With a smiling face, thin goatee ripe for thoughtful stroking, sparse tattoos and wavy hair reaching halfway down his back, Tim Thomas appears as though he’s just walked off stage from the halcyon days of death metal rather than a family man who runs a small brewery in rural New South Wales. But as it is with books and covers, judging brewers by their coiffure is nothing but folly.
It was in 2011 that Tim and his wife, Tess, started HopDog BeerWorks in her home of Nowra, a small town on the South Coast which serves as something of an industrial hub for the many pretty hamlets around the Shoalhaven River.
From the time the brewery opened, and for several years afterwards, HopDog was served proudly by a 200 litre brewhouse that, as far as commercial operations go, was surely one of the smallest setups in Australia. With it, Tim would churn out a handful of kegs at a time, full of beer that was often confronting, occasionally polarising but always representative of his uncompromising attitude; essentially a stiff middle finger aimed at easy-drinking lagers. Out of that, HopDog developed something of a cult status amongst dedicated craft beer drinkers, the brewer’s signature fluorescent green bottle caps popping out on shelves with the promise of something different.
Growing popularity, coupled with that almost impossibly small brewing system, meant demand constantly outstripped supply. Beer could be found somewhat reliably in Sydney and, less reliably, Melbourne and Brisbane but such were the limitations that some regular visitors to the brewery believe they were victims of a curse, owing to the fact that every time they turned up a beer would have just run out. Finally, in 2014, a new, bigger brewery and packaging line were installed. Six new 800 litre fermenters gave HopDog something resembling an economically sensible production capacity while significant investment in a bottling machine began paying itself off immediately; instead of hand bottling their beers which once took an entire eight hour day, a six pack could now be filled in a shade over 12 seconds.
For their part, the beers, now produced in tanks with imposing names like Gorak The Destroyer, still maintain their bold, generally hop-forward character that is Tim’s signature; on the wall of the brewery is a chalk illustration of the brewing process where beer’s ingredients, as according to the HopDog methodology, are listed as water, malt, yeast and “an insane amount of hops”.
While hoppy beers form the foundation of the brewery’s output, there’s a sense that Tim has broadened his horizons and become, dare it be said, more refined. In recent years he’s been winning more praise for beers with a Belgian influence and, in particular, the wild or barrel fermented releases featuring sour and fruit characters. The brewery has around half a dozen barrels which, after several years of regular use and a loose view on cleanliness, have nurtured some organism (or, more likely, several) into something that does increasingly interesting things to a beer. This was evidenced when the team from Texas’ famed farmhouse brewery Jester King came to Australia in 2015 and, having tasted his Alluvial Peach, hunted Tim down specifically in order to discover the secrets. The soundtrack at the HopDog brewery has always been heavy metal, but on this form it’s the funky barrels which may be playing the best music in the house.
With the increase in capacity they’ve been able to branch out into other areas such as the roaring trade in selling fresh wort (the unfermented base of beer) kits to home brewers as far away as Canberra. They now even have enough space to accommodate passing gypsy brewers keen to take a bit of knowledge from Tim’s nearly fifteen years as a commercial brewer, stretching back through stints at the Lord Nelson Brewery and Five Islands (now the Illawarra Brewing Company).
The evolution of the tasting room perfectly encapsulates the reality and evolution of HopDog as a small, family-run business. Adjacent to the brewery, the bar started out, like the original brewhouse, tiny and just functional enough to get by. That’s because most of the space was set aside as an impromptu nursery for Tim and Tess’ children who literally grew up in the brewery with mum and dad toiling away in the background. Now that they’ve grown up a bit, the kids’ day care has become a place for grown-ups which includes a proper six tap tasting bar with tables and places to perch while enjoying a few brews. And it’s just as well too, as around half of everything they brew is now sold locally or through the cellar door.
Buoyed on by a burgeoning microbrewing industry, HopDog is undoubtedly far bigger, better and faster than when they started but they’re still doing what they’ve always done: making beer their way and having a lot of fun doing it.