Good George a great Waikato growth story

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Waikato Inc. sweetheart Good George has good reason to raise a glass with a thirsty kick-off to summer and year-on-year sales growth nudging 50 percent.

Actually, it has 1.2 million reasons.

The privately-owned, independent Frankton brewer of handcrafted beers and ciders is aiming for a production milestone of 1.2 million litres of beverages by the end of its March financial year.

To put the achievement in context, the Good George brewing enterprise, owned by Somerset Brewing Company, started out in 2011 making 20 kegs or 1000 litres of craft beer a week simply to supply the new Good George Dining Hall and Brewpub in the former rundown St George’s church in the industrial heart of Frankton.

To put it further in context, says chief executive Race Louden, that 1.2 million litres will have been rolled out from the same little site on which it all began – St George’s backyard. As for the latest year-on-year sales growth (last year it was 60 percent) that’s for brewing sales only, he says. It doesn’t include the expanding restaurant and brewpub side of the business, which is “going gangbusters”, though he won’t discuss any revenues.

The company has six hospitality outlets in Hamilton, Cambridge and Pyes Pa in Bay of Plenty. The most recent opening is the Cook Street Social in Hamilton East, former home of the Cook Street Café. On the radar is a flagship restaurant-brewpub in Auckland, a region from which a big chunk of the company’s retail revenue is sourced, says Mr Louden. More Waikato and Bay of Plenty hospitality venues are possible.

Good George brews are offered in glass squealer bottles, kegs and cans at 750 retailers in New Zealand, including supermarkets, other companies’ restaurants and bars, and in bottle stores. Event sales also boost the balance sheet.

The Good George brand is building a solid rep in the events sector, says Mr Louden. It was the official beer at the World Masters Games in Auckland this year, a coup out of all proportion to its size as it had to convince organisers it could produce the goods if 13,500 people at Queens Wharf asked for a drink at once. It had 68 beer taps working at that event. Good George is also the official beer of the annual National Fieldays at Mystery Creek, the biggest agribusiness event in the southern hemisphere. The company is now New Zealand’s largest independent cider maker according to a recent AC Nielsen report based on grocery sales, says Mr Louden.

The masters games win was “huge”, providing his team – and the hospitality industry – with the evidence, and confidence, that the company can claim to cater “for everything from a world-class event to a wedding in Hamilton”.

Mr Louden says the sales figures and a swelling payroll – 27 full-timers in the brewery and some 220 full and part-time restaurant staff – speak for how the company is performing. It’s profitable, he says.

But he isn’t shy about sharing its “aggressive” growth targets and his take on the success of the Good George culture.

The Chevy fire truck which transports the brews to pubs.

Despite explosive volume growth, the company’s operations have stayed in Frankton, in a cluster of small buildings between Frankton’s King Street – home to head office and dispatch – and Somerset Street, entrance to the brewpub and Dining Hall and site of the brewing operation.

A public lane bisecting the two operational areas and providing back access to neighbouring businesses is lively enough to limit the brewery’s popular public tours to quiet times of the day. All brewing, bottling, packaging and distribution is done on the Frankton site.

There’ll be more breathing room soon with the leasing of a 1600sqm building next door to the warehouse. This should enable the company to forge ahead with its target of producing four million litres of beverage a year in Frankton in the not too distant future. Mr Louden’s keen to shift the packaging operation across to the King Street side to help make that happen. Meanwhile, with 12-pack can sales due to debut they need all the extra space they can get.

So far, the company has not been seriously tempted to move the burgeoning brewing operation out of Frankton to a roomier site.

“Frankton is important to us. Frankton is home. We pride ourselves on brewing here,” says Mr Louden.
It’s a heritage home for a brand that plays heavily on a culture of unpretentious heritage.

“Our brand is like your best mate,” says Mr Louden. “It’s not super-edgy, it’s not polarising. Yes, it’s a craft brewery. But we are not a crazy, out-there craft offering. Craft beer is about a taste experience and every one of our beers should be an experience. It’s an easy-to-get-along-with culture.”

There are no airs and graces about the Good George branding.

Beer master and co-owner of Good George Brian Watson.

The décor of the Frankton brewpub and restaurant, where brewing work is visible to drinkers and diners, is designed to look so uncontrived it couldn’t even be called rustic. The old Starliner caravan used for summer promotions in the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty and a banged up VW combi promotional van carry signage that looks like kids’ artwork. The fire truck that takes Good George’s product in tanks to its pubs harks back to a simpler time. A 1976 Chevy fire truck, it’s modified to carry two horizontal tanks designed to preserve the brew’s quality and taste “so it’s just like drinking a beer straight from the brewery tanks,” says Mr Louden. Multi-media advertising is high impact but with a light-hearted, convivial vibe that trades heavily on handcrafted freshness, easy comradeship and good cheer.

But there’s nothing easy-going or old-school about the Good George marketing machine. It’s as slick as an oil spill.

From the promotional noise about the smart features of its 946 ml squealer bottle (90 per cent recycled light-cutting brown glass, embossed logo and airtight resealable cap to miminise oxidation and gas leakage) to its vocal pride about sustainably producing handmade and unpasteurised beers and ciders in a chemically-enhanced mainstream-centric world, the company’s success could be as much due to its carefully-nutured image as the drinking public’s appetite for its product.

Mr Louden, nearly two years in the job and a sales and marketing veteran, is the company’s high-energy ambassador. His career pedigree includes experience at Coca Cola, Burton Snowboards, Zespri and the former Enza in the UK, and most recently, Hamilton-headquartered online adventure sports retailer Torpedo 7.

Heavily involved in the company’s fast-track growth but with lower public profiles, are founder-shareholders Jason Macklow and Darrel Hadley, Hamilton hospitality industry veterans, and brewmaster and international beer judge Brian Watson.

As Good George’s website tells it, its genesis was the decision of a bunch of friends to create their own craft beer brand.

Good George good beer ambassador Daniel McGregor.

“Their main motivation was to show people what great beer can be, convert drinkers from the norm and show them how to enjoy fantastic beer. Their belief was that beer can be so much better and more rewarding. It shouldn’t be bland, full of chemicals, mass produced and boring. Nor should it be hard, pretentious or scary. Exploring and drinking beer should be enjoyable, simple and really rewarding.”

Their vision sorted, the friends encountered their first problem – they didn’t know how to brew beer.

They decided to open Hamilton’s first independent pub anyway, dedicated to New Zealand-made craft beers, and spotted the forlorn former St George’s church which gave them a location – and inspired the name.

Customer and international beer judge Brian Watson offered to brew for the enterprise, and the rest as they say, is history.

But not the end of the Good George story.

Mr Louden says there are 197 craft brew sellers in New Zealand. Many don’t brew their own beer and several are owned by the big mainstream breweries. Good George is already in the top group by sales and volume, and craft beer sales are growing by 10-15 percent a year, he says.

In five years, he’d like Good George to be New Zealand’s largest independent craft brewer of beer and cider, with nationwide brand recognition and distribution and restaurants throughout the country.

Meanwhile, with summer off to a great start, the brewer is toasting the prospect of another bumper year.

December is traditionally the busiest month of the year when sales can lift by up to 40 percent, says Mr Louden, so the hotter is it from the get-go, the brighter the business forecast for Good George.

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Andrea Fox is a business journalist, a former Waikato Times business editor, Fairfax Business Bureau journalist and author. Andrea.fox@xtra.co.nz

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