When launching a brewery, sometimes staring down the barrel of brewing history at the great names that have come before you can be an intimidating task. How to reach those heights when you’re only just stepping away from brewing in your own back yard?
But Wolf of the Willows founders Scott and Renae McKinnon saw this not as a conundrum, but as an inspiration. Drawing upon the history of Californian brewery Russian River’s infamous double IPA, Pliny the Elder, a seed was planted that would give their new brewing venture a name.
Roman naturalist and military man Pliny the Elder, or Gaius Minor Plinius Caecilius Secundus to give him his full name, has been credited as the first to name the hop vine in his writings, using the term lupus salictarius, or ‘wolf among the willows’, to describe a plant believed to be wild hops. To Scott’s history-loving mind, that proved romantic enough to bestow the name upon the new brewing company.
But brewing had been in the blood long before Pliny the Elder was even a concept in Scott’s mind. His interest in fermentation began with brewing ginger beer with his dad while he was still too young to drink it. That interest was later reinvigorated in his early 20s as he spent a couple of years exploring the ski slopes and craft beer bars of Colorado.
On his return to Australia, home brewing became a regular hobby and his future wife Renae came into the picture. After a few more years of brewing ‘barbecue beers’ for friends and family, going out on their own in the beer industry soon became the next logical step for the pair, especially considering Renae’s background in wine and beverage marketing.
In developing their own vision for Wolf of the Willows, Scott was determined that their beers would be balanced brews from classic styles, with their own signature touch – much like finding a wolf among the willows.
Their first beer was the XPA – or Extra Pale Ale – released in November 2014 (but not until after they had to relabel every single bottle on Melbourne Cup weekend thanks to a labelling issue), and was the clear choice for the first beer to get the bottling treatment, thanks to its popularity among McKinnon barbecue attendees.
That first choice paid off admirably, when the XPA crept its way into the final spot in The Local Taphouse Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers list just a couple of months later, when only half the first release had even been purchased. Not long after, it finished top in a Crafty Pint blind tasting panel of XPAs and session IPAs.
Buoyed by that early vote of confidence, Wolf of the Willows have since added an India Saison (ISA), Johnny Smoke Porter (JSP) and Homage India Pale Ale (IPA) to the bottle lineup.
But the biggest change of all came in late 2015 when the McKinnons secured brewery space with Dereck Hales and Diti Haniotis of Cheltenham brewpub Bad Shepherd. The 50 percent brewery ownership gives them gives them capacity to brew up to 250,000 litres a year. After 12 months of gypsy brewing at various locations, the increased control over the brewing allows the Wolf of the Willows team to experiment with more styles, and refine the beers already released.
The priority for both Scott and Renae is keeping growth steady, while allowing each beer to have time to find its place in the market. And it's a selection of beers that's been getting broader and broader over time; they're released a series of sours under the Acidulus banner and, in spring 2018, launched The Barrel Exchange Program with Lark Distillery that sees the partners release pairs of barrel aged beers and beer aged whiskies.