In a world where banks say they want to be your friend, fast food companies pretend they’ll help your family be healthy, and supermarket-owned beers come with artsy hand drawn labels, it's easy to grow cynical. So, when you hear the name Semi-Pro Brewing Co, one can’t help but be skeptical: is this just another clever marketing ploy, a scheme to lower our defences and bring us into their six-step sales funnel?
Thankfully, it really isn’t. Semi-Pro’s story is one that involves a figuring-it-out-as-they-go approach, full of trial and error, a few cases of the right people in the right place at the right time, and a lot of humility. The brand has gone through a real, organic evolution since its inception, from homebrewing to gypsy brewing, with people coming and going, with plans changing on the fly, infinitely patient and supportive partners, and a whole lot of excellent beer.
Throughout it all, there was always the vague hope it would grow into its own brewery – an achievement that was unlocked in March 2018. But there was never really a grand plan. It was more like a series of fortunate events that kept raising the question: “So what next?”
In 2013, two guys met at a craft beer festival. When Mick learned Dan was a homebrewer, his eyes widened and he was determined that he too would brew beer.
So what next?
The two got together regularly to brew and talk all things beer and brewing. Mick realised that, if he was going to keep shelling out money to make beer, he really should try to make some money from beer, so he got a weekend job at Tippler’s Tap.
Subsequently, Tippler’s asked them to participate in a Brewsvegas event for homebrewers and gypsy brewers. They came up with an idea for a beer – an IPA made with rye and Mosaic hops, both interesting and lesser used ingredients at the time – but then realised they needed a name for their entry other than just "Mick and Dan". So they quickly fumbled upon "Semi-Pro Brewing" and had t-shirts made up. They scored second place… and knew they wanted to do more than brew at home.
So what next?
They entered the whimsical world of gypsy brewing. From 20 litre batches at home to 50 litre batches at Bacchus Brewing, they made a few beers, and sold them to local bars… which immediately asked for more. They then brewed four different beers for an event spread across four venues… but the first venue begged to keep all four.
Fifty litres at a time at Bacchus became 400 litres at a time at Beard & Brau. That then became 1200L at a time at 4 Hearts in Ipswich. Somewhere along the way, Lachie joined Mick and Dan, and the trio made beer where they could, when they could, and sold it to whomever they could. These were the golden years of gypsy brewing for Semi-Pro, and for Dan and Lachie, this was enough: having fun, making great beer, and sharing it with their city. But Mick wanted more.
So what next?
When Mick took a year off to take care of his daughter, he did a lot of serious thinking and calculating and planning. He wanted to change the direction of Semi-Pro, and make a go of having a "proper" brewery – and Dan and Lachie gave him their blessing and champion levels of support. It was during this period that Mick got chatting with Luke, another gypsy brewer, over beers one night. They shared their hopes and dreams, Mick talked about his ideas for turning Semi-Pro into a full-fledged brewery, and Luke was keen to be on board. (We’ve all had this conversation over beers, right?)
But then the next morning, there was that text message.
“So… what next?”
And so with time, effort, money, sweat, blood, beard-pulling, and much more besides, Semi-Pro came to inhabit a warehouse space at 65 Manilla Street, East Brisbane.
Not everyone at Semi-Pro has a beard, though – Mick’s wife Siena and Luke’s wife Mikarla are fundamental members of the Semi-Pro team, putting in the hard yards behind the scenes to make the business work. Siena handles the admin and bureaucracy and money stuff for the business (and still wears an Ale Wife t-shirt from the early days of Semi-Pro). And Mikarla’s the one to credit for the venue feeling like a comfy living room, rather than a smelly man’s homebrew garage.
Semi-pros like Mick and Luke need all the help they can get. Because becoming a "real" brewery hasn’t taken away their semi-pro nature.
Everything about the brand is done with a kind of joyful abandon – a shrug of the shoulders at traditional tactics, a "see what works" kind of attitude when it comes to marketing themselves. Like launching their brewery with a self-shot 80s-style exercise video of them doing malt lunges, keg lifts and mop squats.
And of course, there’s always plenty of self-deprecation.
“There are a lot of people driving past on the main road down there, but I don’t think we’ve got a billboard budget just yet,” says Mick. “I could just stand out there tomorrow afternoon in my pink shorts with a sandwich board. ‘Handwritten by the brewer/director/owner/creative designer.’ ”
The one thing they do take seriously, however, is their beer, and they’re keen to educate people who are interested. The Semi-Pro ethos says that nobody’s an expert, everyone can keep improving, and we’re all learning together.
“More and more, people want to be able to understand what they’re putting in their bodies, even if it’s alcohol," he says. "They want to be educated in what that is rather than just being told, ‘Oh this is really good.' Why is it really good?”
They know people want to hear the backstory of particular beers, or be walked through the tasting notes, so they offer those things. And, like a number of other small breweries, Semi-Pro are transparent about their processes and what ingredients they use in their beers. At the same time, they’re well aware that not everyone takes beer as seriously as they do.
“A lot of people just want beer to feel familiar. They don’t want it to feel like the person behind the bar is saying, ‘I am all knowledgeable and you must taste my quadruple IPA and like it.’ They want to feel like they can get a beer that’s suitable for them," says Mick.
“Beer is becoming very complicated. That’s great, but you also have to allow people the time to be able to feel like they have ownership over their choices.”
But the "focus on what feels good" philosophy still reigns when it comes to their beer. While consistency is a necessity for larger breweries, Semi-Pro embrace the freedom and flexibility that comes with their small size. Rather than setting a recipe and saying: "This is how it should be," they’re constantly experimenting and looking for new flavours, and exploring variations from batch to batch with their customers.
“It gives the consumer a little bit of ownership, helps them connecting with the brand at its source,” says Mick. “They can say, ‘This month’s batch tastes a little bit more like orange peel or a little bit more piney.’ With a can it’s consistently the same thing. You go back to the venue because you want to taste the new variety.
"And that’s nice – it means that you're actually building up a bit of an understanding of the local brewery. That’s where beer used to come from. Beer wasn’t shipped across the country. It was having the batch from the local pub or the local brewery and that’s what you drank.”
This focus on local, and on bringing people into the inside crowd, is one of the great strengths of Semi-Pro; they've seen customers feeling a sense of belonging, often pushing their chairs in and bringing their empty glasses up to the bar, as you might do at a friend’s house. Because Semi-Pro treats its customers as friends who are always welcome.
“I think that’s the approachable thing about the business,” says Mick. “We’re a little more relaxed because we can be. You know, it’s meant to be fun. It’s meant to be interesting.
"Calling ourselves Semi-Pro is about saying, ‘Hey, we’re learning, we’re humble, we’re just being the best we can be at this point in time. And we’re going to get even better.'”
Semi-Pro Brewing is at 65 Manilla Street, East Brisbane. Look for the handwritten signs, the pink triangles on the windows, and the pink shorts on the brewer.