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From Making iPhone Games To Crafting IPAs: A Chat With Garage Project Co-Founder Jos Ruffell

"[W]e started [the brewery] so it'd be nimble and we could take risks, and that meant brewing just 50 litres at a time. And in my mind, that was like Rapid Iteration Prototype Testing in game development. We try to find the fun in a really low risk environment. And all the way through, there's always just been little parallels that have popped up." 

– Jos Ruffell on the similar strategies used in both video game development and craft beer brewing. 

  

One quiet day some 12 years ago, Jos and Pete sat in the corner of a Japanese craft beer bar in New Zealand, pondering a leap of faith into opening their very own craft brewery. Both had left their jobs. Both shared lofty ambitions for their brewery. But both of them weren't exactly eccentric millionaires at that time.

They wanted to create something remarkable and different, yet they had neither financial backing nor the desire do a fundraising. And so they decided on a bold but well-considered approach. Begin small but rapidly iterate.

First, they got a small brewing kit and worked out of an abandoned garage. Not only was this more affordable, but this scale allowed them to be highly experimental in a way that other craft breweries could not match. With a tiny brew kit of only 50 litres, they could take risks that larger breweries with 500-litre or larger brew kits would not dare attempt. Next, they moved with astonishing speed.

 

(Source: Stuff.nz)

 

This gave birth to the 24/24 Project. The founders went on a heroic but tiring campaign to brew 24 different beers in 24 weeks – one new beer to launch every week for six months straight. Due to the extremely small batches, there were no trial runs. The "raw results" went directly to bars and were immediately tasted by customers. There was even barely enough for the founders themselves to try! 

Imperfect, yes. But people absolutely loved this campaign. People clamoured to taste each batch. An overwhelming buzz was created in this relatively quiet part of the world, helping to establish Garage Project as a brewery willing and capable of producing a wide range of not only interesting but also high quality craft beers.

 

 

Garage Project is now an internationally recognised brand and without a doubt one of the most popular craft breweries from below the equator, with numerous awards under its belt. And while most breweries settle upon a couple of tried-and-tested brews, Garage Project remains deeply experimental. "No theme" remains the theme with frequent new releases that span the entire craft beer vocabulary – often incorporating unusual techniques, unique yeast trains, collaborations with other breweries, and the integration of unconventional ingredients. It's easy to see how these folks amassed their cult following. 

 

Craft beer pals – Charlie (Orh Gao Taproom), Jos Ruffell (Garage Project), Christian (Bad Decisions Craft Beer Import).

 

Last November, I went back to one of Singapore's most popular craft beer venues, Orh Gao Taproom. Apart from being another beer guzzling excursion, none other than Jos Ruffell himself happened to be in town to visit Orh Gao, which recently received several fresh kegs of Garage Project's beers. Charlie Phua, the boss of Orh Gao, very generously invited me down to break bread with Jos. I also took the chance to sneak in an interview with the man himself.

Interestingly, what many Garage Project fans might not realise about Jos is his impressive pre-brewery background in the video gaming world. Jos had actually played a key part in founding a successful New Zealand-based mobile gaming company. In this interview, Jos shares with us some unexpected parallels between the realms of craft brewing and game development. We'll look at Garage Project's most inventive and standout festival brews that have made waves at beer festivals. Plus, Jos will share his perspectives on the ever-evolving global craft beer landscape. Here's a conversation filled with surprising revelations and engaging stories!

Follow Garage Project Brewery: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

Follow Orh Gao Taproom: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

"We do collaborations with other breweries. But we honestly find it more stimulating to actually collaborate with a chef or a musician, or an arts company, or a designer. A chocolate company, a potato chip company, ice cream company. It’s going to be a much more fertile ground because they're coming with a different perspective or different ideas."

[88 Bamboo]: We’ve heard of stories of how folks from all walks of life have gotten into craft brewing, but your story still stands out as one of the most unusual. You’ve had a successful career in the video gaming industry before moving into beers. In fact, you founded a leading game studio called PikPok.

When you look at the two professional lives you’ve lived, can you see any parallels?

[Jos Ruffell]: Yeah. The first part of my professional career was video games. I dropped out of uni to start a game studio with friends. And I then ended up working in Wellington (New Zealand) for a studio called Sidhe, which was the largest console developer in the country at the time.

 

Before dipping their toes in craft brewing, Jos Ruffell andIan Gillespie were part of the same mobile games team of a game studio. Their work became hugely successful within the gaming industry. (Source: Sharon Vodanovich)

 

And over the course of working in video games and for that company, within that studio I started PikPok as an iPhone team, which has now gone on to become the company.

 

(Source: Beervana Blog)

 

I fell in love with craft beer from travelling to the States while working in video games. And I had my epiphany pint in the States that was Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing. That really opened my eyes to what craft beer could be. It just so happened that Pete, who's my best friend Ian's older brother, had been brewing professionally for 10 years. It all sort of just came together – this idea of starting a brewery.

 

Jos and Pete Gillespie began Garage Project together, supported by the younger Gillespie, Ian.

 

When we started it, I had no knowledge or experience of beer or brewing, other than just being a beer fan, a beer geek myself and drinking it. I didn't know if I'd have any skills that could come across from games. It was probably one of the more satisfying things of starting a brewery is seeing that there were these skills that I could bring across. The way we started the brewery, we started it so it'd be nimble and we could take risks, and that meant brewing just 50 litres at a time. And in my mind, that was like Rapid Iteration Prototype Testing in game development. We try to find the fun in a really low risk environment. And all the way through, there's always just been little parallels that have popped up.

 

View from the original garage (Source: Garage Project Tumblr)

 

One really simple, silly example is, in the video games – game developer's world, you'd have GDC, which is the Game Developers Conference. And there's a set format to the conference, there's an educational part, there's a trade show, and there's networking. I went to my first CBC, which is the Craft Brewers' Conference, and it was like, "Oh, this is this is very familiar to me this," this the trade show, there's the educational part, there's the networking... and I was like "Ah, I know how to do this, and I know how to get good things out of this event, because I've been doing it for years in video games.

 

 

They are on the surface unrelated, but there is a lot you can take from one to the other. It’s probably worth pointing out that there's actually a number of people that have made the jump from video games to beer. My friend Greg Zeschuk, was the co-founder of very successful game studio called Bioware. He now has a brewery called Blind Enthusiasm in Edmonton, Calgary.

 

(Source: CBC)

Chicken Rice is fantastic in its simplicity and very nourishing, very comforting. I'd be tempted to match that with a beer like Pernicious Weed.

[88B]: Having seen Garage Project grow for over a decade to where it’s at today, it must’ve been a wild ride. Could you share with us a particularly memorable moment for you during the journey?

[Jos]: It's really hard to pick one. There's 2015 (when) I remember we got asked to enter the Deloitte Fast 50 competition for fast growing companies in New Zealand. We got asked to go to the final awards, so it's like, oh, we must have done reasonably well. And then they started just counting down from 50 to number 1. And they kept counting down and not calling us out. It was a very bizarre feeling when they got to the top number two position and they (still) called out a company that wasn't us. At that point, we knew we had won the whole thing, and the whole room's looking at us like "What? A craft brewery is the fastest-growing company in New Zealand?" Haha, yeah.

 

Garage Project celebrating their win (Source:Robert Kitchin)

 

And (also) maybe the first time we had a big festival stand at Beervana and we really pushed the boat out and served beer in a very unique way, and set the stand up in a very different way.

 

Beervana is a large beer festival in Wellington, New Zealand that celebrates craft breweries from New Zealand and international beers (Source: Michael Donaldson)

 

And, the first time we canned beer in 2013 - we had had a hand-canner, a manual canner. And from winning People's Choice at Firestone Invitational to getting phone calls from Ken Grossman to come collaborate with Sierra Nevada. I don't know, there's just so many.

 

Ken Grossman who founded Sierra Nevada Brewery in California is one of the most respected figures in modern American craft brewing (Source: Uproxx)

I don't want to have people turn up and get the same beer that they can buy in a bottle shop that’s twice or three times the price. I want to serve them a beer that they can only have in that moment, and it's unique and different.

– Jos explains why it’s always worthwhile hitting up the Garage Project boot at every beer festival

[88B]: You’ve taken Garage Project through this incredible journey into becoming a respected craft brewery on the global beer scene. Could you recall how you first felt when you saw someone on the other side of the world drink a can of Garage Project’s beer?

[Jos]: Yeah, I can remember a pop-up event we did with Camden Town and Beavertown in London, and we had a tower of beer get drunk in like, less than two hours (laughs). It was amazing to see that reaction. We had a similar response when we first started sending up beer to Norway very early on.

We've been lucky, we've turned up to festivals at London, Tokyo, California. And, you know, we do try to serve beer in a pretty unique way at a festival, and people really respond to that. That's always exciting to see. Maybe help change people's perception of how beer can be served or what it can be.

 

 

[88B]: How did you serve beers differently?

[Jos]: There’s a Two Tap Flat White where we’re like making a flat white but combining two different beers together. Yuzu Rising Sun too where we’re like layering beers. We have our custom fabricated hot poker.

 

Jos is pictured finishing a porter with a hot fire poker that caramelises sugars in the beer – an ancient beer tradition! (Source: Kevin W, Untappd)

 

[88B]: So the events have been a great way to set yourselves apart?

[Jos]: It's a place where we like to give people an experience they haven't had before because beer festivals, at least in New Zealand, can be quite expensive. I don't want to have people turn up and get the same beer that they can buy in a bottle shop that’s twice or three times the price. I want to serve them a beer that they can only have in that moment, and it's unique and different.

There's a lot of work going into understanding thiols and hops… Ultimately, it's just, I hope, another tool that brewers around the world can use to create interesting and exciting beers with some unique New Zealand's terroir attached to it.

– Jos discussing his patented new product Phantasm, which boosts tropical aromatics in craft beers.

[88B]: You guys have got many beer expressions. Could you let us in on the creative process behind each beer at Garage Project?

[Jos]: I mean, we've always been prolific, you know, we started under 24/24 on the pilot system, releasing 24 different beers in 24 weeks - we did that in 2011. And at the time, that was that was pretty neat. Now we do one to two new beers a week. And, you know, we like that pace. Trying something new is our mantra at Garage Project.

 

Garage Project first began brewing, just 50 litres at a time, 24 new beers in 24 weeks, which produced many favourites that are still in production today. (Source: Garage Project)

 

Quality is massively important to us. And I think we do pride ourselves on being prolific, but also producing at a very, very high quality bar. And I think a good example of that is at the New Zealand Beer Awards this year, we entered 28 beers, and we had 28 medals.

 

 

Every single beer we entered got a medal, 10 Gold medals, Champion Large Brewery the last three years in a row. At last year's awards, we entered like 32 beers and 29 of them got medals. So being prolific has always been part of the DNA of Garage Project, but quality is there as well.

A flat white’s two different things, right? It's the coffee shot and the milk. So therefore, if we're going to make a flat white beer, we have to make two beers, and blend them. We can't make one beer.

– For Jos and his team, inspiration comes in any shape or form.

[88B]: Could you share with us some of the more interesting or surprising sources of inspiration for the type of brews that you’re churning out? Where do you look for inspiration?

[Jos]: For us, we love collaboration, we love working with unexpected groups, peoples, sources.

We do collaborations with other breweries. But we honestly find it more stimulating to actually collaborate with a chef of a musician, or an arts company, or a designer. A chocolate company, a potato chip company, ice cream company.

 

 

It’s going to be a much more fertile ground because they're coming with a different perspective or different ideas. The Two Tap Flat White beer we did was a collaboration with a coffee company and one of the one of the main roasters there have just been named champion barista in New Zealand!

 

(Source: Charles Pagler, Untappd)

 

She was explaining what a flat white was. And obviously, we've drunk a lot of flat whites, but we’re seeing the shots, the milk and things like that. A flat white’s two different things, right? It's the coffee shot and the milk. So therefore, if we're going to make a flat white beer, we have to make two beers, and blend them. We can't make one beer.

So yeah, we get inspiration from everywhere and even myself, I keep an eye out for things. Pete might eat something and be like, “Holy shit, that's a beer!” or I might see something and be like, “That's a really interesting idea.” And we sort of bounce suggestions off each other. Put it this way, when we look at the schedule, we still have far more ideas than what we can actually realistically afford to make.

[88B]: We’re not sure if you knew this, but out of hundreds of expressions from Garage Project, your top 3 highest rated brews (amongst those that have over 1,000 reviews) are the All Kiwi Everything Triple IPA with Other Half Brewing, Yakima Valley Double IPA and the Sunrise Valley Double IPA , both with Trillium Brewing. 

Does it ever surprise you which of your most popular expressions or styles tend to be?

[Jos]: When we released those beers, they were fantastic, and we knew there's something special. I think the fact that they’re big hoppy double IPAs or triple IPAs is definitely a style that grades well. They’re impressive beers. And then you combine our skills with that of Trillium and Other Half, it’s sort of like a one-plus-one equals three - it just all lines up. I understand why they're so highly rated, and people will really respond to them. I'm really proud of the Valley series, Sunrise Valley, it's great beer. 

 

[88B]: Do you think this speaks of the prevailing styles that are popular? Before shipping out an expression, do you have any idea how popular this might be?

[Jos]: Sometimes, y’know, things just click. Musicians talk about how when they get in a room and it just all comes together. When I think about those beers, the collaboration and the creation of them – yeah. We've been very methodical about the ingredients and the source. We're doing hops selection, we're picking the hops we want. So all the ingredients for success are there, and it was nice to see it all come together.

[88B]: What’re your thoughts on how IPAs (DIPAs and TIPAs) tend to dominate in popularity? Do you think this affects breweries in terms of the styles that they focus on, and do you think there are any other styles that should receive more love?

[Jos]: IPA is a macro trend that just keeps going and going. Within that there are different expressions, be it West Coast, and East Coast, and to Cold IPA, or whatever other new Californian IPA. I think it is a trend that's just gonna carry on. Hops are an intoxicating, exciting ingredient. So we work hard to get close to the source of them in New Zealand, and we're really fortunate to be a New Zealand brewery and have world class amazing hops, right on our doorstep. It's hard to see another beer style taking over.

But I mean there's great history in beer styles being large trends. The Porter was the dominant, dominant beer style for like, like 50 or 100 years - everyone drank Porters. And then it sort of flipped on a dime to pale ale and you know, now it's IPA. The 60s and 70s it was industrial lager and macro lager. So these are big, long trends.

 

The dominance and popularity of porters peaked during the 1700s and early 1800s. Within several decades, this trend gave way to pale ales. Consumer preferences vacillated through the 1900s before IPAs became the dominant force today.

 

I think the interesting thing with hops now is the breeding programmes in America, and the programmes we have with Hāpi Research. There's an acceleration of new varieties coming out and that's exciting. It's more materials for us to work with. There’re things in hops that we're still learning. We've gone from thinking about esters in hops to monoterpene alcohols, and now thiols are a real focus.

 

Garage Project has been partnering with New Zealander hops farmer Freestyle Farms to run Hāpi Research, an organisation that researches new varieties of New Zealand hops and hop farming. (Source: Garage Project)

 

[88B]: On the note about thiols, my next question for you would be on your latest project Phantasm, which is truly quite a revolutionary product – using the pomace from Sauvignon Blanc to induce higher thiols your brews. It’s really as you describe, a sort of MSG for beers. 

What’s been the most challenging aspect of working on Phantasm, and where does Phantasm go from here?

[Jos]: Yeah, thiols are an incredibly potent, interesting source of aroma for beer. And there's still a lot we don't understand about them.

 

Developed by Jos recently for craft beer brewers, Phantasm is an extract from New Zealand Malborough Sauvignon Blanc grape skins that boosts aromatic compounds called ‘thiols’, giving beers much stronger tropical notes.

 

The main challenge at the moment is getting a really good release in a non-GMO yeast environment. So you can use modified yeast strains like Cosmic Punch from Omega Yeast and get a great result. But that yeast strain is not available to breweries all over the world. So I think the big challenge is seeing if we get some good non-GMO strains to help convert these precursors.

 

Just like magic, using Phantasm together with specially grown yeast strains like Cosmic Punch from Omega Yeast, would help brewers release a full range of tropical aromas in a beer – think passion fruit and guavas! (Source: Brew Your Own Magazine)

 

There's a lot of work going into understanding thiols and hops. We've got new products coming through Phantasm that we're very excited about. Ultimately, it's just, I hope, another tool that brewers around the world can use to create interesting and exciting beers with some unique New Zealand's terroir attached to it.

[88B]: You’ve been to Southeast Asia a couple of times. Do you have a favourite dish Southeast Asian dish? Which beer from Garage Project would you have it with?

[Jos]: There’s the amazing Chili Crab from Singapore – I’d match it with GP’s Hops on Pointe Champagne Pilsner. That'd be pretty nice.

 

 

I also love all the hawker centre foods, I mean Chicken Rice is fantastic in its simplicity and very nourishing, very comforting. I'd be tempted to match that with a beer like Pernicious Weed. Something a little hoppier which might cut through it…

 

 

[88B]: It’s like parsley on chicken rice yeah?

[Jos]: Haha, yeah! Even the satay here is incredible. I’d probably match that with a great IPA as well, like Fresh IPA maybe, something hazy.

 

 

[88B]: Apart from Garage Project, my final question is, what’re some beers from outside Garage Project that you find yourself going back to over and over again?

[Jos]: I just love classic beers like Orval or Saison Dupont. Or if I’m in America, drinking a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I still love drinking Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing. There’re certain beers that are just classics.

 

 

[88B]: Thank you Jos, for the fantastic insights and stories! Can't wait to see what's next for Garage Project and Phantasm!


Follow Garage Project Brewery: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

Follow Orh Gao Taproom: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

 

@CharsiuCharlie