Before Paul Holgate sat down to chat about the sizeable expansion his brewery is undertaking, he said something to Kerry McBride that was immediately apparent on entering the new space.
“It’s bloody big, isn’t it?”
He wasn’t lying, and considering the Andrews government has announced it's chipping in $1.5 million for the project it's clearly going to make waves.
But, as one of the pioneers of craft brewing in Victoria, someone who's always valued the means as highly as the end, it’s an upgrade that has not been undertaken lightly, as he explained over a beer.
In the early 2000s, when Paul and Natasha Holgate were looking for a home for their growing beer business, the red-bricked Commercial Hotel in Woodend fit the bill perfectly. The building offered a place for their brewery to spread its wings, a bar and restaurant from which they could ply their wares, and space for hotel rooms up above.
But, more importantly, it came with a plot of land large enough that Paul and Natasha could look ahead to the day they’d need a much bigger brewery, and have the space to build it.
Now, 15 years on from Holgate taking up residence on a corner off Woodend’s main street, the time has come. And, as Paul will readily admit, it's a day they thought would have arrived sooner.
Looking at how the American beer industry had boomed, they believed Australian craft beer may well follow suit in the not too distant future. The brewery they are now building has been designed for years to come, right down to the placement of individual fermenters and a mezzanine level intended to maximise the available brewing space.
Beyond that, the new space will also include a visitor’s centre where tourists and locals alike can learn about the brewing process and understand the complexities of creating craft beer, and allow for 15 more local jobs.
“When we started the business in 1999, we had an idea of the growth Australian beer might see, but not much money to drive the changes ourselves,” says Paul.
“We sort of thought that in the late 2000s it would really be booming, but by the late 2000s it had really only just started. It’s only been the last five years that beer has finally been hitting its straps. It has taken a lot longer than I think anyone anticipated.”
That slow development could be the result of many factors, Paul says, ranging from the impact of regional loyalty to certain beers to the excise tax laws that help push Australia’s beer prices up higher than many of its western neighbours.
For Holgate specifically, they were dealing with limited capital to get things moving, instead building their business incrementally, in step with the industry's growth.
“It’s one of those things where being a small startup that’s an independent family business is tricky. Without the level of marketing and promotion [that some breweries could afford], it’s taken a lot longer than what we originally anticipated.
“Back then, there was a very limited craft beer following. In a way it was good, because there were only a few breweries. But now there is a strong craft beer industry and demand, but there are also a lot more players and a lot more competition. The landscape has changed in a big way.”
With the shifting of the landscape came opportunity. Now, Holgate’s biggest project yet is within reach. While they will not be starting off with the new brewery at full capacity, they will in time be able to brew up to ten times their current volumes. New German bottling and kegging lines will also assist in taking things up a notch.
For now, the team is still brewing every Holgate beer you'll see on its 20 hectolitre brewhouse, producing multiple batches to fill a combination of 50 and 100 hectolitre fermenters.
“Our plan is to put in a 50 hec brewhouse in about 12 months’ time," says Paul. "We can then add further fermentation capacity over the years as we grow.
“The relatively easy part is making beer; marketing and delivering on sales is an art form and a tough gig, especially with how much competition is out there.”
For Paul and Natasha, the visitor’s centre is also an integral part of this next stage; building will start in the next month. All being well, Paul hopes to see it open towards the end of the year.
“We as an industry need to get across what good beer is, what makes it, and what the ingredients are. I see that as a key reason for having this visitor’s centre.
“We’ll be able to showcase and teach more people and educate them about how beer is made, the ingredients, and the basic principles. People in the brewing industry or homebrewing already know this stuff, but there are so many more people out there we need to reach."
While work is still underway, there is plenty to keep the Holgate team occupied. A new batch of their widely acclaimed Wild Red Ale is busy ageing in barrels stored away from their Woodend site, and their latest release – a Sour Brett Ale featuring two strains of brettanomyces – has just been rolled out.
So, as any beer geeks reading would love to know, does more space mean more playing around with barrels and sours? The answer: kind of.
Due to the time, expense and energy of packaging specialty beers and barrel releases, many of those beers will be keg only, or potentially only available at the cellar door.
Exploring new techniques and flavours will always be part of the Holgate approach, but what the new brewery really offers is a guarantee that Paul and Natasha can keep production in house and close to home.
“We’re futureproofing our business for the next ten years and longer. We won’t need to go outside and contract out our beer, it can all be brewed here for at least the next decade,” says Paul.
“You can get bogged down and weighed down by the enormity of what we’re trying to do, especially as an independent brewery with limited capital. We’re working hard and it’s exciting to see this finally come together.”
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed newspaper journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.