Back in July, the CBIA’s annual Craft Beer Awards saw some familiar names further cement their place as breweries to watch and beers to drink. The fact that Pirate Life Brewing was 2016’s Champion Large Brewery probably surprised few, while other trophy winners included long established Little Creatures, Murray's and Stone & Wood.
Yet there were some lesser known names that appeared on trophies, most notably that of Hope Brewhouse. Indeed, when it was announced that the New South Wales brewery was the winner of this year’s Champion Small Brewery, it's fair to say there were plenty who were taken aback – not least Matt Hogan, Hope's own head brewer, who took to the stage in a state of shock and bemusement.
“They had just announced all the champion beers and we hadn’t picked up a gong there so I’d pretty much written us off for anything else," he says. "I was heading to the bar to get another beer when they read our name out and I just stopped in my tracks.”
Although Hope Brewhouse missed out on the champion beer titles, they did well across a range of styles, meaning they had the best average score of all breweries in the "Small" category. The fact that they received a string of medals – for beers ranging from their Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout to their Gluten Free Pilsner – allowed them to take out the title and shows that, for Hope Brewhouse, consistency is key – and that the small winery-based brewery is one to watch.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Matt. “At the same time, it reinforces the idea that making the move from Griffith to the Hunter was justifiable.”
Originally a winemaker at De Bortoli’s estate near Griffith, Matt’s interest in beer started when a mate introduced him to homebrewing as a hobby. As is so often the case, this hobby soon turned into an obsession and Matt looked to move out of the world of wine.
Luckily for Matt, this didn’t require relocating his life or even changing his employer. De Bortoli had its own brewery producing the William Bull range of beers so Matt left the world of winemaking to take the job as assistant brewer. Less than 18 months later, he was running the show as head brewer.
Meanwhile, further north in NSW, Michael Hope, owner of Hope Estate in the Hunter Valley, was looking to start his own brewery. When Murray’s old brewery went up for sale, Michael jumped at the opportunity and bought the 12 hectolitre system. The only problem was he had nobody to actually brew the beer so, in 2014, he put out an ad and hired Matt; he's been running Hope Brewhouse ever since.
Considering the size of the brewery, and the fact that it’s winery based, Hope Brewhouse’s range is substantial. Since its inception, the Hope Brewhouse beers have rotated heavily, from pilsners and pale ales, all the way through to barley wines and barrel-aged stouts.
As head brewer, Matt has been given a lot of freedom to make whatever beers he wants, pointing out that there are only two restrictions on what he can brew.
The first is a condition of Hope Estate’s licencing agreement, which requires them to offer a mid-strength beer. Located in Polkolbin, a small country town in the Hunter wine region, Hope Estate has an onsite amphitheatre that can hold up to 20,000 people. Over the years, the rural winery has managed to attract the likes of The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen to play there. With that many people regularly descending on the town to dance the night away to ageing rockstars, most would consider the need for a mid-strength option a smart move.
The only other restriction is that a gluten free beer must always be in the works: Michael Hope is gluten intolerant.
The CBA judges’ decision to award Hope Brewhouse with this year’s Champion Small Australian Brewery suggests allowing Matt to really take control has been worthwhile – and he’s embraced the opportunity.
“When I started I was like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “Anything I feel like brewing, or if I want to drink something a bit different next month, then I can brew it.”
It’s hard to know what effect being made Champion Small Brewery has had on Hope Brewhouse, although Matt does believe it accounts for some of their growth.
“Things are starting to pick up but we are moving into warmer months,” says Matt. “We have seen a little more interest in the products and our sales team are finding it a bit easier to get into new venues. As soon as you say you are a champion brewery then people take a little more interest.
“There’s more and more small brewers, and contract guys coming into the market every month. So bar owners see sales reps coming through their door on a daily basis who they haven’t heard of before and don’t know.
“Having a bit of credit behind you as a small guy, and being able to start that conversation [about the award] is probably going to help us a lot for the next 12 months or so.”
The next 12 months will also be a good time for anyone who wants to try the Champion Small Brewery’s beers. Until now, most of Hope Brewhouse’s beers have only been available in kegs, while their only packaged beer has been in 750ml bottles that are hand-filled.
But in the coming months the brewery is installing a canning line, which will make Hope Brewhouse beers more readily available, a move that, given the CBA judges' seal of approval, plenty of drinkers are sure to appreciate.