Even before they fired up their brewhouse for the first time, the team at Spangled Drongo had a remarkable story to tell.
Initially, they planned to open their doors in the centre of Murwillumbah in NSW’s Northern Rivers region: inside the Art Deco home of The Regent` and including, among other things, its own skate park.
But then, in February 2022, came one of the worst flood events the region had ever seen, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses and leaving the plans of Tom Cornish, Brian Kiss von Soly and Steve Murphy (pictured above left to right) on hold.
“These were the biggest floods in Tweed history with over 1,600 people being displaced and over 2,100 homes damaged,” Tom says.
Something needed to be done and, for the Spangled Drongo trio, that something was turning their sodden brewery site into a volunteer and response centre. The space was a natural fit for such an endeavour, given it had previously been a grocery store and had its old cool-rooms still intact, offered plenty of parking, and sat in an unmissable spot.
“It was smack-bang in the middle of town,” Tom says. “If you drive through Murwillumbah you can't miss the Regent Cinema.”
The immediate aftermath of the flood felt like living in a dystopian nightmare and, after spending a day helping a couple of families, he recognised the sheer amount of work that lay ahead to get the community back on its feet.
“[I then] realised the scale of the problem was so large it required a coordinated effort,” Tom says.
Within two days of the floods hitting, Tom and some friends had created the Volunteer Hub where they spent their time receiving donations, getting them to those in need, which included kayaking supplies to isolated families, and mapping those homes that were most impacted by the floods.
When the Defence Force eventually arrived to help with the clean-up, they utilised the system already in place for their work.
“When the ADF came about ten days after the event,” Tom says, “we would give them their job list in the morning because we knew the ground conditions best as we had the database and system logging everything.”
As the recovery work proceeded, he was particularly blown away by the generosity of the many volunteers – electricians, mechanics, carpenters and plumbers among them – who joined them in providing more than 27,900 meals to those in need, raising more than $200,000 in funding.
“I'm amazed by the generosity of people and the support we received in helping so many,” Tom says. "We couldn't have done it without the community."
“I was honoured, proud, and determined to do the best we could for those impacted to get them back on their feet."
It was the kind of work that feels quite inbuilt in Tom, and goes part of the way to explaining Spangled Drongo's focus on their community and the environment. Tom has also worked to provide renewable energy to people in India living in slums and runs a tuk-tuk rental business in Sri Lanka that supports local drivers by providing further income opportunities.
Or as fellow Spangled Drongo founder Brian puts it: “Tom’s a bit of a powerhouse when it comes to connecting the dots and just making things happen.”
As for Brian, he's someone many in beer will have come across before. He moved to the Northern Rivers in 2013 to work at Stone & Wood, later joining the team at Balter. Following the floods, and faced with planning issues with the local council, the team changed direction and instead opened their brewery in Murwillumbah’s industrial area, brewing just a stone’s throw from Stone & Wood’s major production site. It also saw them switch from their intended brewpub model to focus on the wholesale market: Brian helms a 25-hectolitre brewhouse, with their first releases appearing locally and further afield too.
“The beer’s been really well-received; we’re getting on tap more,” Brian says. “I’m all about drinkability and the drinkability is very high.”
Unsurprisingly for a brewery that had already played a pivotal role in their community ahead of opening, Spangled Drongo's ethos is very much centred on their impact on the world around them. They support a range of local community initiatives, while each beer sold protects a square metre of Australian habitat.
Even the name was picked for its natural connection: rather than being the idiot the name might suggest, the spangled drongo is Australia’s only drongo and is known for its protective qualities, often taking on far larger birds of prey to protect both their young, as other birds set up nearby for safety.
“Our whole purpose is to do good,” Brian says. “The world is pretty grim at the moment, so I think if you can do good by drinking this amazing beer, then why would you purchase something else?”
Joining the founders in doing good is someone else many in Australian craft beer will know well: James Perrin. James spent years leading all things sustainability at Stone & Wood and was one of the many volunteers helping out during the floods, his initial involvement driven by a desire to give back after witnessing Tom's hard work in the Volunteer Hub.
“Their pain points were all right in my wheelhouse,” James says. “It was around stuff like trade waste, council approval and planning, water use and stuff like that.”
James says the decision to focus on having a positive impact as a business drew him into a brewery which makes decisions based on how they can bring about positive change.
“You can do impacts through how you run your business,” James says, “which is what a lot of breweries, particularly the bigger breweries, have done to date; a lot of my work at Stone & Wood was around how we were using energy, water and minimising waste.”
But he adds you can also have an impact based on the products you’re selling, which suits a small brewery like Spangled Drongo.
“There's not much we can do from an energy or water waste point of view; it’s all very manual and small batch anyway," he says. "So, we’re focusing more on the products; the more beer we sell creates a bigger positive impact.”
Given the difficulties currently facing the wholesale market, which are among the reasons some breweries have been closing or entering voluntary administration, James says it’s not lost on him that they’re going against the grain somewhat by creating a wholesale brewery when others are looking to focus more on hospitality. Furthermore, they’re placing extra restrictions on themselves, including choosing not to use plastic can holders due to concerns around recycling.
“We're entering the market at a time that’s probably the toughest it's ever been the last decade or so,” James says. “Plus, we're doing it a business model that most are turning away from, while implementing all of these restrictions upon ourselves.
“But my belief is values are only values during the difficult times; something is not a true value unless it’s challenged.”
Although their business model has changed, Brian points to how well it’s worked out for them.
“I’m actually really grateful for where we are now,” he says. “I’m stoked with the brewhouse and can’t see it working out any better than it has.”
It’s a meditative approach that feels natural given another unique part of Spangled Drongo’s story: Brian’s world record for kitesurfing.
Having windsurfed and then kitesurfed from a young age, Brian made a call during the early years of the COVID pandemic to try kitesurfing from his home in the Northern Rivers to his parents' place in Melbourne, which he registered as the longest solo kitesurfing trip by a male with the Guinness World Records.
“I decided to do a trip from my house in Ocean Shores to my parents' house in Aspendale, Victoria,” Brian says.
“I thought it would only take a month but the wind slowed me down the whole way, so it ended up taking three months."
Having left home on December 28, 2020, Brian eventually landed on Melblurne's shores on Easter Sunday with little more than a backpack, a hammock and the essentials.
“I had a routine,” he says. "I had a long-sleeved rashie but ended up getting sunburnt on the back of my hands pretty early on so I zinced those up pretty well. And the saltwater is pretty dry, but I had a water pack with me to be hydrated and then muesli bars in the pockets to eat.”
It was a journey that saw countless people take the adventurer in to provide him with food, a hot shower and a roof over his head. And, while he initially posted about it on social media, he found he didn’t need to keep people in the loop to find support.
“I found that consumed too much of my time, so I quit about halfway since I just wanted to enjoy it,” he says. “But when you have a bright blue backpack on, you’re coming from the ocean and then land onto the shore, people are quite interested.”
All of which just goes to show that, even in these tough times, there are plenty of positives to be found in the world. And Spangled Drongo look certain to add to them.
You can find Spangled Drongo's beers here. The brewery team is working on obtaining a new licence so visitors can call in to try some of Brian's creations.