Mike Neilson, founder of Upper Hutt’s craft brewery Panhead, started out as a home brewer before deciding to turn his hobby into a career and then a business.
“I was really passionate about beer” Mike says. “I wanted be a part of the industry and ended up being the head brewer at Tuatara. In August 2013, his ambition to start his own brewery saw him sell his house and, with the help of his wife and family, set up a craft brewery in Upper Hutt.
Initially Mike looked at establishing a cellar door in Petone. However, the cost of building a brewery there was prohibitive. Finding a site closer to home has suited the start-up well. Born and bred in Upper Hutt, Mike explains
“It’s where we’re from so taking on a local space has been an easy step. The Upper Hutt City Council has bent over backwards to make it easy for us to be here”.
Malcolm Gillies, owner and landlord of South Pacific Industrial Park (SPIP), made Mike an offer he couldn’t resist. “We’ve been really lucky. Malcolm appreciated that we were just starting up. He’s taken a gamble and made our plan possible. Reasonable rent has allowed us to sell our beer at an accessible price. This has been really important to us while we establish our market”.
“We have great businesses as neighbours and employ local staff, including family, that want to be a part of what we’re doing” Mike adds.
While Panhead imports malt from the UK and Germany, and uses hops from the US and New Zealand, Mike has something to say about the quality of Upper Hutt’s water. “Soft water is what we need for brewing beer, i.e. without any hard minerals. The water running from our taps here is perfect”.
Panhead has the capacity to engineer seven different beers at any one time and currently produces 40,000 litres per month, sold as single bottles, six packs and in kegs. While Panhead is the name of an old Harley Davidson engine, its beers are named in honour of Mike’s family’s interest in all things automotive, for example Quick Change, Super Charger and Days of Thunder.
Balancing supply and demand has been a challenge for the newest craft brewery on the block. “Some weeks we’ve run out of beer so customers have had to wait while we’ve brewed more. With a new brew on the go every month too, it can be hard to keep up but it’s great fun”.
While the business has been focussed on supplying bars, restaurants and supermarkets in the Wellington region, Mike and his team (including his wife, father and uncle) have aspirations for Panhead to be recognised nationally and internationally. With its range soon to be distributed nationally and a shipping container of its craft beer heading to Australia, Panhead will expand into another building at SPIP shortly.