Two key founders of the first brewery to become part of the Mighty Crafty stable of craft beverage companies are leaving the business they created.
Blake Bowden and Grant Rodgers are the childhood mates who conceived Jetty Road Brewery, on the Mornington Peninsula, more than a decade ago. It became the first brewing company to take investment from the ASX-listed company, then called Founders First before changing to Mighty Craft in 2019.
Their departure at the end of the year to pursue other opportunities in the beer industry will see Mighty Craft increase its stake in Jetty Road to beyond 70 percent. That ownership level has grown steadily over the years from 25 percent when they first bought into the brewery in 2017 – the same year Jetty Road opened the doors to their impressive Mornington Peninsula taproom, and the year before their 25 hectolitre brewhouse was first fired up.
Speaking to The Crafty Pint, Blake says the decision to leave the business was driven in part by a desire to take on different roles in the beer industry.
“We’ve spent the last six years grinding away pretty hard,” he says. “Grant and I are pretty burnt out so we thought it was time to hand over the reins to Mighty Craft and the team that we’ve built down here and enjoy a bit of a break and downtime and assess where we’re at.”
As a brewer, Blake says he would rather focus his energy designing and brewing new beers rather than working to meet orders for major retailers, as was increasingly the case.
“We’ve really enjoyed the journey and are really proud of what Jetty Road has become,” Blake says. “But across the journey, I’ve probably realised that my passion lies more with the creative end of the market rather than production brewing and filling contract orders.
“There were things we’ve done over the last five years that we really enjoyed,” he adds, “and we wanted to go back and hone in on those rather than focus on that growth.
“I’d never really worked commercially, except as a hands-on apprentice at Mornington [Peninsula Brewery] and obviously Grant hadn’t really been in the brewing industry.”
Grant, whose role has been as managing director, says Mighty Craft have been “fantastic” in helping them fund the brewery and supporting them, but admits he had felt similarly disconnected from what he wanted to be doing.
“Our passion is more that small scale, community brewery vibe,” he says.
“I went from setting up all the systems and knowing all the staff to having 60 to 70 staff. And before I knew it, I was spending most of my time on strategic planning and managing board members and shareholders.
“What I enjoyed the most was when the venue was humming and I had more involvement than just your touchpoints as senior management or with the board.”
It’s fitting that Blake first started brewing at Mornington Peninsula Brewery – and that both Blake and Grant gained insights from founder Matt Bebe and head brewer Andrew “AG” Gow as they embarked on their journey – given the pair have ended up following a similar path to their near neighbours. After selling Mornington Peninsula Brewery to Tribe Breweries in 2018, Matt returned to its original brewpub and launched Tar Barrel Brewery & Distillery early in 2020.
At the time, Matt told The Crafty Pint he felt his path working within the wider Tribe family wasn’t where his skills or talents lay.
“I was going down a commercial path and that’s what I left ten years ago, and I’ve always been much better at the people parts of the business which I can completely do here,” Matt said at the time, sentiments echoed by Blake and Grant.
“It is quite poetic that our stories have somehow run in parallel,” Blake says. “We just want to be back more hands-on and covering more aspects of the business while controlling how we want things to run.”
Both Jetty Road and Mighty Craft have grown significantly since their partnership began; the latter’s portfolio now includes Mismatch, Ballistic, Sauce, Sparkke, Slipstream and FogHorn breweries, as well as a number of distilleries and other drink makers. Jetty Road are set to brew about 700,000 litres of their own beer this year, plus a further 210,000 litres of whisky wash on contract, making them the third largest brewery in terms of volume in Mighty Craft's portfolio, behind Mismatch and Ballistic.
Mighty Craft managing director Mark Haysman told The Crafty Pint that although they're sad to see Grant and Blake depart their roles, he's also happy with how the pair approached the team at Mighty Craft about their desires.
“We’d love for them to hang around for longer but, ultimately, we want the guys to be happy doing what they’re doing, and it has been pretty fast-paced," he says. "They see it as a good opportunity to step back and chill and bit and have a fresh start.”
While it's always their preference for founders to stay involved in their businesses, Mark thinks that, over time, it can become a reality for people to want or need to leave for a variety of reasons.
"I think we just have to be flexible that our idealistic view of the founders being there and staying in on the long term won't always be the case," he says.
According to Mark, part of the thinking behind the switch from Founders First to Mighty Craft last year was driven by a desire to focus on celebrating the wider craft drinks category in which they operate.
“Founders First sounded like we were really focusing on the founders of the businesses at the expense of the consumer, the customer and our shareholders," he says. "That’s certainly not our intent; we want to focus on growing the business' profitability and fulfilling its potential, and obviously we want the founders to benefit just as we want our shareholders to benefit.”
While Blake and Grant will both be departing Jetty Road, two of the six original founders – Shayne Bland and Simon Weir – have positions on the Jetty Road board.
“So, we still have the founder involvement but in a different way and not through management,” Mark says. “So there will still be a good representation of that original crew.”
Blake and Grant's shares in Jetty Road are being transferred to Mighty Craft, with the opportunity for the pair to sell them in the future.
“They offered a share price that we were happy with and those shares transfer across into Mighty Craft,” Grant says, adding that they're also staying around until the end of the year to help with the transition.
“We’re moving our shares into Mighty Craft, so we aren’t necessarily riding off into the sunset just yet. We’re still part of the team and want to make sure of their success.”
Blake adds: “I live three kilometres down the road, so I’ll still be drinking here, probably more frequently now.”
With Mighty Craft only listing on the ASX two years ago, Mark says it remains a very young company and, despite losing money through their operating activities according to their most recent quarterly report, he believes they're in a strong position as the economy and hospitality recover in a post-COVID world.
Only today, the business announced it had raised a further $5.8 million through sophisticated and institutional investors that will primarily be used to accelerate their whisky strategy and replace funds impacted by lockdowns.
The recent decision to sell the Jetty Road site and lease it back on a long-term lease was driven by a need to manage their balance sheet, Mark says, while The Mighty Hunter Valley venue is also up for sale, albeit with FogHorn's second brewery remaining at the location. Mark says COVID has impacted the Mighty venues, with greater focus trained on their brewpubs, such as those at Slipstream or Jetty Road, as well as spirit cellar doors, such as Kangaroo Island Distillery.
“These cellar door type expressions of the brand are really important to us and they’re doing well, notwithstanding COVID of course, and we continued to focus on those," Mark says. "The multi-brand, or Mighty-type concept venue of the Hunter Valley or Moonee Ponds, has been more challenging and certainly COVID hasn’t helped.”
As for Blake and Grant's plans, they're looking to remain in the beer industry and start something new, although any future business plan will aim to keep them in hands-on roles.
“We definitely want to ensure the people we partner with are 100 percent pushing the same direction as us, or more than happy to invest in the vision and leave us with the reins,” Blake says.
And, while this isn't the end they envisaged when first drawing up their plans for Jetty Road a decade ago, they're proud of the culture and family they’ve helped create.
“Whilst it was the most difficult part, it was heartwarming to see the disappointment and surprise on their faces,” Blake says of the moment they told staff they were moving on.
“It’s really nice for us to see that that culture that we hoped to foster is really there.”