Founders eyes wider market

John Duncan of Founders Brewery with his Show Hopper beer
John Duncan of Founders Brewery with his Show Hopper beer

Last week the news broke that Founders, Nelson's famous and award-winning craft beer brand, has been sold to Boundary Road Brewery, the Auckland-based beer-making division of the Independent Liquor Group, which is owned by the giant Japanese brewer Asahi.

The sale ends six months of uncertainty for Founders after the business was put up for sale in June of this year. Under the terms of the deal Boundary Road Brewery has acquired the Founders brand and will distribute the products throughout the country while the brewery and attached cafe will remain in operation in Nelson's Founders Historic Park.

Founders Brewery can trace its roots back to 1854 when Joseph Dodson arrived in New Zealand from Australia and began brewing in Nelson. Joseph's daughter married Robert Duncan and the two families owned and operated a brewery in Nelson until 1969 when, after merging with Harley's, the other Nelson brewer, it became a subsidiary of Dominion Breweries, now DB Breweries.

Thirty years later John Duncan opened Founders Brewery in the city's Founders Historic Park. With a decade of experience at Nelson's Mac's brewery, John was aware of the public's growing interest in "naturally brewed" beers and decided to take his own beers to the next level. When it opened in 1999 Founders was the first fully certified organic brewery in the Southern Hemisphere and one of only six in the world.

Aside from its organic status, the brewery also has a kosher certificate and the beers are GE free. Extended conditioning and maturation avoids the necessity for the fish- or egg-based clarifying agents, so the beers are also suitable for vegans. The beers themselves show exemplary balance and drinkability and the brewery won more than 50 medals and trophies in its first decade of trading; an excellent achievement.

In recent years John has gradually handed over the brewing reins to his sons Callum and Matt and Founders has responded to the market's thirst for more robust styles. These days the three brewing Duncans craft a range of five full time beers as well as occasional short run specialties in their compact 1200-litre brewhouse.

Having twice been judged champion small brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards - the world's largest annual international beer competition - perhaps Founders' most prestigious accolade came in 2002 when it was awarded the Morton Coutts trophy for brewing innovation at New Zealand's annual beer awards.

On the face of it the Boundary Road deal is an excellent outcome for all concerned: the Duncan family, which has struggled in recent years to sell its beers widely enough, remains in control of the brewing, while Independent Liquor, which has been eyeing the top end of the New Zealand craft brewing sector for some time, has gained distribution rights to a portfolio of award-winning Kiwi craft beers.

Announcing the deal Independent Liquor chief executive Julian Davidson noted: "Founders Brewery is a phenomenal story simply because its brewing tradition is nearly the same age as New Zealand itself and it has enormous heritage."

He was quick to recognise that the Founders name was the legacy of a family that had been brewing for almost 160 years. "It's not often that a brewery of such stature is still only enjoyed by a few."

For his part John Duncan was also keen to stress the benefits: "We are a brewing family, so we are pleased to be working with an organisation that wants to keep these two elements together, while supporting and helping us grow the brand. For a long time, it's been the family's wish to have others around the country enjoying our beer - now they can."

As is the case with Lion's recent purchase of Emerson's, only time will tell the whole story, but I'm delighted that Founders beers will soon be distributed more widely. That said, my favourite place to enjoy them is sitting on the sunny patio outside the brewery's cafe bar on a warm Nelson afternoon.

If you're keen to try the Founders beers in their home environment and sample from a range of other interesting beers and ciders you may like to know that earlybird tickets for next year's Marchfest have gone on sale. Full details of this event, which takes place in Nelson's Founders Historic Park on April 6, are available online at


The Marlborough Express