Mike Neilson has gone from avid home-brewing nut to one of New Zealand’s most successful commercial craft brewers in just a few short years, after putting it all on the line to start Panhead Custom Ales. We talk to this laid-back, self-confessed “boutique beer bogan” about what makes Panhead tick, and how they manage to ace the pale ale category
You started Panhead in 2013, what was your background in the brewing industry prior to that and why did you decide to strike out solo at that time?
I made the decision to get into brewing in 2010 after dedicating all my weekends to home-brewing for years. My wife, Anna, and I had planned to open our own small brewery, but a role at another New Zealand brewery opened up and it was offered to me. So we decided to put our own plans on hold while I took on the role and grew within it. I am in brewing for the long haul and a stint for a few years was a better option at the time than throwing all our money into a venture that potentially could end a career in the industry.
Tell us a bit about building the brewery - it’s in an ex-tyre factory, right?
Yeah Panhead is in an old tyre factory which was Upper Hutt’s largest employer up until 2007. We are lucky to have found the site, as with brewing we need loads of space, lots of power and large amounts of high-flow clean water, and since the site was already a big consumer of those three things it was perfect for us. I was lucky in my previous role to experience growth and a brewery move, so I had a good idea of what it takes to set up a brewery that makes fantastic beer and is also reliable enough to handle rapid growth.
Seeing as Panhead has only been going for two years, it seems remarkable that you’ve achieved so much in that short time. How much has production grown over those two years, and what has it been like accepting accolades?
Yeah it’s a little hard to fathom how it has all happened the way it has; we did plan for growth but not at this rate! When we first started it was just Anna and I: I was brewing once or twice and week and delivering the beers and Anna was looking after the office. That was fine for four months then summer 2013 rolled in and that’s all we can remember - it’s been a little blurred since then! We now have a staff of 15, are up to 550 brews three times a day, and there’s no looking back. We enjoy growing and have fantastic staff that dedicate a lot to make us who we are today.
We have won a few awards and it builds our desire for our products to be the best in their fields internationally. But what really makes us happy is to see on social media or in a store somewhere, people’s enthusiasm for our beers and know the passion we put into Panhead is noticed.
You’ve recently been in Portland for the Oregon Brewers Festival, tell us about that. And there’s been trips to Melbourne and Tasmania to cement your distribution there?
Portland was fantastic! How can a city that so openly supports beer not be? It was great to meet other brewers and beer drinkers from another country and see that the passion is alive and kicking. The United States is leading the whole beer revolution and we got to see and taste beers that were a little left-field and quite different to what we have here.
We sell a good chunk of beer into Australia, for that to go well we have to show the love for Australia as much (well maybe not quite as much) as we do for New Zealand. Melbourne is similar to Wellington or Portland in the sense that they have really taken on good beer, and Tasmania has good support for artisan producers so it’s only fitting that they have welcomed Panhead.
There’s a heck of a lot of demand for Panhead now, can you fill it - how’s the production line coping?
I’m literally answering this question having just looked at new premises. Our production at this site is only just keeping up with demand and we have to plan for and increase. The new sites we’re looking at are huge. We operate out of 1200sqm now and we are looking at sites at about 3500sqm.
Describe Panhead’s brewing philosophy. Are you more traditional or innovative? Do you add outside flavourings or prefer to let the usual suspects go to work on the beer?
We are Panhead Custom Ales, our philosophy centres around custom brewing ales. Just like Kiwis like to tinker in garages we like to tinker with beer styles. Our aim for the core range is to create the best in their field, while our one-off productions are really “anything goes”. We have used things like ewe’s milk, for example, to sour a beer. But we are always fastidious about balance. Drinkability is the key, every ingredient has to compliment the others.
You’re especially known for your pale ales. Tell us a bit about your passion for this style, how you personally define what a pale ale is, and what Panhead pale ales we should look out for.
Malt, hops yeast - that’s what a pale ale is all about. Enough malt to support the hops, and clean yeast to let the malt and the hops shine. Balance is key, and so is hop clarity. For me there is nothing worse than just sticking your head into a generic bag of hops ̶ a pale ale shouldn’t be like that. Hops have unique flavor and aroma profiles, from fruits to perfume, and you should be able to pick out the distinctive notes of those individual characters of the hops. I think that is the key to any good pale ale, whether it’s an Extra Pale Ale or an Imperial Indian Pale Ale.
We always do seasonal specials, but our core range also features two pale ales. Our Quickchange XPA, (extra pale ale) is light in colour and offers a clean malt flavor to showcase the hops. At 4.7% it’s made to be highly refreshing. Our Supercharger APA (American pale ale) is a little more robust, offering more malt to balance a higher hopping rate. Then we have the Vandal which we’re now producing permanently ̶ it’s our New Zealand pale ale, using only whole cone flowers in the boil: this is highly inefficient of course! But we believe it offers the best flavor and aroma.