Until recently, the barrels you were most likely to encounter on the Gold Coast were the kind breaking in thick, watery tubes along the glitter strip’s beaches. However, the launch this month of Black Hops’ AWOL taproom in Burleigh Heads is giving local beer drinkers their very own reason to shaka.
Tucked away behind the original Black Hops HQ, the AWOL barrel room – a space that manages to be somehow beautifully designed but also possesses the requisite dankness of a barrel room – has been described as the “mini Black Hops within Black Hops” by co-founder Dan Norris. It's one that's set to produce a line of barrel-aged beers from the venue’s more than 100 wine, bourbon, whisky and gin barrels.
Not unexpectedly, for a brewery accustomed to doing things their own way, the AWOL story came about through a lucky break. In 2018, a keg infected by a faulty line at a customer's venue revealed itself to be a surprisingly pleasant, sour beer instead of a dud batch. Transferred into a barrel, the beer became AWOL’s first – and, successive versions, blended with fruit, have proven popular in the taproom.
According to Dan: “Everything we do happens organically and very fast.”
Thus, trips to New Belgium Brewing, in Colorado, and breweries in New Zealand provided the inspiration for the co-founders to turn a one-off beer into an entire line of oak-aged creations. From Flanders reds and lambic style ales to a 9.5 percent ABV stout aged in Lark Single Malt Whisky barrels, the focus will be small-scale, experimental and fun.
Dan says the focus on small-batch, experimental beers within the new offshoot is in some ways “the exact opposite of what we’re doing at Black Hops”.
In part, this is a reference to the upcoming expansion of the brewery’s main production facility, BHII, at Biggera Waters. The move to a larger, state-of-the-art canning line will significantly increase the output – by no less than 250 percent – and quality of their packaged core range beers.
Black Hops co-founder and head brewer Michael "Govs" McGovern says: “Keeping the level of potential oxidation as low as possible during canning will ensure our beer is as fresh as possible and will increase its shelf life."
The $3 million packaging line upgrade being overseen by CFT Australasia is set to complete by the end of 2021 and follows last year's expansion, which doubled production capacity to more than four million litres per annum,.
While everything gets larger and faster at BHII, output at AWOL will be so small initially that visits to the taproom will only be available through pre-booked tours in the first few weeks after opening. However, a core range of beers – including their Hibiscus Cherry Sour, a blonde ale aged in French oak foeders that previously housed red wine and blended with hibiscus and cherry – will also be available in cans.
Brisbane's recent snap lockdown might have delayed the opening of AWOL a little, but coming on the back of the acquisition of a third venue, fifth place for G.O.A.T. in this year's GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers, and topping Beer Cartel's Australian Craft Beer Survey as the country's best brewery, we suspect it won't be too long before the fast-growing operation are back with another venture.
You can book an upcoming tour and tasting at AWOL here.