Beer in Mind
The guys behind Slab Brewings super-sized cans of top-notch beer.
We meet Nathan Shand and Zach Heale, the friends behind Slab Brewing and its super-sized cans of top-notch beer.
Every successful business needs a point of difference. Slab Brewing’s is, according to co-founder Nathan Shand, its “big ass cans”.
Slab’s cans are imported from America and hold just under a litre (946ml to be exact) of beer.
“So they tend to be a lot taller than the other cans on the shelves in liquor stores. You can get overwhelmed when you go to a liquor store, because there’s so many beers to choose from, but
ours are the biggest, which helps,” says Nathan with a laugh.
He and fellow brewing fanatic Zach Heale, Slab’s other half, are celebrating something of a milestone when we talk: “The first Slab brew went down almost three years ago to the day,” says Nathan.
“So that was batch number one and tomorrow we’re making batch number 100.”
Nathan says he’s been making beer (“mostly not very good home brew, but some was passable”) since he was 18. “I’m 35 now, so nearly half my life!” Nathan met Zach upon moving to Tauranga. Zach had just moved back from overseas and wanted to get into making home brew, so Nathan showed him the ropes. “And he quickly picked up how to make it, and started buying more kit and getting better at it than me.
“From there it was a bit of an arms race between us — Zach bought a keg fridge, I bought a keg fridge. I bought a Grainfather, Zach bought a Grainfather. Then Zach one-upped me by starting
a brewery. I couldn’t compete with that, so when he asked if I wanted to join him, well, there was
no way I was going to say no. The timing wasn’t ideal, with my second son only a few weeks old,
but a very understanding and supportive wife gave me the go-ahead.”
The plan was to start the brewery from the unused space below the deck at Zach’s new house.
“Zach had dug out this area underneath his first floor deck and put a nice big concrete slab down,
he had a little garden shed already in the backyard that needed to be moved, and was going to have the whole brewery down there,” recalls Nathan. “He ordered basically the whole brewery online from China, they shipped it all over, and when everything started arriving — he’s not very spatially aware
— yeah, there was just no way that it was going to fit.”
Instead, they found “a little industrial lockup kind of self storage unit in Fraser Cove, on the edge of town.” Not long after that, they took on a second unit, which doubled the size of the brewery and allowed the pair to open “a little bar with a tiny little outdoor area”.
“We’re just open on Fridays,” says Nathan. “We get lots of the local people that work in the area come down for Friday drinks, or come and fill up their kegs or growlers or get cans for the weekend. Food trucks can come and do food while we sell beer, which works really well, when we can get them.”
Nathan says launching the brewery from scratch was definitely a challenge. “It’s still a challenge. We’re still learning as we go. The thing we didn’t realise was how much cleaning you have to do,
so much cleaning and sanitising. We spend the majority of our time doing that. But yeah, it was
just a steep learning curve, stepping up from a bucket
on the kitchen bench to a whole brewery.
“So it started off as just the two of us, then we got a cellar door license for doing tastings and
whatnot about two years ago, so we hired Zach’s brother-in-law Jack, part-time doing the bar
stuff. And then we hired Ethan about two months ago, full time, so he’s doing all our brewing and packaging, deliveries and sales, marketing, lots of cleaning. And Zach and I still do a day a week, brewing or packing or canning beer or whatever. Both of us have day jobs, but we’re self-employed
so it allows us to have a little bit of flexibility.”
As well as being stocked at liquor stores and available via the onsite ‘cellar door’ and bar, Slab sells
to a handful of local bars and restaurants: “Wherever we can really, anyone that’s keen to take us.
It’s a bit of a fight as there are lots of breweries that have kegs they want on tap, so there’s definitely lots to choose from if you’re a restaurant owner,” says Nathan.
Slab has six staples, which include a couple of lagers, a pale ale, an IPA, a hazy IPA and a stout,
along with limited-release labels. Some of these small runs will only be available at the brewery, maybe on tap or in cans for people to take away.
Next up for the Slab taps is a collection of hazy pale ales, each brewed with a different hop.
“So people can come down and taste the difference, or not. We’ve got hops from America, Australia and New Zealand, so it’s quite cool,” says Nathan.
Hazy beers are where it’s at right now, according to Nathan. “At the moment anything hazy is my favourite and that’s probably the same with most of the craft beer drinkers in the country. There’s
just so much flavour. Traditionally beers have been quite bitter, but hazy beers are lower in bitterness so they’re more approachable. The new-age hops that are used are full of tropical, citrus and stone fruit flavours, so they’re really fruity. Some people liken them to alcoholic orange juice, and some of
it does look a lot like orange juice, kind of cloudy.”
Slab does a pilot batch of something new every couple of weeks. Now Ethan has started, the guys
are able to brew twice a week. “Before he started, we would probably brew once a week on average, and couldn’t keep up with demand. It also gives me and Zach more time to work on new recipes.”
Their next “sort-of crazy” idea is to release a new beer every second week for a year, starting in
2022. “The idea is that we have a bit of fun with it and make some styles that we wouldn’t normally make. There would only be 50 litres of each, so they’d only be sold on tap at the bar — every second week a new beer would turn up, some weird or wacky flavour, or something we’ve been meaning
to make for ages.”