get into the brewing industry?
I was late into the brewing industry in terms of career, because I spent a lot of time being a scientist. I went to the UK and worked as a scientist and loved the beer over there – loved it a lot – and came back to New Zealand about 2000; at that stage the beer selection was very poor, so I started brewing my own beer. I had a bit of a background in wine science from many years ago and then thought I’d just get into the brewing industry. It worked quite well and it was good timing – 12 years ago we were at the early stages of a small craft beer brewing renaissance in New Zealand.

What was the attraction?
The attraction was it’s a great product to make, it’s a good combination of what I had been doing as a career for a long time, it’s got lots of biochemistry, it’s got some nice engineering aspects and you start the day with these really primary ingredients like malt and hops and you end the day with, effectively, this beautiful looking product made with those natural ingredients. So it’s quite rewarding in that sense.

How does your science background help you brew a better beer?
It’s good in many ways, because one of the best things about a science background is it teaches you to research, so you’re never afraid of not knowing things and going and finding the answer to them – that’s kinda useful. It’s great having that background; some of that biochemistry you can’t learn instantly from YouTube! You can understand when things go wrong and why they went wrong – it makes it a bit easier.

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Where did the name Three Boys come from?
That’s a good question that a lot of people ask and we sort of give a different answer each time depending on how we’re feeling on the day. But we really like the name because it was very non-parochial – it wasn’t like Woolston Breweries or Canterbury Breweries – and it meant in the early stages of craft brewing we could sell outside of Christchurch and people wouldn’t know that we were a Christchurch brewery. But largely it comes from I’ve got two sons and my wife’s got three boys in the house, if she counts me.

You are one of the city’s craft beer pioneers; how did you know Christchurch was ready for a less commercial beer?
I think it was just that thing of coming back and realising how narrow the beer selection was in New Zealand back in those times, and on top of that Christchurch has a great beer tradition for lots of reasons. There’s the European immigration – a lot of traditional beer drinkers have come to New Zealand – and it’s the traditional malt growing area of New Zealand, so it’s been a traditional brewing and malting city for a long time. The maltworks used to be up in Heathcote Valley – it supplied most of New Zealand for years – and the water’s fantastic; we’re still creeping along at being good, but we have to work a lot harder on that in the country unfortunately. And it’s New Zealand’s second biggest city – it’s hard to live in Auckland, as we know, and it’s a lot easier to live in Christchurch.

You don’t pasteurise your beers and only filter some of them – why?
We filter some of our beers only because people love to see a lovely clear Pilsner. Beers are cloudy and you clear them up, but over time, because they contain protein and all those things, they’ll get a little bit hazy, so we do a little bit of filtering on lines of our Pilsners. But a lot of our beers come through unfiltered and unpasteurised, which makes it easier to make because we’re not doing those processes. It’s better for the flavour of the beer, because you haven’t got those extra processes, but the downside is that you have to drink it fresh; three years down the track, it’s going to be a different beer than what you put in the bottle. It makes beer a fresh product, which makes it great anyway.

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Three Boys celebrated their 12th anniversary this year. What was the plan when you started out?
The plan was to create a viable business that we could make a living out of, which it’s done, and it’s grown over those years. It’s still a family-owned business and we still work very hard to look after our locals. Pretty much what we set out to do was to create a local brewery that the locals loved and supported and that we could make a living out of.

Your Brewers’ Reserve line is quite creative with some of its flavours; where you get these ideas from?
Basically there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to beer – if you think you’ve come up with something fantastic and new, you’ll find that someone’s done it or doing somewhere. That’s more true now than ever, although a few years ago adding any new ingredients was unusual. For example, our Oyster Stout a few years ago was a very unusual beer at its time because we actually added oysters, and we made a Coconut Milk Stout where we added coconut – 10 years ago they were outrageous beers. Whereas now, for a lot of craft brewers, particularly smaller ones, you can put anything into it – from ants and grasshoppers, whatever you like.

So why did you put oysters in the beer, and had it been done before?
Well it sort of had and it hadn’t – oyster stouts are a tradition like oatmeal and milk stouts, so they came in those vein of stouts. People had added those ingredients in because stouts were perceived to be a health drink, being healthy and with high levels in iron – it doesn’t actually have higher levels than any other beers! – but it was the perception for those beers, even to the point where they were prescribed in old people’s homes and also for pregnant women who were low in iron. So they were always a ‘health drink’ and oyster stout had been around, but over the years the actual adding of oysters had dropped off. There was nobody else in the world adding oysters when we started adding them. There was Marston’s Oyster Stout in the UK that I can think of, but they had stopped adding oysters – they just had on the label that it was good for drinking with oysters! So we were really bringing back an old tradition, and the nice thing about that was it was seasonal and it’s kind of nice having something that is seasonal in a world where everything seasonal seems to have disappeared – you can go into the supermarket and get your strawberries in June, your tomatoes in August. We keep it really seasonal; we start brewing when the Foveaux Strait oyster season starts, and stop when it finishes.

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Have there been any combos that haven’t worked so well?
It seems you can make anything and somewhere someone will love it and someone will hate it, I guess it’s the nature of the world. With social media, in particular, everyone feels like they need to comment regardless. But we did once make a Blackball Stout with the old fashioned hardboiled lolly – it has a minty, unusual flavour. We made it for a themed festival, something to do with the All Blacks or World Cup, so we thought Blackballs and it was … interesting. Somebody still emails us asking if we’ll make it again.

Tell us about your foray into cider.
Yes, we are just having a wee foray into cider. We haven’t made cider in the past and part of the reason for that is we’ve been too busy making beer to make cider, but we’re getting more and more demand for it. And the fact is that you can make a craft cider, something that people can drink now that’s not sweet like some of the commercial ones. I’ve always loved ciders, particularly coming out of the UK for all those years – there are some really good craft-made ciders around now and we want to get in there: it helps our customers because they come to us and they want a selection of beers and they’ll always ask “And have you got cider?”, as ciders on tap are so common now. We’re going to make it more crafty, so it’s going to be dry. This first one is coming out with a little bit of cucumber in it hidden away in the background, which really freshens it up and makes it nice and summery.

What’s the secret to making a killer craft beer?
For us it’s having a bit of fun and making those really interesting beers. But also, particularly for us now as a bigger brewery that has been around a long time, it’s about making a really consistently good craft beer. A killer craft beer is hard to define; as I say people will like anything, like a Blackball Stout. We really want to kill it when we make something, so that people aren’t too afraid to try it because it’s a Three Boys beer and they’re guaranteed it’ll be good quality and be consistent. And I think it’s worked well with us in the past, keeping that consistency really high, because the temptation is when you’re a small business and you have a bit of a muck up you say “Oh well, that’ll do” and bottle it. And that’s a terrible thing to do because it means if a lot of people don’t like it, or notice that there’s something wrong with it, then next time they see your brand they’ll go “Um, not sure I’m going to spray $15 on a pint of that and roll the dice”, so we try to avoid that. We do make killer beers because we work really hard to get that consistency, but also to make them, particularly for our Pilsner, IPA and core beers, really good balanced beers. The secret to longevity for us has been to make those beers that are fantastically beautiful beers where people will come in and have three pints rather than half a pint and they’ll come back the next night and have another pint – make them their go-to beers, if you like.

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What’s the best and worst thing about your job?
The best thing is you get to enjoy a beer at the end of the day, for sure. The beer industry is a good industry because it full of people who are a good combination of practical and – I don’t want to use the words “down-to-earth”, but beer is the people’s drink in a funny way, and even though a bit of pompousness has crept into the industry, it’s not generally from the people involved in it. They’re really good people to work with are friendly and generous. The worst thing about it, if you’re a brewer, and I do less of it these days, is you spend 95 per cent of your time cleaning. The romance of being a brewer is a bit like the romance of being a winemaker – it’s pretty fictitious. You spend most of your time lugging stuff around and cleaning.

You must be popular over the BBQ season – how do you juggle all the invites?
I’ve become less and less social as I’ve become older. I’m quite antisocial now according to everybody – and I think that’s probably a response to that because the problem you have when you’re in the beer industry is that you go out and people are having a BBQ and they want to talk about beer and it’s like “Oh no, I have to answer all the same questions again for different people”. And that’s the real hassle with it, because people want to ask you about work all the time and that’s cool, because that’s why they love it and they are passionate about it. But that’s part of the reason you go out, so you can switch off and not think about it!

Tell us about your favourite beer and food match.
That’s a hard one because it changes from season to season. Certainly this time of year, BBQ season, you can’t really beat something like the IPA with a BBQ, because you get those lovely sweet malty flavours that go with the sweet caramelisation that happens with a BBQ. Likewise you go into winter and you’ve got the fantastic darker beers – Oyster Stout and venison go incredibly well together.
What’s the next big thing in craft beer? Incredibly cloudy beers are in at the moment – almost mud cloudy – that’s the latest trend through North America and the UK. That’ll become popular, but for a lot of people it’s off-putting, because for them part of drinking a beer is the beauty of a clear, lovely looking beer. The next big thing is a lot of brew pumps, and because there are a lot of breweries in New Zealand, I think there’ll be a divvying up of the industry towards very small players – just brewing in pubs, which is quite common around North America which is a more mature market. For guys like us we’ll probably stay on the other end of the spectrum, a moderately-sized supply brewery, so you’ll have a little gap in the middle where you won’t have as many small breweries trying to compete in our space, but you’ll have a lot of people brewing on-site.

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What will you be drinking this summer?
I’m really looking forward to our Smashing Cider coming along, so I’ll be drinking a bit of that. It’s quite old fashioned, because we want to be a bit more going back to old fashioned ciders, and with the cucumber in it we’ve got a bit of a theme going on. Imagine a traditional English cricket ground and cucumber sandwiches; the ‘smashing’ works with that because it’s such an English saying, and it’s quite a nice mix-up because you mash in when you make beer. Other than that we’ve got a really nice Citra Pils on at the moment, which is like our Pilsner but a bit lighter in the body with a hop called Citra which makes it really peachy – that’s a great summer beer!

Three Boys Brewery
592 Ferry Road

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