A decade ago a ficus outside the Feral brewhouse was nourished by bad beer.
Brendan Varis and Will Irving would gather at a “Brewers Table” next to the shrub to taste imported US beers in the search of a new and exciting style to introduce to a small but growing band of craft consumers.
Occasionally they’d secure an imported American Pale Ale only to find that no love in transportation and further disdain in local storage had rendered the brew undrinkable.
So the ficus got a soaking as Brendan and Will performed the pour of disappointment.
But on one July day in 2008 the watering of the plant suddenly stopped. And the legend of Hop Hog was born.
This week Feral celebrates the 10th anniversary of the golden nectar that changed a generation of Australian drinkers’ beer tastes and helped make the WA brewery one of the most popular craft operations in the country.
The genesis of Hop Hog is so vivid in the minds of Varis and Irving that each was able to finish the other’s sentences when recalling that afternoon in the Swan Valley when they decided to make the beer game-changer.
“We remember that conversation like it was yesterday,” Brendan said.
“I had just returned from my first US World Beer Cup in 2008 with a few beers and Will and I were at the brewers table outside the brewery window with a bottle of (Ballast Point) Sculpin IPA, a symposium beer from the cup that featured the San Diego brewers, and a (Russian River) Pliny the Elder.
“After a few tastes we just looked at other in awe and said that’s it – don’t worry about it being too bitter, too hoppy, too strong, too nothing, let’s just do it. We have to make this kind of beer.”
Will added that the ficus was a little dry that day – and remained so.
“Trying those beers fresh – like having an US IPA fresh in your hand – was something so different. Beers like these had never landed in Australia in that shape before,” Will said. “I couldn’t understand how beer could taste that way. It was massive.”
It was a line in the sand moment for Brendan.
“Back then the hoppiest beer in Australia was Little Creatures Pale Ale and then there was a whole heap of imported beers that cost $20 for 500ml but were stale, oxidised and ordinary,” he said. “People would buy them thinking they were nice but they were terrible.
“So from that moment we decided we would do it. Let’s make a 50 IBU beer with intense hop aroma and flavour and make it part of our range.”
Timing became a key issue for the Feral plan. Brendan had just emerged as the major shareholder of the brewery. He had also just seen this new twist to a little-used technique called dry hopping during a tour of Green Flash in California.
And he was determined to shake up the run-of-the-mill range that Feral and the few other craft breweries in the State had on their lists.
Suddenly the Pilsener, Brown Ale and mid-strength were gone from the Feral repertoire and fruitier, punchier and tastier beers were added to the 16 taps at the venue.
Now conjuring an idea for a radically different brew is one thing. Making it from scratch is another.
“Galaxy hops weren’t in release yet. There was no Mosaic, no Citra, so a couple of big heavy hitters in big fruity aromatic hops weren’t there. We were taking our cues from what was around,” Brendan said.
“We targeted pine and orange as the characteristics we wanted to get and we got that out of Centennial and Simcoe with some Cascade in there as well.
“There was some of those hops here but no-one had the courage to use them. Whatever was here was up for grabs. It was almost hard to sell them here.
“Strong hoppy beer was a seasonal because no-one wanted to drink it; that was the mindset anyway. That has flipped 180 degrees now.”
Will recalls trying to figure out “this dry-hopping method” and chuckles when he remembers there was nothing in any beer syllabus about the concept. Then there was the nightmare of cleaning the tanks after that first Hop Hog brew.
But a month after that defining day outside the brewhouse, the first batch of the new beer was ready for sampling.
There was natural trepidation between Brendan and Will. Then complete silence.
“There was just a nod between us,” Will said. “We knew we had got this right first time. And things wouldn’t ever be the same again.”
“As Brendan says we cracked the code.”
The first batch of Hop Hog came in at 5.8% and 48 IBU. It has remained at those levels.
The Local Taphouse in Melbourne was keen to get kegs of this new Feral creation. Clancy’s Fish Pub in Fremantle added it to the regular line-up. And the accolades came in, starting with domination of the Perth Royal Beer Show.
Hop Hog spawned a clowder of copycats as Australian beer drinkers sought more flavoursome nectars.
It is difficult to fathom in today’s uber-crowded beer market filled with such variety that a decade ago Hop Hog was breaking the mould.
However, Brendan could gauge from that 2008 trip to the US that tastes were turning.
“It is our company line that we make beers that we like to drink – and we knew we really liked this one,” he said of the first incarnation of Hop Hog.
“Having just visited America for the first time in eight years I had seen people at bars smashing 7% IPAs – and these were bars full of people – so I knew the hoppier beers could be a real thing here, too.”
There have been a few grunts from beer traditionalists over Hop Hog.
The beer was originally marketed as an India Pale Ale even though by tradition it was out of that class. Some thought it was an American Strong Ale. Or was it an American Pale Ale?
The brewery even had a bit of fun with the discussion by crossing out some words on the label as debate grew over its place on the beer spectrum.
“That relates back to the scene we launched it in. At the time it was far too hoppy and strong to be a Pale Ale as people here knew it. So it had to be an IPA,” Brendan says.
“When we looked at it a bit later we wanted to make a hoppier beer but we already had an IPA. Do we want two IPAs? Probably not.
“So we made Warhog and it made sense to call it an IPA because at 7.5 % it was a borderline double, and Hop Hog at 5.8% was a borderline IPA.”
Hop Hog is now described by Feral as a Pale Ale.
But Will’s affection for the creation is still as strong as ever regardless of its pigeon hole.
“Hop Hog is in my fridge 364 days a year and for that one day I’m out getting more stock,” he said.
“Whenever I mention to someone new that I work for Feral the first thing they mention is Hog Hog.”
*To mark the 10th anniversary of the Hop Hog Feral will be releasing the beer into cans for a short time only.