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Transcript: S02E02 RBN…my definition is this – Dave Bonighton

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Start of Audio (Interview starts at 2:15 of the podcast, add that to the time stamps below)

Matt Kirkegaard: [00:00] Yes, now I’m joined by Dave Bonighton, who is the head brewer at Melbourne’s Mountain Goat Craft Brewery, and also the chair of the Australian Craft Beer Industry Association. Dave, welcome back to Radio Brews News.

Dave Bonighton: [00:12] Hey, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt: [00:15] Always good to chat, mate. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.

Dave: [00:19] Yeah.

Matt: [00:20] First thing we want to do before we went anywhere, we should remind people that you have recently been elevated to the chair of the CBIA, replacing Brad Rogers, who was the foundation chair. Congratulations on the new gig.

Dave: [00:33] Thank you, Matt. Thanks, thanks, thanks very much. I don’t like the term elevation. We’re a very egalitarian board here. We’re all on the same page. We just have different tasks.

Matt: [00:45] Okay.

Dave: [00:46] Yeah, cheers.

Matt: [00:47] You’re the man who has all the responsibility at the moment, though.

Dave: [00:51] We’ll see about that, for sure.

Matt: [00:53] Speaking of responsibility, the first thing we wanted to have a chat to you about today is the definition of craft beer.

Dave: [01:00] Yeah.

Matt: [01:01] The CBIA has had a little bit of a think about exactly what you define as craft beer, and you’ve come up with a new definition.

Dave: [01:09] Yeah. Look, we really wanted … we wanted to come up with a definition. We had a look around the world at what others have done, obviously, in America. Obviously, the UK has been wrestling with a definition for a while. We thought A, in Australia it’s really hard to draw lines around craft beer now, because it’s been around for a while now and it hasn’t really had a definition. We thought, well, as CBIA, why are we doing this?

[01:45] Why are we around, and why would we define craft beer? What’s the purpose of this? At the end of the day, CBIA, being a broad church, and wanting to create an atmosphere where all craft beer benefits, where we hope to be a rising tide for floating all boats, so really … it became a call to arms almost, in a very broad term, to say well, here we are. Hopefully, it’s a definition that can grow as we grow as well, and I’m … and that’s really where it came from.

Matt: [02:22] Well, put us out of our suspense. What’s the new definition for craft beer?

Dave: [02:29] All right. I want to get these words right. Craft beer is born of a mindset, an idea between art and science, that inherently requires the skill of a brewer at the end of it.

Matt: [02:42] Okay. Craft beer is born of a mindset. Obviously, you’re bringing in the … there’s an aspect of philosophy between it. It’s not just … you can’t just look in the liquid. You have to look into the heart and the mind of the person making it, to see what their intent is.

Dave: [02:59] Yeah, yeah. Look, the intention is key. I think the liquid is very, very key as well, though. They’re really linked. It’s really an intention to go beyond what most people consider beer. I think we’re really trying to get people who wouldn’t necessarily drink craft beer to actually come on board. These are the people we’re really targeting with this definition.

[03:34] I think us in the industry as craft brewers, we all have our own definition. I think each one of us would say, well, we know it when we see it. But I think we all have a different definition of that within our minds. This definition is really about us reaching a broader audience, and having a catchcry, or even a call to arms for others who wouldn’t necessarily drink our beer.

Matt: [04:04] Narrowing down a definition for craft beer is, as you said, you looked around the world, and various beer jurisdictions have been struggling with it. Even the American Brewers Association, which has long been seen as the champions of craft beer, they’ve got their three-prong definition of independent, traditional and small.

[04:28] They’ve moved away a little bit from that idea of what traditional is. It used be malt, water, hops and yeast was the key, and they’ve started to include even corn and rice and sugar as being legitimate forms of craft beer.

Dave: [04:44] Yeah, which encapsulates the intent of the brewer from the start. It’s not so much about being strictly about hops, malt, yeast or being big or being small. It’s really much more about the intention or the mindset, as we call it.

Matt: [05:05] What intention are you looking for? The definition is a little bit nebulous, in the sense that you can’t just put a ring around a group of beers and say, “This is craft. Everything outside isn’t.”

Dave: [05:18] Yeah. It’s very hard. Look, that’s a curly question. That’s where the intention then flows to the idea between the art and the science. There’s lots of beer out there, I would say, in not only Australia, but in the world, that doesn’t display a lot of art, perhaps. If I can be … it’s really these beers are just punched out with not much inspiration or art behind them. That’s where craft can really express that, the real brewer’s intention and passion.

Matt: [06:02] Is that maybe the difference? I know what you’re saying. You don’t want to diss any beers, because any beer that brings somebody pleasure is a good beer by that measure of it.

Dave: [06:10] Of course, of course.

Matt: [06:11] But I guess is … are we looking at the difference between someone who’s living in a donga on a mine site, a shipping container that’s been converted into a bedroom, and an architect-designed house; provides the same function, but one can be executed with a little bit more artistic …

Dave: [06:32] Artistic endeavour?

Matt: [06:33] Yeah.

Dave: [06:34] Some creativity and craft, and wanting to really expand on what … and explore what beer can be.

Matt: [06:46] A big question for me then is, one of the things that the American, fairly rigid definition of craft has done, is it has created a difference between a beer that’s maybe brewed by … I’m just trying to think of who it is – MillerCoors in the United States who have the Blue Moon that we’ve seen in Australia recently. They make a Belgian-style whip. Very interesting beer.

[07:19] But when you can pump that out in huge volumes in one of the same breweries that produces Coors, which is no one’s definition of craft beer, it makes it in the consumer mind. When you can pump out great volumes of a beer at a much lower cost, because you’ve got the benefit of scale, it makes it much harder for smaller guys who have traditionally been seen as the definition of craft beer to compete on price.

[07:50] For the consumer to try and differentiate between two, to them, fairly similar tasting beers. One has a small brewery crafting it, and the other one is a highly industrialised, mechanised process making an equally good beer. How are small brewers able to maintain their price difference?

Dave: [08:14] I think from an industry organisation point of view, from CBIA’s point of view, we take the stand that if these guys are helping us to convert people away from the mainstream [indecipherable 08:30] lager and onto our beers, then that, for the industry, that helps us. I think we can still compete in that way, and in that way it becomes … the liquid becomes important.

[08:49] Even if you go back and you try a Blue Moon or a Shop Top and you’ve never had a craft beer before, and you really enjoy that, you’re more likely to then to go out and try a different craft beer. Then if you try that different craft beer and you enjoy it, you’ll go on and your craft beer journey has begun. The beauty of craft beer and our beers is: once you start down that journey you can’t go back to drinking lager or mainstream-produced lager.

[09:19] That’s … our bird’s eye view of the industry is to preach competitive review, and that’s where we think there’s a huge opportunity.

Matt: [09:35] Okay. How much is … how pragmatic is this decision to change a craft beer? One of the problems in craft beer in the past has been craft beer has been so small that … I know you guys through Mountain Goat have been trying to get a loose consortium of craft brewers together to, for example, deal with the excise issue. A long time before there was a recognised craft beer industry, you guys were leading that charge. Resources are obviously a problem for a small … for a group of small brewers.

[10:08] One of the great successes for the Craft Beer Industry Association is that having the James Squires, the Matilda Bays – as part of the organisation gives you the resources to have an executive officer, who is able to … and a team of people who is able to create things like the Craft Beer Conference that we’re going to see in Melbourne next week. They’re obviously business decisions involved in growing the CBIA to the stage that you’ve got the resources to advocate for craft beer.

[10:41] Is that an issue that’s driving the change, to make sure that the CBIA reflects a wider group of brewers?

Dave: [10:52] Sorry, I don’t understand the question.

Matt: [10:56] Okay. In … when the CBIA was first being launched, there was a breakaway group who wanted to have a very tight definition.

Dave: [11:07] Yeah, okay.

Matt: [11:08] But of course that was run purely on passion. There was no resources to it. One of the things they objected to was having the Matilda Bays and the James Squires in the association. By having them in, the CBIA has the resources to do all of this amazing work that benefits everybody. Is it hard coming up with a definition that is inclusive of the big guys, but also captures exactly what the CBIA is trying to achieve?

Dave: [11:37] I think it’s very hard. I mean I … well, that’s what we hope we achieve in doing this. It’s that whole issue of drawing lines around what is craft beer and what’s not. I think at the end of the day, we make up a very small percentage of the beer market, but we’re a really colourful bunch of girls and guys. We can’t … it’s very hard to put us in a box, and that’s our challenge. But what we do know is we’re the underdogs, and we’re the little guys as … the vast majority of us are, at least.

Matt: [12:24] Yeah. Mate, I guess that moves us on quite nicely to the craft beer industry website that’s soon to be launched and looking very much at bringing consumers in and explaining to them what is craft beer. In fact, that is going to be the URL, whatiscraftbeer.com.au. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[12:45] In the interest of full disclosure, you guys kindly asked me to do a little bit of writing for the site, for which I was paid, so that should be on the record. But, yeah, tell us a little bit about whatiscraftbeer.com.au.

Dave: [12:58] Well, basically the website goes hand in hand with our definition, and it really is a consumer-facing website. It’s called What is Craft Beer, and it’s really for the … really aimed at the guys and girls who are starting their craft beer journey, basically. The broad headings are learn beer, like what is beer, what’s hops, what’s malt, and then we go onto discovering styles, and beer and food matching. Then a map of where these breweries are, and a link to members’ websites as well.

[13:39] That’s really … hopefully this is where the “what is craft beer”, the definition, can really begin a conversation and a journey for these guys.

Matt: [13:53] It’s taken some cues from the … again, the craft beer website in the United States. You’re looking at what is beer, discover styles, covering 41 broad styles of beer that most people will be able to find in most bottle shops; beer and food, breweries, what’s new. You’re going to keep people up to date. Who is it targeting? Who’re you targeting with it? Are you targeting the beer enthusiast or the … maybe the beer newbie?

Dave: [14:25] Hopefully both. But the beer newbie is the key one for us. We have a stated aim to grow the segment just to 5% by the end of … I think we’ve got less than three years now. That’s key. We really have to get new drinkers on board. That helps a little bit. Those guys are key. But also the beer enthusiasts are also our heartland, and there’s going to be plenty of material in there for them as well.

Matt: [15:03] When is the site going to go live?

Dave: [15:06] It should be next week, all going well.

Matt: [15:10] Okay. During Good Beer Week?

Dave: [15:11] I hope so, yes. We’re doing our best.

Matt: [15:14] This might actually be … we’ll try and get this out early next week so we can send it live before then. What else is the CBIA … speaking of the resources that you guys are looking to put in place, you’ve got a website. That is not a cheap thing to put together. You’ve also put together the Craft Brewers Conference next week, as part of Good Beer Week.

Dave: [15:36] Yeah. Look, Jarrod Beckingwood [sp] in South Australia is working on an excise white paper which looks really good as well. He’s obviously a guy on the inside a little bit, so what he’s got coming is really exciting. We’re looking at putting on a National Craft Beer Awards at some point, hopefully later this year as well. The website, as we said. There’s heaps of things happening at the moment.

Matt: [16:17] Excellent. It’s an incredibly exciting time for beer at the moment, seeing the buzz. We’re all … even though it is only a small percentage of the total beer market, and less than, for example, the space that Corona occupies, but craft beer seems to be really mainstreaming, or reaching the mainstream consciousness, at the moment.

Dave: [16:40] Really. That’s probably the most exciting part. We’ve been involved in this, or I’ve been personally involved in craft beer in Australia since the mid 90s. It’s coming up on 20 years. It’s just so … it’s so heart-warming to see the more mainstream parts of the beer in the industry. It’s yeah … it’s really an exciting time.

Matt: [17:12] It must be fairly energising, as you said.

Dave: [17:15] Absolutely.

Matt: [17:15] You had a long time of banging your head against walls trying to get your beer in at all, and that takes an emotional toll. But now you’ve stepped into the chair of the CBIA, which is a fairly demanding role, in addition to your own day-to-day brewing operations. What keeps you motivated about craft beer? What keeps you going?

Dave: [17:38] Cam and I, my business partner and I, feel like we’re more inspired than we’ve ever been. It’s the … just because the word’s out, it’s easier to sell craft beer these days. In the early days we had to sell the concept of craft beer, and then sell the concept of Mountain Goat Beer. It just seems like that whole first hurdle is just melting away. That’s been where I see the industry organisations playing such a role, is really helping to drop that first hurdle away.

[18:17] Not for a small group or a select group of craft brewers, but for as many craft brewers as we can, because the more of us there are, the easier it will be for all of us, and the better the beer consumer is going to be for it in this country.

Matt: [18:36] Well, Dave, mate, thank you very much for your time today. I look forward to catching up with you in Melbourne next week. Congratulations on all you’ve achieved, and really look forward to seeing how whatiscraftbeer.com.au.

Dave: [18:48] Great, Matt. Thanks very much. We’ll talk soon.

Matt: [18:51] Okay. Thanks mate.

Dave: [18:52] Cheers. Bye.

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