Mike Neilson, the jovial founder of Panhead Custom Ales, was born and bred in the city of Upper Hutt on the northern rim of the Wellington metropolitan area.
It’s there that he founded the Panhead brewery in 2013, after honing his skills in big batch brewing at one of New Zealand’s largest craft breweries.
These days, Neilson’s job title is Head Of Customisation. In practical terms, this means he works with the Panhead brew staff to ensure they’re making good, creative beer decisions. But as far as his ethos goes, not much has changed for Neilson since his brewing adventure began more than a decade ago.
“I like making stuff and beer is just the thing that turns me on,” he tells Rolling Stone Australia via phone. “Playing with the ingredients, the presentation, the temperature of the ingredients, all that is just a massive turn on for me.”
The seed for Panhead was planted when Neilson was fresh out of high school and spending his OE— Kiwi for “gap year”—in the UK. While working in a London pub, he met a local brewer who suggested any old joe could make beer on par with the big commercial brands.
“I came back from the UK loving beer,” says Neilson.
Now 39 years old, Neilson is a heavy-metal-blasting, heavily tattooed devotee of Kustom Kulture. He inherited a love of vintage American muscle cars from his father, Danny Neilson, as well as a fondness for tinkering in the garage.
And so, feeling directionless after arriving back in Upper Hutt, he started tinkering. “I went out and bought some homebrew gear and made some absolute shite beer,” he laughs. “But I was hooked on the alchemy of it. Like, the actual creative side of it.”
Like most craft brewers, Neilson’s initial experiments were driven by curiosity rather than commercial ambition. However, brewing quickly became an obsession, which led to the job at the craft brewery. Once he’d got a handle on big batch brewing, Neilson and his wife, Anna, started making plans for a brewery of their own.
To get Panhead off the ground, the couple sold their house and car—though, not the Hot Rod—and took out a lease on Upper Hutt’s mothballed Dunlop tyre factory. They had the first batch of Panhead Custom Ales ready in time for Wellington’s Beervana festival in August 2013.
Since the start, the Panhead range has revolved around four core brews: Supercharger APA, Quickchange XPA, Port Road Pils and Blacktop Oat Stout. “We make those day-in, day-out. They are bloody awesome beers,” says Neilson.
Panhead’s core range has recently grown to encompass three more regular brews: Rat Rod Hazy IPA, Sucky Monmon Japanese Lager, and Vandal NZ IPA, the latter of which comes in at a frisky 8% ABV.
Beyond that, the experimentation is near endless, with Kustom Kulture remaining a primary source of inspiration. “Vandal started off as just a custom brew paying homage to a 1960s Hot Rod that was driving around New Zealand,” says Neilson.
The car in question—a flake green 1919 Dodge Bucket—was also named Vandal. But its owner, a Tauranga local named John Reid, eventually grew tired of the car’s original paint job and decided to spray it black.
“So we paid homage to that with a big black oak barley wine,” says Neilson, referring to Panhead’s 11% ABV black barley and rye wine, Black Sabbath.
The Kustom Kulture analogue is a handy USP for Panhead, but make no mistake: Neilson’s fascination with Kustom Kulture goes way deep. “I’ve got a shedful of cars and I’m into that sort of culture, anywhere from the late-Forties through to the Seventies and even some of the later models in car and bike culture,” he says.
Neilson not only derives conceptual and visual inspiration from Kustom Kulture, but he also believes there are salient parallels between tinkering in the garage and customising in the brewery.
“You have an idea in your mind of how you want the car to look and go about doing it. You think it’s cool, you don’t really care about what anyone else thinks and then you drive around and you’re proud as punch,” he says.
“It’s kind of the same with beer. We create this thing that isn’t conforming to just one style. It’s got all sorts of little bits of creativity added into it to create quite a unique beer.”
Eight years after its launch, Panhead has become a firm favourite among beer enthusiasts on either side of the Tasman. Supercharger has thrice claimed victory in the GABS Hottest 100 Kiwi Craft Beers poll, while Panhead’s core range is frequently commended at the annual Brewers Guild of New Zealand awards.
In 2016, Panhead was acquired by the global beverage company, Lion, which has allowed Neilson to keep customising while also meeting the demands of Panhead’s expanding consumer base.
“Panhead has always been about good beer,” says Neilson. “The trust was already there that we would keep the quality very high, but we couldn’t keep up with capacity.”
Panhead Custom Ales are now available year-round across Australia and New Zealand. But as for Neilson, he’s the same avid tinkerer he always was.
“Just being able to be creative and make something that you have in your mind that tastes good and makes you feel good, it’s pretty cool,” he says.