Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mates out to create buzz over alcohol brewed from honey

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Two Kiwis on a mission set out to show the world that all of NZ’s native honeys – and not just mānuka – can make premium products.
Buzz Club founders Wilbur Morrison, top, and Edward Eaton, say their brew volumes ‘have tripled and we can barely make mead fast enough’.
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New Zealand’s diverse native flora treats beekeepers across the country to a range of native Aotearoa honeys: kāmahi, pōhutukawa, rewarewa, rātā… the list goes on. 

But a singular focus on mānuka, say Wilbur Morrison and Edward Eaton, means beekeepers with rich natural native plant diversity walk away from their unprofitable hives.

And because native honeys that aren’t mānuka are being forgotten, NZ apiculture is becoming less sustainable. 

By sourcing and growing awareness of a range of native honeys for their recently established business, Buzz Club, the two young men say they are supporting beekeepers across the country and creating a more sustainable industry.

Supporting a range of native honeys not only builds a diversified and sustainable industry but contributes to the healthy pollination of NZ’s most pristine environments. 

“Now that’s the Buzz,” they say. 

Mates since primary school days, the pair went their own ways in their careers until Wilbur decided to do something about the bee in his bonnet.

He had had a fascination with bees ever since a primary school trip to a neighbour’s farm. His first memory of bees is of a frame being taken from the beehive. Each kid poked a finger through the honeycomb to get a big scoop of fresh honey. 

The sweet honey and/or sugar rush sealed Wilbur’s interest in bees.

Fast-forward to 2016 and an opportunity to start beekeeping popped up. He was all in and his next summer was spent on the West Coast of the South Island learning from local beekeepers. 

“My spare time was spent reading about bees, talking about bees, or convincing mates to come to give a hand for a few days working with the bees,” Wilbur says. 

He learnt a lot and the next year he took over management of the hives.

What hooked him most was the symbiotic, perfect relationship between plants and bees. 

“The bees received nectar and pollen from the plants and in return ensured the plants were pollinated and germination could occur. 

“This made sure there was biodiversity in our forests and more plants for the future, for the bees to receive food and plants could live on.” 

What amazed him even more was the amazing byproduct of all this – honey. 

Buzz Club’s founders have set themselves the goal of ‘working alongside bees in creating the world’s most environmentally sustainable alcohol’.

After a few years’ beekeeping, issues in the industry became more and more clear. 

While mānuka was fetching record prices locally and internationally, honeys from 187 other native plants that rely on pollination from bees, such as kāmahi, rātā and kānuka, had been forgotten about. 

“As a result, market prices for these had plummeted and keepers producing these honeys were having to walk away from their hives. 

“Fewer keepers meant fewer bees and less of our native environments benefiting from pollination,” Wilbur says. 

He became determined to create a new value chain for the forgotten native honeys. 

Around this time he started experimenting with fermentation and called up his lifelong friend, Edward, who had pursued a career in design and marketing and was digital marketing with a retail brand.

“Wilbur and I had complementary skill sets, we could use one another’s brain and we were looking with two sets of eyes. It was the start of the journey,” Edward said.      

Buzz Club’s mission had started. 

The name was nine months in the making.

“We had a few Sheffield pies [from the famous Sheffield pie shop in North Canterbury] while brewing at the old house. It was like old friends hanging out again, a lot of fun.

“We had been working on it for about nine months then one day, over a Sheffield pie, we both just popped into it – that’s it, Buzz Club,” Edward said.

The “old house” was where the pair started brewing in Wilbur’s dad’s back office.

At the office there was a room with a heat pump, perfect for keeping the constant temperature needed to control the fermentation, and a small kitchenette – “everything we needed”. 

The odd days spent brewing soon became every Saturday, then every weekend, then every opportunity they got outside of work.

After hundreds of trials they decided to put it to the test and approached a local craft brewery in Christchurch to help them scale up.

The transition from home-brewing to a commercial batch size presented some challenges, but nothing at this point could deter them. 

They gathered all of their friends and family and put the mead to the test, getting the feedback they needed to continue on to their next batch.

While supporting their honey producers and native tree pollinators, it is vital for Buzz Club not to sacrifice other areas of the environment in the process. 

“We are committed to working towards the goal of working alongside bees in creating the world’s most environmentally sustainable alcohol.” 

Buzz Club creates award-winning mead – alcohol brewed from honey – from native NZ honeys. 

The light, sparkling session meads are brewed dry from native NZ honey and paired with iconic Kiwi fruits.

Based in Canterbury, Buzz Club sources a range of local honeys and combines the ancient principles of mead making with modern brewing techniques to bring the world’s oldest alcohol into the present.

“The result is a range of carbonated, lower-alcohol meads with a distinctly Kiwi touch,” the pair say.

“So that’s what happens when a beekeeper and lifelong mate see an opportunity to help support the NZ beekeeping industry.”  

A year on from the rebranding in 2021, last year the honey-based drink startup launched a pop-up bar in Christchurch’s specialty Riverside market.

The bar opening came just a few months after expanding the operation with a move into a state-of-the-art solar powered brewery and taproom at the Two Thumb brewery in central Christchurch.

Buzz Club is now supplying five different meads to selected supermarkets and exclusive bars and restaurants from Auckland to Invercargill.

The two mates have no plans to slow down anytime soon.

“It’s awesome how we are growing and we can’t believe how much people also back the mission behind mead.

“Demand for mead has doubled, our brew volumes have tripled and we can barely make mead fast enough,”  they say.

In the near future there will be more flavours and expansion into more bars and restaurants.

The young entrepreneurs also have their sights set on launching into the Australian market, maybe even before the end of 2023.

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