Cheeky Monkey’s history is one that's been marked with unforeseen challenges and legal battles on one hand, a hugely popular venue in a bucolic spot in Margaret River and substantial growth on the other.
Most recently, a decision to "go big" has resulted in a new production facility that will make Cheeky Monkey one of the largest breweries in Western Australia. This process has also fostered a rebrand – their third in seven years – and seen them welcome new players onto the team.
Guy Southern chatted with managing director Brent Burton about the road to Vasse and where they hope it will lead.
Before looking at Cheeky’s future, it’s worthwhile looking back. As one of this decade’s early wave of nouveau West Coast breweries, Brent has witnessed the local industry's firsthand, yet still finds the current speed of growth surprising.
“Going back to how the industry has developed over the years, we started in 2012 and we were doing a little bit of contract bottling out of Eagle Bay, " he says of the time they launched with a pale ale and Belgian IPA, both designed by Jared "Red" Proudfoot, who subsequently went on to co-found Pirate Life.
"Seeing the industry develop to where it is now and all the players and new breweries, it’s crazy to see how fast it’s moving, it’s insane.
“Sitting in a 1500 square metre shed down in Vasse and just about to launch a new brand and production facility, yeah, stress levels and anxiety are pretty high at the moment. But it’s very exciting and we can’t wait for the next stage of Cheeky Monkey.”
That production facility houses a $4 million Premier Stainless brewery with the ability to brew up to four million litres annually. For now, however, the tank farm is capable of producing just over 800,000 litres, still more than triple that of their Caves Road brewpub. Provisions have been made for significant expansion and, although not part of the business model, Brent notes there is scope for – and they've already had people express interest in – contract brewing.
The Road To Vasse
Sitting in the cavernous space, Brent is cautious yet sanguine about the result of the efforts of the past two years.
“It’s been a long road to get here," he says. "Since the early contract bottling days, the demand was there but it kinda wasn’t. It just wasn’t working. There were too many opportunities for oxygen pick up and transport issues so we invested in our own canning line. That went pretty well for us but we made a few mistakes with the branding.
"It was when we changed the brand from the white cans to our own brand that we really saw the demand for the brand come through, especially for the seasonal beers. That demand kept growing and growing and we got to the point where we couldn’t brew anymore beer out of the Caves Road site.
"There was little or no growth because we couldn’t brew anymore beer and we didn’t want to contract brew again."
There were other limitations too, with $300,000 needed to upgrade the waste management system if they expanded at Caves Road plus the same again on a new shed.
"Basically, we either start upgrading our brewery or building another shed on the property in Margaret River or go to Perth," Brent says. "At that point we hit the gas and looked for places in Perth and now we’re here.
“We spent a good nine to 12 months up in Perth trying to find the ideal site and just struggled to find the site that was perfect for what we wanted to do. So, we sat back down and decided that we’d just do it down here. We made the decision that, instead of paying rent up in Perth for the next 25 years, we’d buy this block of land and the shed down here. We’re creating jobs down here and supporting local down here and keeping our team altogether.”
It's a decision that means they can optimise one brew team between the two breweries located just 25 minutes apart.
At time when many are talking about "peak beer" and market saturation, Brent is optimistic about the future and the beer industry, particularly in WA.
“I feel like this place is about to do wonders for our brand. It’s a big impact to the industry," he says. "It’s making a statement that we believe in the industry, that it’s not too congested yet, and we’re just backing ourselves in and giving it a good run.
“There’s a bit of titter tatter around about saturation, people are starting to talk about it, but I still think that in WA there’s plenty of room.
"It’s a funny market over here. Everyone wants to go over east and sell their beer over there but it’s just so competitive over there. But here craft beer enthusiasts are hungry for more. There’s definitely room to grow in this market.
“I think if the market was saturated things like Furphy wouldn’t have survived here. That’s just come into the market and blown up. Good brand and good price point and I think there’s still plenty of room, however price point is becoming more of a factor now.
“It also depends on what part of the market people are trying to hit. You can either go for the really pointy end of the market and sell these barrel-aged beers for twenty bucks each or you can brew volume which we’re trying to do here and brew more approachable style beers and sell them for a little bit less."
While volume is key to the growth strategy of Cheeky Monkey, Brent points out that single batch releases, like the annual Silverback Stout, will still be very much part of the release program.
“We’ve got a 25 hectolitre brew kit here," he says. "We intentionally didn’t go to 50-hectolitre otherwise brewing some of those small batch beers would be quite challenging. We’ll still have our seasonal program, we’ll still have our limited releases but at the same time have the ability to brew a fair bit of volume."
As for a barrel program, Brent says: “everything will come in due course,” before pointing out there's plenty of room for such projects at the Vasse facility.
New Look Monkeys
While towering pallets of unfilled cans and bottles await the canning line installation, other developments have been underway to ensure the investment is cohesive when it hits the market. The entire Cheeky Monkey brand has been refreshed, including packaging, merchandise and a new website with an online store that's intrinsic to the Vasse production facility and bar launch.
“We’ve only been brewing 250,000 litres for the past two years, which means that our market share is still relatively small, but we’re about to embark on all these new customers that haven’t seen our product before and it’s those people where first impressions count. So, the challenge was, ‘How do we get our story, our brand to someone that’s never been to the brewery before?’.
“Cheeky Monkey is never going to be that super-cool Balter Brewing brand. We’ve gotta set our own image, staying true to what we believe in: fun and good times with family and friends but a little mischievous."
The approach they took was to aim for what he calls "a product that sits proudly up against 4 Pines or Pirate Life or Mountain Goat or Stone & Wood. It’s stripped back and clean but it still has that fun personality that Cheeky Monkey is all about."
That identity is going to be front and centre on both bottles and cans. Despite being one of the first WA craft breweries to put its beer in cans, Brent is pragmatic about the packaging decision.
“Roughly 85 percent of the total beer market are still in bottles," he says. "We think that we might be missing out on a fair chunk of the market by not providing them. We’re just trying to open up our market to people that would prefer bottles for the Lager, Pale and Session Ale. The West Coast IPA has to stay in a can, though.
“When I was on the road selling our beers down here, going to wineries and restaurants, they didn’t want a bar of you unless you were in bottles."
Among the new team members, it’s the appointment of Brent Newman – ex-Little Creatures innovation brewer – as head of brewing operations and the assistance of Scott Player – Ex-Gage Roads, Matso's and Little Creatures – as sales and marketing consultant that adds depth to the brewery.
“It’s really exciting for us. I’m so stoked that he’s come on board," he says of the latter's signing. "He has a tonne of experience.
"He was taking 12 months off and I called him up. He said, 'I’m having a break but my brain’s still ticking so why not?'
"We’re a young team of monkeys so to welcome someone with all of that wealth of experience is huge for us."
As a cool autumn breeze blows through the large yet relatively empty Vasse facility, Brent (pictured above) allows himself a moment of reflection, something the previous few years haven’t afforded him.
“This is a new era for Cheeky Monkey and having people be able to come and having people come and experience it with us is important," he says of plans to open a venue at the new site.
"This will get us to a certain level but the market is much bigger than that. I don’t think we can service the whole of Australia from this brewery. This will service Western Australia and get us over east but beyond that we’ll have to look for another brewery."
He says they're also looking overseas, with their contract with Singapore Airlines bringing them some attention outside Australia.
“We need to see out the next few years here. Invest in more equipment, more tanks, a new canning line. It’s just gonna be fun seeing this little brand of ours grow."
The Cheeky Monkey Vasse bar is set to open mid-year, with pizzas, beer and merchandise available Thursday to Sunday.
All photos except the stacked product shot by Jono Outred.
Crafty Cabal members can enter a ballot to win some of the new look Cheeky Monkey beers. The competition closes at the end of May 2019.