We all know the saturation of craft beer, and how hard it can be to stand out from the crowd. But strong community engagement can also help drive sales — on a recent trip to the Hawke’s Bay, it seemed most venues only had one beer on tap.
Brave Brewing is an award-winning brewery run by husband and wife team Matt and Gemma Smith, based in the sunny Hawke’s Bay.
“We are a friendly neighbourhood brewery, and we’ve been serving Hawke’s Bay with really good beer for over 6 years now,” says Gemma.
I asked Gemma how Brave Brewing got started.
“We were living in Auckland at the time, and Matt was getting into his home brewing. His homebrew became quite popular with his flatmates and our friends. He worked on his recipes and refined his practices. When we got to do some travel through the US and Europe, it exposed him to the broader tastes of beer across the world.
“Back in NZ, Matt kept up his brewing and ended up winning homebrewer of the year. That really developed his confidence to take the plunge. There was an opportunity to step up from making homebrew to a full scale brewery.
“We moved back home to Hawke’s Bay, where we are both originally from. Here we knew we would be backed by friends and family. It was important to have a great support network in those early days of business.”
“We kept our day jobs, and started brewing in our home garage. We imported a brew kit from China, which rubbed against our ‘buy local’ mentality, but the reality is we wouldn’t have been able to start at all if we had to purchase the kit here.
“We really focused on growing organically, when we had the means to grow. Matt was brewing in the home garage and we began selling at the local farmers market in Hastings. We’re really lucky in that our local farmers market has such strong local support, great products and local buyers often come through to see what new produce is available.
“Our beer was quite successful from day one — and I guess being at the market put us in the best position to meet the right people. We had restaurant and bar owners coming through and liking what they were tasting, and we also had regulars that would return each week with their flagons to refill.
“I think in our whole time in business, we’ve made about five cold calls to try and sell our product. The Common Room here in Hastings bought our first keg from us, and since then we’ve been able to expand to bars and supermarkets and our own taproom.
“About two years in we moved from our home garage into a building up the road. Here we grew expanded our production and added a taproom to engage directly with the customer. Since then we’ve moved again to the Tribune Precinct, on the East side of Hastings.
“We’ve kept it small and within ourselves, buying more kit as we have been able to, which has meant our business has grown quite organically, to the point where we could open our new brewery/taproom space late last year.”
I asked Gemma what were three key factors to Brave’s success.
“First is keeping high standards. Matt is a perfectionist — and he and our assistant brewer Adam focus on brewing great beer and ensuring that our product is consistently made well and tasting good! says Gemma.
“Second is great branding and design — it’s helped us stand out and it resonates strongly with customers.
“And third is focusing on organic growth — taking small steps, buying new equipment when we can, and being really authentic in our interactions with customers and suppliers.”
I ask Gemma what challenges they’ve faced on their journey thus far.
“Covid was definitely a hard one, but we were lucky enough to be considered an essential service. We adapted quite quickly, and we were able to offer a really good online delivery service. We were so proud of the way that our team showed such resilience and flexibility. Everyone had part to play in the way that we weathered that first lockdown.”
“Another challenge has been our IPA Tigermilk — it’s our best selling product and it’s just really hard to keep in stock. We brew it almost twice every week and it always sells out, which has made it problematic to keep on menus and drinks lists, when we can’t guarantee it’s always available. But I think the scarcity of it is part of why it’s so popular,” laughs Gemma.
I asked what advice Gemma would give to those looking to launch in a crowded category.
“Make sure you invest in a strong product from the start. Regarding craft beer, the market is getting very saturated, but that’s not to say all of it is great product. Great branding without a quality product won’t have much longevity, but equally a great product that doesn’t stand out won’t generate sales. We’ve invested in the balance of great branding and great quality because we’re aiming for longevity for the business and the brand.
“You also need to build strong relationships with suppliers — if they love you and your product then they will go above and beyond for you.
I ask what general advice Gemma would give to someone starting their own business.
Says Gemma, “Authenticity is huge. We love being here in Hastings — it’s full of small family run businesses doing things that they are passionate about. It’s all done in such an authentic way. It’s really inspired us in the way we go about things for Brave.
“It’s also not a weakness to be nice in business. Business doesn’t have to be cutthroat, and kindness goes a long way. We can invest a lot in slick branding and new recipes and a shiny new brewery, but at the end of the day, the strength of the brand is our people.”
I ask what’s next for Brave Brewing.
“We’re still finding our feet in our new premises to be honest. We’re very busy in the new space, and our rate of growth over the last six years has left us a bit out of breath.
“We want to be able to spend more time on things like our strategic vision, and our sustainability strategy. Brewing is pretty resource intensive, and we want to take a moment to ponder how we can improve our footprint.
“We’ve got no intention of total worldwide or even nationwide domination — we love growing at a pace that suits us, and remaining a ‘friendly neighbourhood brewery’. But we’re definitely looking to buy more fermentation tanks, so we can make more Tigermilk.”