This month's Brewery of the Month is Shortjaw Brewing from Westport, which was founded in 2021 by Luke Robertson and Emma Bemrose (pictured above). We caught up with Luke to find out what it's been like to start up a brewery in his home town, where their inspiration comes from, and what the hell is a Shortjaw?
MF: What was your background before brewing and why did you decide to start a brewery?
I studied journalism in Invercargill not long out of high school, but I always loved pubs and hospitality. I moved to Melbourne and began blogging about beer, thinking I might get some free beer out of it. That was in 2010 when the industry was taking off in Australia and NZ so I soon began getting freelance work for events and festivals. I quit my corporate management job in around 2016 to go full time beer writing and working for events. I worked for Good Beer Week, the Independent Brewers Association and GABS (among others). My roles with them were things like copywriting, education for both trade and public, and event management. Plus I've written for a number of beer publications in Australia and globally; The Crafty Pint, Good Beer Hunting, All About Beer, Brews News, Beer & Brewer (and now the Pursuit of Hoppiness
When the brewery came up for sale, my partner (Emma, a graphic designer) and I decided we should put our money where our mouth was. We were lucky to have financial backers, and thought the opportunity was too interesting to pass up.
MF: Why the name Shortjaw?
In the past the brewery was called Miner's, and West Coast Brewery. We wanted to move away from the "old school" West Coast vibes but still keep a connection to the area. Shortjaw is named after a whitebait, found in the waters around here, called the Shortjaw Kōkopu. We like how it looks and sounds, and it is a unique name.
MF: How does it feel to own a brewery in your hometown?
Pretty fulfilling, if I'm honest. I love Westport. It's full of wonderful and interesting people and you never know who you're chatting to here. There are famous DJs, artists and authors all living up and down the coast (even a few well known retired brewers around). It's a place where people come to disconnect from the world. However it's had a rough few decades and the mood in the town isn't always super good. The reaction to us coming home has been all positive. People are stoked to have a brewery that is doing modern craft beer, so for us it's really rewarding.
MF: You spent a bit of time living in Melbourne. How did the NZ beer scene change whilst you were away?
Boxes! I came back to launch Shortjaw and the supermarket was full of cardboard six packs. That doesn't exist anywhere else and really surprised me. Also how colourful it is. Branding here is very illustration and colour heavy, even for core range beers. We decided to go reasonably plain with our core range as a result. I've also noticed the styles people are looking for are different too - very few people in Australia would ask for a Pilsner or an APA over the bar. Here, it's a daily request.
MF: Which of your beers are you most proud of?
for sure. It was designed with Westport in mind because we knew the previous brewery always made a dark lager that locals loved. Dark Lager is pretty common in NZ but no one has really made a deal out of it, so I wanted it to be a statement. It's super easy drinking, but full of character. It doesn't copy any international styles and uses 100% NZ ingredients. It's our beer.
MF: What's unique about the beers you make?
We use 100% NZ ingredients in everything we do (except the Hot Cross Bun
beer). All of our ingredients come from less than 400km away from the brewery, which is rare in the modern beer world. We aren't following trends, but making beers that make sense for us and our part of the world. Our next few limited releases will reflect that even further.
MF: What are some of the challenges with growing your business?
This brewhouse is 30 years old, and hasn't had a lot of love. It's large, and isolated from the world. Getting to the scale where it's profitable is difficult, and then ensuring quality is even harder. Right now we are overhauling all of our quality program, after some growing pains, while forecasting where we need to invest to improve our brewdays and packaging.
MF: Which breweries are you most inspired by?
In Australia: Stone & Wood and Balter (not saying we want to sell to the majors like them though). Both have made a reputation on good beer, being good people, without doing anything too esoteric or chasing trends. Plus Dollar Bill Brewing and Burnley Brewing, the former does incredible barrel aged beer, and the latter the best lagers in the country - both are headed up by lovely couples who really care about their beer and brands. Internationally it's mostly small breweries doing beer unique to them: De Ranke and Fantome in Belgium, or Primitive and Live Oak in the US. In NZ I've got a lot of love for Townshends, North End, and anywhere Kelly Ryan is brewing.
MF: What's the plan for Shortjaw over the next year or two?
Getting confidence in our sales and beer quality to where I can sleep at night. Plus a second taproom on the coast, a new non-beer product, a small barrel program and making more lagers. Always more lagers. I love wild fermentation too, so that will play a role very soon.
MF: What's your favourite fish?
The Shortjaw Kokopu of course! Other than that I don't really love seafood. I spent some time unloading fishing boats on the wharf here. Put me off seafood for life. I have another favourite whitebait, which I won't say because we will likely use it as a sub-brand soon.
If you haven't tasted any Shortjaw beers yet, you've got a real treat in store. This month (March 2023) we're offering 5% off the full range, so get involved!