Brass Monkey offers chilling insight into Moa's decline

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 07/06/2014

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OPINION: Last weekend, 1800 men, women and a handful of children braved the fierce wintery blast gripping the country and attended the 34th Brass Monkey motorcycle rally at Oturehua in the Maniototo.

The Brass Monkey has become the hardcore motorcycle rally of choice for the Kiwi biking set. The extreme location and the winter timing mean there's a natural filter at work that removes the ratbags and wannabes.

This year the Dansey Pass was closed, the Haast only open for a few hours and the snow caught out a bunch of dirtbikers coming over the old Dunstan Road. The rally also clashed with "Gypsy Weekend" when sharemilkers load up cattle and move to their next bucolic location, so the roads were thick with effluent and articulated trucks.

However, the atmosphere of the rally itself is magic - as someone noted there's a feeling of walking with "royals in exile". This, along with the eclectic friendships you make in such an environment, keep the faithful like me coming back.

What makes the ride bearable is good gear. If your bike, clothing and kit are top-notch then you will likely have a great time and be able to put up with the mind-numbing cold, rain and the slick traction. If your gear is dodgy then you will likely have a miserable time. Brand matters little. Even the most prestigious brands struggle when the mercury is well south of zero and battered by 100kmh rain.

At about the same time as the Brass Monkey, another brand was taking a battering in the sharemarket. Moa Group is a craft-brewing company started by Josh Scott, son of the respected winemaker Allan Scott. Back in 2009, the wine market turned sour and the fledgling brewery was experiencing money pressures.

Scott was looking at options and wanted someone to invest in his brewery. Geoff Ross' "Business Bakery" looked like a great option, given Ross' marketing credentials and successful track record with 42 Below. The deal was done in 2010, with Ross becoming chief executive and Allan Scott Wines also taking a holding.

From the beginning, the company struggled with distribution. Reflecting Scott's winemaking background, it originally distributed via wine-centric Hancocks. It had very few breweries on its books at the time and struggled with craft. Reportedly they weren't even prepared to distribute kegged beer.

After the Business Bakery transaction, Moa moved distribution to another wine distributor, Australian-owned Treasury Wine Estates. This created problems for many of the craft bars and restaurants who needed to set up new distribution customer agreements if they wanted to sell Moa. For many, this was more trouble than it was worth when the likes of Epic, Tuatara, Harrington's and Garage Project were falling over themselves trying to make it easy for craft-hungry bars. More recently, Moa moved to direct distribution through Tasman Allied Liquor.

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Ross took the company public in 2012 with a slick campaign and an offer document that included paid advertisements for Beretta Shotguns and Aston Martin cars. The IPO raised $16 million. While the initial strike price was $1.25, it quickly surged to $1.35, a useful stag. However, it has since tracked consistently south as the Bakery magic has failed to cast a spell on Moa drinkers.

Last week it was trading at 47 cents after Ross signalled to the market that it might soon be seeking further funds from investors after racking up a $5.8m loss in the year to March - triple its 2013 loss.

Ross also announced that, after protracted difficulties getting resource consent for an expanded Marlborough presence, it would start contract brewing the bulk of its amber fluid at McCashins' brewery in Stoke.

While such a solution might seem a pragmatic answer to a production problem, this latest move crystallises the challenge for Moa as it balances brand with substance in a market with more than 70 players. Several years ago, Moa founder Scott started a campaign to show up the big breweries who had sought to cash in on the craft-brewing explosion by creating their own faux craft labels.

Scott set himself the mission of defining what constitutes a true craft brewery. In January 2012 on his Moa beer blog, Scott stated boldly that a true craft brewery had a bricks-and-mortar home and did not contract brew at different breweries or allow its beer to be brewed under licence overseas.

After Ross announced the McCashins deal, I noticed those statements had disappeared from the blog. If a company needs to rewrite the past to make the present acceptable, something is wrong.

Moa started as a solid craft beer and initially played in that patch. The IPO saw the company appear to refocus on the mass production, brand-leveraged market where the likes of Heineken, Kilkenny and Beck's play. But, right now, it appears stuck between the craft and mass markets, and risks compromising its brand whakapapa. It comes down to matters of taste - for risk and for beer.

As we travelled down to the Brass Monkey, we stayed at a Canterbury pub that stocked Moa. I asked the publican whether he sold much. "Not really, mate," he replied. "It's too expensive and doesn't taste as good as the other craft beers. They need to realise you can't do a 42 Below on craft."

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he has done 19 Brass Monkeys.

- Stuff

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