Last week, Lion announced they were involved in the creation of a new brewery on Lord Howe Island. It's an announcement that's been met with surprise by some locals, including members of the Lord Howe Island Board and the existing Lord Howe Island Brewing Co.
Plans to install an environmentally-friendly, 600 litre brewery on the small island were revealed to Brews News by Lion’s managing director James Brindley and the company’s long-time brewmaster Chuck Hahn.
Their aim was to open Lord Howe Island Brewery next year as a partnership between Lion, Michael and Tim Maxwell and others involved in the company Kentia Fresh, which runs The Nursery on the island. The Maxwells also run the luxury accommodation Island House, which welcomed Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth earlier in 2020.
However, the global food and beverage giant's involvement was news to Craig Wilson, one of four Lord Howe Islanders elected to the seven-person Board.
“From my perspective as a board member,” Craig told The Crafty Pint. “I knew that Mike Maxwell – who has a lease on The Nursery site – put in an application to construct a microbrewery. But we believed that that was his undertaking, there’s never ever been any mention of third party involvement.”
While he’s not surprised the Maxwell family would seek input from elsewhere to build the brewery, the Board had never received an application mentioning Lion’s involvement.
“We fully understand, of course, that to build a microbrewery it’s not just like you have to order a few tanks and a bit of pipework and pumps,” Craig says. “He’s going to need some expert advice to actually set things up.
“There’s never been any application to the Board to say that there would be involvement from [Lion] or anything like that.”
He adds: “There needs to be questions asked, there’s no doubt.”
Lord Howe is a tropical paradise in the Tasman Sea, 600 kilometres off the coast of New South Wales and with a permanent population that’s fixed at less than 400 residents. There are few flights to the island from mainland Australia and there’s a cap of 400 tourists allowed to stay each night. In addition, there’s little to no mobile phone reception, while waste has to be transported off the island, and it’s a community where reduce, reuse and recycle carries more potency than most parts of Australia.
The site of the proposed brewery is The Nursery, which grows vegetables for the island as well as Kentia palms, native to Lord Howe Island and a popular houseplant. Tim told The Crafty Pint the development of The Lord Howe Island Brewery stretches back to 2014, when his father set up The Nursery and worked on infrastructure to make a brewery possible; he says Chuck has been involved since 2017.
The land The Nursery occupies is owned by the Lord Howe Island Board, a statutory body established under the Lord Howe Island Act (1953) that’s made up of four elected Islanders and three members appointed by the New South Wales government, plus the administrative team.
“The land is actually owned by the administration or by the board,” Craig says. “It’s crown land and [Mike Maxwell] has a 25-year lease over that site.”
A spokesperson for the Lord Howe Island Board’s administration confirmed there is no evidence that any board members had any knowledge of Lion’s involvement. The spokesperson also said that, although the Board was unaware of Lion’s involvement, their involvement is understood to be consistent with the planning application.
“The original application did not indicate who the operator was, however, the proposal as understood by the Board is consistent with the Development Consent,” they said.
Despite the announcements made on the Radio Brews News podcast, in a statement to The Crafty Pint Lion distanced their business from the planned brewery, saying The Nursery and its associates fully own the brand and that Lion have no stake in it.
“The Nursery has brought this project to life – from the initial idea, to the development,” the spokesperson said.
“We are just pleased to have been able to contribute in a small way to install the equipment and consult on beer development.”
Tim says that, while they’ve never tried to hide anything about their relationship with Lion, he does wish they’d made the announcement ahead of their partner.
“We certainly don’t want anyone to feel like Big Brother is moving in when we own all of the interests and everything of Lord Howe Island Brewery,” he says.
“I think with the project, and how we’ve always pictured launching this, it wasn’t our intention for it to come from Lion."
He says Chuck has been involved since 2017 and was approached due to the unique nature of Lord Howe Island and the environmental considerations that installing a brewery in such a delicate ecosystem would involve. During his time at Lion, the brewing pioneer has regularly been involved in setting up new breweries and reviving historical brands, including the Kosciuszko brewery at the Banjo Paterson Inn in Jindabyne, which is how Tim first made contact.
“I got his number through my uncle who lives there and he invited my dad and I to come and meet him and tell him about our island project,” Tim says.
“It was immediately clear that Chuck had the technical knowledge and human resources to guide with very stringent wastewater requirements, brewery manufacturers and designers that could develop a reasonably simple way of brewing on a logistically complex location.”
The Other Lord Howe Island Brewer
Adding to the unusual nature of the situation, another local who was surprised by the announcement is Anthony Riddle, a sixth generation Lord Howe Islander who runs Lord Howe Island Brewing Co, an operation unrelated to the Maxwells' brewery.
He launched his brewing company in May last year and has released multiple beers showcasing the unique flora and fauna endemic to Lord Howe Island. The brewing company is a member of the Independent Brewers Association, while Anthony also runs an associated distillery with his mate Christian Young, who lives on the mainland and has spent many summers on the Island.
“We were always under the understanding that The Nursery was going to establish a possible brewery but I don’t know if anyone on the island knew anything about the connection with Lion,” Anthony says, adding that some comments made as part of the announcement didn’t suggest much knowledge of the small island community.
“I would have liked to have seen a bit more understanding of it,” he says. “It would have been nice if Lion’s announcement came from the community rather than the larger side.
“I hope they do make some really good beer and I’m sure they will. I think locally it will be a really good tourist attraction. I think we just need a bit more clarity.”
Anthony says that, unlike many other tourist destinations, building and development on Lord Howe Island is quite restricted, while the static population can make finding people to run a new business a far from easy task.
“There’s no staff facility on Lord Howe, so every time you do implement a larger scale structure, it does put extra pressure on the community,” Anthony says. “We’re not like Byron Bay where you can just get people driving up the coast to grow the business.”
These staffing restrictions, along with the island’s environmental constraints, is one reason they brew on the mainland, primarily at The Rocks and Willie The Boatman in Sydney.
“Our vision is never to be large scale, it’s just to be community-minded,” Anthony says.
He says they decided to use the name Lord Howe Island Brewing Co despite knowing another brewery was going in because they weren’t sure of the immediate plans surrounding the other operation.
“We registered as Lord Howe Island Brewing because there was no registry of that before,” he says. “Nobody was actually actively doing anything at the time.”
The Australian Business Register shows Lord Howe Island Brewing Co has been active since May 2019, while The Lord Howe Island Brewery, The Lord Howe Island Beer Company, and Lord Howe Island Lager have all been active since June 2019, with the last three associated with Kentia Fresh. The name “Lord Howe Island Lager” is under examination for trademark application, following a filing in July last year.
However, Tim says registration of the trademark doesn’t indicate any future plans as to what the brewery would produce or what might be brewed by Lion on the mainland; instead, he says they expect the community and tourists to drive the makeup of their beers.
“You can only guess what people will respond to and be into,” he says.
Claims the community will drive the brewery’s beers appear to contradict the Lion managing director’s comments to Brews News, however.
“Chuck and our business partners designed two beautiful cans, a lager and an ale,” James said on the show. “It’s called Lord: a taste of paradise.”
However, Tim told The Crafty Pint that packaged beer has not been a focus for him or Chuck; when they hosted their first public event on the island last week they showcased 15 to 20 different cans and beer recipes.
“We wanted to consult the community, not only on the taste but also on what the imagery would be," he says.
“All of this is very much a work in progress; I think the podcast James was on showed that it was a really developed and refined idea but all this stuff is very much a work in progress.”
On the podcast, James also said Lion would produce packaged beers on the mainland and direct a portion of sales for the benefit of the Island.
“We’re not going to sell a lot of beer there on the island,” he said. “But, if we do it correctly, I think we can build quite a following for the brand on the mainland.”
Tim insists the primary focus, however, is on the community brewery.
“We want to stress that 99.9 percent of our collective effort has been creating the Lord Howe brewery and a place for the community to hang out, learn about brewing, and add another fantastic reason to visit the island,” he says.
“Yes, we spoke to Chuck about the, 'What if this thing takes off moment'; however, this is not our focus. In the event that it does take off, yes, a portion of the sales would go to the island and would go towards something that would benefit the community on the island."
Since last week's announcement, Tim and Anthony say they’ve been chatting, with the former certain there's space for both brewing companies on the 15 square kilometre island.
“Anthony and I are in complete agreeance that they might go down to the brewery and drink a few beers and they might arrive at a bar and have a couple of cans of his,” he says. “People are on holiday and people are living in paradise, so people are going to try and taste different things.”
Lion didn't answer The Crafty Pint’s questions about whether or not the company had concerns about two brewing companies operating under such similar names, but Anthony mirrors Tim’s suggestion they can work together.
“We would like to think we could work with a brewery on the island here,” Anthony says.
“All the businesses support and scratch each other because we’re small businesses.”
Given the island's businesses operate 600 kilometres off mainland Australia and there's only a few hundred Lord Howe Islanders, you’d certainly hope so.
Photos of Lord Howe come from the Lord Howe Island Tourism Association and were taken by photographer Jackson Arkadieff, except where indicated.