Like many of our brewers, Kerry Gray, Head Brewer of Choice Bros Brewery, found his true love of beer while travelling in the United Kingdom and Europe. He drank English cask ales, refined German lagers and an amazing range of Belgian beers. And, like many, when he came home, the local selection of New Zealand draughts and lagers no longer satisfied his tastes.
Kerry’s return to New Zealand coincided with the craft beer scene really starting to kick off. Tuatara Brewing had established itself in Wellington – their spicy, dry Ardennes was one of his favourite beers. Hashigo Zake had not long opened and was shipping in fresh American imports and hosting the Garage Project 24/24.
When he got home, Kerry didn’t have a job, or a lot of money, but he did have a $100 voucher from Work and Income as part of his job starter allowance. While he couldn’t buy alcohol with the voucher, he could buy a Coopers Homebrew kit for $99.99 at Pak and Save! So, Kerry started making his own and hanging out with the Homebrew Club at Hashigo. It has quite the pedigree. Kerry now part-owns and brews at Choice Bros, Sam Whitney is part owner and Head Brewer at Heyday, Shiggy Takagi part owns and brews at Funk Estate, Brayden Rawlinson is Head Brewer at Tuatara and Reuben Moore, is Head Brewer at Gorgeous Brewery in the United Kingdom. And, that’s just a few of the group’s alumni!
Kerry met the Homebrew Club when he decided to enter the Wellington In A Pint competition run by Clemenger BBDO. Competitors had to design and homebrew a beer that was then judged by a group of industry people and semi-celebrities. He got through to the finals and was hanging out with the other competitors who asked about his beer. He explained it was a mixture of light and dark extract, with some coffee, and they reacted with some surprise.
His competitors were all-grain brewers – something Kerry admits he knew nothing about at the time – but moved on to for his very next brew. He pulled together a new brewing kit from some trusty components of the Coopers kit he still has at home and other bits and pieces bought for $400. That second kit remains the test kit at the new Choice Bros brewing tucked down the back – but lit up in disco lights - at Husk on Ghunzee St.
Kerry didn’t win the BBDO competition, but Choice Bros, and then Husk, came into existence as his work colleague at the time, and now business partner, Mike Pullin was convinced he could commercially make and sell beer.
Kerry would take homebrew to work and swap it for some of Mike’s Karamu Coffee. He’d also take beer into to Rogue and Vagabond, where owner Gwil would make him wait at the bar while he poured out glasses for the locals to provide feedback. They’re still mates, and the sharing of beer and giving of feedback is one of the things that Kerry credits for the quality of Wellington’s brewers and beers. Everyone’s happy to provide feedback and advice, and to explore ideas. He’s spent lots of time with the team at Garage Project as they share his interest in pushing boundaries – both with adjuncts and techniques. Kerry used to be a self-described “fan-boy” but he now considers them colleagues and friends.
Kerry and Mike stayed in touch when he moved from his furniture sales job (before brewing, Kerry had a retail management and sales background) and started work at Te Aro Brewing. The new job gave him the opportunity to brew commercially and to extend his networks. And, he started looking to contract brew under the Choice Bros moniker. The name came about from people’s reaction to his beer. They’d say, “choice bro” as a thanks for the free beer, or “choice bro” when asked if they liked it. While he might not choose the name again it does reflect the fun he was having at the time.
Kerry chuckles as he remembers asking Mike Neilson from Panhead Custom Ales if he would do a brew for him. Kerry admired Mike’s Jonny Octane and wanted him as the brewer for a Red IPA he had conceived. Mike told him to F-Off but came around when Kerry threatened to ask Jo Wood from Liberty Brewing to brew it instead! The rivalry and friendship is strong between those two! Choice Bros was also brewed at Townshend, Kereru and North End before Husk opened and that beer went on to win a Trophy at the New Zealand Brewer’s Guild Awards in 2016 as Reet Petite.
Reet Petite is a six percent red IPA with a deep burnished hue and a slight “hot” spiced aroma. The mouthfeel is rounded with a touch of tickle from the ginger on the back of the palate. But, it’s not always overt in flavour. It seems to reflect the changing seasons and the strength of the product that goes into it. There’s sometimes a big ginger hit. Other times, it is more subtle – but the strength of the base beer carries it through regardless – it’s a delicious drop.
Kerry is very relaxed about contract brewing. He’s in discussions about doing some more this year, to get some of his beers canned and out of the “keg only” market. Owning a brewery only came about when Mike made him a serious offer. Mike had always owned cafes but wanted a bar as well. He wanted to combine a café and coffee, and a bar and beer. He found the space that became Husk about 18 months before the roastery and brewery eventually opened. And, both of them worked hard to pull it together. Kerry was, in effect, the second builder on-site.
“Husk” is inspired by the husk around a coffee bean and a grain of barley. Kerry reflects that it is a complex business – and the only one like it in the southern hemisphere that he knows of. They open early at 8am for the breakfast and brunch crowd, closing late in the evening post dinner drinks. Luckily, he reckons that while Mike and him are very different, they complement each other and are “both very chill”! They’re soon to have Nick Van Harlem, ex-Malthouse, Goldings Free Dive and Shepherd, come join them as General Manager. Kerry’s got some ideas he’s keen they work to implement which, he reflects, is all part of “still figuring shit out”. He notes that this year was only their second, and there’s always adjustments and improvements to be made.
Another project Kerry is keen to continue work on is Echoes. It is, in effect, his second brand. It’s a name that he’s more thoughtfully considered – with multiple meanings linked together to reflect what he is trying to do. It’s a slow burn; producing barrel-aged beers and wines.
The first Echoes was the Lines Begin to Blur Rose, made in the Pet-Nat or Pétillant Naturel style. It might be a “new” thing in the New Zealand market but it’s a way of making fizz that has long existed – essentially by bottle finishing and fermenting to create carbon dioxide. When fresh, there was a shed tonne of strawberries. Over time, they seem to be slowly being transformed to leave lingering red fruit character in the glass which is otherwise spritzy and dry. It’s well worth trying but you’ll need to get in quick. It was a limited batch, as all offerings will be under the Echoes label.
Kerry’s got a Tripel that he’s looking to bottle under Echoes shortly. It’s been aged for three years in barrel. And, there’s a Barley Wine aged in Whisky barrels he hopes to have ready for when the weather turns for autumn. All-in-all, there are about 7,500 litres in the barrels that line the entry to Husk. There’s also red Saisons and a lager inoculated with wild yeasts. What Kerry hasn’t quite figured out yet is how to get the beer from barrel to bottle. It might simply happen in the alleyway overnight.
Although often commenting about how busy he is, Kerry doesn’t seem to be able to slow down or stop! He’s spent some time helping with a hemp harvest and at Dog Point Vineyard during their harvest in recent weeks. They’ve not quite trusted him with the grapes, but he’s been doing cellar work and dabbling about with their wine-makers. Ever the experimentalist, Kerry’s excited about the opportunities that hemp has to offering brewing and beer. He thinks it will provide a way to make a rounded, hazy IPA without the concern of the yeast turning or the need to use other alternatives like pectin which is being explored in the US.
Kerry’s also excited about the opportunities that the Hāpi Hop Research Centre venture can bring to New Zealand hops along with the breweries that have been invited to the Hāpi Beer Festival and Symposium. Here’s hoping there’s enough excitement to keep Kerry in Wellington, and in beer in the near future! The wine industry may be beckoning…