Hawking No More

Back in 2015, as summer turned to autumn, the Australian beer world experienced a shot in the arm. It may not have realised this at the time, but when Pirate Life launched their first three cans just ten days after Hawkers released their Pale Ale the game was changing.

Sure, there were already serious breweries operating here and many breweries making great beer and pushing boundaries have followed. But that one-two punch by brewery owners with grand ambitions, high standards and a vision that stretched beyond that of most other owners to have entered the market in the previous decade was one that acted as another nudge on the accelerator pad of the craft beer industry. Arguably, only Balter have entered the stage in a similar manner since.

The people leading the breweries may have shared those common traits, not to mention experience gleaned beyond these shores, but they also took very different approaches. As Pirate Life went about winning the hearts of beer geeks and hosting hundreds of events in all corners of the country, Hawkers set about claiming their home patch in Melbourne's north before moving steadily outwards, all while building a contract side to the business at the same time.

Now, less than five years on (although it feels longer), their paths have taken them to very different places. While Pirate Life continue to release adventurous beers as they wait to see what lies ahead if the proposed sale of CUB to Asahi goes ahead, Hawkers are putting their independence – and Melbourne home – front and centre more than ever before.

Today sees the Reservoir brewery unveil a new look as well as the first beer in what will be an almost entire reworking of their lineup: a leaner, hoppier Pale Ale. It's a look that, on the surface, reminds the Crafty team of traditional British beer cans from the 70s, if not earlier, and one that has also seen CEO Mazen Hajjar place a full stop at the end of one chapter of the Hawkers story and turn the page on another.

Out goes the hawker of the original brand – the man pulling a trolley of bottles door to door as Mazen and original co-owner Joseph Abboud had done in the early days (albeit with rucksacks in place of a trolley) – and in comes a star that references the Commonwealth Star and the one brewers throughout history have stamped on their products.

"That story – of the original Lebanese immigrants to Australia who were hawkers – has been told," says Mazen. "I'm coming up to my citizenship test soon, I consider this to be home, and I consider myself part of the community."

He says the business has now outgrown those roots too.

"When we started, we were four people and now we're fifty. The company is bigger than me. There's still that story, but there's a lot of people who've put sweat and blood into this business.

"The star is a nod to the fact I'm still here and it's an Australian company that's not going anywhere.

"We were very conscious of having a design that wasn't following a trend but looked like it had always been there and always would be there."

 

Mazen Hajjar (right) with head brewer Hamish Mcarthur and head of sales Mik Halse ahead of the Pale Ale launch.

 

As for the changes inside Hawkers' cans and kegs (and 500ml bottles for limited releases such as barrel-aged beers and big Belgian styles), it's designed as a move with the times. While we're sworn to secrecy for now, the arrival of the new Pale is just one of a number of changes that will see some popular beers disappear from a slimmed-down lineup.

"The market has moved on from where craft beer was five years ago," Mazen says. "When I first started coming here in 2009, there was minimal craft beer; five years ago, there was a lot of beer but a lot wasn't very good.

"That's significantly changed. The palate has evolved. We see beers that are leaner in profile now, beers that are hoppier and juicier. Even when hazy IPAs came out, a lot of brewers were critical because they were seen as bad brewery processes, whereas people like Treehouse and Verdant have contributed to a better understanding of hops and biotransformation.

"The world has moved on. The Australian market has moved on, but there's still a big number that's not buying our story."

This desire to tap into the vast majority of people still not drinking craft – or indie – beers is one of the drivers behind the wording "Melbourne-brewed independent beer" on the new cans, while the slimmer core range and the installation of a fermenter half the size of their previous smallest is designed to allow the brewers more room to play and thus satisfy a market which, at the pointy end, is voracious in its demands for the new.

"At a time when Asahi is buying CUB, it's very important that the consumer can know who owns what and which beers are genuinely independent."

So, while he's phasing his backstory out of the Hawkers brand, what of the man who has proven to be one of the most outspoken brewery owners since moving here from Beirut five years ago? Certainly, he doesn't appear any more eager to fall into line; the new cans might proclaim Hawkers' independence but they're no longer members of the Independent Brewers Association (IBA), while he remains vocal on issues such as tap contracts and excise reform.

"I am polarising," he says. "People sometimes see me as this loud character but, four-and-a-half years later, people at least see that the things I'm loud about I'm totally convinced about. We still don't contract any taps. We've helped a lot of other companies start up through contract brewing.

"When I sit on my own and look back, I'm very happy with what we've been able to do. It's been an amazing trip but it's certainly been very hard for me on a personal level as it's come at a personal cost," he adds, referring to the breakup of his marriage following the move to Melbourne, which sees him travelling regularly to Lebanon to spend time with his young son.

"Is it worth it? I don't know yet. But it's great in that I've met a lot of great people and worked with a bunch of great people and made a new home."

All of which, in a way, feeds into today's unveil.

"This is where the business is today," he says. "And this is where I am on a personal level today."


You can read our initial interview with Mazen, before Hawkers was even an idea, back in 2013 here.

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