The past ten years represent arguably the most exciting decade in the history of beer in Australia. The number of brewing companies has more than doubled since 2005, acceptance of what was once readily dismissed as "beer for wankers" or a fad has crept towards mainstream acceptance, the prefix "boutique" has been pretty much banished from usage, and quality and diversity of beer is on the rise.
Sure, there are issues and challenges ahead, not least the increasing number of brands flooding the market from larger companies that seem to compensate for a lack of authenticity or genuine story with talk of the "craft sector" and "craft considerers", marketing budgets that dwarf their microbrewery peers, and well made but deliberately toned down offerings. Yet, undeniably, the present and future outlook are rosy.
A significant reason for the current and future situation is the maturing of the market. Many of the better known names in the local beer industry have been celebrating major milestones – Nail and Holgate turning 15, Bootleg 20, Grand Ridge and Lord Nelson 25, Hargreaves and Feral 10. And, in the past few weeks, two more Victorian breweries, both with authenticity and colourful back stories to celebrate, have turned 10 too.
The proximity of the anniversaries for Red Hill and Bridge Road, who have played significant roles in the growth of the beer scene in the state with the biggest craft beer industry, presented a unique opportunity. It enabled us to pose the same questions of both – some personal, some more general – to be presented side by side as views from two breweries that share much in common yet have distinct personalities too.
And here's what Ben Kraus (Bridge Road) and Karen and Dave Golding (Red Hill) had to say.
Describe the moment when you decided to start a brewery?
Ben Kraus: I'm not sure I can put my finger on the exact moment. But it was sometime in 2002 that I gave the idea serious consideration. After living on and off in Europe (Germany, Austria and Scotland), I'd been given a taste of what was out there once away from Australian shores. And, more importantly, what was lacking in Australia each time I returned.
The Goldings: We were both working in corporate careers, and knew that we were unlikely to want to keep doing that for the next 20 years… One day, Karen came home from work and said: “I’ve got it, let's move to the country and start a brewery!” As a keen home brewer, Dave couldn’t have been more happy!
How did you decide where that brewery would be and what it would be called?
Ben Kraus: My decision to put the brewery in my home town was an easy one. If my travels had taught me anything, it was that the little town I grew up in had a lot going for it. And, perhaps most importantly, it was and is where my family live.
I owe the entire existence of the brewery in its current form to the support I received from my parents and partner Maria (pictured right with Ben in the first days of the brewery); I was allowed use of my parents' shed to begin the brewery in their garage without charge.
The name was harder; I initially thought Beechworth Brewers would be the name, but found the name Beechworth Brewery was registered and my name would not be accepted. At the eleventh hour, due to our street name, our proximity to the Beechworth iconic gorge and stone bridge, Bridge Road Brewers became our name.
The Goldings: We originally dreamed of it being around the Milawa / King Valley region. We spend a lot of time in the region [and] had travelled through New Zealand and WA / Margaret River, and the integration of a rural area, wineries and food tourism seemed a natural fit for craft beer.
Ultimately, both of us had a strong connection to the Mornington Peninsula, and being close to our family was important. As was the ability to still commute to Melbourne for work for many years until we were set up. So Red Hill was the natural choice – to be in the heart of the best foodie destinations on the Mornington Peninsula. Hence the name of course.
Where did you expect to be in ten years?
Ben Kraus: Honestly, no idea!
The Goldings: I think we thought we would be running a tiny business, doing everything ourselves, deliveries, cooking… the lot. The popularity of our brews necessitated a very quick upscaling!!! More efficient packaging, warehousing, crew to brew, run the bar, food, office...
Every year, we make more beer and need more help! We are in a different place to what we thought and it continues to evolve and grow.
Tell us about the first brew day.
Ben Kraus: The first brew day was conducted in conjunction with Simon, the former brewer of the equipment I had purchased from South Australia, from the defunct Laurence Victor Estate brewery. We brewed an old ale, and I remember the day running mostly smoothly, despite tripping the electrical mains throughout the boil, a problem solved by duct taping the circuit breaker to "On" for the day.
The Goldings: There were a few hiccups to get started. Our friend and brewing legend Ben Middlemiss [one of New Zealand's earliest craft brewers] was en route to brew our beers with us for a few days. The brewery came from the US and all the electricals had to be redone; it took a lot of work from our sparky, Dave Power.
When it came time to fire it all up to brew, the equipment started banging and rocking like it was about to take off to the moon. So back to square one with that; Ben was on hold.
Ultimately, the actual first brew went well: Dave’s dad and our seven-month-old baby Grace were chilling on a banana lounge watching it all – it was quite a celebration.
Has there been a standout highlight from the past decade?
Ben Kraus: I think each time we make progress in our brewing techniques to improve our beer or develop a new beer that I really enjoy becomes a highlight.
Obviously, having the opportunity to represent our beer internationally, such as last month in California, is always memorable. [Bridge Road has secured distribution in California where there is particular interest in Ben's use and championing of new Australian hops.]
The Goldings: Our Secret Stash event is a standout. It is always an amazing celebration of all the beers we love to make, and it is really inspiring to us to see so many beer lovers, many of whom have become friends over the years, come to party with us year after year and love what we do.
And any lows – moments when you felt like packing it all in?
Ben Kraus: Battling with the local planning authority for permission to begin brewing was probably the most stressful time I had. At 25, with my life savings on the line and 12 months of round the clock work to get the brewery and cellar door up and running, the threat of rejecting its approval was a real one that was narrowly overcome with the assistance of local council members.
The Goldings: Pretty much before we started: the council battles over planning permits. It took a couple of years in council, and was refused by them [before] we went to VCAT. It was scheduled for a two-day hearing in August, which basically became a tiny legal argument for two days over the right to even hear the case, which had to be determined first.
Then a 10-day hearing was scheduled over a couple of months. A week before it was due to start, Karen had a nasty horse-riding accident, resulting in fractured spine, trauma ward at the Alfred and a hospital stay. During this, applications had to be made to reschedule the hearing, which Karen attended in a back brace for seven days.
So this stage was that kind of thing. Pack it in was definitely on the list, but by now we were in so deep there was no backing down. The final days' hearings concluded a few months later, and it took nearly six months for the decision to be made. When it came through we were elated, but also uncertain. We took a year off to just think about whether we still wanted to go forward with it. Probably five years had passed since we first submitted the application!!!
If you could approach your own bar and order just one pint of a beer you've brewed over the past 10 years, which would it be? Why?
Ben Kraus: Only one beer! It'd have to be something big and memorable, drunk slowly and enjoyed over a range of temperature.
I'd probably go with one of our B2 Bombers, if not the one we're about to release [Mach 5.0, which is on tap at a few places and out in bottle soon] then last year's Mach 4.0.
The Goldings: Imperial Stout. So good on nitro in a pint glass. But it is snowing outside right now.
What can people expect from you over the next few years?
Ben Kraus: I expect that we will continue to develop and improve our entire range of beers; our business and brewing is ever changing. One thing's for sure, people shouldn't expect things to remain as they are.
The Goldings: We are having fun brewing some new styles this year [including ten red beers for their tenth anniversary], many of which are inspired by our travels. It is exciting to see people loving them – they have been very popular, especially our Red Smoke rauchbock. So maybe there will be more beer and more styles. There will always be more beer! And now we have the bar open permanently we look forward to having more unusual beers at the brewery and a few new changes there too.
How does the industry in Australia compare now to 2005?
Ben Kraus: Where to begin?
The craft beer industry is obviously an awesome one to be part of. A few years back it was more a case of everyone knowing everyone and meeting regularly, with the now non-existent Fed Square showcase. The craft beer industry is more diverse than it was in 2005 [and] with its expansion we are seeing breweries focus on specific styles or areas of brewing, rather than having the usual range of four or five beers.
We have also seen the emergence of beer brands perhaps with more interest in the financial potential of brewing rather than those who were primarily concerned with the hands on crafting of great products. This has been a good catalyst for the smaller, hands on brewers to increase their business skills in order to be successful.
The Goldings: Well, there is one! It's pretty apparent to anyone to see the explosion of craft beer available. And a much greater appreciation.
Our Golden Ale, which is a Kolsch, couldn’t be called a Kolsch 10 years ago [as] people would have thought it was too weird a beer, so Golden Ale it was. Now people ask us all the time: “Why don’t you call it a Kolsch?”!!!
Is the industry where you hoped it would be, or not there yet?
Ben Kraus: I think there is still some way to go. I'd like to see 80 percent of pubs in Australia with at least one craft beer from an independent brewery on tap [Or more, like the lineup at Mount Macedon Hotel in country Victoria pictured below – Ed.]. And 100 percent of decent restaurants having an IPA (along with a range of other styles) on their list.
The Goldings: It is: there are amazing beers a huge diversity of styles; the quality and variety of beers is terrific. There are more and more people getting into it all the time.
Social media helps, as there are so many people sharing their experience with friends. It would still be great to see more venues and outlets supporting Australian owned brewers and locally made beer.
More venues without contracts is needed to enable local brewers get their beer into a wider range of venues outside the craft beer hotspots and into the broader population.
The industry is growing fast – if you had one word of advice for someone considering following in your footsteps it would be...
Ben Kraus: Lead, don't follow, and stick to what you're passionate about: if you believe what you make is great then you can sell it.
The Goldings: Go brew some beer. Make sure you can make a good one and [that] it's what you are passionate about creating.
Thanks, all. Some great insight into your personal stories and views on where we are and where we're going. Interesting to see so much crossover too, from the bad – dealing with councils – to the good, such as making sure you're passionate about what you do. We couldn't agree more.
Best of luck for the next decade!