It’s a story that you’ve probably heard before, the tale of home-brewing mates and a dream of selling their own beer to the world. In this version, the mates are Darren Milo, Pete Willis and Hamish Reed and their “Imported from Hawthorn” beer is now being sold to the world.
Darren and Hamish, both Hawthorn locals, were kitchen and garage brewers who had been supplying their own homes and mates’ barbeques with home-brew since their teen years. With the strong rise of Melbourne’s craft beer scene over that last ten years, they saw market potential in their suburb for their own brand of flavoursome brews. Careers in corporate business and legal enterprise, along with a couple of useful business connections, provided the groundwork to launch their Hawthorn Brewing Company in 2008. Their first commercial beer was a Pale Ale released in mid 2009. It was a quick success, largely due to the brand created by ad agency Leo Burnett Melbourne.
The Hawthorn Brewing Co founders have a love/hate relationship with their professionally designed branding. The renowned marketers at Leo Burnett took on the assignment for the fun of the craft beer concept and provided a design that serves as a smartly familiar blueprint for drinkers of a big brewer’s product. At the same time, for those in the know, it doubles as a pisstake on the modern beer jargon it utilises, with the “Imported from Hawthorn” claim and highlights of “premium” and “flavour”.
The greater concern for the Hawthorn guys, however, is eventually finding a home in Hawthorn for their Hawthorn beer. Whilst their own residences in the suburb continue to serve as the company’s pilot breweries and research facilities, the commercial quantities of Hawthorn beer are brewed elsewhere under contract.
Hawthorn Brewing now has four beers in their range – Pale Ale, Amber, Witbier and Pilsner – all of which are in demand. Pete left his job as a business analyst for a major bank at the end of 2010 to work full time on the beer business and their products now have national distribution through First Choice Liquor and Vintage Cellars, as well as distribution partners in Tasmania and Queensland. This week Hawthorn Brewing officially launched their beers in Sydney, where they are also on the hunt for a local sales rep. They have also been exporting their beer to Singapore and Hong Kong for over a year now.
Recently I sat down with Hamish, co-founder and Director of Brewing for Hawthorn Brewing Company, and chatted over a beer about all things past, present and future for Hawthorn beer.
“We’re growing, especially just in the last three months with these new distribution deals. It’s a good problem to have but it leaves us tight for time. I’m fifty per cent on the beer at the moment and fifty on my other job, so there’s not much room to do a whole lot extra,” Hamish told Australian Brews News.
He noted that the growth and demand for Hawthorn beer is nice problem to have, because it has been supported by healthy sales, an expanding brand and recognition through industry awards. The only thing holding them back from their desire of doing a whole lot more is time and space.
Despite their success so far, it hasn’t been the smoothest journey for Hawthorn beer. Production methods, quality and capacity have seen them move between contract brewing facilities, such as Mildura Brewery and Southern Bay. The bulk of their beer currently comes out of Mildura, but if Hamish can have his way, they will brew their beers at whichever facility provides the best result for the specific beer style.
Hamish has been exploring the option of utilising contract brewers based on their brewery’s performance with a specific beer style, splitting their beer range between facilities, rather than handing over their whole portfolio to one brewer.
“For example, our witbier needs to be bottled conditioned so we need a brewery that can package the beer accordingly,” Hamish noted.
Since creating the company, the three founders have been conducting a thorough feasibility study to determine the best business model that supports a brewery base for Hawthorn Brewing in Hawthorn.
“We did two studies, one of a brewery to brew absolutely everything based on the volumes we thought we’d achieve in the next five to ten years.”
“We also did a second study on a different set-up where we brew keg only, with a front-of-house brewery bar, whilst continuing contract brewing our bottled range. That’s becoming a popular model in the industry and now I know why after doing this feasibility study”
“Ideally the full production brewery is the way to go, but it’s a massive undertaking and our study showed that we’re not quite brewing enough litres per year yet to make that feasible. We also didn’t want to have a brewery somewhere out in Dandenong to be able to make that happen.”
Real estate is at a premium in leafy Hawthorn. It’s primarily a residential suburb full of private schools, cafes and business offices. Only a small stretch of industrial land along the train line provides a realistic target at this stage. However, when suitable leases do open up, they tend to be restrictive short-term leases.
Hamish noted that they have put strong consideration into teaming up with an established venue in Hawthorn for a potential brew-pub concept, but the right fit has yet to be found.
“With all that, we’ve been leaning more towards the front-of-house model, like Mornington and Mountain Goat have, where we can brew keg only beers and do special releases as well to keep it interesting.”
Hamish also explored a new strategy when producing Hawthorn’s latest release. He filled his car with ingredients and drove out for Ballarat for a brew day as a gypsy brewer. The result was a very limited Australian IPA, which was released last month as a keg only beer available from of Melbourne’s best known specialty beer bars.
“This was an opportunity for me to have some fun. The IPA is a beer I’ve been working on for twelve months and I had included some pilot versions at a few tastings we’ve done. I didn’t want to do a big batch and I didn’t think that any of the breweries we brew at could do a small batch justice because it’s unfiltered and unpasteurised.”
“Brewing at a new place for the first time is an absolute challenge because you simply don’t know the utilisations of the brewery. I don’t envy Sam [Fuss of Old Salt Brewing] or the other gypsy brewers!”
“When you brew that way you don’t have everything already there. You need to get everything there first. Ingredients, kegs, this and that. It’s a huge undertaking.”
“It was good fun though and it was great to be hands on with the full process at that scale, which we don’t always get to do.”
“When I first thought about doing this beer about 18 months ago, there were heaps of IPAs around but really only North American styles. There wasn’t really anything that was purely Australia. I know Ben [Kraus, of Bridge Road Brewers] was playing around with Aussie hops for his Single Hop series, but there were no traditional IPAs that could be called truly Australian. So I had the idea to use only Australian malts and hops.”
The result was a fine example of a hoppy ale brimming with the flavours of Australian brewing. The five Australian malts provided a well rounded body for the four Australian hops of Pride of Ringwood, Topaz, Galaxy and Summer. The hops provide aromas and flavours of earthy tropical fruits such as melon, stonefriut and passionfruit. At 6.2 per cent alcohol and 60 IBU, it is an easy beer to return to for a second helping.
Hamish explained that this very limited Australian IPA has been released for a couple of reason, mainly to keep things interesting for the Hawthorn guys in a rapidly expanding and evolving market.
“It’s also to show that we aren’t stereotypical contract beer brand who only release beers for the market,” noted Hamish as he reinforced that the Hawthorn team are brewers who are serious about producing good and interesting craft beer.
The experience has also highlighted the advantage of regularly releasing new beers. The excitement and interested generated by small brewers who can afford to play around with new beer styles and releases often results in more recognition for their brand. Hamish noted a bit of envy towards the nearby Mountain Goat brewery, where they now have the capacity and business strength to consistently brew and release new and interesting beers, weather it’s as a Rare Breed bottle release or a keg only batch that is tapped only had the brewery bar and a select number of local craft beer bars. It’s the next part of the Hawthorn dream that Hamish, Darren and Pete would like to see come true.
We’re certainly entering interesting time for craft beer business in Victoria. We have recently seen an increasing number of small brewers who entered the market with a contract brewing model now opening their own breweries. On the other hand there also large corporations circling, seeking successful brands that could help them join the craft beer parade or expand their beer portfolio and capitalise a thriving sector of the market.
Without doubt, Hawthorn Brewing Company is one to watch. Their desire to supply personally crafted beer of the highest quality is stronger than ever. It’s driving them forward to make their mark on the beer industry with the taste of Hawthorn.