Phil McArdle of Horsebox Brewery with his branded vintage truck. Photo: Tim Cuff

Phil McArdle of Horsebox Brewery on the cusp of Nelson craft beer dream

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Phil McArdle was a competitive kickboxer, the proprietor of a retro lolly shop, and the owner of a health food company. But after giving up his life in small town Ireland to settle in Nelson, he is now on the cusp of achieving his dream – owning his very own brewery.

Phil McArdle has a story. He was at his local pub in Ireland when an old guy started up a random conversation.

“How would you like to work in a pub in Spain?” he asked.

Phil humoured him. Sure, he replied.

“How would you like to run a pub in Spain?”

Phil was taken aback he had just got back from France and was easing his way into the working life. Then as the night went on he started thinking. He eventually asked the old guy how much it cost to lease the pub. Then, after a while, Phil made him an offer. He said would pay the pub’s lease up front and take over ownership for a year.

“I told him that it would be giving a young fellah a chance who never had one, and if it worked out then that would be fine. If it didn’t he had nothing to lose.”

Phil withdrew the rent cash from his meager savings, stuffed it into an envelope and handed it to old guy. The deal was done. Phil was now the proud owner of his first pub. It was in the south of Spain and he was 19-years-old. The business went terribly.

“It was a total disaster, but I figured if I’m going to be 19 and have a punt at something,” Phil says. “Better to screw up when you’re young so won’t make the same mistake twice.”

Which is just as well because now Phil is on the cusp of something similar but much bigger.

Phil has recently bought his own commercial brew kit to set up his own brewery. Photo: Tim Cuff
Phil has recently bought his own commercial brew kit to set up his own brewery. Photo: Tim Cuff

Moving home

In 2011, he made Nelson his home after emigrating from Ireland. He took over a health food company and ran it until 2015 when he decided to move on.

“I was in a bit of no man’s land,” Phil says. “Either I needed to get a job or start something new.”

He was again at a pub, this time the Free House on Collingwood St, when he was talking with friends about the idea of owning a brewery.

“I was thinking about what I wanted in life and what I wanted to be doing. I always had this romantic vision of owning a brewery combined with a coffee roastery combined with my other love of vintage motorbikes and cars. So that was where it started.”

And after a few drinks that conversation kept going and it stayed with him.

“I thought that ‘this is what I want to pursue’. I thought ‘if I don’t do it now I’m not going to do it’. I wanted to do something I was passionate about.”

And he wanted to do it in Nelson.

“Nelson is the reason I emigrated from Ireland. I fell in love with people, the way of life, the values. It’s a nice place to be and where I always envisaged having something. So I thought I’d give it a crack.”

That something was always going to be called Horsebox Brewery. The name is a nod to the store that used to sit at the front of his family home in Dundalk, County Lough. It was his grandparents’ store that serviced the entire community with everything from groceries to gasoline. But as time went on, the big players forced the smaller shops out. Then Phil had the chance to buy it back and turn it into something special.

“So, I turned it into a retro lolly shop. We sold everything that I used to get when I was a kid. It was a big hit.”

He called his new store “Horsebox”, which refers to Phil’s country upbringing.

“It’s just what you call people when you meet them. It’s a colloquial term from where I’m from. You say, ‘Hey horse, hey horsebox’. I was a lot more country than I am now,” he admits.

The beginnings of a brewery

So Horsebox it was. It would become dedicated to the sorts of beers that Phil liked to drink – big, bold brews that assaulted the palate with flavour. But when he started the brewery, he didn’t actually have a brewery. So, Phil began brewing his beer in Tasman. Then he had to move to Christchurch to find space to operate – but he always brewed on other companies’ kits. Phil was doing what is known in the business as “contract brewing”.

“It allowed me to learn so much from other brewers who have been so great in helping me.”

But now, sitting in a Nelson warehouse, is the beginnings of Phil’s bigger vision. He calls it his “big boy move”.

It’s the first time he has had his own 1000 litre commercial kit, complete with a vintage grain miller.

“This was always the goal,” Phil says. “It was always the dream to have my own brewery.”

He bought the kit off Brewmoon Brewery in Amberly, which was upgrading its equipment. It was a deal Phil says he had to take. It won’t be ready for Beer Week and MarchFest where Phil is collaborating with his friends at Concept Brewery in Christchurch to create some special brews. But he hopes the kit will soon have a permanent home.

“I would love to have a place to serve the beers in the same place that I make it, so people can see where it comes from, grain to glass.”

But Phil is all too aware of the challenges of being a one-man band in a competitive industry. He used to be one of the country’s top kickboxers – fighting for New Zealand in the 2013 WAKO world champs in Turkey. But his shoulder was injured and didn’t quite realise how bad it was. He threw a punch at his opponent and his muscle teared, leaving him totally vulnerable to attack.

“Fighting one handed against an elite athlete is pretty tough. I got the snot beaten out of me. So now I brew beer.”

He says the experience is not unlike running your own business.

“You know you’re going to get kicked in the groin every day, but you just got to keep going.”

At Marchfest he is creating a brew called “P.O Box Pale Ale” – referencing the fact that all the time he was away from Nelson brewing he kept Horsebox’s contact information through a Nelson-based post office box.

Phil hopes that by the end of the month he will know where Horsebox will have its permanent home. Because he is adamant that Nelson is home for him.

“I don’t need a grand life,” he says. “I just need a happy one.”

Nelson Beer Week runs from March 17-25 culminating with the 11th Marchfest on Saturday March 24 at Founders Park. Programmes available at  http://nbw.co.nz/ and http://marchfest.com

For more information on Horsebox Brewery visit www.horseboxbrewery.co.nz/