If you pull up to any Wellington bar and speak to the locals, chances are that if they're not drinking craft beer, coffee or wine, it's a glass of Six Barrel Soda. This once-tiny brand evolved from a Newtown Diner started by two friends in 2010. Over the years, Six Barrel as it is affectionaetly known has grown from strength to strength - like a perfectly balanced glass of refreshing soda.
I wanted to know more about this now iconic Wellington brand. So I headed to the corner of the Hannah's Factory Laneway, on Eva Street, up some pokey stairs, and demanded a sit down with one of the Soda guys. Luckily, co-owner Joseph Slater obliged.
Joe grew up with his childhood friend and now his business partner, Mike Stewart, in Tauranga. There is no entrepreneurial flair so to speak of. His father is an electrical engineer and his mother is a teacher. However, the family owned a dairy at one point when Joe was 3 in the 1980's. "I used to steal the sweets" Joe remembers.
Tauranga was quite boy racer or rugby focused growing up in the 80's, Joe notes. He didn’t fit the mould of the town, being into music and reading. “There wasn’t a great scene for anything too different. It’s better now but it wasn’t great during the 1980’s and 1990’s.” Growing up, Joe admits pre-internet he and his friends listened “to some pretty bad stuff - the grunge bands and 90’s pop.”
The pair moved to Wellington together for University. “I moved here because I didn’t want to go to Waikato or Auckland - it was here or Otago. I think someone might have said the law school was good.” At University, Joe started by studying Law but dropped out part way through. “I wasn’t a very dedicated student” he admits.
Joe remembers the Wellington scene at the time well. “There was a pretty grunge scene - Midnight Espresso, Fidel's - that kind of old school Wellington style which is still cranking. In Tauranga, there was no one between the ages of 18 and 30. It's changed a bit now but there wasn’t much of a cafe scene. In Wellington, there were alternative cafes and music stores galore.” Joe liked the bars Valve (now Medusa) , Indigo (now San Fran) and would drink at flats with friends. His first bar job was in Courtenay Place and the guys used to frequent a bar near where the current McKenzie Hostel is on Willis Street. “So terrible - there are trashy student bars now but this had fist fights at the bar and everything was Tui branded” Joe says.
After finishing his studies, Joe moved to Melbourne and worked in cocktail bars. He then travelled up to Byron Bay for five months and ran a restaurant there. When that ended, he went to London and Paris for a year. Why did he return? “London wasn’t really my vibe. It’s one of those places where I think you have to have a good set up and be there for a while. It was kind of hard. Mike and I came back and decided to open a place together” Joe explains.
Caravan Cafe in Cuba Street and Monterey of Newtown - "Winters were pretty grim"
On returning to Wellington, Joe and Mike set up a caravan cafe ‘Kreuzberg’. “It was pretty cool” he says. “We had bands playing. We ran it for three years. Summertime was awesome. Winter’s were pretty grim, but there were still great people around. It gave us the boost to start Monterey which we opened in 2010 and just sold last year.” At Kreuzberg they served cabinet food, limited by the size of the caravan. “We did a lot of different burgers that ended up being the basis of Monterey,” Joe says, admitting the pair were always more into the drinks side of things than the food.
When Monterey opened, Mike and Joe had planned it as a bar. However, their liquor licence didn’t go to plan and so they had to rely on food and ended up doing more burgers. They were inspired by the idea of making a local neighbourhood bar, much like they had encountered in Melbourne and London.
The start of Six Barrel Soda
Six Barrel Soda grew out of Monterey. “When it opened, we couldn’t find the non-alcoholic drinks we wanted. Everything was big companies. We wanted to support local brands like craft beers and to find other independent brands. We started making our own syrups, using our old Soda Stream from Kreuzberg. We noticed more people buying the soft drinks instead of alcoholic drinks and asking for them by name - for example, can I have a Raspberry and Lemon soda. Then other bars started asking to buy them off us.” Joe and Mike decided that they needed to invest in the soda side of things more. They soon found the location - above where Hope Bros used to be and now Eva Beva. “The space had been a succession of places that didn’t really work - it was off the street, light - we were stoked it was available.”
Opening in 2012, Six Barrel Soda started with 7 syrups. They now have 12 bottled syrups and 10 bottled sodas. “Customers in Wellington demand more. Businesses have been really helpful. We picked up some accounts straight away - Crumpet Bar, Lamason, and Moore Wilson’s. That’s another reason that Wellington is so great. Moore Wilson’s are willing to take on products that are really small. It gives a boost. Then Little and Friday in Auckland took us on and it went from there.”
The Syrups now include Raspberry & Lemon, Celery Tonic, Cola Six, Cherry & Pomegranate, Lemonade, Lime, Orange & Dandelion, Hibiscus. Sarsaparilla, Creaming Soda, Coffee, Ginger Ale. The more recent Bottled sodas include Raspberry & Lemon, Celery Tonic, Cola Six, Cherry & Pomegranate, Lemonade, Sarsaparilla, Ginger Ale, Cucumber & Mint, Soda Water. Now that's something to get in a fizz about.
While Six Barrel doesn't serve food any longer at their HQ (for a few years they did burgers but decided to focus on the production exclusively about 18 months ago), they still get foot traffic and people visiting on holiday. Six Barrel have been at the forefront of the Leeds Street Boom - officially the coolest laneway in Wellington - along with Pizza Pomodoro, Fix and Fogg, Goldings Freedive, Leeds Street Bakery, Red Rabbit Coffee, the Hanging Ditch, the Wellington Chocolate Factory and most recently Shepherd Restaurant.
The Good Stuff
So why do people buy Six Barrel Soda over bigger brands? Joe has a hunch. “People are looking to buy better stuff - whether it is beer, wine or soda” Joe explains. “They would rather have 2 good beers instead of 6 terrible beers. People want to drink better soda than Coke. The producer thing started in Wellington with the coffee brands. Even when I worked in Melbourne, the coffee scene was terrible - they used coffee imported from Italy. Now it's gone crazy. It keeps money local and jobs local if brands produce their products here.
Six Barrel have also collaborated with some great local brands, such as Coffee Supreme. “In 2013 we made them three syrups from three coffees for their gifts for accounts at the end of the year. The next year we did a full coffee syrup. It’s an unusual drink but it's been really good” says Joe.
From Pinot Noir Soda to tinctures for Rogue Society Gin, Six Barrel Soda sure is bubbling with ideas. For now, Joe is focused on growing the business, getting great people on board and developing more flavours. I for one will be toasting to the future of this exciting Wellington brand - with my favourite Celery Tonic Soda of course.
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