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Shooting for the Moon

April 19, 2011
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Moon Dog Brewery, Melbourne

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Forty years ago NASA’s Apollo missions travelled to the moon in what was essentially a tin can with little more technology than that found in a common desk calculator. Despite this, the Apollo missions achieved some of the greatest feats in human history. It was all made possible by a collective of brilliant minds, tireless labourers and the audacious determination and passion to succeed.

Today in Melbourne, a new microbrewery shares this determination for success, aiming to deliver out-of–this-world beers in the name of discovery and adventure. Their equipment and technology is basic, but their minds are sharp and they are driven by passion.

The Moon Dog Craft Brewery story is a familiar one in the world of craft brewing. Two brothers – Josh and Jake Uljans – received a home brewing kit as a present and became fascinated with the brewing process. They even had a name for their bedroom brewing operation – J&J United Breweries.

Good mate Karl van Buuren was then recruited to their brewing venture, which had rapidly turned to all-grain brewing. Not afraid of study (Jake is a litigation lawyer whilst Josh and Karl are business analysts for a major energy corporation), the threesome hit the brewing text books with dreams of starting their own brewery.

The bottling line was originally made for bottling olive oil

A decade after their first homebrew, they now have a brewery and are almost ready to sell the beers

The typical story of a start-up craft brewery departs at this point. In the majority of cases, the eager brewers establish themselves in the local market with an accessible signature brew, often a true-to-style beer, to ease consumers into their brand.

Not at Moon Dog Craft Brewery. Josh, Jake and Karl are determined to construct liquid rockets that will target your taste buds and collide with your senses.

Right from the outset their mission is to produce extreme and challenging beers without reservation, in the name of fun and good beer. They are intent on pushing boundaries and hope to alter people’s preconceptions of what craft beer can be.

It is an approach that has provoked much caution from the beer industry and affiliates when the Moon Dog team have shared their boisterous mission.

“You have to have a Pale Ale!” they have been told on countless occasions in the past year, as industry folk try to convince them that forgoing an accessible gateway beer or regular draught alternative will make their brewery unsustainable.

“Sure, we’ll make a pale ale,” laughs Josh in response, “an 11% abv Pale Ale to knock your socks of!”

Moon Dog are not afraid to challenge the norm. In fact, they cheekily revel in the opportunity to do so because they have no desire to take themselves too seriously.

“But the market is not yet there to support such big and outrageous beers”, comes the industry counterargument.

However, Moon Dog will testify that this market does exist, with both the retail infrastructure and consumer interest very healthy in their target region of Melbourne. Numerous local outlets are selling big and outrageous beers from Southern Tier, Rogue, BrewDog and Australia’s own Murray’s Craft Brewing Company. This is supported by the Moon Dog brewers’ regular interactions with the local beer drinking community who have expressed a wealth of excitement and readiness for something different from Australian craft beer.

And what about that name…Moon Dog Craft Brewery? Is it too similar to those outrageous craft brewing Scots, BrewDog, or America’s off-centred Dogfish Head?

“Not at all”, says Josh, who notes that many breweries with related names viably coexist across the international craft beer market.

Is there anything duct tape can't do?

As for the name’s origin, each of the Moon Dog men will happily tell you a charmingly different story about the origin of “Moon Dog”. However, share enough beers with them and, once the clock ticks past midnight, Josh may whisper to you a poem he heard whilst moving house with a friend in New York.

As much as they are having fun with beer and brewery plans, Moon Dog are also doing the hard maths, both in terms of brewing and their business economics. Professional experience in risk management bodes well for their irreverent intentions. Additionally, their aptitude for mathematics is key for both brewing high alcohol beers and eventually turning a profit. Ultimately, they know that if their beer is good, they will succeed.

Their capabilities have been vouched for by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from unknowing drinkers when they unleased their inaugural brews last year. During the final months of 2010, Melbourne’s Biero Bar tapped two Moon Dog craft beers on separate themed event nights. First was the Imperial Pumpkin Ale produced for Halloween, followed by the Christmas Eve treat of a Gingerbread Imperial Brown Ale. A third Moon Dog brew was tapped at Biero last week, providing a preview of one of the brewery’s first commercial releases, a 10.5% Imperial Pale Ale.

According to Josh and Karl, the Moon Dog business model takes inspiration from their fellow home-brewers-turned-professional-craft-brewers at Mountain Goat Brewery in the neighbouring suburb of Richmond. By establishing brand recognition through smart marketing and merchandising at the point of sale in bars, pubs and bottleshops, they plan to build a local presence that will provide the foothold they need to expand.

Josh, Jake and Karl all brew, as well as splitting all business operations and development between them. After a long search they leased an inconspicuous little warehouse in Duke St, Abbotsford, late last year. It provides all the space they need to start up their commercial brewing enterprise, with two fermenters already in place providing an initial 1400L capacity. There is room to install many more, once they build a profit.

The brewery will remain solely a brewery for now, with the output to be kegged beers for pubs and bars and bottles for the local beer retail outlets. Deep toward the back of this mission’s flight plan, a Moon Dog brewpub somewhere in Melbourne may be pencilled in. However, they are not getting ahead of themselves at this stage, with the focus purely on brewing amazing beers and building brand recognition.

Economies are considered at every stage of the brewing process, such as propagating their own yeast supply. Further, much of their brewery equipment has been purchased from eBay, then engineered, welded and installed by their own hands. Their mash tun is a converted milk vat and the bottling line was originally built for bottling olive oil.

Their hope is to bottle in the 355ml bottles commonly used by American craft brewers, but such details are still being finalised depending on the capabilities of their eBay bottling machine.

The irony is not lost on them as Moon Dog set up their crude microbrewery for extreme beers next door to Australia’s biggest brewer, Carlton & United Breweries. Refreshingly, they do not see a need for the animosity towards the big commercial breweries that exists in the craft beer community. Josh, Jake and Karl find regular joy in knocking back a slab of CUB’s Melbourne Bitter, which has something of a sentimental place in the stomach of Melbourne’s Generation X drinkers. There is no pretence here, Moon Dog just loves beer.

Such is their approach to beer that Moon Dog have announced a collaboration beer with CUB’s craft beer arm, Matilda Bay Brewing Company. Under the working title of “Abbottsford Brew”, Moon Dog will combine with Matilda Bay and Mountain Goat to produce a collaborative beer, which they assure will posses the Moon Dog signature (read the full story about this development on The Crafty Pint).

Melbourne’s Good Beer Week in May will also see Moon Dog Crafty Brewery spread their paws across six venues. Exclusive Moon Dog brews will be tapped by bars such as Biero Bar, as well as Mrs Parma where you will be able to enjoy a Moon Dog Coconut & Pineapple Brown Ale matched with a special Hawaiian parma.

Then, once the brewery is fully commissioned, the plan is to launch with a small but powerful line up of beers and then focus on producing seasonal and small batch beers across the flavour and style spectrum. Only their Imperial Pale Ale has been confirmed at this stage. However, if the empty bottles of “research” seen whilst visiting the brewery was any indication, expect big hoppy IPAs and the use of ingredients and styles not yet seen from Australian breweries.

As for their limitations?

“None”, notes Josh. If they think of a flavour provide that would be fun to brew – like their Christmas gingerbread ale – they will give it a go!

Are they barking mad or headstrong cowboys like the military pilots NASA recruited for the Apollo missions? From what they have shown us so far, Moon Dog are a bit of both, which is deliciously interesting.

The countdown clock ticking, we’re now just waiting on Launch Control to declare that “We are GO for mission Moon Dog Craft Brewery”.

www.moondogbrewing.com.au

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