From the exquisite suits and tweed to serving Belgian-inspired sour beer via English real ale handpumps, Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O’Brien of Craftwork Brewery have always seemed a crow left of the murder that is the New Zealand brewing industry. A visit to their brewery in Oamaru by Our Man in New Zealand, Jono Galuszka, was obviously in order.
But nothing could prepare him for a tale featuring questionable parenting, a bona fide wizard and the end of civilisation...
I am not sure how many beers deep I was at the point Michael told me this story. To be honest, it would not have mattered if it was one or one hundred. Heck, I could have been sober for a year and taken perfect notes, yet this story would still have been ridiculous. Frankly, it sounds like something out of a Monty Python skit. Or those nights where you drink far too much, coming to your senses when you’re swinging from a willow tree, hand around a bottle of something, all the while singing "Don’t Dream It’s Over" at the top of your lungs.
But let’s talk about Michael.
The story is about the time Michael learned how to brew using grains and hops. He had been making beers from kits, but that changed after drinking a beer from a friend. He knew this friend through a group best known as Clan McGillicuddy. The Clan is known for larrikinism and having its tongue planted so firmly in its cheek it is of danger of putting a hole in its theoretical face.
They once founded a political party – McGillicudy Serious Party – advocating for a return to a medieval lifestyle, with a ruler chosen in the same way as the Dalai Lama. The party was anything but serious, unless it was about not being serious – then things got very serious.
Anyway. Michael remembers drinking this beer from this friend. It had all been kit beers between him and his friends until then.
“I had it and thought, ‘This is quite porno beer’, and he said ‘Yeah, check out my full mash beer’.” Obviously Michael wanted to make "porno beer" himself. A lesson was in order.
The friend not only brings his home brewery to Michael’s place, schlepping it to the South Island from Waikato, but a bunch of people. All those people have their own ideas of how to make beer. It’s fair to say things did not go well.
“They all turned up, all having a go at trying to teach me something,” Michael remembers. “I’m getting a bit stressed with these randoms. Then the Wizard of Christchurch walks in [yes, Christchurch has a resident wizard] and I just couldn’t concentrate.”
This all seems ridiculous when you read it, but is the gospel truth when it comes from Michael. Is it his demeanour? His penchant for calling good things “a bit porno”? Or the fact that he and his partner in business and life Lee-Ann run one of New Zealand’s most unique breweries out of a former laundry under a house in Oamaru, the self-proclaimed steampunk capital of New Zealand?
It doesn’t really matter, because the beer is bloody brilliant.
Founded in March 15, 2014, Craftwork is both easy to reference but impossible to describe. It is run by extremely approachable people, but some of its beers are the most unique in the country. You can end up sounding like Lady Gaga trying to find the right words to elaborate on the special place Craftwork occupies in the New Zealand scene.
Michael did not need to co-found Craftwork to make his place in the New Zealand brewing world. He did it through a very different route – becoming a bookbinder. He fell into a four-year apprenticeship through Auckland Public Library after his father stumbled upon an advertisement, before perfecting his craft in England.
By the time he returned to New Zealand in 1988, he was an award-winning binder. He and Dunedin bookbinder David Stedman became the inspiration behind Emerson’s Bookbinder – a 3.7 percent ABV, New Zealand-hopped English ale for which many a Kiwi beer lover has a soft spot. It is especially fitting, considering he got into brewing through English style beers.
He was finishing his bookbinding apprenticeship – “I thought it was a normal thing to do” – in England when he had his first taste of real ale.
“I remember going into a pub and asking for a real ale. Every mate of mine said, ‘No, that’s embarrassing’. I had a real ale and god damn it was warm. It really was! But, by the time I finished it, I thought it was really nice.”
He started brewing when he returned to New Zealand in his 20s, going after the styles of beers he grew to love in England: ESB, heavy ales, everything bottle conditioned. While his attention to detail as a bookbinder may serve him well these days when hand-labelling bottles, it did not create a natural aptitude for brewing.
“I'm not a practical person. I did an apprenticeship with bookbinding; I know what I’m doing. But, with other crafts, I’m an idiot – I’m useless. The notion of full mash brewing was never on the cards. Way too scary.”
The "brew in a bag" method didn't work out well either. Trying to boil hot wort on a small stove was a one-time experience, thanks to the elements melting.
“It was a bloody new oven too,” Michael says. You sense he is still salty about it now.
But adding a different yeast to a kit beer? That was as easy as buying a different variety, ripping it open and dumping it in. That let him know how important yeast was – something especially important when you eventually base your brewery on Belgian style ales.
Before then, though, there is Lee-Ann. A longtime friend, she was part of Michael’s homebrew journey, helping him make beer from kits. But their tastes were rather different early on.
“He was trying to make tripel," she says. "His beers were so strong and under-attenuated my eyes would go like a figure of eight.”
Her brewing passion was properly ignited by something totally different to what Craftwork makes today: ParrotDog Bitter Bitch.
Things quickly went overboard for Lee-Ann.
“In a way, I got quite obsessed. I was keen to brew everything. I wanted to brew the whole BJCP style guide,” she says.
It got to the point where she had at least half a dozen, often more, fermenters on her kitchen bench. Her children would invite friends over, and neighbouring parents would cast suspicious looks when collecting their offspring from her house.
Her and Michael started brewing together, eventually focusing their energies on Belgian-inspired beers: saison, tripel, kriek and gueuze, all on a homebrew scale, all before going commercial. Two things gave them the push into selling their beer: death, and praise.
They are slightly coy about the death side, but go as far as saying a relative of Lee-Ann’s left her some money. Michael says it was “enough to get in trouble with”. The praise came from the Society of Beer Advocates’ annual homebrew competition. They won some medals and decided that was as much of a push as they needed to upgrade the home brewery.
There is also a darker side to things, at least from Michael’s side. It explains the fact his caricature appears on the front of Dark Lord, a no-holds-barred Belgian quadrupel.
“I’m a very dark person. I’m so surprised to be sitting here, drinking a beer in 2018. I thought it would be Mad Max by now. People call me the dark lord, hence the beer name. In the dark times of humanity, is someone going to want to restore their family Bible, or drink a beer?”
The washing machine was given the boot from the laundry space, replaced by a Braumeister automated brewing system, with a second purchased not too long after. Arguably the most advanced homebrew kit on the market, the Braumeister retails for about NZ$3600. Yet that is about as complicated as it gets for Lee-Ann and Michael.
Their brewery is totally at odds with any other in the country. High ceilings to accommodate large stainless fermenters? No, just a small space barely high enough for an average height man to walk around in. Automated cooling systems to ensure yeast does not get too warm? No, just a cupboard with a few shelves and a heater to keep things at a toasty 28 degrees Celcius – perfect for their house saison yeast. An automated bottling and labelling line? No, just a lot of patience with a hand capper and time spent peeling labels. A tasting room? No, just a wooden table smack in the middle of the brewery.
They did that despite advice from Emerson’s founder Richard Emerson. He told them to stick to homebrewing.
“We now see why he says that,” Michael says,” because of the huge amount of work. We thought we could maybe be commercial homebrewers.”
But it never is quite that easy.
“It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.” Thus spake The Notorious B.I.G. And it is the same with Craftwork. The founders effectively work full-time on the brewery, but are still trying to get to the point where it pays them both a full wage. Fans of Craftwork can contribute by drinking the beer or staying at Michael’s lovely self-contained accommodation unit The Bookbinder’s Retreat.
Lee-Ann and Michael both want to establish a large barrel room in central Oamaru. If nothing else, it’ll give them space to park the car in the garage again. But how to fund the next step in Craftwork’s evolution?
“We couldn't deal with going into debt in our 50s,” Lee-Ann says.
That led them to teaming up with Jess Wolfgang and Simon Ross, the duo behind Wanaka’s Rhyme and Reason (who we wrote about for our Aussie Exports series). Jess honed her brewing chops through seven years, on and off, at Hunter Beer Co in NSW. When Rhyme and Reason considered buying more equipment, an opportunity opened up for Craftwork: buy a fermenter, place it at Rhyme and Reason, save contracting costs, and upscale at a more manageable rate.
But the bulk of Craftwork’s production is still done in the former laundry under Lee-Ann’s house. It seems like the most bonkers place to run any kind of commercial brewery, let alone one producing beers loved by Aotearoa’s beer geeks. Maybe that is why it is so loved.
It is the kind of thing almost no one wants to try themselves, but dearly loves to see. Because there is no place quite like that table in the middle of the brewery. You sit there, hearing the washing machine rumbling in the room next door, sipping on framboise, hearing Michael and Lee-Ann regale you with one story after another, and only one thought goes through your mind.
I hope this beer never ends.
You can find Craftwork Brewery at 59 Tyne Street, Oamaru, North Otago.
You can read other articles on New Zealand's beer scene here and all articles by Jono here. You can find him elsewhere on the internet on Twitter, or his beer blog From Drinker to Brewer, which you can also follow on Facebook.
Photo at top of page also by Jed Soane of The Beer Project. All others by Jono.