Three Boys Brewery: A Kiwi Twist on Tradition

From the Source by | Sep 2016 | Issue #116

The rough and rugged Foveaux Strait, which runs between New Zealand’s South and Stewart islands, is not the place most people would associate with high-quality beer ingredients. But this often-treacherous stretch of water is where daring oystermen haul in a harvest that Three Boys Brewery transforms into magic. The not-so-secret ingredient? Bluff oysters.

Battered, fried, or slurped straight from the shell, these distinctive mollusks fetch high prices at restaurants and supermarkets throughout the island nation and beyond, but Ralph Bungard, founder of Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch, uses the salty, briny treasures in his brewery’s Oyster Stout.

This flagship brew is the most-awarded beer in New Zealand, racking up many accolades over the years, including medals from the Brewers Guild of New Zealand, the Australian International Beer Awards, and the New World Beer & Cider Awards. Three Boys Oyster Stout even has its own hashtag: #needsmorebrine.

“When we add oysters into our beer, a lot of the brine that goes with them also goes into the beer and that really does increase the mouthfeel of the beer,” Bungard says. “Like salt does, it starts working picking up the flavors, imparting flavors.”

The beer’s seasonality is also one of its key draws, according to Bungard. “New Zealand has a really distinct Bluff oyster season in the Foveaux Strait… [The Oyster Stout] is the perfect combination of using seasonal ingredients.”

Oyster season typically runs from March through August, and is the only time of year the brewery churns out the ever-popular brew, which usually stays in stock until late December. “We try to get our hands on enough Bluff oysters to keep Oyster Stout on the shelf through to Christmas,” says operations manager Misty Weed. New Zealand’s southern hemisphere location makes Christmas a sunny, beer-drinking holiday instead of the cozy, cold-weather North American version. “People give and get lots of beer for Christmas,” Weed says.

While many enjoy the beer’s distinctive flavor, some drinkers also enjoy other, more personal, qualities they attribute to it. “I think that the seaside saltiness, taste, and aroma of the Bluff oyster adds to the body and the mouthfeel of the Stout,” says Graeme Wright, general manager of Barnes Wild Bluff Oysters in Invercargill, New Zealand. “And, of course, we must not forget the well-known aphrodisiac qualities of the wild Bluff oysters, which makes drinking the Stout a more attractive proposition!”

Shaken but Steadfast
Bungard launched the brewery in 2004 from his garage, opening up commercial operations in 2005. The founder, who has a PhD in plant biochemistry, spent several years in the United Kingdom, researching, lecturing, and enjoying finely crafted beers during his travels. Upon his return to New Zealand, he wanted to bring more flavor to the local beer scene, so he started his own brewery.

As his beer’s popularity grew, Bungard expanded far beyond his home base—he now operates a brewhouse with five full-time and two part-time employees that produces 300,000 liters (over 2,500 US barrels) per year, with an additional 100,000 liters offsite for contract brewing partners.

The brewery moved to its current Ferry Road facility after a series of devastating earthquakes rocked Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. The most destructive was the February 2011 quake that took 185 lives and turned much of the city’s downtown into rubble. Thankfully, no one was hurt at the brewery, but they had a very close call. One of the fermentors fell over on the keg washer—a spot where Bungard and Weed had been standing less than a minute before the shaking started.

After the quake, the brewery’s old facility was covered by a foot and a half of liquefaction, but they were able to clean up and get operations running again within a few weeks. Structural damage to the facility prompted a move to the two-and-a-half times larger Ferry Road location.

This facility now produces a lineup described as “tradition with a Kiwi twist,” modifying classic recipes to meld with New Zealand tastes and locally available ingredients, such as a Belgian-style wheat beer made with lemon zest instead of oranges.

Classics styles like Pils, IPA, Golden Ale, and the popular Oyster Stout make up the core range of beers, along with a somewhat unusual find in New Zealand: Tres Amigos Mexican Lager. Crafted with Skippy cornflakes instead of the traditional maize, the beer was originally created as a joke, but customers loved the brew, so they soon started cranking out the Mexican-style lager.

Bigger Flavor, Lower Alcohol
In addition to the core range, the company makes a brewers’ reserve series of seasonal brews. One of the newest releases, Tokyo Green, is a Japanese Green Tea Pale Ale that infuses two tea blends for a fruity, refreshing flavor. The first batch was so popular, the brewery made another. “Tea and beer are a great combination,” Bungard insists. “There’s plenty of coffee beer around, and those work incredibly well with the darker beer [styles]. Tea’s subtlety and the floral nature of tea pairs well with pale beer.”

Another popular creation is the LOCAL series of low-alcohol brews that appeal to drinkers mindful of alcohol content. Less than two years ago, New Zealand lowered the legal blood alcohol content for driving, leading to an increased demand for low ABV beer.

Three Boys responded with the LOCAL series. One of the most popular is LOCAL Session IPA, which packs hoppy, tropical fruit, soft caramel, and biscuit flavors into a 2.4 percent ABV beverage. “It’s not just [about] the alcohol content of beer,” says Bungard. It’s a fantastic product for refreshment and being social after work on your way home.”

As Three Boys looks to expand its low-alcohol range, it’s also adding a 330-milliliter bottling line to the brewhouse in September. This coincides with the beginning of summer, the busy season in the Southern Hemisphere.

The change in season also brings an annual migration of scientists and researchers to Christchurch, a stopover for many on their way to spend the austral summer on bases in Antarctica. Each spring, the brewery receives an order for a couple pallets of canned beer to ship to bases on the frigid continent. “They’ve taken a liking to Three Boys beer,” Bungard says. “It’s interesting, they tell us that they have to ration it down there so it lasts for the whole summer.”

2,000 liter (16 barrel) brewhouse
4 3,600 liter (30 barrel) fermentors
5 1,800 liter (15 barrel) fermentors
3 1,200 liter (10 barrel) fermentors
conditioning tanks totaling 70,000 liters (587 barrels)

On Tap
IPA: New Zealand hops, including Green Bullet, Pacifica, and Rakau, add flavor to this rendition of a South Pacific Pale Ale. 5.2% ABV

Oyster Stout: Bluff oysters are the not-so-secret ingredient in this rich, briny beer with malty notes of chocolate and coffee. 6.5% ABV

Pils: A South Pacific take on Bohemian lager, this brew pairs tropical Green Bullet, Riwaka, and Nelson Sauvin hops with a biscut-like malt flavor. 5.5% ABV

Fresh Hop Golden Ale: Late addition, fresh Nelson Sauvin hops make this brewers’ reserve take on the flagship Golden Ale aromatic and exceptional. 4.5% ABV

Wheat: Lemon zest adds a Kiwi twist to this Belgian-style Wheat beer with coriander. 5.0% ABV

Tres Amigos: A crisp, refreshing Mexican-style lager brewed with New Zealand hops. 5.0% ABV