A new brewery in Melbourne is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “riding out tonight to case the promised land”.
“The perfect beer? Is it possible,” I hear you ask.
Well, finding that out is the mission that the soon-to-open Thunder Road Brewery has set itself.
At the heart of this new, independent brewery based in Brunswick, Melbourne, is Philip Withers, a business man who loves beer. Like many before him, Philip has been inspired by the size and diversity of the American craft brewing scene. He is also keenly driven by Australia’s brewing history, particularly dating back to the pre-Federation years when the extensive brewing industry in Australia was “independent and real, where local brewers made beers for local drinkers.”
To help with his ambitious plan to bring this culture back to Australian brewing and discover that perfect beer, Phillip has recruited a team of passionate, determined people who believe that local drinkers deserve better beer.
Head Brewer, Mark ‘Harvey’ Kenney, has been flown in from the USA to lead the crusade towards beer perfection.
Harvey is a qualified scientist, graduating from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1999 with a Bachelor Degree in Biochemistry. After working in scientific laboratories on enzymes and gene technology he returned to University in 2004 and completed a Master Brewing Certificate at the University of California-Davis. Harvey has since worked as a Master Brewer at Taps Brewery in Istanbul and was Head Brewer Mexicali’s Cucapá Brewing Company. Capitalising on his scientific expertise, Harvey is eager to make a difference in the brewing process by utilising his laboratory and management skills, with a focus on quality control, establishing and applying Quality Assurance programs for brewing.
Joining Harvey as Assistant Brewer is Marcus Cox, a familiar face in the Victorian Microbrewing industry. Marcus has considerable experience as the Head Brewer at 3Ravens in Thornbury, producing a respected range of beers, as well as driving innovation with small batches of cask-conditioned ale.
Rounding out the team is Sales Manager, Justin Trail, who is establishing the Thunder Road brand and trade partnerships. Justin brings local industry expertise from his work with Matilda Bay Brewing, which included helping establish their Fat Yak product as one of the nation’s most successful local craft beer products.
Many of the Australia’s current microbreweries have had humble origins – if not a humble present. Thunder Road has started at the other end. With impressive resources provided by Philip, their first mission was to locate a suitable site for a new purpose built brewery. Since securing a lease on an industrial warehouse late last year, Justin, Marcus and Harvey have been designing and constructing a state-of-the-art facility that will include an on-site laboratory.
Located in an ideal location just north of Melbourne city on Barkly Street, Brunswick, the brewery is meters from trendy Lygon St, minutes from hot spots like the East Brunswick Club and very accessible by tram and train.
Building their brewery in an Industrial Zone meant few restrictions on how they designed and utilised their space. This useful advantage has also presented an opportunity to capitalise on environmentally friendly features, including the use of natural light, solar power and natural gas. Solar panels on the roof are expected to supply around 20 per cent of the brewery’s energy needs and steam power will drive some of the brewing systems. The brewery itself does not require any roof lighting, with skylights providing day time luminance. Design innovation will light the inside space at night by an interesting lantern effect created by two internal structures.
The functioning brewery will double as a bar, which will be capable of operating up to 30 beer taps and will sit directly in front of two 25-hectolitre fermenters and five 50-hectolitre tanks.
Whilst other local microbreweries, such as 2 Brothers and Mountain Goat, provide a similar bar-inside-brewery set up, the Thunder Road team say they hope to offer a slightly different experience. Their bar is surrounded by the brewing facilities, rather than being simply along-side or just within eye-sight of the brewery facilities. An elevated walkway will provide a tour route over the tanks, while a second bar upstairs beside an ultra-microbrewery – built for experimental brews – provides a top-down view of the entire brewery.
Fronting the brewery is a historic bluestone cottage. The building dates back to the 1850s and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. One of the highlights of visiting the brewery will be a small front room in the cottage that has been transformed into mini-museum and beer library, full of books and artefacts that trace the history of beer and brewing. Photos and images throughout the room showcase the rich brewing history of Melbourne and Australia. Eventually, beer books may be available to purchase through the Brewery’s library.
Taking pride of place on the library’s desk is a photo of Henry Condell, the first Mayor of Melbourne and a prominent brewer. This suggests that Melbourne’s extensive brewing history may play a part in the themes of Thunder Road’s beers. It is also features such as these that the team believe will help make the Thunder Road Brewery an Australian hub for the appreciation of good beer.
Bottling their beers for retail distribution is not a priority initially. There is space available in the brewery for bottling equipment, however their initial plan is to have at least ten high quality beers pouring on tap at their brewery. We can also expect to find Thunder Road beers available at other pubs and venues in the not too distant future. For drinkers seeking to take-away a Thunder Road beer, branded growlers/flagons (the specific term is not locked in yet) will be available from the brewery.
The Thunder Road team are determined to take a whole-of-chain approach to creating and serving their beers, ensuring the utmost in quality control is maintained from the start of the brewing process right through to the serving of the beer on tap at any venue that eventually pours Thunder Road beers.
Many local craft beer fanatics expressed a healthy scepticism about Thunder Road when they first publically appeared at the Beer & Brewer Expo in May this year, turning up obviously well-resourced and with a well-established brand and marketing material but no beer. However, it’s been important for the team to take the time to first establish their facility and develop their product.
Some people – people who seem to believe you need to taste struggle in a beer – refer to Thunder Road’s approach as “golf club brewing”, alluding to an eliteness possessed by a brewing company with substantial wealth backing it. However, whichever way you look at it, Thunder Road’s arrival is good news for Australian craft beer. When speaking to Marcus and Justin, it is clear that their passion is for the beer. They feel they have an incredible opportunity create something special and they are not going to do anything in half measures.
This was evident when Thunder Road showcased their first beer at the recent Federation Square Victorian Microbreweries Showcase in Melbourne. Although still in the prototype stage, their Full Steam Pale Lager was a hit with locals. Whilst nothing too fancy, this well-balanced and drinkable beer provided a refreshing and flavoursome entry point on a warm Melbourne evening. Harvey and Marcus have been developing Full Steam over several months using the brewing facilities at the University of Ballarat. The 4.9%, 25 IBU German lager will be crucial to grabbing the attention of the many traditionalist drinkers, who rarely venture beyond their VBs and Coronas.
Full Steam may not excite beer aficionados who favour rich, super hoppy or full bodied brews, but that group is currently a minority that Thunder Road will eventually accommodate.
The line-up of beers that Thunder Road intends to brew is still a work-in-progress. Therefore, information about the styles and actual number of beers they will open with is currently non-existent or at least still a secret.
In big picture terms, the Thunder Road team see Australia’s micro and independent brewing industry as still very embryonic. However, the emergence of staunch craft beer competition in the local area is imminent. In addition to the existing near-by breweries of 3Ravens and Mountain Goat Breweries, Temple Brewing, who have already established solid support for their beers, will soon be opening a venue around the corner in Brunswick. Further, a few suburbs away in Abbotsford, Moon Dog Brewing will be providing a completely different brewing concept by focusing on producing extreme and challenging beers.
These are exciting times for craft beer in Melbourne. With three very different breweries entering the market next year, an even more diverse range of craft beers will be available to beer drinkers. Moon Dog and Temple will most likely have the jump on Thunder Road, who are in no hurry to cross the line. But on Barkly Street “you can hear their engines roaring on…”
Oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road…sit tight, take hold. Thunder Road Brewery is coming in 2011.
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