You can’t see Ursa Major from this side of the planet, but you can still drink it in. Ursa Major Beer take their name from the constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, and when you hear the story of the globetrotters behind it, it's a naming convention that clicks into place.
Colin Jeffrey and Dave Heffern are Canadian chefs who met while living in Montreal, but it was Dave's backpacking trip in 2008 that started the journey that led to them launching their brewing company in Australia.
“I just fell in love with it,” Dave says. “And somehow I just knew that one day I'd live here.
“But fast forward around three years, Colin and I went backpacking through South East Asia. It was time for Colin to go home and I was like, ‘Dude, don't do it; go to Sydney and check out Australia.'."
Colin continues the tale: "So I just landed here with a backpack in 2010 and never left."
Eventually, Dave followed Colin’s move to Sydney and the pair of expats started spending their Mondays brewing new beers and talking about taking things pro. Although neither still works in kitchens, they’re quick to point out how they’re still developing recipes and devoting themselves to processes that let ingredients shine.
“It’s really a lifetime with the curse of being pedantic about making things,” Colin says.
While Australia’s become their home, Colin has more recently crossed the sea – well, a strait – again, moving to Tasmania close to four years ago. He enjoyed the beaches of Sydney’s North Shore, but says he began to miss the four seasons and outdoor lifestyle that comes with living in Tassie’s south.
“It’s not like I was looking forward to cold weather,” he says. “But I do like that reality of ‘OK, it’s cold. Time for the hiking boots, beanie and let’s go.'."
Despite settling in different cities, their shared brewing dream didn’t die: Ursa Minor Beer announced themselves to the world with a small batch of kegs in late 2020. Although there have been a few lockdowns since, they started releasing beer more steadily midway through last year, including some in their otherworldly tins, and appeared at the Tasmanian Pint of Origin venue in Melbourne in May.
Having left the world of cheffing behind during the pandemic, Dave now brews at Quakers Hat Brewing in Manly Vale, which is where most of the Ursa Major beers have taken shape too.
“We’ll run it through the pilot system in the garage to get it started,” Dave says. “And then from there, yeah, we just workshop it together as far as how it's tasting and evaluating it.”
They've now started distributing their beers nationally, which felt like a fitting occasion for us to ask Dave and Colin: Who Brews Ursa Major beers?
Ursa Major Beer
Who are you?
Dave and Colin. We met years ago, sometime in the '00s in Montreal, as chefs. We spent a lot of time in that city, it’s full of creativity, great food and cool people. So we connected over the culture there.
When one of us moved to Australia, the lifestyle was totally different and eventually we both ended up on the Northern Beaches. Some long-simmering curiosity led us to make beer at home, and a lightbulb went off.
We thought, 'Here’s a project that uses all our experiences, we are obsessed with the process, and we could do this together.' It felt like forming a band!
Now, one of us lives in Tassie and the other in Dee Why, but we decided on making a company that suits our individual lifestyles too.
Where do you brew?
We are gypsy brewers. We want to collaborate with brewers who see our vision of the beer we want to make. There’s beer and then there’s great beer, and there is a lot of attention to detail that I think a chef’s mind can identify and understand.
Our first commercial brew was in Tasmania, but recently we have been brewing at Quakers Hat in Manly Vale. Those guys relate to and understand our uncompromising vision.
Why do you brew?
It’s a great question, it gets to the heart of it. We want to make world-class beer, we want to make the beer of our dreams. We’ve been to literally the birthplace of the NEIPA and it became an obsession to make beer like that.
Also important for us, forming a company has always been a dream, and that allows us to express our love for design and style and create something we want to share.
Was there a beer or a moment that set you on the path to becoming a brewer?
Cracked a Heady Topper. Eyes widen. Silence. Cracked another.
What’s the inspiration behind the brewery name?
Ursa Major represents where we’re from: a constellation of a big bear seen from the northern sky. The bear is very Canadian and, yet, scary.
Not that we’re scary, but it is an iconic animal, maybe a bit mysterious here in Australia. So we wanted the name to be something that would make people curious, and something that we can look to as our company evolves over time.
What beer in your lineup best represents you and why?
Analysis Paralysis represents our journey to release our first beer, because we drove ourselves crazy brewing that beer over and over to get what our taste memories were seeking. As the name suggests, there was a lot of energy and agony that went into developing it, not just the recipe but I think a lot of what Ursa Major is came out of that process.
Our North Star is simply that we both like what we create, so we have a lot of faith in our collective judgment.
If you could have any person in the world join you on a brew day, who would it be, and why?
Conan O'Brien, of course.
If anyone drops in on brew day, what are they most likely to hear blasting from the speakers?
What beers are in your fridge right now?
A few Waking Up In Idaho, which are probably gone by the time you read this, and Quakers Hat Pale Ale.
What would be your desert island beer of choice?
A Czech lager.
Which local beers have blown your mind in recent weeks?
Fox Friday, Seeker Blue Bird NEIPA, and Du Cane Hut To Hut Pale Ale.
Is there a particular style, ingredient, or trend in beer you'd like to explore further?
We are really big on hop selection, there is a lot to explore with that. This is about our background as chefs and understanding how important ingredients are.
We are also seeing some amazing improvements in environmental brewing practices; we believe that is a responsibility we have to be accountable for.
Where can people find your beers?
Pubs and bottleshops nationwide.
Where do you hope your brewery will be ten years from now?
Imagining a zero-carbon brewing facility is a dream of ours.
You can find other entries in our long-running Who Brews...? series here.