Roosters Brew House and Beach House Wines
Chris Harrison began a craft beer business to fund a dream of owning his own vineyard
Rooster’s Brew House is a “working man’s” small micro-brewery on the outskirts of Hastings owned by Chris Harrison.
Chris grew up on his family’s hill country sheep farm at Pahiatua in the northern Wairarapa and early on recognised he wanted to make a living from the land. After watching his parents’ frustration at being powerless price-takers for primary produce, he determined to escape that cycle.
That led to studying food technology, with the aim of being able to add value to and market primary produce. After working for the New Zealand Apple and Pear Board making juice concentrate, he headed to Roseworthy University in Australia to complete a post-graduate degree in winemaking. The studies continued a lifelong interest in fermentation that started with making cider from his grandmother’s apples.
At Roseworthy Chris met his wife Jill, a fellow winemaker. The pair worked vintages in the Loire, Burgundy and Australia before settling down in Hawke’s Bay to start their business and family.
From the outset, the brewery was designed to produce cashflow on which he could build a winery. It’s a business plan that worked, with wines being made at the brewery from 1996.
In 2008 the 200-tonne crush Beach House Wines opened. “Brewing, you can put down a beer on day one and six weeks later you’re selling it and generating cashflow,” he says. “With wine, you plant the grapes and wait six years before you are making wine.”
Wine is now the biggest part of the business. Chris is considering selling the brew house and devoting his energy into developing export markets for Beach House wines, today sold to New Zealand wine shops, restaurants and at the cellar door, but not in supermarkets.
From the outset, Rooster’s Brew House targeted the thinking rural man working on neighbouring farms and vineyards. They’re still the main clientele along with winery staff and fruit-pickers. The few women who’re regulars wear high-vis, not high heels. Tourists call by to soak up the atmosphere along with a beer, including French and German backpackers looking for tastes of home.
When he opened the brewery there were sports bars and trendy bars, but nowhere where a guy could feel comfortable in muddy boots at the end of a hard working day. “My father used to enjoy a beer with his mates in the tractor shed. That was the sort of atmosphere I was looking to create.” With help from his father Ralph, Chris built large barn-like buildings with concrete floors and an English country pub atmosphere.
All beers are on tap, at first because prices were not high enough to justify bottling. Bottled beers can now be sold at a profit but Rooster’s has stuck to taps, doubling the number since opening.
Brewer Darrel Tong makes a range of mainstream lager, draft and dark styles, including some available in fill-your-own flagons. A revolving selection of newer styles like IPA, Irish Red and wheat-based weiss bier keep interest going and a new ale is developed every three months.
Up to 6000 litres of beer can be brewed per week but mostly production is about half that.
It’s a straightforward process, says Chris. Extract the sugars from malted barley and wheat, add hops plus water, then required yeasts to make certain styles. As tastes have changed away from bland beers, twice as many hops are used as 20 years ago.
The hops come predominantly from Motueka near Nelson, although the New Zealand Hop Marketing Board is also importing hops with more flavour and less bitterness to suit modern taste. New Zealand malts are used, mostly from Canterbury-based Gladfield Malt and the International Malting Company in the Rangitikei.
At the Harrison family’s 200-tonne-crush winery three minutes down the road, about 5000 cases of wine are made and bottled under the Beach House label then sold mostly to New Zealand distributors and restaurants. “There’s potential to grow that to 20,000 cases if we can get the export market right,” says Chris.
“The brewery was the means to an end but wine was always the goal,” says Chris. “After 22 years it has served its purpose and we may sell.”
Pinot noir, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, montepulciano and merlot grapes destined for premium labels grow on his 4-hectare gimblett gravels vineyard. His parents supply Chardonnay grapes from their vineyard at nearby Awangawanga Beach where the cellar door is based. Fruit is brought in too, from Hawke’s Bay vineyards.
Beach House Wines is a member of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association of companies growing grapes, all on 800 hectares of gravelly soils laid down by the old Ngaruroro River exposed after a huge flood in the 1860s.