Happy 18th Birthday Baroona – by Alan Knight

(the following has been reproduce here with permission of the author/brewer Alan Knight. Congratulations to Alan and Waiheke Island Brewery for 18 years)

Baroona on tap - Waiheke Island Brewery
Baroona on tap – Waiheke Island Brewery

Auckland Anniversary Weekend and the City of Sails is celebrating its 175th year. But over here on Waiheke Island there’s another interesting birthday being marked. For it was eighteen years ago today that the first two kegs of Baroona Beer rolled out of the new brewery for the public to try.

I’d spent three months with brewery owners John Wallace and Bill Lyttle getting the barn building lined and floored. We’d gone through the lengthy process of getting Auckland City Council to admit that they couldn’t find a way to stop us running a brewery, (though naturally they did their damnedest to try) and now all was ready.

The New Zealand beer scene was very different in those days. Any beer with actual FLAVOUR was viewed with deep suspicion by the vast majority of consumers and the taste of hops was enough to have many folk crying for their mums. John and Bill had firm plans for how the brewery would develop but only the vaguest of ideas as to what the product would be. Wet, cold and mildly alcoholic, naturally, but apart from that?

They went about it in a way that still makes me glad I had agreed to come and run the place, for they did it with considerable style. Some time around late November the previous year, as the brewery was still under construction, we all went down to the old Palaver Bar on Onetangi beach. It was a fine late spring day and the beach and bar patio were busy. We sat down outside and they went and fetched an empty beer glass from the bar. Setting it down in the middle of the table they said; “We have no idea what beer to produce. We are hoping like hell you do. All we can say is this; Look around you at the island, its people and its climate. All we want is the beer that goes in THAT glass.”

Alan Knight Brewer Waiheke Island Brewery
Alan Knight Brewer Waiheke Island Brewery

I was impressed. This is how to inspire a brewer I thought. So taking that idea in mind, I looked at how much capacity the new brewery had and decided that I would make New Zealand’s first Kolsch beer. After all, there was no way we had enough space to get serious with bottom fermenting lager products, and besides, I’d spent the last four years making those and I was never that keen a lager brewer anyway. We needed a rapid production golden ale suitable for patio drinking. It simply had to be Kolsch.

Then there was the matter of the name. Another problem craft brewers had in the 90’s was that putting any indication of beer style on the label meant half your potential customers would find it off-putting. It really is hard to believe how much stubborn resistance there was to craft beer back then. “Oh I don’t like ‘ale’, I just like lager!’ ‘What’s the closest thing you’ve got to Lion Red?’, and, I’m really not making this up, “I don’t like that! It TASTES of something!” My God, the patience you had to have! Getting people to just try something new was like pulling teeth.
Worse, it was like getting toddlers to eat sprouts.
I could go on at great length here about how you younger brewers don’t know how good you have it these days, but that would be dull, so I won’t.

Back then, the best marketing approach was to give your beer a name that conveyed no information whatsoever about the actual product. That way people would have to actually try it before trotting out their endless list of half baked reasons why they didn’t like it and wanted a Steinlager instead. We decided on Baroona as being just the name we needed. It had the right specific Waiheke connection but revealed nothing at all about what the beer was.

Alan Knight Waiheke Island BreweryI brewed the first batch just after Christmas 1997 and a second by the middle of the following month. The brewery worked well and Jan Ramp’s iconic life belt label was ready to use. By the week of Anniversary Weekend we were ready to go. It was decided to launch the beer at the Onetangi Beach Races.

Now John Wallace worked in Auckland and was a staunch member of the famous ‘Dunny Club’ on the ferry home each evening. This cheerful group of beer and wine bibbing commuters take their name from their habit of standing and drinking at the back of the boat right by the dunnies. They had been following John’s daily tales of the brewery with considerable interest and by the time the brew was ready for launching they were all determined to be part of things. One of them produced a vintage lavatory, complete with wooden seat, a real old ‘Thunderbox’ type loo and asked if this could somehow be worked into the proceedings to give a Dunny Club feel to the event.

Any marketing person would tell you that launching a new beer into a hostile market by fitting a tap through the back of an antique lavatory and pouring the beer through it is just plain silly. But the hell with them right? This is Waiheke and we do stuff differently here. I gave the receptacle in question a serious cleaning with industrial grade chemicals and drilled a hole through the back of the seat for the tap to fit into.

We were all set.

That weekend was every bit as hot and sunny as this one is. There we all were, on the beach opposite where Charley Farley’s is now, well covered in sunscreen and handing out plastic cups of cold beer to anyone who looked even remotely interested. Nowadays we’d be arrested for doing that of course, but things were more relaxed back then. It was all a huge success.

Waiheke Island Brewery
Waiheke Island Brewery

So eighteen years have gone by and here I still am. I can’t claim to have worked here all that time since owner number two was simply not the kind of fellow anyone would want to work for so I spent most of his tenure working in Australia or running the local theatre, but once owner number three took over I was back and have been here ever since. I have absolutely no idea how many litres of Baroona have been produced in that time. One rainy Winter day I might go back through the files and research it, but today is too warm and sunny for such antics and that patio is calling. Suffice to say we’ve made LOTS, and never more so than we do now since this Summer has broken all previous production records.

Has Baroona Beer changed? Very little. I have slowly increased the quantity of hops used on the late additions but as a local product it fell rapidly into the ‘This is NOT broken. Resist trying to fix it’ category. I have other products I can muck about with anyway so the oldest recipe really needs leaving alone. I’m not entirely certain but I am reasonably sure that Baroona was the first commercial beer to feature 100% Motueka hops, or Saaz B as they were known originally. They gave the brew its citrus bite and I could never mess that about.

Have I learned anything in that time? Well, I can think of one thing. It’s fairly specific and maybe doesn’t apply to all that many people, but I throw it out there anyway for any younger Chaps who might be interested. It’s this;

If someone calls you up and asks you if you’d like to come and set a brewery up on a beautiful sub-tropical island with colourful people and great beaches, whatever you do for God’s sake say YES.

by Alan Knight (Brewer – Waiheke Island Brewery)


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