Hitting the sour notes

20 July 2017

New Zealand brewery Moa is the fastest growing company in the country’s craft beer market. General Manager Gareth Hughes talks about using R&D to carve out a niche for premium sours.

Craft brewer Moa is making the most of its connection to wine-making with its investment in sour beers.

The NZX-listed company’s brewhouse is in the middle of the country’s premium wine making region Marlborough, and it has just released its 2014 vintage of sour beers which are finished in the barrel for about a year, just like wine.

Moa’s General Manager Gareth Hughes says a lot of investment has gone into research and development for its sour beer programme – particularly around the “crazy bacteria” that’s added which gives the unique sour taste but could contaminate other batches of beer.

“These bacteria are so grunty that they can spoil every other batch we bottle on the line. When we bottle our sours, it’s really important that it’s sours only,” says Hughes.

Moa invested in a kit for microbiological testing to make sure no sour beer bacteria escapes in the brewhouse, where sour beers have dedicated barrels and fermenting equipment but Moa has only one bottling line.

After a batch of sours is bottled, all equipment in the bottling line is stripped down and sterilised then the brewhouse is tested for any remaining sour beer bacteria.

It’s no wonder sour beers are among the hardest to brew. Moa’s head brewer David Nicholls schooled up on the style and now has a barrel full of data to support each vintage – he’s nicknamed the Godfather of Sour for good reason.

“What makes sour beers really hard to get right is trying to control the fermentation to get the right result. You’ve got to make sure there’s just enough fermentables in the barrel to get it right and deliver the desired flavours,” says Hughes.

It’s a purposeful flavour in a beer, pitched at the premium market, and Moa pre-sells each vintage of its sour beers to distributors and supermarkets in New Zealand where they are particularly popular among women who enjoy the depth of flavour.

"You don’t want to be dealing with a company that sells beer, handbags, shoes and car doors because they are trying to be everything to everyone. That’s why having in-market expertise from NZTE is crucial."

Hughes says Moa has increased the prominence of the word ‘sour’ on the labels to make sure customers don’t mistake the beer for any other style.

When it comes to exporting sour beer, he says Moa has carved out several niches in premium offshore markets for its sour range, but pilots the sours before selling them overseas because of its distinct flavour.

He says New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) helps the brewery to investigate new markets and find out what consumers enjoy before product is sent. Moa’s export markets include Australia, China, Singapore and more recently Korea.

“The challenge with the export market is to make sure you’re putting the right beers there in the first place. I only export a small amount of our sour beers until retailers really understand what they’re taking,” he says.

The packaging of the sour beers is a tip of the hat to founder Josh Scott’s wine making background - he is the son of renowned Marlborough winemaker Allan Scott. Names include Sour Blanc and Sour Grapes (which have whole grapes added to the barrel), and the bottles are finished with cork and wire like champagne.

The company has become a Kiwi success story deliberately investing ahead of growth. Moa recently overtook its competitor Asahi-owned Boundary Rd to hop into the number three spot for supermarket sales in New Zealand.
Hughes says product development is a key focus, and the company recently piloted a session pale ale in cans, which will be released throughout New Zealand later this year.

“Our focus has been to get the New Zealand market right, then put more of an assault into the offshore markets,” says Hughes.

Moa has just started exporting to Korea, where it has shipped a container to a new distributor who is testing consumers’ appetite for the premium brand.

Hughes says Moa enlisted the help of NZTE to put that deal together, and NZTE helped to set up meetings with potential distributors in Korea, then helped Moa understand the nuances of the rules around importing in the country.

“You don’t want to be dealing with a company that sells beer, handbags, shoes and car doors because they are trying to be everything to everyone. That’s why having in-market expertise from NZTE is crucial.”

Hughes will visit Korea this July to meet the distributor and find out which beers have sold well.

He says NZTE and the wine industry have built up New Zealand’s quality brand globally.

“That has been really helpful for the craft beer exporters because it has created that brand around the relevance of region and the incredible quality that comes out of New Zealand,” he says.

Moa’s links to the wine industry have also been helpful offshore, as the company shares distributors with Allan Scott Wines in some markets.

This story was originally published in New Zealand Food Technology News magazine.