As the craft beer landscape becomes more crowded, it gets ever harder for new brewers to stand out. It's the case even in Tasmania where, up until 2014, the number of breweries was pretty static, remaining stubbornly in single figures, before an explosion that quickly took the total to 20 and beyond.
There are many ways in which a new entrant to the market can try to catch the eye. And it's fair to say that Launceston based Ocho has ticked off a fair few of those. For one, Stu Grant entered the fray in early 2016 with an opening salvo of beers that featured barrels, flashes of sour, fruit and more besides. He also presented the beers quite beautifully, with eye-catching labels that are reminiscent of those of Scandinavian brewing artists such as To Øl.
But perhaps the most compelling part of Ocho's entry to the world of commercial beer was the means by which he planned to get beers to his customers. The idea came from his brother-in-law and business partner Will Rainbird, a Melbourne-based web developer: each beer would be sold via the brewing company's website and shipped in eight-packs (hence "Ocho") direct to the customer. Sure, there are online retailers aplenty and brewers who will ship direct too, but no one had set up a brewing company to do this explicitly.
Clearly there was a market for their concept as early batches of beers such as the Barrel Saison, Chardonnay grape-infused Fruit Punch and delicious Black Forest – a blend of two different stouts – all sold out and soon encouraged Stu to start brewing bigger batches.
The beers were initially brewed by Stu at Van Dieman, where he was working as a brewer alongside founder Will Tatchell. The pair shared similar passions and would often brainstorm ideas or share ingredients for each other's beers.
Despite also working at a coffee roasters and having a rapidly expanding young family, Stu managed to keep to a schedule of one new beer per month – brewed, packaged and sent off to customers across Australia – in his first year, with the odd keg also sent to venues around Tasmania and to the Tasmanian Pint of Origin venues across the country. He also maintained online relationships with some of his customers, seeking feedback on the beers and trying to create a community around the beers, something that isn't easy when Ocho doesn't have a physical home.
If brewing so many new beers all the time – including those that are playing around with unusual ingredients, mixed ferments, oak, bacteria and so on – sounds over-ambitious, it's worth acknowledging that, as well as working as a commercial brewer, Stu brought 14 years of homebrewing experience to the table. Indeed, even before launching Ocho, some of his brews had poured at his favourite local, Saint John Craft Beer, and been well received.
The warm reception for Ocho in its first year emboldened him to indulge his passions further too. A sour beer enthusiast, he had a number of quirky yeast cultures developing at his home for a few years that have since made their way into commercial brews and some of the oak vessels he'd been amassing. Then there's the saison series: a collection of saison style releases, all of them different and all developed with pairing in food in mind. And then, well, we can come to other future projects when they arrive in beer form.
A few years on from launch, Stu took the show on the road, heading north to Beaconsfield to take up the head brewer role at Miner's Gold. There, he uses the brewery to keep the brewpub supplied with Miner's Gold's more traditionalist beers and Ocho's fans supplied with the sort of beers they've come to expect: funky sours, experimental IPAs, barrel-aged beers. Still busy, still creative, always worth revisiting.