It has been said before that winemakers love beer more than wine, whether it be for reasons of speed of production, or simply for a change of pace. Two such winemakers, Sam Hambour and Duncan Gibson, have taken that to its logical conclusion, and have now set up shop brewing beer in the back streets of Footscray.
The two young brewers were making wine in Central Otago in New Zealand when both began dabbling in homebrewing, taking on local homebrewers in competitions and developing a healthy rivalry to see who would come out on top.
But, after bidding farewell to the wineries of Otago to pursue an 18-month stint making wine around the world, Duncan got antsy to return to the Antipodes. He got in touch with Sam, who had since landed on the Mornington Peninsula, to see if there was any interest in giving the craft beer scene in Melbourne a go. The answer was a resounding, "Yes!" and Hop Nation was born.
They landed in Melbourne in mid-2014 and, after a few months of planning, started off their new brewing adventure with a contract brew at Hawkers, making use of the state-of-the-art equipment available to them.
Making the transition to commercial scale brewing was an adjustment for the pair as they applied their winemaker’s minds to larger brews than their previous homebrewing endeavours had allowed for. After a few trial runs and recipe alterations, they released their first commercial brew – The Fiend Australian IPA in June 2015 – at which point we first shared their story.
Since then, their American red ale, The Buzz, and The Damned New Zealand pilsner have joined the core range, with a few specialties, including a Russian imperial stout and a Reisling-pilsner hybrid rounding out the ranks. But, beers aside, the biggest challenge had been in finding a brewery space to call their own.
But, in November 2015, came a phone call that changed the game. A friend of Duncan’s who worked at Sawmill Brewery near Auckland said they were selling their 12 hectolitre brewery and Duncan could have first dibs if he was quick. An offer followed later that afternoon, one that was promptly accepted, and the search for brewing facilities in Melbourne began in earnest.
After comparing multiple locations around Victoria, Footscray came out on top thanks to its burgeoning craft beer market, youthful population, and ever-growing list of restaurants and bars keen to make a mark. They opened the doors to their brewery and cellar door at the end of July 2016.
The building they settled on, with its chapel-esque sloped brick roof and huge arched architraves, forms an incredible backdrop for their wooden-clad brewkit. It seems the graffiti artist they commissioned felt the same, creating huge stained glass windows for the cellar door bar. Walking in, the impact is immediate – you’ve entered a church in which to worship at the altar of water, hops, malt and yeast. And, given their background, barrels.
It's quite the find too, tucked away in an industrial estate; arrive there when the party's in full swing and there's a welcome touch of warehouse party – as well as warehouse brewery – about the place.
Hops earn their place in the brewery’s name, and lend themselves to the brewery’s mantra of "In Hops We Trust", but wood will never be too far behind, as their winery connections allow for easy access to a range of barrels. In fact, both brewers still work among the vines – Sam at Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula and Duncan at Yering Station in the Yarra Valley.
This meeting of hops and vines certainly plays through into their beer, with hop selection often leaning towards varieties from countries in which they enjoy the terroir, and barrels dotted around the brewery ready for their expansion into barrel-ageing as the brewery grows.
Their first barrel beer, The Kalash, came in at 10.2 per cent ABV and was aged in Pinot Noir barrels for six months. It sold out quicker than either of them expected when released in May 2016, giving an indication that barrels might just form a significant part of the Hop Nation story in years to come. But first, as the name suggests: hops.