The ascent of Brew Mountain

23:51, Jun 09 2014
Kelly and Shannon Ryan survey the latest brew produced for their newly launched New Plymouth brewery Brew Mountain.

Kelly Ryan crouches over a laptop as it sits on a makeshift cabinet.

Shannon Ryan wears work trousers and a work shirt with white gumboots. He wouldn't look out of place on a factory floor. Liam Tranter is clad in shorts and a T-shirt. In between the job at hand he hands round homemade salami and cold kombucha tea.

Gleaming stainless steel drums dominate the garage where we stand. Two chillers sit to one side. Sacks of grain pile up in a corner, below a sign that reads "Beer will change the world". There's not a lot of room to hover, although the garage door is halfway up and given the sunny day, it's a pleasant spot.

This is craft brewing, backyard-style, in the 21st century. A mixture of sophistication, precision, blokiness and personal pride.

Kelly Ryan is the head brewer. His brother describes him as one of the brains or nerds of the operation. The other "nerd" is Tranter, a local GP while Shannon Ryan labels himself "the salesperson".

The Ryan brothers are from Oakura. Dad, the late Pat Ryan, was a boxer in the 1972 Munich Olympics and their first beer, Pale Pat Supreme, is named after him. (One of the boxing writers referred to him at the time as "pale Pat supreme with the choir boy looks".)


As we talk the men make beer. It's their second offering, an American Red Ale with a "nice malt richness" to it and a mix of American hops. They've called it Magmatude.

In the garage on the day of the interview they are at the second stage of a long seven to eight-hour process that has up to 12 steps. Six types of grain are being heated in a thick stainless drum called a mash tun, where the sugar and proteins will soak out.

Temperature and timing is critical so I wait before firing questions. Once the trio are on to sparging we get down to an interview proper. Sparging is like giving the grain a shower and that happens in another larger vessel called a lauter tun, before the mix is transferred to the kettle for boiling with hops.

Ryan is exact and detailed with explanations. He's the professional in here, the one who makes his living from brewing as well as judging the brown stuff and working as a brewery consultant.

The process is exacting and experimental.

"For me, coming up with recipes, I will be eating or drinking something and I think 'man, imagine those flavours in a beer' or you might try a beer that's fantastic and wonder what malts they used.

"It's very similar to what chefs do with recipes; it's what brewers are doing as well. Knowing what ingredients taste like, and then putting a brew down and crossing your fingers that it all works out."

However, it was younger brother Shannon who got the ball rolling on this Taranaki craft brewery called Brew Mountain.

It's only the third such commercial operation started in the region. Mike's Brewery has been around since 1989; in 2010 Joe Wood started Liberty Brewing in his Moturoa garage but has since moved to North Auckland and on to the lofty heights of working with big name company Hallertau.

Ryan and Tranter were introduced to each other one night in New Plymouth five years ago.

Remembers Ryan: "I got talking about Kelly and how he'd just done a collaborative brew with Epic . . . I had never brewed but my brother was an award-winning brewer in the UK at the time, so I ended up as Liam's homebrew apprentice for awhile before I got my own kit."

Tranter, who makes his own cheese as well as salami, had been brewing for a few years, inspired in part by his Dad's backyard cider brewing exploits.

Last year Ryan and Tranter were having a beer with Joe Wood before he left town.

"After a few beers he decided that his New Plymouth brewery was surplus to requirements and I said, 'We'll buy it from you, see you in the morning'. We were round there first thing, and before he'd changed his mind, we had his old equipment in the back of Liam's car," recalls Shannon Ryan.

About this time older brother Kelly was back in NZ. He boasts enviable credentials, having got into the industry 13 years ago.

Five years' study at Otago University netted him a food science degree. Initially, microbiology and food chemistry had intrigued him, but a professor who set up a masters brewing programme in Belgium piqued his interest in making beer.

Family background played a part as well. The Ryan brothers recall their "classic Kiwi upbringing" in Oakura with lots of stuff revolving around eating and socialising.

Following graduation, Kelly Ryan was offered a place on a coveted DB Breweries trainee programme. From there he headed to the Tui Brewery at Mangatainoka where he ended up running the microbiology lab.

However, brewery wages weren't palatial so he and partner Catherine (now his wife) headed to South Korea to earn money and pay off student loans. Three years later they were in the UK, Catherine helping manage a pub, Kelly brewing the beverages.

The award-winning Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell, Derbyshire was his last port of call. "In my time we became the most awarded brewery in the UK, won many medals . . . one beer, an IPA called Jaipur, won 100 medals alone."

Home was beckoning and so was Epic brewery, then a small operation, which took on Ryan as its first employee (It's now one of the country's craft brewing success stories, exporting to Australia, the US and some European countries.)

Ryan and Epic founder Luke Nicholas travelled around NZ, filming NZ Craft Beer TV. To help fund some of the trip they produced the NZ Pale Ale Mash Up, a collaboration between 44 Kiwi breweries. "It was a very cool way for me to become reintegrated into the NZ brewing scene. I got to see straight away what was happening in NZ."

Then came a job offer to be head brewer at Hamilton operation The Good George. Its owners were getting things off the ground. In two years they've had an impact, winning six medals at last year's NZ Brewing Awards including one for the best cider in the country.

But Taranaki talked him back. Last year Dad Pat Ryan fell ill and Kelly wanted to be closer to family. He and Catherine, now married and parents of a toddler, shifted to New Plymouth.

Suddenly the local brewing venture that had been mulled over was all on.

"It was a series of random occurrences," says his younger brother.

"Liam and I decided we would get on to it while Kelly was here.

"We were like, 'right he's here, let's go'."

Tranter's garage became brew headquarters. Pat's Pale Ale was put down and the second Magmatude is under way.

But why bother? Aren't craft breweries starting up left, right and centre?

Says Kelly Ryan: "The great thing about craft beer is it's a big family and you're not competing with anyone. You are just adding a couple more members to the family."

"If it's going to convert a few more people to good beer, then that's the ultimate goal and Taranaki needs another brewery. For me, the cool thing about brewing up at The Good George was they had a strong regional locality thing rocking on. This is a return to normality, having a brewery in every town."

Besides, beer is often better fresh, rather than after being shipped halfway round the country.

In addition, they have a good route to market with local bars in town.

Brew Mountain will be launched at The Hour Glass bar in New Plymouth on June 21. The three have forked out "a couple of grand" to have their beer keg system on tap and know they have to sell a fair amount to make it work. Later it will be available at Okurukuru restaurant and on tap at Fitzroy Liquorland.

"They were more than accommodating. They're just as passionate about having locally brewed beer on tap," says Ryan of the Taranaki business support.

"We owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for helping us along the way with free labour, design work, refrigeration . . . the new Liquorland in Fitzroy pushing craft beer."

There's plenty of anticipation. The trio can only brew so much. Kelly Ryan left just a few weeks ago for a brewery job at the Fork and Brewer in Wellington. Being home was great, now he needs to start earning again.

Still, Brew Mountain is under way and they're committed.

"It's funny how fate brought us together at this time. It's perfect timing. Craft brewing is erupting - no pun intended - so watch this space," says Shannon Ryan.

Taranaki Daily News