NSW’s Mountain Culture Beer Co. is turning a COVID-19 pivot into a permanent strategy as it looks to focus further on production.
The COVID-19 crisis forced Mountain Culture’s founders DJ and Harriet McCready to rethink their initial aim to be a local brewpub as demand for packaged beer grew.
During the pandemic period, Mountain Culture’s capacity grew from 100,000 litres a year to half a million as the brewery invested in upgrades to keep up with this demand.
“[When we started] there were so many breweries competing for space, I didn’t think there needed to be another one, but the demand for the beer has been insane, we’re really rethinking what we do,” explained DJ.
“It forced us to change up what we were doing with our business plan really quick – we had always intended to sell a bit online and have a canning line here, but it really accelerated that.”
The McCreadys opened Mountain Culture in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains a year ago. Like the rest of the world, they had no inkling of what was to come just a few short months after opening – not just COVID-19, but the bushfires too.
“Taking on a heritage building in the Blue Mountains was always going to be a lot of work, but it was worth it,” explained DJ.
“We were so happy about the opening – the first month our numbers were twice as good as we thought there would be. We thought this was great, we’ve made it – then the place completely caught on fire.”
The brewery had quickly gained a local reputation, DJ explained, but the team weren’t prepared for the storm that was about to hit.
“People were sitting out on our deck and there were helicopters and it was so smoky you couldn’t even see the mountain view.
“It was a rough start! But ‘shit happens!’ we thought. Next year will be great, this place has gone through a lot already, it won’t happen again – that’s what we thought!”
And then disaster struck for a second time.
McCready said that everything had started to shut down and events were being cancelled in the aftermath of this year’s Resin Fest.
“I remember that drive back from Melbourne where we’d been with our mates at Range and Mr Banks. We were like, ‘fuck, what have we done?’ We opened this brewpub then there were the bushfires, then COVID.
“It seemed like a really hard time, we were just starting to get a bit of notoriety as a brewery and our beer was doing well…now what do we do?”
Instead of dwelling on the poor hand they and the rest of the industry had been dealt, the McCreadys jumped into action.
“Let’s drop everything we said. Let’s get our online store going, we’re going to can all of our beer.
“Within that first week, people were emailing us orders from all over. Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney. They were saying they hadn’t been able to make up to the Blue Mountains but wanted to try our beer.
“Beer reviewers were getting the beer and giving us great reviews and talking up the beer, so that gave us a bit of a name really quick.
“In the second and third week, we were selling out. Holy shit it went crazy.”
McCready explained they were selling 20-30 cases at the start, which very quickly escalated to 300 cases online a week.
“So we did an expansion. We basically tripled tank capacity and went from being able to brew 100,000 litres a year to 500,000 out of our pub.
“It changed the game for us.”
He’s working seven days a week, 12 hours a day to meet demand, and DJ’s background at production-focused breweries like Modus Operandi Brewing Co. helped them transition to larger volumes of packaged product faster.
“We were selling way more beer than we ever thought possible after being open for 6 months,” he said.
Moving to production
“I’ve been in the industry for a long time and worked for a lot of different styles of breweries. They all had their eye on distribution or were already distributing.
“Most of my experience is production anyway so I’m feeling like moving back towards that.”
The brewpub has been able open back up, although the venue, which is licensed for 250 people, can have only 85 now due to reduced capacities. It’s open three days a week with plans to open an extra day too.
When it comes to distribution, Mountain Culture has an online store as well as selling beer through other bottle shops up and down the coast. Limited releases have also helped keep the hype going, and McCready estimates the team have brewed 45 beers this year.
“We do a very small amount of distribution, any beer we get out of here is really because we’re mates with the owners of the bottle shop. We’ve sent a few pallets down to bigger bottle shops in Melbourne that do a really good job.
“We could sell it all ourselves, but I like the idea of sending beer elsewhere, to those customers who appreciate good beer and I want them to be trying it and giving us feedback – I try to save it to send to at least one new person.
“Last time I looked at the list though we had 450 accounts wanting beer and we’re maybe able to service 20.”
McCready said it was a good problem to have, and he was happy to see the reaction to Mountain Culture’s beer.
“It’s excited me a lot to see how people have responded to the beer.
“I’m being caught in the trap a bit though, thinking it would be so cool to be in WA or Tasmania for beer festivals.
“[Further distribution and expansion] is something that’s on our radar, just because we kind of have maxed out our facility here, maybe it’s something we should do more of.”
The McCreadys have not only had to deal with two major crises and a major business ‘pivot’, but the birth of their daughter this year as well, which they have taken in stride.
“I love reading people’s comments online where they think we’re this big business and everything is structured, corporate and intentional when we’re actually constantly flying by the seat of our pants.
“But it’s been fun, even though it’s been a crazy couple of years. You eventually get used to the chaos and evolve to meet it. That’s how we’ll keep going.”