Great Hops Brewing Co has opened its own taproom in the town of Armidale.
Adding to the brewing credentials of the rural NSW town, Great Hops launched the venue, attached to its brewery, on 26th January.
Founder Sam Martin, a dentist and biochemist, along with associates and fellow brewers Damien Blanch (a butcher by trade) and Darren Haigh (a bus engineer) launched the venue last month as an antidote to the low morale in the town after a long period of drought and the effects of the bushfires.
While Great Hops has been around for a number of years, after Martin acquired a plot of land in Armidale and started building, this is the first customer-facing venture for the team.
“We’ve been building it for some time, and did a soft opening in November getting used to the till and making sure everything was working fine,” Martin explained.
“The Grand Opening was sort of needed, we’ve been through quite a tough drought, sentiment is quite low and it was nice to do something for the town.”
Getting it off the ground
Like for most brewers though, the process of getting a taproom approved and licences in place wasn’t easy.
“My DA is hundreds of pages long with back and forth emails, it’s very hard. Some of the forms you have to fill out are 20-30 pages long,” said Martin.
“We opened the taproom at the end of November, we struggled getting a licence, as everyone does.
“We had to do sound study after sound study to build it on a rural setting.
“I talk to other breweries and they laugh because they’ve been through it. You’ve got to be persistent to open a brewery.”
While Martin and the team still work their day jobs, the taproom will bring in some revenue too.
“We’re still a family-owned company, we’ve got to keep pouring money into it, and it’s nice to see money hitting our account now, it’s very gratifying.”
But part of the reason Martin wanted a venue of their own was to add to the local community.
“The taproom is also for tourism in Armidale, you don’t want to just be a warehouse no one can come in and have a look. To not share it with anyone would be selfish.
“Retail sales do really help but it will also help build a town where people want to come and see it and build that community capital.
“Microbreweries help with that sort of thing, affecting how communities interact with each other. Any microbrewery is an asset to a town, because it’s something people talk about and give areas ownership over that microbrewery. To shut it off and not have a taproom would be a bit unfair.”
He said the input of the brewing scene, including locals Uralla Brewing and New England Brewing, have been huge help.
“It’s always been good going in and talking with Ben at Uralla about the barriers he’s faced over the years, and Ben from New England Brewing has been awesome.
“To have people like that you can call and query stuff has been great.”
Another point of difference for Great Hops is, like its name would suggest, it grows its own hops on site, namely Chinook and Cascade, although at this stage not enough to use for every beer.
“Sometimes we’ve struggled with getting the patented hops, and we’ve been able to make a West Coast IPA out of Cascade and Chinook, hops that are easily accessible,” Martin said.
“It forces you as a small brewer to use what are, at the moment, potentially less desirable hops. But they’re still as flavoursome and if you’re using them in the right kettle additions or dry hopping you can get quite unique flavours out of your beer.”
However the weather conditions in their area of NSW, like many others, has not been kind to their hop growing venture.
“We’ve been through a terrible drought the last two years. We’ve wanted to expand, we’ve got all the poles in, we wanted to propagate last year and it was just impossible.
“We weren’t even allowed to water them off the town water supply.”
Now after the rains that are dampening the countryside, Great Hops will be able to harvest an acceptable amount – enough to make their own harvest beer.
Great Hops officially launched in late 2017, and Martin admitted that moving from homebrewing had been a “huge learning curve”.
“I like IPAs and dark beers, but you’ve still got to appease everyone, your pale ales are you highest sellers and you’ve got to get used to making good ones, but the brewers I brew with they love dark beer – we just can’t brew dark beer all the time because we need to make some money!
“We started selling our beers at the end of 2017, sold our first couple of beers, a dark and a pale ale and we haven’t really changed that recipe of our Black Mountain Banshee since.
“Our pale ale has changed over the years, and everyone’s flavour of the month is an XPA, so hopefully it will take off and we’ll can it.”
His associates Damien Blanch and Darren Haigh got involved early on.
“They came up as I was building the brewery and wanted to know how to brew from all grain, and we all worked it out together.
“We had a tiny little pilot system to start with, and slowly I started finding second hand gear online and refurbishing it.”
He said their current brewkit is a CDC brewhouse made in the US in 1996.
“It’s very, very old. It was sold to someone in Japan and it was well-looked-after and not used much. I bought it off a German guy in Tokyo.
“The first big brewery we did was at the end of 2017, I remember we got our boilers, and we had to pull them through the skylight of this Port Macquarie hospital.
“We were excited about it, we’d macgyvered this thing together and it did look like it was meant to work, and it did, it was very fun and I remember heating up the mash tun and jumping out of it, excited, it was a massive win.”
The team have also been working on building some interesting technology for the brewery.
“We had to build an internal calandria, using a step-by-step build by the Barrel Brothers.
“There wouldn’t be many microbreweries in Australia with an internal calandria. I told Chuck Hahn about it, he had a big smile on his face and I think he was quite impressed with that.
“At the time we were building, YouTube and breweries were going mental which provided a huge depth of information to be able to get that off the internet and use it and build something very cheaply was awesome.”
Great Hops begins
The idea of Great Hops started with a walk into a Sydney homebrew store and a fire engine Martin bought off eBay.
“I used to drive up Victoria Road in Sydney a lot and passed a home brewing store. About 2009 I went in and bought a load of those 20L kegs and just got straight into it in the kitchen,” he explained.
“When my now wife moved in with me, I said look, you can complain about anything but these kegs. We had them hiding under the bed, everywhere.
“I am a dentist and did a degree in chemistry before dentistry, so it’s something I really enjoyed. But at that stage my brews were very basic. I was mainly making pale ales and lighter beers to impress my friends.”
After living in Sydney for 15 years, the Martins moved out to the country to get away from big city life, and inspiration for the Great Hops Brewing Co came from an unlikely purchase.
“One of my friends and I bought a fire engine off eBay and wanted to drive it to the Melbourne Cup, and we did. But when we got back I really didn’t want to sell it so I thought well, I do want to build a brewery.
“I bought a block of land in Armidale, and started designing the whole shed around the fire truck and keeping it and using it as a centrepiece for the brewery.”
It’s still located on site and used as a mobile bar, Martin said.
“It’s got four taps on it and I take it to events and stuff. The smile it brings to peoples’ faces makes it worth it, and it’s kind of like a billboard, which people love too.”
He bought the land for the brewery in 2011, although initial plans for his brewery were very different.
“I actually went to buy a brewery [Dick Brothers Brewery in Illinois] in America because I’m a US citizen as well. But my wife didn’t like the town it was in, so we came back and I decided to build one.”
Now he’s achieved his dream, Martin says he wants to keep it at a sustainable size.
“I’m very happy with the size we are, if anything I’d like to keep it the size it is and teach microbrewing.
“I think we’re a decent size to get cans and kegs out and keep the taproom open and I’m happy with that.”
The Great Hops Brewing Co taproom is open Friday to Sunday at 33 Old Inverell Rd, Armidale NSW 2350.