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Jai Breitnauer discovers just how boutique brewery Garage Project has won over our hearts and taste buds

Wellington-based Garage Project are known for their unique seasonal beers, great label artwork, and making the can cool again. In fact, the team – brewer Pete Gillespie, brother Ian Gillespie, and their childhood friend Jos Ruffell – have made it look easy to set up a boutique brewery. But their success hasn’t come without calculated risk, says Jos.

“Pete had been brewing professionally for 10 years overseas in the UK, where everything is very traditional. He moved to Australia when his partner Sarah fell pregnant, with a view of setting up his own brewery in the Blue Mountains, but there was too much red tape.”

On a trip to New Zealand to visit his baby bro Ian, and the friend he used to babysit, Jos, Pete was persuaded that Wellington was the perfect climate
for the experimentation he craved, without the bureaucracy.

“Me and Ian were on our own beer journey, although it was more about drinking,” laughs Jos. “I was travelling a lot for my job in the video games industry, especially to America. On one trip I was handed my ‘epiphany pint’ – Russian Rivers ‘Pliny the Elder’, an iconic beer. It blew my mind.”

Jos and Ian began hanging out at craft beer bars, learning about the scene, but were blown away to discover that although Wellington was consuming 57 per cent of craft beer in New Zealand in 2010, there was no brewery there.

“We said to Pete, bugger Australia. If it’s not panning out, come back here and do it in Wellington. It was too good an opportunity to miss.”

Humble beginnings

It took about a year to get their ducks in a row, but Wellington City Council were very supportive of the idea. Finally, in 2011, they found their home – a derelict garage in Aro Valley.

“We knew we wanted the brewery to be in the heart of Wellington,” says Jos. “Somewhere people could see, smell and come to – not tucked away on an industrial estate. We came across the garage, covered in graffiti and barbed wire fence round the outside. It was being used as a storage facility. We just fell in love with it.”

The boys jumped in, opening the taproom to locals and launching their new venture with an incredible offering – 24 different beers in 24 weeks.

“Pete likes Hemingway’s quote, ‘you should always do sober what you do drunk’,” says Jos. “We were all keen to experiment, and as we couldn’t afford a large brewing system we went tiny, which allowed us to be prolific and take risks. The 24/24 project embraced that spirit of adventure. It was electric, scary and exciting.”

The 24/24 project gave birth to some recognisable regulars the team have kept alive in the eight years since. Day of the Dead, a chilli chocolate black lager with agave and chipotle is now brewed every year. Pernicious Weed was in that original 24 and was voted number one in the GABS  Hottest 100 Kiwi Craft Beers list last year by drinkers. The immediate feedback from beer fans was good for the team, but not every beer was popular.

“One infamous beer was a green coffee bean saison. We loved the smell of the unroasted coffee – but the resulting beer was incredibly polarising,” says Jos. “We learned a good lesson; it’s easy to make a beer that offends nobody, but if you make something unique the people who like it will be passionate about it.”

Brewing up a storm

A lot has changed for Garage Project in eight years, but a lot of things have stayed the same. They continue to be experimental, although they’re now brewing out of multiple sites including workshop sites for mix fermentation beers, and also a site in Hawke’s Bay. They also have multiple tap rooms, but the three founders are still involved in all aspects of the business day to day.

“We just did Beervana 2019, which was great,” says Jos. “We launched at Beervana 2011, so it’s special to us. We try and brew a new line up each year.”

This year they had a disco theme, and offered sour beer slushies, a new brew called Half A Brain – two beers in one – and a barrel-aged dessert stout. Their two new IPAs were also well received.

“We feel we need to put on a show and give people beers they can’t buy in the shops,” says Jos. “There was a big range of flavours and styles to attract everyone.”

If you didn’t make it to Beervana, then you’ll be excited to hear that their big IPA, Super Fresh, will be released soon as part of Garage Project’s rotating series. They have also released their first six-pack glass bottle, a pale ale called Turbine, sustainably brewed to celebrate Wellington’s wind in partnership with Meridian (see pg 5 for more info).

“And we’ve recently released a beer in partnership with Nelson’s Proper Crisps, using potatoes in the mash. So, you can have a packet of crisps that taste like beer, and a beer that tastes like crisps!” says Jos. (see pg 65 for more info).

It’s this independent spirit of adventure that continues to capture the imagination of New Zealand’s beer drinkers, taking Garage Project from strength to strength.

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