It’s not often people start a business in order to sell it off and invest the profits in a community project. But that’s exactly what’s helped drive Katy Martley and her business partner, Lavina Good, to make a success of New Zealand’s first and only nationwide beer tourism business, Brewbus NZ.

Brewbus is a beer tasting and tour company, which takes punters around local bars and breweries in regions right across Aotearoa. The company’s two directors, “Big Wig” Martley and “Head Honcho” Good, met while doing charity work and came up with the concept together over about a hundred loaves of bread, which they were sorting for a food rescue.

“I mentioned that my brother-in-law had been talking to me about this concept called Brewbus in the United States and in Canada,” Martley says. “Overseas, you could just hop on buses, just like wine tours, and go around the breweries.

“Lavina, who already loved beer, is a sports journalist and was thinking about something in tourism at the time because she had been flying a lot for her work and realised that tourism had become the number one export earner.

“So those two worlds combined; me saying what happens over in the States, her thinking about tourism and both of us loving beer, and so we basically decided just to launch the first nationwide beer tourism business,” says Martley.

But it wasn’t until a visit to Kawerau to meet with Tammy Viitakangas of Mata brewery, when it was still based in that small Bay of Plenty town, that the goal of Brewbus was firmly realised.

“Tammy was so amazing,” Martley says. “She did everything – she was brewing and she was managing and she was so inspirational to us. And we were in this town, Kawerau, which has had a pretty tough run.

“Lavina and I were quite heavily involved in different charities at the time, and that gave us the inspiration to decide that what we wanted to do with Brewbus was to grow it and grow it and grow it, then we would either sell it or franchise it and put a huge chunk of the profits into building a community centre [in Kawerau].”

Martley says the idea was initially to run the business for five years before selling or franchising off the company. Brewbus has now been operating for four years — but Covid-19 has put a bit of a dent in the pair’s plans.

“Unfortunately, you’ve actually got to be making money in order to do that. But it keeps us going — I think that is what has got us through Covid, is the ultimate idea of what we want to do with the business,” she says.

A Brewbus tour visits Slab Brewing in Tauranga

Martley, a lawyer by trade, had been taking a year off when she met Good and decided to completely change tack by starting Brewbus. But since Covid, she has gone back to being a lawyer, in order to help keep the business going.

“When you grow a nationwide business quickly, it’s a lot of capital investment and a lot of expenditure; one thing we knew was we didn’t want to do things by halves — we wanted to do it properly. So we invested a lot of money into branding and promotion and marketing.

“And at the time, hot off the heels of winning the [Brewers Guild of New Zealand inaugural Beer Tourism award in 2019], we secured a contract with Flight Centre Australasia. Things were looking very, very peachy. As any person who’s been involved with a startup will know, you don’t really make money at the beginning, but we had just broken into that ‘Yay, we’re paying GST!’ phase when the first wave of Covid hit.”

And it hit Brew Bus hard. “We can’t operate unless our breweries and hospitality industries are operating, so we effectively can’t operate until Level 2.

“When the first round of Covid hit, we wanted to protect our business and our staff. We felt fortunate we had ‘day jobs’ that we could rely on, so I actually still am practising law again, as well as running the business, and Lavina’s been doing some extra journalism work, she went to Tokyo for the Olympics.”

Martley’s enthusiasm for the business and what they’re doing remains. “We’ve got a great team behind us and we have a very strong domestic market,” she says.

“Just prior to that first wave of Covid, we had around a 70 percent domestic market and 30 percent International. Because of that strong domestic market, when we came out of the first wave of Covid and lockdown we didn’t even really have to reinvent ourselves — it was just straight back in. A lot of our clients are corporate or conference or staff functions, so that was all able to just pick back up. The hardest bit is the uncertainty around the alert levels and whether you can actually run, so it sort of goes up and down, up and down.”

Brewbus is not the only beer tour operator in the country but it is currently the only one with a national presence. Martley says she sees the competition in cities like Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown as a positive.

“We think that the more participants in the beer tourism industry, the better it will be. Having multiple operators, that’s got to be a good thing, because we can’t do the job ourselves in letting the rest of the world know there’s such a thing as New Zealand beer tourism. We need multiple operators to be using their social media and their platforms and their contacts as well.”

Martley says her passion has been driven by that community spirit within New Zealand’s beer industry. “Everyone, as a whole, is so supportive of each other, and of anyone who is wanting to be a part of the industry or to promote the industry,” she says. “We have felt welcomed into the industry, given that we are two females in a fairly male-dominated industry but having said that, we’re also very strong characters.

“Our ethos, the whole way through, is that if the brewing and beer industry is doing well, then we’re doing well. So, we’ve always operated a model whereby the more we can promote the breweries, then that should inherently promote us.”

Where Martley would like to see some improvement in New Zealand though, is to have the beer industry receive more recognition.

A visit to Arc Brewing north of Dunedin

“I know that the Brewers Guild is doing lots of work behind the scenes in terms of getting the brewing industry the same recognition as other industries such as, say, wine. I think that is [starting to occur though], because Tourism New Zealand, for example, has — after a bit of an uphill battle — recognised that it’s the beverage industry, not just having Food and Wine New Zealand on their website.”

She says she’s happy to see improvements with respect to women in the industry as well. “I know that there have been examples where females have not been treated well, and I think it’s only right that there’s work in that space happening, So I’m glad that they’re looking at issues to do with females in the beer industry.”

Martley says the work being done to make improvements in the industry are positive, and she and Good have plans to remain in the community for a long time to come — even after they reach their goal of building a community centre with the profits from Brewbus.

“We actually do have another beer industry-related venture that we’ve started to do in the background,” she says. “But it’s all a little bit top secret because it’s another New Zealand first. But we need to finish one dream before we start the next.”

This story is part of the Beyond The Beer series, highlighting women in the beer industry, sponsored by the Brewers Guild of NZ.