Building Moon Dog's World

I can’t remember exactly when it was. Presumably midway through 2010, not long before The Crafty Pint was about to go live. 

I was in Carwyn Cellars, chatting to then store manager James Greenfields and, while the specific date isn’t that important, it’s worth adding a little context. Carwyn Cellars wasn’t the bar-bottleshop kingpin it is today; it wasn’t even in the same location. It was located a few hundred metres along High Street towards Melbourne’s CBD: a good bottleshop with one of the better collections of beer in the city at the time, but certainly not what it has become today.

I was banging on about one of my main peeves at the time: the need for a brewery in Australia to go: “Fuck it!” and launch with a double IPA or something equally bold and outrageous. 

Having toured much of the country and – with a couple of notable exceptions – come across brewpub after brewery offering variations on the same theme – golden ale, APA, wheat beer, porter or stout, maybe something Belgian – it really felt like someone needed to be brave. To take a risk.

Whether James knew he potentially held the answer in his hand, or whether it was just coincidence that I’d followed this person into the store, he handed me a business card lying on the counter next to him.

“Give this guy a call,” he said. “He dropped in earlier. Says they’re launching a brewery in Melbourne.”

Soon afterwards, sat on a bus to St Kilda to attend an early Ale Stars session at The Local Taphouse, I pulled out the card.

“Josh Uljans. Moon Dog Craft Brewery.”


STARTING OUT

Moon Dog co-founder Josh Uljans serving up a barrel sample in the early days of the brewery.

 

The first packaged beer Moon Dog released the following year was indeed a double IPA. But not just a double IPA: Skunkworks was a Cognac barrel-aged double IPA.

It wasn’t actually the first beer to go through the ramshackle brewery they’d built at the rear of a narrow warehouse space in Abbotsford, one located – as I’d take great joy in telling people – midway between CUB and The Duchess brothel. That was Perverse Sexual Amalgam, a wild black ale aged in barrels on cherry plums.

And, if we want to be completely accurate, neither of these were the first beers to be sold bearing the Moon Dog name. The odd single keg brewed on their homebrew setup had already appeared on tap at places like Penny Blue and Biero, while at the first Good Beer Week in May 2011 – before they’d finished building their brewery – they lined up seven single kegs of different beers at seven of Melbourne’s early beer venues, not all of which still exist.

Among the seven was the George Freeth Memorial Tropical Brown Ale, a pineapple-laden brown ale you might have compared in appearance to the water of the Yarra, if you harboured ill feelings towards the river. That said, the beer itself was a rather more enjoyable experience. Just take the words of some of Untappd’s early collectors.

Dave Ellis (of From Beer To Eternity and now Ale of a Time): “They've done it again. Words don't do justice.”

Dave’s From Beer To Eternity co-conspirator Rian Peak: “Good beer week can now start. Just amazing from MoonDog.”

(It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that both Rian and Dave spent that Good Beer Week dressed as pirates.)

James Davidson (of Beer Bar Band then, later, Bright Brewery’s marketing manager): “Just discussed this beer with the brewer! Sexy #GBW times!”

Then there was Raindrops on Roses, and Hairs on Chests, an imperial IPA the brewers described as: “Whilst not embodying all of our favourite things, this IPA will make you see the world in a different light. The brutishness of this 11% IPA monster is seduced and mellowed by the soft infusion of rose petals and calming rosewater flavours. This beauty is how we at Moon Dog like to portray our love to our wonderful customers.”

Clearly, here was an operation that wasn’t going to die wondering if the world was ready.


A BREWERY HOME

Karl van Buuren, Jake and Josh Uljans inside 17 Duke Street, Abbotsford, just after they moved in – literally, in the case of Karl and Josh.

 

So, Josh and outré beers aside, who and what was Moon Dog? On the personnel front, there was Josh’s older brother Jake, then an articled clerk at a commercial law firm, and Josh’s best mate Karl van Buuren, whom he’d met in year 11 at at Ivanhoe Grammar.

“I remember sitting in the principal’s office on the first day,” Karl says. “They’d assigned me a buddy to show me the ropes. In walks Josh…”

They ended up going to uni together, then both got jobs in project management in Melbourne before sleeping under the same roof in ramshackle lodgings they’d thrown together in the warehouse at 17 Duke Street as they were building their first brewery.

“I was working in Richmond and Karl was in South Yarra,” Josh recalls, “and we would go for after work drinks at the start of our corporate careers. We’d go to the GB [the Great Britain that, back then, was a Melbourne icon] and smash pints of Little Creatures Bright Ale and Hightail.”

Although they can’t remember why, that led to the pair homebrewing on a keg setup Josh bought Jake for his birthday. But the brothers' brewing experiences stretched back further: Jake had been given a Coopers kit by his mum when 18 and they'd started brewing – exploding bottles and all – under the name J & J Utd Breweries.

“It was undrinkable shit,” Jake says, “but we loved it. The value proposition was excellent.”

Suitably inspired, they ended up at an early Victorian Microbreweries Showcase, back when it was held at the Masonic Hall in Ascot Vale.

“Grand Ridge stood out as they had Supershine [an 11 percent ABV barleywine],” Jake says.

When it came to the keg setup, however, things escalated fast. Brew one was a Bright Ale clone. For number two, they brewed a Belgian style tripel and put it inside a bourbon barrel they’d picked up on eBay.

“It was always about experimentation,” Karl says. “To make stuff we couldn’t get here.”

Soon afterwards, they bought a 1,500 litre fermenter from a guy Josh and Jake’s dad found on Alibaba. Given this was more than two years before they started brewing commercially, the tank then sat in a field while the rest of the jigsaw pieces fell into place, the threesome picking up odds and sods as they could afford them on eBay. 

For the most part, that involved dairy vats, while there was also a bottling line I still can’t believe actually worked, an attempt by Josh to learn how to weld (that, at the very least, led to some eye-catching decals in the early days), a flood at the brewery, a huge old compressor that was never needed, an open wooden vat that ended up being used by the Uljans’ brothers’ dad as a hot tub… and, as of July 2011, a functioning brewery.


THE ORIGINAL MOONDOG

One of Josh's early decals on the bar at the long-gone Biero; a touch of class at the brewery: chandeliers put in place before they even brewed a beer.

 

Dogs are commonplace when it comes to naming breweries or designing beer brands. Moon Dog usually have a dog hanging around the brewery and recently launched a series of Doggo IPAs that pay tribute to their staff’s canine companions. 

Furthermore, as Moon Dog was coming to life, BrewDog were exploding onto the beer scene from their home in Aberdeen. Yet the genesis of their brewery name is found elsewhere.

“We came across a musician while we were in the States,” Josh says. “He used to busk in New York in the 60s and 70s. He was blind, dressed like a Viking, and would play experimental music.

“He made up his own instruments, which for someone who was blind was pretty incredible, and became a cult hero. Mr Scruff’s Get A Move On is based on one of Moondog’s songs.”

Karl explains how they saw common ground between Moondog’s approach to music and their intentions as brewers: “He was building things to make the sound that he wanted to make. And we were always blind…”


THE MADNESS METHOD

Downtime at Duke Street, with graphic designer Loren Tanis (left) and testing out the mash tun with former employee Eric Miles.

 

Such has been the rapid transmogrification of the beer world over the past decade, you could view beer years as we do dog years; look at how far things have moved since 2011 and you could argue those eight years have witnessed at least as much change as was experienced in the previous 56.

Yet, at the start of the decade change was already afoot, not least because of what had been taking place in the US. Beers from the likes of Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø, Rogue and Moylan’s were landing in beer venues and I was far from alone in wanting to see more local breweries take a leap into the (relatively) unknown.

“We were talking to a very small, pointy end of the craft beer world,” Josh says. “But we got a huge amount of support for doing what we were doing.”

Within that tiny group of passionate and adventurous beer drinkers, there was a lot of excitement for early beers, such as Henry Ford’s Girthsome Fjord, Wet Nurse Tonic, Nordic Saddle Buffer, the ongoing Black Lung series, the original Magnificent Mullets fruit sours, and the Great American Challenge (named after the world’s biggest dildo and featuring an image of Dan Aykroyd in Lycra on the label). 

At the same time, says Josh: “Sometimes we fucked them up and they would passionately let us know.”

The experimentation continued apace: more barrels were acquired; the daft names kept coming; they’d pile some high with heaps of unlikely ingredients – truffles (to great effect in the original Jumping The Shark), saffron (to rather less impressive effect in the follow up), Redskins in a delicious stout. To the outside observer, they must have looked like an oddity, a quirk of the system that only had a limited lifespan.

 

Redskins shopping; early deliveries; and the first packaged beer ready to leave the brewery.

 

Yet the reality is arguably far different. In the books I wrote on beer in Australia, I suggested Moon Dog were the instigators of a third wave in Australian craft beer, the one that’s thrown the rule books out the window more violently than ever before and, ultimately, led to the rather strange situation in which we find ourselves as we approach the 2020s.

Sure, Australian brewers had released big IPAs before. Richard Watkins of BentSpoke, then at the Wig & Pen, had brewed the country’s first barrel-aged Russian imperial stout and been experimenting in other fields too. Brendan Varis was playing with spontaneous fermentation and barleywines at Feral in the Swan Valley. Scott Wilson-Browne was producing all manner of beers at Red Duck, from hopless gruits to braggots. But this felt like a new level of wanton creativity, one in which the beers others might knock out occasionally were the entire raison d’etre.

Scratch the surface, however, and there was method behind the madness. They weren’t just scouring the world for new ideas, ingredients or barrels but, a few years in to their probrewing life, also studying data from the US so as to understand how a mature market looked: how, for example, price would likely become a more crucial factor within the craft sector, and where a brewery with ambitions to become a major player might need to land with their core range six-pack pricing.

Potentially, the way in which they portrayed themselves to the outside world – beer as fun above all else – helped them fly under the radar. In discussions around which brewing companies might be the next to step up to 4 Pines or Mountain Goat levels in recent years, eyebrows would be raised when I’d throw Moon Dog into the mix. 

Yet, while there’s a long, long way to go – and many hurdles to be overcome – for them to reach that point, the new brewery they’re installing at Moon Dog World in Preston is designed to take them from their current 2.5 million litres per annum to ten – a level above which only Coopers and Stone & Wood, of the country’s independent breweries, operate.

They're already on a rapid growth curve since making a decision a few years ago to go big: installing De Bortoli's old brewery a couple of doors down from their original unit to increase output; putting on an army of reps across the country (and, more recently, creating a full-time role in export sales); and driving sales of their volume beers with pricing that means they often come up in discussion when reps or brewery owners are discussing the challenges in the contemporary marketplace.

Not many small brewing companies have gone past 2.5 million litres annual production and continued to grow, fewer still that have remained independent, but Moon Dog plan to push hard to smash through what Stone & Wood co-founder Jamie Cook described as the local beer industry's "glass ceiling".


GOING STEADY

 

If a fan of the brewery had been asked what they didn’t expect to see from Moon Dog in those early years, a core range would have been up there among the most popular answers.

“We will never repeat a beer,” Jake recalls of their initial plans. “How was that ever going to work?”

So, with both business and beer landscape evolving, by early 2016 they had a trio of 5 percent ABV beers in their lineup: Old Mate Pale Ale, Mack Daddy Dark Ale and Love Tap Lager.

The last of these enjoyed quite a journey of its own, starting out as a 7.1 percent ABV beer we described as “hop goo” before gradually sliding down the booze scale. At 5.9 percent ABV it became their first core beer, complete with labels on which you might find the monocled pig sporting a bluetooth earpiece or other attire. The pig later became the first to appear on one of Rain Gidley’s first tap handle sculptures before, a few further tweaks later and unrecognisable from the first Love Tap, the beer was retired for good in favour of a far more traditional lager.

Now the likes of Old Mate and Beer Can, their fiesta-liveried session beer, drive the growth in volume for the brewery as the experimentation continues under the guidance of Señor Brewer Adrian McNulty. It’s a formula a far cry from the early days but one that many other breweries have arrived at from the other direction: starting with a core range then adding the more innovative beers over time.

That more drinkers will come to Moon Dog through the likes of Old Mate or Beer Can these days shouldn’t lessen the impact of their early days. Not only were early craft beer venues eager to tap into something new and craft beer drinkers willing to hop on for the ride, but it suggested there was perhaps less risk in such beers than had previously been thought by many.

 

Moon Dog were the first brewery to take advantage of Rain Gidley's skills.

 

“We gave some other breweries a bit of confidence to do more interesting beers,” Jake says. “We saw the interest in what we were doing because we were doing interesting things. Inevitably, people go, ‘OK. Maybe there’s a market for this sort of stuff.”

“It’s also consumer-driven,” Karl says. “People saw what we were doing then go to another brewery and ask, ‘What’s new from you guys?'.”

Look around the 600 or so brewing companies operating around Australia today and innovation, experimentation and “why the hell not?” abounds. Whether it’s Dainton or Rocky Ridge releasing a new canned beer pretty much every week, Sailors Grave foraging for ingredients around East Gippsland, the likes of La Sirène, Van Dieman, Two Metre Tall, Boatrocker and more releasing spontaneously fermented beers, the rise of sickly sweet dessert beers and milkshake IPAs, operations based upon barrel-ageing and blending, and people producing beer-wine hybrids, you could argue Moon Dog are no longer the standout proposition they once were.

Sure, their Splice Of Heaven predated the rise of lactose / vanilla IPAs, while the champagne-mimicking Bad Boy Bubbly was a 2015 precursor-of-sorts to the Brut IPA fad that came (and, seemingly, went), while last year's Abbey Collabby beer – the eighth of the Good Beer Week collabs they’ve been brewing with Mountain Goat and CUB since 2011 – was one of the country's first.

“We have to accept you can’t always come up with something completely new,” Josh says, his brother adding: “We’re still known for making a lot of interesting beers but also a pale ale and a lager.”

It might not be as easy to stand out from the crowd when it comes to brewing beer in Australia these days, but there are other routes…


WELCOME TO OUR WORLD

Josh, Karl and Jake pose for promo shots ahead of the opening of Moon Dog World.

 

Towards the end of 2018, following dinner at a Fairfield curry house washed down with a fair amount of BYO beer and wine, Josh announced: “I’ve got something I want to show you.”

A short cab ride later and we were picking our way through scattered industrial detritus at the rear of a former Nylex plant in Preston. Walking past some impressive graffiti – untouched as, after all, who would come down here? – we entered the back of the building to be met with tower after tower of egg trays. This, he tells me, will become the site of their new brewery.

As we wend our way through the trays, bottle of Flanders red in hand, I can’t help but marvel at the size of the place.

“Hold on,” he says, sliding open a door to reveal another room of similar scale.

“You’re a madman,” I say, mind boggling at the size of the undertaking – and unaware Josh still has two more vast spaces lying ahead waiting to be unveiled.

Fast forward nine months or so and I’m sat with the three founders on dust-covered chairs, amid a swirl of tradies and grinning staff members as astroturf is cut to size, drills whirr and a waterfall and lagoon take shape around us. It’s six weeks out from the opening of Moon Dog World and it’s getting serious.

Venue manager Chris Hysted walks over beaming from ear to ear; his signing signals seriousness of intent given a storied career that dates back to his trophy-winning years behind the bar at Black Pearl in Fitzroy. The reason for his joy: not only has their slushy machine arrived, but the guy who delivered it agreed to spec it up with extra LEDs because, well, because why not?

Much has been made of their latest venture, one Josh describes as “super-daunting”, while Karl uses words like “destination” and “unique”, and speaks of a desire to create a space “you can go that’s not just about the beer”.

With deckchairs lining the lagoon, flora galore, multiple bars, a mezzanine, heaps of containers, pinball machines and a “hidden” tiki bar, there’s little danger you’d mistake it for a run-of-the-mill industrial unit brewery venue, even with the large brewery going in behind the venue's glass wall. 

Indeed, right from the first time Josh explained the vision, you couldn’t help but feel here was something so ridiculous, so WTF, that it would bring in far more than beer people. Why wouldn’t those responsible for tourism in Melbourne or Victoria – even the country as a whole – not want to tell the world you can go to a brewery venue like this, like nothing else on the planet?


STEPPING UP

Moon Dog's original Abbotsford home in Duke Street.

 

Yet, while it is ridiculous, you could argue Moon Dog World was always on the cards. Leave the beers and their names aside and trace the other aspects of the Moon Dog story instead.

When they first opened the doors of their Abbotsford HQ to the public, it was very much a rough and ready industrial space with brewery on show at the back, and the furniture was very much op shop gear too. But overhead there were chandeliers. John Candy cast an imperious gaze over proceedings. If you knew which book to pull down, the bookshelf on the wall near the rollout bar turned out to be a door into the adjacent building.

Events have been relentlessly nonsensical. Earlier this spring, they brought back a giant inflatable shark slide for the launch of Jumping The Shark 2019; visitors to the brewery entered via the slide. On New Year’s Eve, they like to fill the brewery with sand for a beach party at a cost of several thousand dollars; on another occasion, a group hiring it for a private function stumped up for the sand themselves.

The Abbotsford brewery has also played host to a mechanical bull, a petting zoo, live international cricket commentary from the White Line Wireless team, and a number of hot tubs for the as yet not repeated Hot Tub Cinema night.

“It was an amazing event,” says Josh of the last of those. “But it almost broke Sammy [Howard, the venue manager they enticed from Mountain Goat].”

As for the venue itself, he says: “It still uses a roll in, roll out bar we got from CUB across the road. The pizza caravan is still a caravan that used to be a chicken coop…”

While grander in scale and ambition, Moon Dog World retains much of the ethos of the original venue. Many of the materials being used – containers, timber, lighting – are repurposed.

“There’s so many elements that are just Abbotsford writ large,” Josh says. “It’s got a very familiar feel.

“What we do really well is create a space that feels comfortable and where people can feel at home.”

 

Plenty of room for beer here – the home of Moon Dog World in Chifley Drive, Preston.

 

They have a rather larger budget to play with this time, however. Instead of tanks sourced from eBay and half-arsed attempts at welding, the brewery and venue are costing $9 million, funds sourced one-third from existing and new shareholders, the remainder from private debt.

The greater capacity is intended to facilitate not just continued growth of the business but greater freedom to experiment. Under the rear of the building, on the Darebin Creek side, is an underground space – very much not a sex dungeon (Josh’s throwaway comment led to some unwanted attention when used in a Broadsheet article) – where they’ll develop their barrel program and age beers in concrete amphora.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way,” Josh says. “We’ve been able to take from every part of the business and put in place something here that I think will be pretty fucking great.

“It’s off the beaten track but we’re doing everything we can think of to make this place as awesome as we can, from the fit out to the people we have got involved.”

When it comes to those people, it turns out they’re still working with the same builder, Mav Carman, they’ve used from day one. What’s more, the brewhouse is being put together by George Yang, the same man who sold them that first fermenter back in 2008.


AND NOW...

The lagoon at Moon Dog World.

 

When I first added a listing for Moon Dog to The Crafty Pint’s brewery directory in 2011, I opened with the Monty Python refrain: “And now for something completely different.”

None of us would have known what lay ahead for the three mates or, indeed, the Australian craft beer scene. Over the intervening years, there have been breweries that have released more consistent beers, as well as those with beers in their oeuvre as outlandish and inspired as anything Moon Dog have released.

There are other breweries – not to mention venues, events and individuals – who have helped nudge the local beer scene in one way or another over that period too. But, love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s only one Moon Dog and the Australian beer industry wouldn’t be the same as it is today without them.

And, to their credit, eight years on from the release of Skunkworks, as they prepare to throw open the doors of Moon Dog World for the first time, there’s a phrase that still feels perfectly apposite…

“And now for something completely different.”


Moon Dog World opens to the public at 4pm on October 4 at 32-46 Chifley Drive, Preston.

Photo at top of article features the Moon Dog team and their artist admiring the 40m mural on the rear of Moon Dog World on the day it was finished.

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