Burleigh Brewing Co. is celebrating 15 years in business this year as well as an expansion which will see the Gold Coast brewery’s capacity reach 10 million litres annually.
CEO and co-founder Peta Fielding, who, along with partner and head brewer Brennan returned to Australia from Hawaii to set up Burleigh in 2006, said reaching this milestone felt unbelievable.
“I don’t even know what adjective to use. It’s amazing, its a bit scary in a sense, am I 15 years older? Far out!
“I always said I didn’t know what it would look like [to “make it”] but I knew how it would feel. But in terms of physical size and how much beer it would make, it’s been impossible to imagine.”
In 2006 there was a very different craft beer scene in Australia, and as Burleigh approaches 10 million litres with the help of its latest expansion project, Fielding looked back on their years in the industry, and forward to sustainable, long-term growth.
Burleigh Brewing in the beginning
Like most businesses, Burleigh started out on a piece of paper as a five-year plan.
“You write a three or five-year plan which when you start feels like an eternity – at that stage you want to make it through five days not five years,” Fielding admitted.
“But we got there, though not in a straight easy line, and somewhere in those five years, we started writing the next plan.”
The biggest challenge in the beginning however was educating customers.
“Something that was not a challenge but a shock is that we had come from the US brewing industry. When we started Burleigh in 2006, Brennan had already been brewing for a decade in America. There was a vibrant craft beer industry at the time, with something like 2,000 breweries and people were saying the market was tapped out – though there’s 8,000 now.
“One of the reasons to come home and do Burleigh is that we didn’t see any of that happening in Australia.
“But we still didn’t appreciate that because that market didn’t exist and the consumer demand or awareness didn’t exist, how difficult it was going to be to get awareness and profile and get the word out.
“We threw open our doors, and in the newspapers they were asking, who do these people think they are? Opening up in the shadow of one of the biggest breweries in Australia, making less than the big guys can spill on the floor in a day.”
International beers were considered the height of premium beer drinking at the time, she explained.
“There was a mindset that if it’s just made down the road how good it can be? Now they realise if it’s down the road, it’s fresher.
“Brennan and I would be in bottle shops doing beer tastings, I’d be in one, he’d be in another. We’d call each other and ask ‘how many people have you convinced to have a sample?’ You literally couldn’t give out free beer.
“Matt [Kirkegaard, Brews News editor] was out there with us – it was only those of us that were there that knew what it was like! As an industry we were blessed with people like that.
“I’m proud of Brennan too, when we were putting beers in front of people, it was like him putting himself out there to be judged, I’m sure it was more personal for him. Our original brand was Duke, and on a Friday tasting someone said is it Duke or Puke!? That’s personal!”
Times moved quickly though and it soon became time for Burleigh to adapt to the changing landscape.
“All our marketing was about craft beer or beer and educating people about what’s different about a brewer that’s not global, at the time it didn’t matter about brand Burleigh just yet, we had to teach people some stuff,” Fielding explained.
Once the initial education was well underway, it was time to turn their attention to the Burleigh brand itself, and while that has been evolving ever since, its core principles have stayed the same.
“There’s so much noise, people just trying to put too many crazy things in beers to get attention, to be as novel and as crazy as you can. So it’s hard to get awareness and profile and so on, and I think, get your home turf sorted first, and make sure you can make bloody great beer before you stand out for the wrong thing.
“We’re about good beer and can have some fun with it and fundamentally we want to brew great beer, we brew a new beer every single week but equally we get just as excited about a dark ale recipe from 400 years ago and making it great.
“Lots of homebrewers talk to Brennan for his advice, and I’ve heard him say it so many times – pick one beer, brew it, do it again, brew it the same, brew it again, brew it 10 times in a row and get it perfect every time.”
The beer landscape is almost unrecognisable from 15 years ago, but the growing competition isn’t a huge concern for Burleigh – in fact the opposite.
“That there’s competition now is a blessing, it’s not just us!”
Find out more about Burleigh Brewing on the Beer is a Conversation podcast with Peta and Brennan Fielding.
Burleigh has maintained a strong position in the market, and has consistently been ranged with national retailers, but the secret of securing the elusive national ranging isn’t just one thing done well, Fielding explained.
“It’s 15 years of consistent quality and consistently turning up with them from a business perspective.
“What’s the formula? I don’t know that we could come up with one, but I believe it’s connected with winning locally first. Start close to home and get it right at home first. If you haven’t nailed everything there, it could be the undoing of you, you don’t get a second chance with national ranging.
“We were very focused on not magnifying or duplicating an imperfect system, product or process. It definitely wasn’t an overnight thing.
“Craft beer to me is fundamentally about local and about close to home and freshness. It’s absolutely vital to have that home turf success and workable, perfected model first, before you try chasing low hanging fruit or it will bite you in the butt.”
However being ranged nationally comes with added pressures.
“What if you need to triple your capacity in a week at Christmas? That might be easier if you’re a big brewer, you can pasteurise and have it sitting around longer, it can be done in a craft beer model but there’s a bit to figure out.
“Philosophically and from a practical business perspective, we’re mindful of what it’s like to work here and the rhythm of life and we don’t want to be adding people short term to meet some big commitment of beer somewhere and have to lay them off cause it was one-off, we’re more long term than that.”
As part of its plans, growth is on the agenda as Burleigh looks to keep up with demand.
“We keep punishing ourselves, we had one massive move in 2015 and I wish we could invest in a building with stretchy walls!”
This time round, Burleigh is investing in a new building for cold storage as well as expanding its fermentation and packaging capabilities.
“Brennan has oversight of production and quality, he has a great team doing the day-to-day but when you throw expansion and equipment sourcing commissioning and planning, it feels like we’re building a brewery over and over again.
“When we got our keys to our very first building, I remember standing in the car park, and thinking ‘oh my god, it’s so big, how will we fill it?’ and that was nothing.
“I feel like we’ve taken the roof off three times this year, we’re always adding tanks!”
Burleigh started off with a 50hL system, before moving to a twin 50hL system after making its previous major expansion project in 2015.
“Now we have a 50hL and a 100hL with plans to take it to two 100hLs with a 50hL,” she explained.
“Then tanks need to be added to catch all the beer. We’re also putting in a new kegging line, and upgrades to cooling, heating, all the things we need to grow and expand.
But Burleigh won’t be moving to a 24-hour brewing cycle, no matter what size it gets to.
“I’m passionate about brewing Monday to Friday, maybe with overlapping double shift until 6.30pm or 7pm because we want to be able to brew more and more but we also want people to have a life.”
This consideration for staff and willingness to build staff up has stood Burleigh in good stead.
“Because above all else, I’m proud of the team we’ve built,” said Fielding.
“We’ve just been away for a team trip, and it reminded me how grateful I am of what an awesome group we have, they are wild and crazy but also completely proactive.”
But despite reaching a major milestone, there are no plans in sight to make any changes or move on from the business.
“Would we ever retire? Well, we’d love to be able to slow down a little bit, but for us if we had one more day away a week we’d be ok! But I don’t think either of us want to retire.”
Taking an offer from a big brewery is definitely not on the cards.
“You know what it would take, they’d have to buy us off and pay for all the mortgages of everyone in the team, and I don’t think even the big guys could afford it!”