A team including former Stone & Wood brewer Zeke Hower have launched Tweed Coast-based Red Earth Brewery.
Hower is joined by Tom Lee Lewes and Richie Forman, a former rescue helicopter team, and the site owners Marty and Liz Hannah who teamed up to launch the brewery, which opened late last year.
The venue is housed in a former packaging shed on a 25-acre avocado farm near Cudgen, 20 minutes from Stone & Wood’s Murwillumbah production brewery.
Lewes explained that he, Hower and Forman got involved in an ongoing project that the Hannas had started.
“They were a year and a half ahead of us with opening the brewery, and I was tapping into [Marty’s] knowledge and what he’s done throughout it, and it got to the point where we said why don’t we join forces?” Lewes said.
Lewes is focusing on marketing having studied it before starting his rescue career, Forman – a former firefighter who now owns a cafe and wedding catering business – on operations, and Hower as the brewer.
“The idea became reality when we met Zeke, we always spoke about it, but Richie and I didn’t know how to brew, so when Zeke showed up it all became real.
“One time we were out having beers and said we wanted to open a brewery and he had the skill set we were missing. He’d been at Stone and Wood and now he’s transitioned to the dark side,” Lewes joked.
Hower started off, as many brewers do, homebrewing.
“Then I got a chance to work at Stone & Wood six years ago. I started as a casual there, and within [a few months] I was running the packaging line and everything it involved,” Hower explained.
“I wanted to get more involved, so two years after doing that I got involved in the brewing side of things, and brewed with them for four years.”
He explained that at Stone & Wood he was not only able to hone his brewing skills but also see both small and large scale brewing in action.
“With Stone & Wood progressing the way they have and being the biggest players in the game, I learnt a lot about small scale brewing right up to the huge production-style brewing.
“Then I got the chance to run the original Byron site for a few months, and that was the point where I was like, ‘this is what I want to be doing’.
“Having the creative flair and the opportunity to brew and have everything riding on my back, but not on a commercial scale.
“[I wanted to focus on] smaller scale, good quality beer, and keep it at the best it can be, as well as seeing it through from start to finish, rather than production style brewing. [With that] you essentially do part of the job and hand it over to someone else.”
He said that this realisation led to him leaving Stone & Wood and seeking other opportunities.
“Ever since I finished running the Byron site, and my goals had just changed and [I realised] this is what I want to do, so I did everything I could do to get there, and so here we are with Red Earth.”
While more independent brewers grow larger, Hower agreed that we may see more of this movement by brewers back to smaller breweries.
“I reckon that if a brewer who is brewing because they love making quality beers gets an opportunity on a smaller scale to do more diverse beers consistently, as opposed to the bigger scale production brewery [they might].
“I want that satisfaction in knowing that if the beer is good it’s all on your back and if it’s shit then it’s all on your back – it goes two ways,” he said.
Hower said that he wouldn’t give up his time at Stone & Wood and the experience he gained there, but there were more personal reasons for downsizing to Red Earth.
“It’s amazing to experience, but you end up brewing a few beers the same over and over again and you lose that creative flair and you don’t get that buzz anymore, without that creativity in your job, you lose that spark, and it’s all about that spark.”
When it comes to creative brewing, Hower is just getting started.
“When we opened the doors [to Red Earth] I tried to make subtle, sessionable beers. We’ve been going two months now and we’ve got two or three beers people find really approachable, and now I can get that creative flair up.”
Now he has more freedom to experiment, he said that he will not be totally beholden to market demands.
“I go with my gut. The market changes so dramatically all the time. Things are popular sometimes, but how are you going to be the first person to do something if you’re not willing to be creative and follow your gut?”
He said he was a fan of juicy, hoppy and/or refreshing beers, and Red Earth currently has a range consisting of a pale ale, an IPA, pilsner and mid-strength lager.
The Rising Sun citrus pale ale is a crowd favourite, as well as a mango beer, which has a distinctly local flavour, Hower explained.
“It’s really subtle and refreshing, not an in your face one, just hidden notes. It’s all fresh mango from a big 100-year-old mango tree we have out the back,” he said.
“I have another few recipes up my sleeve which I think will work really well. Now’s the time to get the core range and tailor it to the locals, and then we can open their eyes to craft beer and drive that forward.
“I’m looking forward to winter because I’m really into my dark beers, porters and stouts, you name it. You can sit in front of the fireplace with a good beer, it’s good for the soul.”
Hower is brewing on a 12hL brewhouse from Tiantai, similar to Black Hops’ starting kit, which is being housed in the old agricultural shed.
Lewes said that developing the former fruit packaging shed was made easier by the support of the council.
“The council were good and supporting, we didn’t have any dramas. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before, but it’s the normal hoops you have to jump through with the DA and all that,” he explained.
The venue’s claim to fame is that the first pack of Kettle chips was packed out there, but more importantly it’s been a lynchpin of the rural community for more than 50 years, Lewes explained.
“It was known in the area as a meeting place, so everyone from all the farms in the area used to come there with their fruit and veg and pack it, and in the afternoons they’d come and have beers.
“It was always a stopping point and we liked that, so 50 years later we’ve kept that same concept and that authentic vibe to it as well. We’ve put a few quirky things in but it’s on a 25 acre working avocado farm, and not much has changed.”
He said that the surrounding community was welcoming of the project.
“Everyone’s excited to see something different and unique in the area as well, because there’s so much history, everyone is keen to pop their head in. It’s got a really cool following locally and the response has been really positive.
“You even see some of the brewers [from Stone & Wood] come through, their big wholesale shed is only 15 minutes from us, so you get the guys over in their high vis.
“They’ve been so amazing and supportive towards us, it’s a good little relationship we’ve got going.”
He said that opening the brewery was a big moment and a great experience so far.
“We’ve enjoyed the whole process. I’m doing this with my mates, turning up to work and seeing my best mate there, something you’ve always dreamed about and the space, and seeing everyone in it. It’s a cool feeling to have put all those pieces of the puzzle together.”
Red Earth Brewery is located at 592 Cudgen Rd, Cudgen NSW 2487. It will be open Fridays to Sundays from 11am to 8pm.
Brewery openings are presented by Spark Breweries and Distilleries, the finest in-venue and production brewing systems available, with local design and support.