Mountain Goat wasn't the first craft brewery to launch in Australia but, for many beer drinkers – especially those who have lived in or around Melbourne, it will hold a special place in their heart. Like Little Creatures or Coopers for others, the brewery's launch beer, Hightail Ale, will rank among their epiphany beers, while the brewery's Richmond homes over the years have fuelled many a colourful tale and half-remembered memory.
Today is 20 years to the day since the first bottle of Hightail was sold so what better time to kick off a two-part look back at the past two decades? Here, and in part II on Friday, we present 20 of the beers, people and moments that helped earn Goat a place in Aussie craft beer legend.
Before we kick it off, however, a rarity on The Crafty Pint: a switch from third to first person...
Why? Well, without realising it at the time (or, indeed, for a few years), the brewery, its beers and its staff played a significant, if unwitting, role in the creation of this site. Other than whatever pot of lager was being thrown in with a cheap steak deal at the pub my wife and I wandered into on our first day as Aussie residents back in 2008, the first beer I drank upon moving to Melbourne was Hightail.
I'd long had a habit of ordering any beer I'd not seen before when at a bar – especially if it was local – and Hightail was on the drinks menu in the downstairs part of the old Stokehouse. While I'd encountered Coopers towards the end of a backpacking trip seven years earlier, I was still amazed when the waiter brought over – shock horror! – a dark beer brewed in Australia; even if it was only subconscious, something was stirred.
A few days later, my wife was called up for a bout of emergency teaching at Christ Church Grammar School in South Yarra. A young woman assisting a child in the class mentioned her boyfriend worked for a brewery. Within a few weeks, we were picked up by an old Mercedes from outside the Greyhound in St Kilda by this woman, her boyfriend and his brother and, soon afterwards, walked into the Mountain Goat brewery bar. Having expected I'd have to learn to brew in order to get something other than lager in Australia, it's fair to say this was a most welcome sight; it was a trip that would be taken often.
Cutting to the chase, from there I somehow ended up playing for Goat Army's indoor cricket team (Northcote Indoor Sports Thursday 6-a-side Cricket Division 4 Premiers 2009, no less) and meeting people from other small breweries on the team, thus realising something was going on in the Aussie beer world that research suggested lacked any decent, up-to-date coverage or online resource.
When it came to presenting my idea for solving this problem – a website initially to be called The Wobbly Boot – to the Victorian Association of Microbreweries (VAMi), both presentations took place at Goat's brewery (the second on a 38C evening at which this sweaty Jock was a mere puddle). Then there were moments covered elsewhere in these articles: The Gypsy & The Goat (still, arguably, the best beer dinner I've been involved in despite years helping create and host events for Good Beer Week), Goat Island and many more. We even asked one of their brewers and one of their reps to become guardians to The Crafty Pots...
That I'm a Johnny Come Lately to the Aussie craft beer scene goes without saying but, without the series of events involving Mountain Goat and its staff, maybe I'd have been a Johnny Never Came At All, still working as a freelance journo rather than living a life in beer.
So, apologies for the indulgence but, as Goat turns 20 and we head back across the two decades in the company of its owners and staff – past and present – it feels right to give credit where it's due. Cheers!
THE EARLY YEARS
For much of the brewery's life, Mountain Goat was very much the story of Cam and Dave – Cam Hines (pictured above in the very earliest days of the brewery) and Dave Bonighton – two mates from Melbourne. The former worked as a booker for independent Australian bands, the latter was putting his finance degree to good use as a business banker at NAB (and also happened to be a homebrewer).
Says Cam: "Dave happily tells as many people as possible that I didn’t used to think much of beer and, in fact, was known to have a shot of lime with unnamed Aussie lager to help disguise the taste. But that all changed when I took my first overseas trip as a backpacker in 1995.
"I got off the plane in Vancouver, where a music industry mate took me straight out to sample local craft beer and visit breweries. He had just toured Australia and was appalled at the lack of choice of good beer we had. My perception of beer was turned upside down that day and I immediately penned my homebrewing mate Dave back in Melbourne a postcard that said: 'Dave, we gotta talk when I get back to Aus.'"
The very first commercial batches of Dave's Hightail recipe were brewed, kegged and bottled at The Scottish Chiefs in Geelong (pictured above on their first ever bottling day) – a pretty rough and ready setup, by all accounts – before they moved to Grand Ridge, the Mirboo North brewery that had already been operating for nearly a decade. That meant beer needed to be transported to Melbourne, which is where Falci came in...
"Out first couple of years of existence relied heavily on brewing our beer in other people’s breweries," says Cam. "And, of course, we weren’t in a position to pay anyone to haul our beer around.
"So we had this lovely, honest old Ford Falcon wagon we called Falci that gave us many years of faithful service. I’d do a weekly trip down the highway to Gippsland to meet up with Dave, pack in around seven kegs and 35 cases of unlabelled Goat and drive it back to Melbourne where I would hand label it and deliver it to our couple of initial stockists.
"It had an LP gas tank installed under the rear of it and, when loaded up, that tank would scrape on the bitumen. I was always hoping not to hit a bump at high speed and have that gas tank propel me off the face of the earth."
The First Stockist
The GB was one of Melbourne's iconic pubs; indeed, it was the sort of pub you'd take people to if you wanted them to understand why Melbourne had a reputation for doing pubs well. By the time the previous owners' lease ran out after 18 years, leading their team to the Cherry Tree a short distance away in Cremorne, it was less a building housing a pub, more a living beast that had grown organically into something you couldn't hope to create by design.
Behind the GB were Chris and Penny Hodges, who also operate Eydie's in Brunswick East and whose son Josh is one of the owners behind the new Mr West in Footscray.
"I received a phone call from a guy named Cameron Hines, some time in early ’97, when I was running a pub named the Great Britain Hotel," says Chris. "Cam said that he’d recently returned from the United States where he had become very interested in the emerging craft brewing industry there and wondered if I would have the time to talk to him about what might be involved in releasing a similarly handcrafted beer to the public here.
"The only American beer I had ever heard of at that time was Budweiser and, as I was on something of a mission myself at that time to range beers at the GB that weren’t Carlton Draught or VB, I told Cam I‘d be happy to sit down and have a chat.
"At our first meeting I learnt that Cam and his best mate Dave had been homebrewing in one of their dad’s garages for some time and, having travelled to the US and seen what was being produced by craft brewers over there, felt now was the time to take their hobby to the next level. It seemed quite unlikely to me that two people with little experience and no budget to speak of would be able to negotiate the transition from hobby artists to fully fledged brewers but two things were certain: they were brimming with enthusiasm (passion was a term often used by Cam) and they were evaluating their every step in a measured and methodical fashion.
"Cam had already enrolled in a government funded training program which assisted people to set up and operate their own business. He and Dave had started throwing parties in their dad's garage every time they made a new brew and were selling such items of branded merchandise to their friends as superman capes and Y-front boxers, the proceeds of which contributed to funding their next brew. I told them if they could make a beer that all their friends would drink I would be happy to host the launch.
"It can only be six months later, though it seems a good deal longer, before the Mountain Goat brewery’s first commercial release, the Hightail Ale, was launched at the Great Britain Hotel. It was a big, rich, full bodied number quite unlike anything else on the market at the time and, in the early days of production, each bottle was labelled and capped by hand. After some initial time brewing out of a shared facility in Gippsland, Cam and Dave took a lease on a small warehouse in Richmond and a few months later released the Hightail Ale in kegs. At that time no one could foresee the enormous growth the craft beer industry in Australia was set to experience. But Cam and Dave’s enthusiasm was well founded."
Drinking Ourselves Broke
Of course, while Chris may have had belief in their project, they still needed others to jump on board this dark, malty, hoppy beer. Until they did, they went down the route many other brewers starting out in the game still follow...
Says Cam: "The sad truth was that, for the first year or so, pretty much no one was buying our beer except for Dave and me. We had just a handful of trusty stockists and Dave and I would drive between each of these pubs, sit at the bar and order stubbies of Hightail. We did get to know the bar staff, which was fun (and helpful in the long run), but we were going broke fast.
"About six months in, we got an order one Monday morning from a bar (I think it was the Napier) we hadn’t visited in a week or so and we were so pumped that someone else – maybe someone we didn’t even know – had been drinking our beer. Then, a few days later, my brother told me he had been in drinking it...
"So it was a very slow lift off for us but, slowly, slowly, a few locals we’d met started ordering our beer and we were off."
The First Full-Time Employee
By 2000, the brewery was in place at Crown Street (just around the corner from its current home) and ready to take on its first full-time employee. This was Andrew Gow, better known to many as AG. Today, after leaving Goat for a spell in New South Wales, he's back in Victoria where he's been head brewer at Mornington Peninsula Brewery from the outset.
"They certainly were heady days at Goat circa 2000," he recalls. "When a packaged beer order came through Cam would excitedly rush down the stairs proclaiming a sale. I would grab two cases of unlabelled Hightail and proceed to painstakingly label each individual bottle at which point Cam would jump in his car and deliver.
"It really was a New Age workplace – there were beanbags upstairs in which to slumber and post-lunch often involved a short nap in the malt room. Malt bags weighed 50kg and each individual bag was taken off the incoming pallet by Dave and myself and restacked in our minuscule malt room.
"The mash tun had no hatch in which to dig out the grain so one would climb into the tun with a steel bucket and proceed to dig out almost literally by hand. Similarly, one would climb in through the manhole at the base of the kettle and, with hose and scourer in hand, get to work on cleaning the vessel and individual electric elements.
"All secondary fermentation was done in keg and bottle, there was no dry-hopping, one yeast strain, manually capping bottles, no more than about five malts in house, no cool-room and an absolute scarcity of possible tap outlets. Primitive and hard yakka, but truly great days."
The Two Million Bottle Hand-Capper
"The hardest yards I can recall when starting Goat were the many mind-numbing hours we stood hand filling and labelling our 330ml bottles of Hightail," says Cam.
"We churned out just over two million of these on an old two head gravity filler and capped them with two homebrew style hand cappers we’d bolted down to a table. We just turned up the music and tried to imagine that one day we’d be in a position to afford an automated filler and capper."
It's a process perhaps more succinctly described by Sam Howard (see below), who worked in various roles at the brewery before becoming venue manager from 2004 to 2016. She describes the hand-bottling process as "long, long days starting at 6am and finishing at 7pm by which time you'd only done four pallets!"
Worse still? "Hand labelling," she says. "The shittest hand labeller in the world. AG would put me on it when he was pissed off! Let's just say a lot of the bottles were smashed on the wall!"
Crown Street Open Nights
The brewery's open nights at the original site are things of legend, attracting crowds far larger than could possibly fit into the building who drank beer far quicker than they could hope to pour it.
"Dave and I were never really interested in running a retail arm of the business but we quickly realised we needed to open the brewery up to public in the early days if we wanted to stay in business," recalls Cam. "We opened the doors of 56 Crown Street, Richmond, once a month and, at first, we were happily surprised a few dozen people rolled up and, before we knew it, literally hundreds of punters showed up.
"We set a up trestle table bar on the brewery floor, poured pints, then hand washed all those pint glasses. We’d have good music running through a small PA and we had a mate with a pizza truck feed the hordes. There was definitely a makeshift feel to the whole thing and people would literally spill onto the street.
"I remember a mate of a mate showing off on his motorbike out the front one night then he lost it and slid down the street on his back a few metres behind his careering motorbike. The punters watched the whole thing, pints in hands. How no one died I don't know."
Venue Manager Sam
Cam and Dave may have been at the centre of the Mountain Goat story and AG their first employee, but none of them would argue that Goat wouldn't have been the same place without Sam Howard. She ran the brewery venue for well over a decade before moving across the road to take over The Royston with husband Ed Harley while also moving a little further up the road to run Moon Dog's function space.
In that time, Sam had the Hip Hip Hooray IPA brewed for her in secret for her "big" birthday and oversaw hundreds of events, among them more than 250 weddings, including those of former Goats Hayden and Bec, who met at the brewery, hooked up at Meredith, then married at Goat, Moon Dog co-founder Josh Uljans and Karli, and ex-Goat rep Luke Tremewen and Steph.
"So, it's pretty hard to remember, considering a lot of beers have been drunk," says Sam of her time at Goat, "and I realised I could go forever… It's very emotional… But anyway…
"I first met the boys, sometime around when they did small tastings outside the GPB (George Public Bar) in St Kilda during a St Kilda Fest – not sure when, maybe 1999. It was literally Cam and Dave, a dodgy table and a couple of bottles of Hightail. We were the second bar to put Goat on, and it was polarising – a really hard sell – but we just fell in love with them and what they were trying to achieve so kept ordering it.
"Andrew Gow, soon to become first brewer (see above), was also working with me, as was Clare, Dave's sister. One Friday I went with to help out at an open night on Crown Street – it was bloody crazy. People spilling out over the streets, people drinking in the line waiting for their next beer it was that long. But everyone was happy. It was hectic and awesome.
"We all wore gum boots behind the bar, using jockey boxes and trestles – we would change kegs using the floor as our drip tray. There was friggin' beer everywhere. Cam running around like a rabbit in headlights."
Clearly, there was appeal in the madness as Sam joined full-time once they moved around the corner.
"It was the greatest job," she says. "There were only five of us in total at the beginning, so I would be brewing, getting the bar going and helping Cam with logistics and accounts and so on. I friggin' loved it."
It's not hard to see why. There were "many, many, many games of foosball", the competition mainly between Dave, AG and fellow brewer Hayden "H" Bellis, with Cam shouting down from his office as he was trying to work. There were afternoons when they'd shut up shop early and go sailing on Cam's boat, with, says Sam: "AG scaring everyone in his budgie smugglers."
"Then it just started to grow – more staff arrived, Joshy (Beattie), Naz (Shane Edwards – see part II) and Tommy D (Delmont – again, see part II). Music was a massive thing, we were all into similar stuff, so we'd be working all week together, then drinking and going to gigs. So good!"
Hightail Ale Winning Champion Ale in 2000
In recent years, the Goat brewers have made an annual habit of taking to the stage at the Australian International Beer Awards. Yet the first occasion this happened was more than 17 years ago.
Says Dave: "I’m pretty sure 2000 was the first time we entered the AIBAs. My memory is hazy, but we went to the awards dinner, probably at Crown or Sofitel in Melbourne, not really expecting anything, and came out of there fizzing. We won something! Maybe we really could do this!
"Things were so different in 2000. There was no such thing as ‘Craft Beer’. The industry, to us, was full of big brewers, big maltsters and big hop growers. As far little guys go, there were very few. Holgate and Grand Ridge were around in Victoria. Little Creatures had just kicked off in WA.
"We’d just bought the brewing gear from the Geebung Polo Club in Hawthorn, and plumbed it into our new warehouse in Crown Street. Winning the award really kicked things off for us, lots of media and exposure came our way that we may not have had otherwise. And it gave us a lot of belief."
Read part two here, featuring tales of glory, music, elephant hunting, Cross Breeds, In Breeds, IPAs, crocs, Asahi and more.
Thanks to everyone who has helped pull this together: Cam, Dave, Sam, AG, Zoe Ottaway, Jayne Lewis, Dave Edney, Chris Hodges, Tom Delmont, Shane Edwards and Miro Bellini.
You can join them for a birthday beer at various times and places too.