This weekend sees Matt and Andrea Houghton mark ten years since they founded Boatrocker. Back in the company's earlier days, as they were moving from contract brewing to their own brewery in Braeside, we worked with Matt on a series looking at the challenges of starting a microbrewery. So, as the decade approaches, we thought we'd find out what they've learned since then.
Given the business has brewed beers ranging from hop forward pales and IPAs to kettle sours, barrel-aged blends and hybrids, malt-heavy beasts and collaborations aplenty – all while racking up a healthy collection of trophies – we figured they'd have plenty of insight to offer.
"If anything can be learned from our ten years of running a business, it’s that we are always learning," Matt says. "There are always new things to create, new ways to do things. And that, as in life, there’s always someone bigger, faster and stronger. So why worry?
"Running a small business is incredibly stressful, and the workload is high, on average 60 to 70 hours a week, let alone all the hours on the weekend responding to emails, or not sleeping at night. Your health, both mental and physical, does take a hit, but that is where determination and persistence and a loving family help you get through."
So, having made it through the first decade, what has a lifetime of homebrewing and a decade of commercial brewing taught them?
Conceiving a beer brand
First and foremost, Andrea and I wanted to start a brewery. After spending years in the garage toiling over recipes, and making beers that we were inspired by, the time came when it was either: "Go smaller, or go bigger". So we went bigger.
To come up with the name Boatrocker, I spent many days and weeks trying to find something that sounded good, could work in a layout – that's still questionable though! – and was memorable. We avoided anything to do with my last name as there are way too many famous companies with that name that we’re not related to: Houghton’s Wines, Houghton’s Dry Cleaning, and so on.
It’s funny, as when we talk to people on the phone and say: "Hi, it’s Matt from Boatrocker", they often ask a second time what we just said. When I repeat it, they’re like: "Oh that’s what I thought you said." Then chuckle… So I guess in a good way it’s memorable. Or maybe I mumble too much...
As for our first beers, I had loads of recipes I wanted to produce, but the reality is we could only afford to start with one. And that one was Alpha Queen Highly Hopped Ale. We wanted a beer name that stood out, joined the dots as far as "getting it" from the consumer's point of view, and hopefully would be memorable enough for people to want more.
The Gypsy Life
When we started Boatrocker, we didn’t have years or decades of experience in the brewing industry, we weren’t driven by making an approachable ale for the masses, and we certainly weren’t driven by spreadsheets. We were driven by a love for each other, and a love for beer. That might sound completely insane, but that is what has driven us all these years, and continues to do so.
Was it a good idea? I guess that depends on the kind of week we’ve had! For the most part, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and think that this is the best industry in the world.
If we were to do now what we did then, however, I can’t help but think we would be chewed up and spat out. Imagine in this day and age starting with a hoppy pale ale – an XPA? – and that’s it. No new beer for two years. There is no way that would be viable.
For us, the challenges of starting as a gypsy brewer were many. Andrea and I started with $20,000, which was enough to brew one batch of beer, pay for packaging for two batches, and put the beer in cold storage. It was lucky we were both working other jobs, because selling beer from the back of my car was not a way to be that viable. But what I believe it did do was allow me to be passionate and genuine in front of customers. I’m not a natural salesperson, there were no slick moves, but just a genuine love of beer and what we were doing.
The Early Days
When we started in April 2009, barriers to entry were non-existent, and I think that the market was ready for something different. Little Creatures had been around for a while, as had Matilda Bay (CUB by then), and Mountain Goat.
We were, I hope, a bit of fresh air, with a product the likes of which had never come out of Southern Bay. They had never dry-hopped before we came along, and never had a customer pay as much attention to their brewing. All credit to the brewers, though, as they were working with equipment that literally pre-dated the moon landing, and we were pushing them in ways that I hoped has benefited them.
But, for all our enthusiasm, we were a blip on the radar as we had no money to expand or take advantage of opportunities when they became available. Whilst we won gold at the AIBAs in 2011 for our Hoppbier Beer Garden Pilsner, we had no way of affording the next batch so quickly, nor could we access more of the amazing Riwaka hops that "made" the beer. This made us more determined to be able to start our own brewery so we could control the output, and hopefully have better access to ingredients.
Helping Launch Good Beer Week
I’ve always been a beer fanatic: collecting my dad’s used imported stubbies to put on a shelf in my bedroom when I was 15; religiously watching Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter on SBS, and even using his 1998 Pocket Guide to Beer as my guidebook through Europe with backpack on.
When we were asked if we could help out with an event to celebrate beer, I was absolutely interested. The venue manager of Beer DeLuxe at the time said he’d put our beer on tap if we made a website for the festival. I’d been trying to get into Beer DeLuxe for two years, but had hit brick walls.
The funny thing is, I would have made the website for this festival without them buying any beer. I always have been and always will be about beer first. The festival has subsequently become one of the biggest beer festivals in the world, and is constantly ranked as the best by locals and internationals alike.
Having been on the committee since day one, I have only ever wanted to promote beer in a positive way, never "big noting" Boatrocker's behind the scenes association with the festival. As we have become busier and busier in the brewery, spending time on Good Beer Week has been harder and harder. And, with a young family, my priorities had to be to spend time with them, which is hard, because I wanted to be able to do more. But, with a growing business, we at least had the opportunity to sponsor the festival financially, which made sure people like Shev [Kerin, general manager from 2018 on] and Kate [Paterson, previous general manager] got paid for the hard work they did.
I would have loved to have sponsored more, but we are not a huge brewery, so we are always scraping pennies, but I believe it’s worth it. Being involved with Good Beer Week has been immensely rewarding: hanging out with the committee, with like minded individuals who love beer and just give a fuck, is incredible. There’s a camaraderie that is so special. Hopefully, my involvement and advice has been a positive as we see Good Beer Week enter the fold of the IBA.
Building a brewery
With minimal commercial experience, our brewery was built on a budget that was maybe questionable then, let alone now. I still remember our first beer festival, when we were told by at least two brewers that we would never make it because we weren’t big enough capacity wise.
We had about $450,000 to build a production brewery. That was to cover wages – for staff, not us – and leasehold for the first 12 months, and pay for equipment. Even before we’d paid for stainless, we’d bought 60 used barrels from Yering Station in the Yarra Valley: 30 red and 30 white. I still remember Andrea asking if we were starting a brewery or a winery!
We scoured everywhere for secondhand equipment and came across a miracle find: a 12 hectolitre Newlands brewhouse that had never been used, located in Hobart. It was all systems go as things just steamrolled from there. Most of our gear was secondhand, except for the three 2,000 litre fermenters, 2,000 litre bright tank, Meheen bottle filler, flooring and DE filter; as an aside, does anyone use these anymore? We’ve got one going cheap!
We’ve always been the muck in type, with a never say never attitude, so building the infrastructure around the brewery was one of those things you just did. It helps that I have some great friends who have skills in plumbing and general tool usage (thanks Len, forever in gratitude), let alone friends and family who just muck in.
If we’d known then what we know now, and had the money to change things, we would have aimed for bigger… Large foeders, bigger brewhouse, better bottling – and canning too, a venue… The list goes on.
I think it pays to bear in mind, however, that the industry has grown exponentially in the last ten years. We were one of the first in Australia to start barrel-ageing and working with mixed fermentation and sour beers, yet it’s now essential for any newcomer.
As for location, we spent many a year looking for the right place, thinking that the inner north would be perfect. Then we saw the real estate prices… We crunched numbers on paying $70,000 to $90,000 in our first year of operation and, without a venue, we knew it was not possible. Even with a venue, paying that much for a property was questionable, at least until we’d built up scale.
And who were we? Some small upstart with 60 barrels that no one really understood, and 60 hectolitres of fermentation capacity… makes you laugh really… but hard work, belief in what you’re doing, and getting stuck in can get you through.
Balancing commercial necessity with your passion
We’ve always approached making beers, whether homebrew, or commercially, with the concept of "What do I want to drink?" and that’s pretty much how we do things now. We don’t aim for something "special", but hope all our beers have that certain something.
I do believe, though, that with making good beer, much like making great food, wine or spirits, you should always try to source the best possible ingredients. Sure, that’s a marketing term abused by big breweries, but we made a point of sourcing great products from wherever they were available in the world. And using liquid yeast – dry yeast is great for some brews, but the nuances with liquid yeast are incredible.
Then we come to perhaps the most enjoyable part: the blending. It truly is an art, you don’t just grab ten barrels and throw them together hoping the final product will be great. We take samples of barrels for a particular product we might have in mind, say a blended wild ale. We’ll draw samples from maybe eight barrels, assess each one for acidity, character, and depth of flavour, as well as any potential off notes. We’ll look for what the bulk of the beer will be – do we want a firm acidity, or something that might go on fruit?
Once we’ve worked this out we then assess other beers to add "highlights" or to accentuate certain characteristics. We then get a measuring jug and start working on ratios. At the end of the day, this is where the most skill and, I believe, where the art of making a beer comes in.
As for commercial necessity, we look at what we can not only sell, but be able to supply on a regular basis, as well as scale up if/when needed. One of the things I value so much about how we’ve set up our brewery and distillery* is that we are able to make beers across all styles, from spontaneous wild ales, to BA imperial stouts, to crisp New World pilsners, or a bold G&T! So we get to keep ourselves interested in the brewery and distillery, but also our customers interested with a range of world class beers and spirits.
* In 2017, Hippocampus, which had been set up by Boatrocker's partial investors Made By HAND, was moved from Perth to Braeside and the company became Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers.
Working with the food world
Few would argue that, when it comes to collaborations, Boatrocker are best known for their work with STARWARD. Yet they've also worked closely with people in the food world.
They've partnered with Rob and Bronwyn Kabboord, initially running Der Vrolijke Boot beer dinners during Good Beer Week when the couple owned Merricote in Westgarth before moving them to the Barrel Room. Rob, who Matt believes has the best palate for beer and food pairing in the country, now flies back from his head chef role at Quay in Sydney for the events.
More recently, they've become friends with Mark and Leicia from Pambula Oyster Co after meeting at a Royal Melbourne Show when both were there as trophy-winning exhibitors. The oysters have made their way into several Boatrocker beers and are often a feature of Boatrocker events.
We never really bang on about where we came from, or our history before starting a brewery. But, as we approach ten years old, there are things we look back on, from our childhood, through to our early adult life, that we can’t help but feel play an important role in your future self; from my grandfather Kingsley, who was an amateur archaeologist and gastronomist, through to my first real job, working at Stephanie Alexander’s restaurant, Stephanie’s.
I started there in 1990 as bartender, having completed a three-hour bartending course in the city. On my first day, to say I was nervous was an understatement – I had no prior experience, and was only 18. I remember vividly in the heat of the rush hour having to get four Crown lagers ready, and proceeded to knock them over once I’d uncapped them. I was mortified, but the head sommelier, Christoph Kleinhenz, gave me a hug around the shoulders and told me to take a deep breath, and that everything was under control. "You got this!" as they say on t-shirts…
The people I met at Stephanie’s over the years taught me a lot: attention to detail, a care about how you present yourself and how you see others, a hard work ethic, and also what it takes from a team to make things happen, from front of house, to chefs, to dishwashers. These things that I learned are still with me to this day, not only with how the restaurant was run, and the level of attention to detail required to run a three hat restaurant year after year, but also from the staff who worked there, who taught me to see things in a different light, and appreciate everything.
I believe that people who work in hospitality are nothing without the producers, and vice-versa. We’re all in this together, and I am equally impressed and in awe of people who choose to make one of these avenues their career.
Working with wood
I was captivated years ago by barrels and their flavour impact on beer when I was backpacking through Europe in 1998. My first port of call was Cantillon and, boy, did that spin my head around! That set me on a path to beer enlightenment, seeing beers that push the very definition of beer. I am a lover of the romance of barrels, but also the complexities they can impart on beer, whether sour or funky or spirit-infused. They are the art of beer making.
We have learnt a lot over the years, the major one being you can’t hurry love. The barrels are ready when they’re ready, and not before. You can try to encourage the right growing environment, provide all they need, but, at the end of the day, these yeasts are fairly untameable and unpredictable.
When it comes to spirit barrels things become a little simpler, but you need to make the wort appropriate to the wood and spirit, and this takes experience.
Then the art of blending; this is down to the brewer’s palate and years of experience, both through drinking, and through trial and error.
I’ve always loved the name Boatrocker, but I was never happy with the design of the original logo. It took a design company to help us find a good design, and the weathervane logo fit in with our overall vision of having a brewery that would respect tradition, but not be bound by it.
It also helps to have an identifiable shelf presence, which the design company helped with through the label shape on our 500ml bottles.
Sometimes you go down paths that don’t work design wise so you need to be prepared to accept that it doesn’t work, and move on. This comes at a cost, though, as if you do change there can be leftover packaging which needs to be disposed of, which is very costly. Changing design can also be of benefit as a way to reinvigorate.
When we started canning, our beers needed a fresh look, as our old designs looked just that, old and out of date. So I set about making things look fresher, and they've been really well received.
It’s funny, as when we first started Boatrocker, I guess we never thought that we would be at the forefront of an industry. It was pointed out by Steve “Hendo” Henderson that we were arguably Australia’s first gypsy brewer, something I’d never considered before. But I guess we have always posed the question: “Why not?” rather than: “Why?” and that is how we have gone about creating so many of our beers and spirits.
From Ramjet, Australia’s first Australian whisky barrel-aged imperial stout, and Mitte, Australia’s first bottled barrel-aged Brett Berliner Weisse, to Miss Pinky, Australia’s first nationally ranged sour beer, and Forget Me Not, Australia’s first beer whisky in collaboration with STARWARD, the list goes on.
We don’t make these products to be first, we make these products to be delicious, and it all stems from the question of: "Why not?"
What’s that saying… If you can dream it, you can do it? Being at the forefront is exciting, as there are new frontiers to be explored, but also mistakes to learn from!
You can join the Boatrocker crew for their tenth birthday celebrations from tomorrow (April 5) until Sunday. Details here.