At the start of summer 2013, The Crafty Pint received an email from a wine expert and booze world publisher introducing us to Joseph Abboud, the chef behind Melbourne’s popular Rumi and Moor’s Head restaurants. Joseph had just returned from a visit to his mother country, Lebanon, which somehow had turned from an exploratory trip to find new flavours and ideas for the kitchen into him becoming a beer importer.
When we met soon afterwards, with Joseph bringing samples of the soon-to-arrive 961 Beers from Beirut, it quickly became apparent just how unexpected this turn of affairs had been. Having previously only been exposed to macro lagers, he had never been a beer drinker. Yet here he was with the first of many containers of beer already on the water heading from the Middle East to Australia.
Quite how he had ended up in this position soon became apparent when we met the man behind 961 Beer at its Australian launch event at Rumi some weeks later. Mazen Hajjar – former war photographer, major bank CFO and founder of two airlines yet still to turn 40 at the time – turned out to be quite the character: a passionate believer in the power and heritage of good beer who had taught himself to brew at home before building the Middle East’s first craft brewery then succeeding in exporting its beer to more than 20 countries. Little wonder Joseph had been drawn into his maelstrom…
Of course, being a chef with a fantastic palate, as anyone who’s dined at Rumi can attest, once exposed to the world of craft beer there was no turning back. And, just as his appreciation for the wonders of beer and its suitability for the dining table grew rapidly, so too did the visions Mazen had for beer in Australia. He returned again and again, falling for the country and spying the huge potential in the beer world, and began planning to build a brewery in Melbourne.
And thus it was that, less than two years after he first spoke about 961 Beer at Rumi, the first Hawkers Beer release, a highly aromatic American pale ale, rolled out of the imposing brewery in Reservoir built at a cost upwards of $3m. Two days later, it was named People’s Choice Best Beer at the Great Australian Beer Festival in Geelong; within 20 days, they’d run out of Pale Ale, while the subsequent two releases, an IPA and Pilsner, had started garnering praise from Melbourne beer lovers too.
The name of the brewery refers to Mazen’s first trip to Australia, when they took to the streets of Sydney with bags full of 961 samples and went door to door around the city’s venues promoting their wares like the hawkers of old. Yet there’s nothing old about the brewery they’ve built. The towers of steel in Melbourne’s north comprise one of the most hi-tech microbreweries ever constructed by Canadian manufacturer DME and, with a brewhouse capable of producing 45 hectolitre batches and an ever-expanding field of towering fermenters waiting to be filled, it’s one of the largest in Australia too.
There was no messing about when it came to assembling a brewery team for launch either. They brought in highly rated young brewer Jon Seltin, who made his name reinventing Bright Brewery’s beers with panache, at the start, while well known reps joined Hawkers to build a market in Melbourne. The initial reception was one of the warmest we can recall in The Crafty Pint’s existence (one local bottleshop alone shifted more than 230 cartons in three weeks) and things have grown from there.
While Joseph has since returned to his restaurants, Hawkers has grown into one of the largest independent breweries in Australia, expanding at a rate of knots, entering other states – and the UK, with its IPA available through Marks & Spencer – and installing a canning line to further expand its lineup.
The brewing team has been playing with barrels too – from bourbon to aquavit – while the team has hosted some grand events at the brewery too, even turning it into a circus for one evening.