For many parts of Australia, it feels like a floodgate has been opened over the last decade, with new brewery openings creating cities and towns awash with breweries, not to mention the beer-centric pubs and bars showcasing their wares. In the Northern Territory, however, the growth of locally-brewed beer has more closely resembled a gently trickling stream.
Darwin’s One Mile Brewing have been championing the cause longest, launching in 2012, and the brewery’s success in landing four beers in the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers at the start of this year shows just how keen locals are to get behind their own beer. More recently, they’ve been joined by others, with Beaver Brewing opening in Darwin and Alice Springs Brewing Co bringing beer to the country’s Red Centre since 2018. You'll find the odd in-house brew among other crafty offerings at Darwin's Six Tanks Brew Pub too.
The small population, hot climate and tyranny of distance have often been cited as factors working against the chances of craft beer securing a real foothold in the Territory. But one person working for years to ensure it does is Matt Mulga, better known to most as, simply, Mulga.
Along with his partner Kitty Kat, he runs three venues: Monte’s Lounge in Alice Springs and Lola’s Pergola and Babylon Bar in Darwin. They're all known for their fun, Bohemian and somewhat quirky look and feel as well as a commitment to selling good beer. Often that beer comes from local NT breweries but you’ll also find the likes of Stone & Wood, Gage Roads, Two Birds, Mismatch and Hawkers pouring.
Before he moved into venues, Mulga run an Alice-based outback tour company called Mulga’s Adventures and made the move to hospitality when he took over Annie’s Place at the turn of the century. Though Annie’s is no more, it still pours craft beer as the Jump Inn.
From the unassuming bar and restaurant at Annie’s Place, Mulga was the first person to tap Little Creatures Pale Ale in the Territory, after begging the Freo brewery to send kegs. He says that, at one point, he was selling ten kegs or so a week of the ground-breaking beer when the bars of Melbourne combined were responsible for shifting around 60; not a bad effort considering he couldn’t even label the beer properly to sell it.
“After about two years, they sent a rep up to see me and I didn’t even have a decal on a tap,” he says. “They never sent me one so I just wrote Little Creatures on a cardboard box.”
In 2007, Mulga and Kitty Kat setup Monte’s Lounge before moving to Darwin to open Lola’s Pergola in 2015 and then Babylon Bar earlier this year.
As to why he’s led the charge for putting better beer in bars in the Northern Territory, there’s a simple answer.
“It’s just what I drank,” he says. “If you do a venue then you play the music you like, you put the lighting in you like and you sell the beer you like.
“If it doesn’t work then what the hell. Why would you create a bar that’s not what you really want?”
As we look towards the start of a decade in which we’re pretty sure the Northern Territory will develop more beer to call its own, here are Mulga’s thoughts on where the local beer scene has come from and where it’s headed.
What's been your highlight of the past decade?
I remember begging an independent Little Creatures many years ago to let me sell their beer on tap in Alice Springs. They hardly had a footprint outside of WA and they were concerned about how they would get their empty kegs back.
We had to beg, paint a picture of trust, prepay and, of course, organise the freight, but we got it on tap, the town rejoiced. We were getting in 18 kegs a fortnight and developed a relationship and became known to other people in the industry so, in the later years, if I called a brewery to talk beer they knew of me and my venues and were happy to help.
Of course now, with Kegstar and distributors such as Paramount, it’s so much easier if you are in a more remote destination to get anything you want. It enables you to work to get a crowd that is loyal to your venue for you are providing something special, which is really what all venues should be striving to do.
What's surprised you the most about the Aussie beer scene?
Look how many breweries have popped up. What’s wrong with these people? You have to find a place. Get over all the planning and council regulations. Buy lots of expensive equipment. Brew the beer – which is less fun and more cleaning than you realised. Then you have to sell the beer.
Once you get over this, oh, the pain, the pain! You're selling more than you realised and you have to expand and the brewery is not big enough. But still more and more people do it and they all seem to be having a good time.
What are your thoughts on the health of the beer industry as we approach the end of a remarkable decade?
It’s so strong, it's remarkable. And it will get stronger for more and more people every day are drifting away from what the two big, foreign-owned companies brew and they don’t go back, and any expansion of new venues is occurring with craft beer on tap.
What's your number one goal for the coming decade?
I used to work all the time. Not that I looked on it as work, I more thought of it as getting things done. Achieving outcomes.
Now that I have reached my half century I need to do more. Talk more, listen more, read more, travel more, laugh more, watch more movies. I need to be more me but, of course, to fund this I need my venues to keep growing. That’s my challenge.
And, if you had one Christmas wish for beer in Australia, what would it be?
After just going to the cricket in Adelaide, a Christmas wish for beer would be the Adelaide Oval getting a more interesting beer selection on tap.
We're opening a door on Crafty's Advent Calendar every morning up until Christmas Day and you can find them all here.