In 10 years, they’ve gone from student flat home brew to supermarket beer fridge staple. Alice Neville charts the journey of Parrotdog.
Cast your mind back to July, 2011. A penguin by the name of Happy Feet had taken New Zealand by storm. John Key was visiting Barack Obama at the White House. Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ was at the top of the charts. And the craft beer revolution was taking hold in Aotearoa.
In Wellington, three friends called Matt were about to officially launch their brewery. Named for the fact one of them had a pet parrot and they called each other “dog” (an origin story they now admit to finding somewhat embarrassing), Parrotdog had been in existence in some form since the end of 2009, when Matt Kristofski did his first home brew on a kit given to him by the father of his then girlfriend. He joined forces with his flatmate Matt Warner to save money, and they began serving their beer at parties. The home brewery needed a name, of course, so Parrotdog it was. A friend in London even designed a logo for them, which remains in use to this day.
Saving money on booze was the priority in those early days, but they soon switched focus to the product itself. “Our passion for craft beer was building through places like Hashigo Zake,” says Kristofski. “We were drinking beer from Tuatara, Emerson’s, Epic, Renaissance.” Parrotdog wasn’t a pioneer of the New Zealand scene – the above names get that honour – but the early 2010s was when Wellington began taking shape as New Zealand’s craft beer capital. And Parrotdog, along with a contemporary by the name of Garage Project, as well as bars like Hashigo Zake, The Malthouse, Bebemos, Little Beer Quarter and Golding’s Free Dive, were at the forefront.
During those student days – in between studying for their commerce (Kristofski) and law (Warner) degrees at Victoria University, of course – the Matts spent “a huge amount of time” honing their appreciation for beer and getting to know the burgeoning brew community at Hashigo Zake, the subterranean Taranaki Street bar that’s now something of a Wellington beer icon, says Kristofski. And as they learned more and brewed more, they began to realise that what they were making was pretty damn good. Smuggling their own brews into bars was an ingenious way of getting some mentoring. “We’d take flagons of home brew and go to beer events at The Malthouse and ask experts for advice.”
Soon enough their mate Matt Stevens, who had gone to school with Kristofski in Nelson, got involved, as did the honorary “fourth Matt”, Paul Watson, aka Wattie, who was the brother of Warner’s then girlfriend. In 2011, Stevens was already working as a chartered accountant at Deloitte, but the others were in the final year of their degrees. Kristofski admits that “not really wanting to get jobs” was a big driver in deciding to progress Parrotdog from hobby to business. “It was just about giving it a go,” he says. “There was no master plan.” While still finishing study, they made the big step up from their home kit to contract brewing at Mike’s brewery in Taranaki. The focus then was largely on one beer: an IPA.
“We spent a lot of time perfecting that Bitterbitch,” Kristofski recalls. The name came about when the first 1,200-litre batch was nearly tipped down the drain. In scaling up the recipe, they’d made an error with the hop quantities added in the early stages. “We got a phone call from Mike’s saying ‘this beer’s way too bitter, you’re going to have to dump it’.”
There was no way that was going to happen, so they went into damage control, dry hopping (that’s when hops are added for flavour and aroma towards the end of the brew) with heaps of Nelson Sauvin – the famous sauvignon-blanc-esque New Zealand hop – to add a perception of sweetness to balance the beer out.
It was still “extremely bitter” for the time, says Kristofski, so the name remained apt. While the “hops arms race” was well under way in America, assertively hopped beers were still pretty niche in Aotearoa, and Bitterbitch filled a hole in the market. The beer was launched officially at Hashigo Zake on July 27, 2011, then to a wider audience at Wellington beer festival Beervana the following month. It was a hit, selling out in record time and being voted people’s choice by the discerning (this was early-ish days, remember) Beervana audience.
“That kicked everything off,” says Kristofski. While seeing out the last few months of their studies, they’d head up to Mike’s once a month to package the latest batch (by this stage they were also brewing Bloodhound, a red ale, and the blonde ale Flaxen Feather), then would deliver the bottles and kegs themselves. Bars were their main focus, but friendships they’d struck up with fellow beer enthusiasts, one of whom happened to be the owner of Island Bay New World, and another the liquor manager of Thorndon New World, proved crucial. “All of our customers came from us drinking at those spots.”
Almost a year to the day since pouring that first pint of Bitterbitch at Hashigo Zake, in July 2012 Parrotdog moved into its own brewery on Vivian Street, right in the heart of downtown Wellington. “We’d finished study and it was like, ‘do we get real jobs?’ We were all committed – Matt Stevens quit his job at Deloitte and we all signed the lease,” says Kristofski.
With help from their very supportive parents, who remortgaged their houses to back the loans, the Matts invested more than $100,000 each into the new spot, importing all the equipment for the 5,000-litre brewery from China.
Two engineers were supposed to be coming over with the gear, but they just… didn’t show up. Left with “pallets full of stuff” and no idea how to put it together, the Matts had to decide whether to give it a go or throw in the towel and hope they could sell off the equipment. “It was quite scary at the time,” recalls Kristofski. But they figured it out, putting everything together themselves and selling off the excess scrap metal for a bit of extra cash, then got to work making beer. Warner took the lead on the brewing side while Stevens and Kristofski focused on building the business. “We were just trying to figure everything out,” says Kristofski. “During that build phase Warner and I actually went on the benefit to support ourselves. It was six months before we took any drawings.”
In early 2013, they started bottling and hired their first employee – their friend Wattie, who came onboard as a brewing hand/production assistant. Initially focusing on their core range (Bitterbitch and co), they soon began brewing limited runs of seasonal beers too, such as the highly regarded Rare Bird series.
The next few years went pretty well and by 2016, Parrotdog had 10 staff members and had maxed out the Vivian Street brewery’s capacity, as well as taking over a couple of nearby warehouses for storage. “We needed capital and no longer wanted it to be a lifestyle business,” says Kristofski. “We wanted to keep moving to a point where we could sustain our staff.”
After weighing up a few options, Parrotdog decided to launch a PledgeMe campaign to fund a brand new brewery. Fellow beer makers Yeastie Boys had already tested the market the previous year, raising $500,000 on the platform to fund an expansion into the UK, and PledgeMe resonated because it would give Parrotdog fans an opportunity to “jump on board”, says Kristofski. “It’s a base of brand advocates.”
It was a clever move: this was the era of Big Beer snapping up craft breweries – Lion had just bought Panhead, and Tuatara was about to go to DB – and the PledgeMe campaign appealed to craft beer fans who wanted their faves to stay local and independent. It also offered investors a bunch of perks, from, depending on the amount invested, a free birthday pint at the planned bar to the chance to host your own event at the new brewery.
When it launched in August 2016, the campaign quickly became PledgeMe’s biggest ever, raising $2 million for Parrotdog in under two days. It allowed them to secure the site for the new brewery – a big building down a semi-industrial side street just back from the beach in Lyall Bay. Fitting out the building was a lot of work but compared to the move into Vivian Street, everything went pretty smoothly, and they were brewing in the new space by April 2017. A small, kitchenless bar had always been part of the plan but once they got into the space, they realised there was “scope for doing a whole lot more”. That meant, in December that year, a second PledgeMe campaign to raise another million, which would also enable them to build the sales team and add a canning line.
The new bar, modelled on an old-school pub, opened the following autumn and quickly became a neighbourhood favourite. Kid-friendly and dog-friendly, it’s all about burgers and pool tables and unpretentious vibes, with a cosy beer garden and fortnightly quiz nights. As for the beer, they didn’t use the flash new brewery as an excuse to go crazy, instead continuing to focus on building that core range while mixing it up with more limited-edition beers, notably the ever-growing 440ml “name” range – beers with good old-fashioned Kiwi names like Keith and Susan. Now numbering 14, they’re all named after people the Matts know. Funnily enough, the latest three, brewed to celebrate Parrotdog’s 10th birthday, comprise a trio of different beers all called Matt.
Bitterbitch has remained at the heart of Parrotdog’s core range, and the team continued to rely on it as their flagship. Until 2020, that is, when in blew a hurricane named Birdseye. Launched during lockdown – which they were warned against – Birdseye capitalised on what began as a trend but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere: the hazy IPA. “We knew there was an opening for a six-pack hazy at an approachable price point,” says Kristofski. But no one imagined it would go as big as it did. Coming in at 5.8% and super tasty yet approachable, a sixer of Birdseye will set you back 20 bucks at Countdown – a good $4 or $5 cheaper than comparative offerings from other craft breweries. For many beer drinkers, it’s become a go-to, and for Parrotdog, it’s “completely redefined us”, says Kristofski. Now nearly half the brewery’s total production is dedicated to Birdseye.
Bitterbitch still has a special place in their hearts, though – even though the recipe’s changed a lot since 2011, with the beer now “leaner”, showcasing the hop characteristics more. They brewed a special batch of the original recipe for the 10th birthday, however, and it still held up as a great drop.
It’s hard not to compare Parrotdog to another Wellington beer success story that launched just a few days after that first pint of Bitterbitch was poured: Garage Project. While both breweries make excellent beer, their trajectories have been starkly different – Garage Project launched with the ambitious 24/24 project, brewing 24 beers in 24 weeks, and quickly built up a huge fanbase. While Parrotdog chugged on quietly with its core range, Garage Project became known for brewing bold, out-there beers with eye-catching can art. But Parrotdog never saw GP as a rival, says Kristofski. “For the start they positioned themselves as more experimental, where we were a bit more traditional. There was always room for us both,” he says.
Parrotdog has marked the 10-year mark with a change in leadership structure. They had until this point led by committee, with the three Matts and Wattie sharing the decision-making. It’s worked, but with a team now comprising 65 employees, it made sense to have just one person as top (Parrot)dog. That person is Paul Watson – aka Wattie, Parrotdog’s very first employee, who’s taken on the role of managing director. Formerly head of sales, Wattie has top-notch management skills and it seemed a natural progression, says Kristofski. Plus, he’s got the distinct advantage of not being called Matt. Kristofski is now marketing and brand director, Stevens commercial director and Warner brewing director – the three areas they’ve naturally fallen into since the start. A bonus of the structure change is that the three Matts, now in their mid-30s and with young families, don’t have to be on the shop floor as much.
Impressively, there have been no major falling-outs over the past decade, says Kristofski. “We came into it as mates, and now we’re business partners and we’ve maintained our close relationship.”
They’re in it for the long term, and “with Wattie in charge, we’re primed for the next 10 years”, says Kristofski. In exciting news for Auckland beer lovers, Parrotdog’s next big focus is finding a site for a bar in Tāmaki Makaurau.
If you’re wondering what happened to the eponymous parrot (he was an Indian ringneck named Schmee, and he belonged to Kristofski), last his former owner heard, he was living a happy life at Natureland in Nelson. “I was forced to rehome him after my flatmates at the time expressed their concerns around cohabitation with a parrot.”
And yes, they still call each other “dog”.
At 3pm on Sunday, August 15 at their Lyall Bay brewery, the Parrotdog team will be taking part in a live recording of Dietary Requirements, The Spinoff’s food podcast, as part of Visa Wellington on a Plate. It’s free to attend – more details here.
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