If you’ve ever driven through Camperdown in Sydney’s Inner West, there’s a good chance you’ve spotted the Malt Shovel Brewery at some point. But you may not realise what the Malt Shovel brewers get up to behind the closed doors of that tall brick building.
If you’ve been around for a while, perhaps you know that Brewmaster Chuck Hahn established the Hahn Brewery on that site in 1988; it was Australia’s largest microbrewery at the time. Perhaps you know he later entered into a partnership with Lion, and that in 1998 the brewery was renamed the Malt Shovel Brewery.
You might also know this is where Lion first experimented with craft brewing, and that many James Squire beers were first brought to life here; the James Squire branding is still the predominant branding on the brewery’s exterior today. You may even know this brewery expanded in 2008, and that, while Lion brew their higher volume lines out of a number of breweries around the country, the Malt Shovel Brewery still pumps out many of Lion’s craft beer brands.
But you might not be aware of the creative undercurrent at the Malt Shovel Brewery. It began in 2009, with the brewers putting out a few special releases under the Mad Brewers label, and evolved a little further with beers like Interceptor Black IPA and Hoppy Hefe under the Malt Shovel banner. These beers were more adventurous than the James Squire core range, but still played by some of the same rules. But each year saw the brewers push a little further, until in 2019 they broke free, and the brewers were given free rein of their own brand: Malt Shovel Brewers.
As soon as you see a Malt Shovel Brewers label, you get there’s something different about it. Take their one and only core range beer: an XPA called “This Is Our XPA”. The recipe was a team effort, and the label reflects that - it depicts the nine brewers who worked together on the XPA as avatars. There’s Haydo, Freshie, Skorch, Viking Rich… they all get credit for the beer, and each team member’s identity becomes part of the brand. Each limited release beer then showcases the avatar of the brewer who conceived of it, and even those of any supporting brewers.
“It’s the only beer brand I’ve seen based on the people making it,” says Haydon Morgan - Haydo - the head brewer at Malt Shovel. “This is our brand. We’re the brewers. We are on the label.”
Some of the limited releases are keg only, making their way to venues around Sydney and guest starring in James Squire venues around Australia. Some of them make it into cans, sold exclusively in Vintage Cellars. All of them are beers the brewers at Malt Shovel want to brew and drink for themselves.
The Malt Shovel Brewery is a mix of old and new, big and small. It’s still a production brewery for other craft lines of Lion. It’s still not accessible to the public, though the Malt Shovel Brewers are hoping to get licensing for one-off events from 2020, as they used to for Sydney Beer Week. It still uses an old copper brewhouse that’s more than half a century old (though the inside has been refurbished with stainless steel).
But the Malt Shovel Brewers are passionate about their craft. Their trusty ol’ brewhouse is far from being all automated, instead requiring a lot of hands-on attention from the brewers. They’ve retrofitted their fermenting tanks to cope with more hops as they’ve kept their recipes evolving to pack more punch. They’ve been members of the Inner West Brewers Association since its inception.
And when it comes to their Malt Shovel Brewers label, they stick to the adage: brewers brew the beer they like to drink, then they sell whatever’s left.