Seven years into the life of Three Boys Brewery, Ralph Bungard is as positive now as the day he put down the beakers and test tubes of his former life as a professional scientist in favour of hoses and hydrometers to set up a brewery. Ralph’s Three Boys Brewery was born in a shed in Christchurch. Nowadays, he is commissioning a third new brewery site in the Christchurch suburb of Woolston.
I arrived on site just as Tony the brewer was busy emptying the mash tun of their first brew at the new brewery – a pilsener.
A professional scientist by training in microbiology, with some wine viticulture training in his past as well, Ralph had his first taste for craft beer during a five year stint based in Sheffield, UK, back in the early 2000s. He was a regular visitor to the Timothy Taylor and Black Sheep breweries, where he developed an appreciation for the ales of Northern England. On returning to New Zealand, Ralph was still the ‘serious scientist’ but with an ever increasing realisation that funding serious science was a difficult pursuit. So, Ralph decided it was time to start a family business in brewing. While you might think the Three Boys moniker stands for the three founders, there was actually only Ralph. The other two boys are his sons. Ralph jokes that his wife looks after the real ‘three boys’.
Three Boys makes a broad range of well-received handcrafted beers. Popular favourites are the Pilsener, which is very bohemian in nature, and an English style IPA. Their Oyster Stout using the infamous New Zealand Bluff Oysters is a standout and a constant medal winner, taking gold in the dark beer class at NZ Beer Awards for numerous years on the trot. I sampled their popular wheat beer, which is brewed with Belgium yeast and infused with coriander and lemon zest. It’s a refreshing and cloudy wheat beer that is well balanced. I also tried their Golden Ale which is brewed with 100% Canterbury Malt and 100% Nelson hops, providing an aromatic and hoppy golden ale. To finish I sampled their popular IPA, which had a good dose of aromatic New Zealand hops.
Joining Ralph for a sprint back to the ‘old brewery’ to collect some hoses, I noticed several barrels stored behind pallets of bottles and kegs. Ralph explained that the barrels contained some sours, a style they have been playing around with but had not tasted for a while. He also pointed out some unique new malts that he has been tasting, supplied by Gladfield in Dunsandel, who recently invested in a new $1 millon roaster. New toys and experimentation is a theme here, as it is in many craft breweries.
On top of his busy duties brewing whilst running an established and fast growing microbrewery, Ralph is also the President of the NZ Brewers Guild. He jokes that it’s a job you get by getting up to go to the toilet at the wrong time, but it’s a very important job nonetheless for New Zealand’s beer industry. Now in good shape financially, the NZ Brewers Guild has been able to fund a permanent part-timer to handle the media inquiries and publicity for New Zealand’s craft beer scene. The role also includes essential administration for the industry, such as tallying of volume and value generated by this vibrant industry, keeping up with labelling issues and changes, government lobbying, as well as developing exciting projects that require funding for the benefit of the craft beer industry. Not to be forgotten is the task of facilitating the annual beer awards and the successful Beervana festival, which has now been sold onto David Cryer.
Ralph and the team at Three Boys are proud supporters of New Zealand’s beer industry. They buy most of their hops locally, although some Australian Galaxy is imported from time to time to give their beers a bit of Aussie zing They also buy a lot of their malt from Gladfield Malt in Dunsandel, located only 45 minutes down the road.
Kegs and the innovative new ‘wine bladder’ are filled at the brewery, where off-premise sales are also available to the public. Bottling is done a few blocks up the road at Harrington’s Brewery. The new brewery boasts a fantastic frontage with an upstairs viewing deck where Ralph hopes to host some gallery viewings and exhibitions, something that seems synonymous with independent beer from Brooklyn to Fremantle to Bryon Bay, and now Christchurch.
Quizzed about the things he would have done differently if he had his time again, Ralph simply noted that he would not change anything. He believes his scientific approach to quality and a steadfast refusal to let a bad beer pass out of the brewery door has been fundamental in making that all important first impression a good one every time.
Looking to the future, Ralph can see the biggest challenge for Three Boys coming from the rush of new independent breweries bursting onto the scene across New Zealand and retaining that illusive ‘loyal’ craft beer drinker. When it was suggested that craft beer drinkers tend to be promiscuous by nature, Ralph was quick to point out that a some good on-premise accounts, like Pommeroys in the city, the regular craft beer drinkers might try a pint or half pint of something new and different then often default to a favourite ‘go to’ beer or brewery for their second or third glass. He hopes that Three Boys are that ‘go to’ beer and brewery and will work hard to retain that spot.
This summer has seen the launch of a new range of ‘craft’ offerings from New Zealand’s major brewers in 500ml pint bottle sizes synonymous with craft beer in NZ. Ralph does not think this is a significant challenge or issue given that it will assist mainstream drinkers’ entry into craft beer through the majors’ more “lenient” craft offerings. He sees these new products as a good stepping stone into the independent craft beer of New Zealand.
On the bright side, Ralph is positive there is ample local opportunity for Three Boys to keep converting the mainstay of drinkers to a new beer. He takes delight in the people who say they’ve never heard of his beers or brewery before, as it signals an opportunity to educate those in the majority, the mainstream drinkers. Likewise, when they taste his beer and exclaim “wow, what is that taste?”, Ralph enjoys responding with the friendly retort of “that’s the taste of malt and hops”.
Three Boys are fans of beers that can be enjoyed for more than one glass. Their future in the industry is bright, unlike many who have tried before. Ralph’s 1,800L brew house is a testament to the precarious nature of the craft beer business. It came from the defunct ‘Martinborough Brewery’, an attempt to put a brewery in the vines of the North Island back in the early 2000s. The brew house stands as a reminder that while times are very good for craft beer in New Zealand, they have not always been this way. A slow and steady pace often wins the race in terms of winning the taste buds, hearts and minds of the fickle drinker in Aotearoa.