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“There’s Got to be Some Culture Behind It”: Panhead Custom Ales is Sharing Stories from the Kustom Kulture Community

Craft brewery Panhead Custom Ales takes inspiration from New Zealand’s kustom kulture community. The brand’s custom can range is accompanied by a film series that highlights many heroes of the scene.

Panhead’s custom can range is indebted to the creativity of New Zealand’s kustom kulture community. The series of limited-run beers allows Panhead founder and Head Of Customisation, Mike Neilson, to let his imagination run wild. But the custom can range is about more than whipping up fresh hop IPAs and vanilla milk stouts in Panhead’s Upper Hutt HQ. 

“It’s about giving the people in the culture a platform to tell their stories,” says Rebecca Sinclair, Head of Brand and Creative at Panhead. 

The repertoire of short films created by kustom kulture content maker Cal Thorley is central to the project’s storytelling agenda. Thorley has spent much of his professional life working in local television, but his most adored creation is the web series Hot Rod Revue, which he launched as a passion project roughly a decade ago. 

“The chance to lift the lid and showcase the culture behind it, it’s always something I’m going to be pretty excited to be involved with,” Thorley says. “There’s so many neat characters and stories involved.”

The beers in Panhead’s custom can range are all inspired by a particular car, carmaker, racer or artist from within the kustom kulture community. There’s Lucky 17, a dry hazy IPA based on Bob and Julie Neville’s open-top race car of the same name, and The Ace, a salted margarita gose inspired by pinstriper and Rat Fink artist Stace the Ace.

The first Panhead brew to pay tribute to an icon of New Zealand kustom kulture was The Vandal, an award-winning NZ IPA, which, at 8% ABV, has taken on mythic status among craft beer drinkers on both sides of the Tasman. The original Vandal was a flake green 1919 Dodge Bucket owned by Tauranga local John Reid.

“Vandal came along because we were thinking of ways to express the culture within the industry that I’m a part of,” says Neilson. 

The custom can range takes things one step further. It’s not simply about decorating the cans with petrolhead insignia, but about sharing the stories of the passionate individuals who give life to the kustom kulture community. 

“It was more interesting for us to tell the story of these guys who kind of were like us in the brewery, where they make these custom cars and express the way they feel by creating these vehicles—like we do with our beer,” says Neilson.

Thorley is right at home interacting with the characters and two-, three- and four-wheeled machines in the kustom community. His films combine footage of hot rods, dragsters, lowriders, muscle cars and gassers with biographical storytelling.

“What we’re ultimately looking for is just good stories from the various subcultures within the kustom kulture,” Thorley says. “What I really love is that it’s not like Panhead have got a beer in mind and I’m going to look for something that’s going to fit in with that. It’s the opposite—we’re taking stories and letting that be the inspiration.”

Thorley’s films reveal that a passion for kustom kulture often runs in the family. The vanilla milk stout Necessary Evil gets its name from a ’56 Cadillac Coupe owned by Todd, Kym and Kennedy Wylie. Green Go, a 7% fresh hop IPA, is based on the eponymous Californian dragster owned and preserved by father and son Kendal and Dylan Smith of Kruzin Kustoms in Palmerston North.

Neilson himself inherited a love of vintage American muscle cars from his father, Danny Neilson, who once worked at the Dunlop tyre factory that became Panhead’s original headquarters. Without creative concepts such as the custom can range, Neilson says his job wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling. 

“It’d just be making beers for us, which is fine, but it’s got to be bigger than that; there’s got to be some sort of culture behind it,” he says.

Among kustom kulture diehards, individuals like Aaron Carson, the customiser responsible for the Ford T hot rod, Tumblin’ Dice, and Neil Surtees, the son of a boilermaker and a relentless custom car builder, have attained a kind of celebrity status. But in Thorley’s experience, none of the hot rodders or lowrider enthusiasts he meets are motivated by a lust for accolades. Rather, they’re driven by a genuine passion for customisation, which shines through in the custom can films.

“As the series has gone on, people are genuinely really stoked to be recognised that way,” Thorley says. “Any nerves or if they’re a quiet person, they quickly overcome that when they realise they’re just talking about something they love. They quickly warm into it because it’s something they live and breathe.”

The next entry in the custom can series is Dust Up, named for the Jalopy Dust Up, which occurs annually at the Waihi Beach Dirt Track Club. “It’s an amazing, old school speedway track, which overlooks Waihi Beach,” says Thorley. “Once a year, the hot rods take it over and whip ‘round and create a heck of a lot of dust.”

Panhead’s Dust Up is an IPA. Though, it’s a bit different to the new world IPAs that have become the brewery’s specialty. “The recipe was formulated based on taking it back to the old world,” says Neilson. “It’s quite rich in malt and the hops are more traditional than the new haze craze. You get your earthy, piney, citrusy notes. It’s paying homage to the old ways.”

Kustom kulture is similarly rooted in paying homage to the old ways, but it’s fuelled by a passion for customisation and self-expression. Just like Panhead.

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