A beer writer and a graphic designer have teamed up to keep a century old brewing tradition alive in small town New Zealand, ensuring locals can be proud to have a locally owned award-winning business to support.
Luke Robertson was raised in Westport, but spent 17 years in Melbourne, 12 of them working in the beer industry; and as a freelance beer writer. When he heard that a twice liquidated Westport brewery was up for sale in 2021, he and his partner Emma Bemrose decided to purchase the brewery, with some financial assistance from family members.
West Coast Brewery made headlines that year when 7000 litres of beer were tipped down the drain after its Canadian owners went into receivership as excise duty had not been paid.
Robertson and Bemrose bought the brewery’s lease and equipment and rebranded it to Shortjaw Brewing. Shortjaw is a type of whitebait endemic to New Zealand; the shortjaw kōkopu. The native fish is featured on its logo, drawn by Andrew Saltmarsh.
Had the couple not purchased the 30-year-old brewery, it was likely going to be demolished.
“We were still in hard lockdown in Melbourne when we bought it. We didn’t know if we could get into New Zealand due to the quarantine, so it was a difficult way to buy a business,” Robertson says.
“Being able to eventually move back into your own town after working 12 years in the beer industry, saving a brewery that was going to be torn down if we hadn’t come along and bought it, and turning a business around that has been struggling for a best part of a decade – that’s real cool story.”
Both still work remotely for Australian companies – Robertson as a content producer for the Australian Independent Brewers Association, Bemrose as a graphic designer from a co-working space near the brewery. They want to create a brewery and a tap room where everyone feels welcome.
“I did a lot of food and drink journalism in Australia, and I gravitated towards places that were nice but unpretentious,” Robinson says, “And that seems to be the most interesting trend in the hospitality world. I want to create something where you can walk in with jandals and a t-shirt and still get a real high-quality offering.”
Robertson takes great pride in being local and loyal to Westport. His parents still live locally. Shortjaw Brewing is a local brewery, its beer has local ingredients, it is part of the local community – and is now owned by a Westport local who has transformed the brewery and won awards for its beer.
“Coming back as a local and still having connections with the town meant that people were interested.” Robertson says. “Coming in and being a good community member, within the industry and the town, has been the way to turn it around for us. That’s come down to being nice and approachable, and paying the bills.”
But Robertson says it’s been 18 months of really ‘grinding’. The market in the beer industry is in a bit of a downturn and costs have risen. But he’s making it work by ensuring the right things are done in the brewery for the surrounding community.
“In a small town there’s not a lot of drinking options, so we make sure that everything we have is really good – and that’s part of building trust, everyone is welcome and can feel comfortable.”
“The business is only as good as its culture.”
While the main operational focus is on the brewery, it also has a tap room where even high-quality wine is available on tap. Robertson has also teamed up with brewer Marc Gardiner to create three beers – and won an award in this year’s NZ Beer Awards for his very first one, a Kiwi dark lager.
“It’s our biggest seller – we knew locals like that style of beer. We just want to make beer that makes sense of where we are,” says Robertson.
Robertson also partnered with the local bakery, Rainbow Cake Kitchen, using their hot cross buns to make a hot cross bun red ale under the shortjaw brand, then scaling up production 100-fold.
“When you come to the West Coast, you come across our product – and when you go back home to places like Christchurch you can find it in the supermarket,” he says. “People love a beer they find on holiday.”
As a young entrepreneur in his first business, Robertson wants the brewery to be as good as larger breweries in metropolitan centres. Not everything has gone to plan. “I’ve learned that it’s hard, and you can’t always control everything you want to. We’ve probably wasted about $30,000 of beer due to faulty equipment. You can’t dwell on it; you need to learn.”
“But when you have an opportunity, you need to be able to take it – it’s about being ready and adaptable.”
And keeping it simple. Shortjaw has three main beers with all local ingredients. “There’s very few breweries that do that in New Zealand – most in New Zealand are using American hops or German malts – we use local supplies for almost everything we can.”
While returning to his local community certainly made running Shortjaw Brewery easier, Robertson encourages any entrepreneur considering starting up a business to utilise networks like he has done. “People around you genuinely want to and are happy to offer support. Don’t isolate yourself from that support. Also make sure you are using downtime and find value in it.”
After seven years of being a freelance writer, Robertson is now looking forward to generating a regular income this summer as Shortjaw Brewing generates more customers and growth over the holiday period.
“Success is getting a bit more money and knowing that the business is sustainable, building a sustainable brand, and having that community proud of it.”
Story by Dave Crampton in partnership with Development West Coast (DWC).