At the start of the month, we kicked off a mini-series featuring Boatrocker Brewing and the tale of how founder Matt Houghton and his wife Andrea have set about moving from home brewing to owning a brewery. With more people opening breweries or considering that step, the aim is to offer some insight into what becoming a brewer can entail as well as tips informed by the lessons the Houghtons have learned along the way.
The first piece, which you can read here, covered the journey from the first home brew through to founding Boatrocker as a contract brewer with beers brewed at Southern Bay. Here, Matt picks up the story at the point at which he had beer and had to get it into punters' hands and tells us when they decided to move from contract brewing to investing in their own steel, as well as offering some insight into how Boatrocker’s beers are designed and where he might be taking the brewery in the future.
Once you had beer, how did you get it into people’s hands?
Beer distribution was an unknown for us. I remember driving home with my wife from Southern Bay with the boot and the back seat full of Alpha Queen… The axles were given a real workout! (By the beer, I hasten to add!). When our first brew came out, I was working full time, and my second job was delivering and selling our beer from the boot of my car. We were so unknown, and really at the testing stage of our business, that the idea of employing someone to either sell our beer or distribute it was just not viable.
I spent the better part of two years doing all the deliveries myself from the back of my car. It was bloody hard work, but I really enjoyed meeting the owners of the small bottleshops and bars, and I felt like it made us real, not some corporate, slick sales operation.
After two years, a sore back, and one dead car, it was time to organise the deliveries of our packaged beer. I was still doing the kegs (I still am), just because our volumes were not that huge (about five to 10 kegs per week).
We employed a logistics company to do 99 percent of our packaged deliveries. It was the best thing we had done in terms of freeing up my time, and allowing us to get focused on the things that we had to do: making our business plan watertight, and working out how to get out of contract brewing.
What do you know now about getting beer into venues and bottleshops that you wish you’d known at the start?
I know I made loads of mistakes when I first started selling our beer. It's really hard rocking up to a venue with your own product and trying to sell it. I was just happy if people liked our beer let alone bought it! But I think my naivety helped a lot in the early days. I was not trying to sell them our beer and the kitchen sink. Although having said that, I wish I had been more pushy at times, but damn that's hard. Especially when you hate pushy salespeople yourself.
I guess I was very naive in thinking that people were going to be similar to me. I was nice, friendly, honest, and very trusting. Why would anyone want to screw me over? There were people along the way who have taken the mickey out of me, and well, it's disappointing that people aren't nicer, but hey… I like living as though everyone is a friend.
We are still owed money from over two years ago (I won't name names… but if you're reading this, you know who you are), but it's like getting blood from a stone. The best piece of advice I could give anyone starting out is to have a watertight credit application. And don't let anyone have your beer until they've signed it.
At what point did you decide it was time to take the next step and invest in your own brewery?
We had been contract brewing for three years, and things were just getting frustrating. Craft brewing should be about creativity, quality and consistency. As a contract brewer we were just not getting satisfaction in all those areas. It's hard to be creative when the minimum volume has to be 6000 litres, or you have to dump batches of beer or recall product due to faults. I guess it's just a case being in control of every aspect of production. But when you don't own the brewery or hire the staff, there's little you can do to make sure everything runs like clockwork.
Our aim had always been to run our own brewery, but there are so many factors involved in getting one off the ground. A large part of setting up a brewery is waiting for the right equipment to come along (if you plan on going second hand), which for us is what happened.
How did you go about finding the brewery, both in terms of steel and a home?
I've been looking at used brewing equipment websites since about 2002; always trying to work out how we can afford one. For those who don't know, the equipment is really, really expensive. And that doesn't include the brewery setup costs (flooring, glycol, compressor, electricals, plumbing, wages, rent, packaging… the list goes on). The actual cost of the brewery proper is just a fraction of everything else that needs to be organised to get up and running.
We looked at a number of used equipment sites – www.nabrewing.com (now defunct) and www.soundbrew.com (reliable, and a US industry stalwart), as well as www.probrewer.com classifieds (arguably the best and most informative open source of info available to those in the industry… just don't ask stupid questions!). We asked for quotes off the main new equipment suppliers from North America (DME, Specific Mechanical and Newlands (NSI)), but the waiting times for equipment were crazy, and prices just outside our budget.
Thankfully, I came across a site from New Zealand (www.ibl.co.nz) which regularly has brewing equipment from Australia and NZ for sale. Luckily, a Newlands brewhouse was for sale – it had never been used or installed and still had protective wrapping on the tanks. Best of all, it was within budget. With second hand gear, if you snooze you lose. So we made an offer, waited nervously, made a counter offer, and then we owned a brewhouse!
So, we now owned a brewhouse. But what about the rest of the gear? And where to put it?
We had worked heavily on our business plan over the last three to five years, and so we knew who to call and what gear we wanted for our brewery. It's not possible to list all the suppliers I have here, but all I can say is do your homework. Google is your friend. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Buy books – Kunze, Bamforth etc – and listen to everyone. They all have a story. But it's up to you to work out what will work for you and your budget.
So, how did we find our home? We had to decide what sort of brewery we wanted first. Whilst having a bar attached to a brewery sounds great, it also means you need to worry about staffing and payroll, increased rents if you want an inner suburban venue, and if you want inner suburban, truck access is really important. And the big killer is rent. For a good sized venue you can expect to be paying $80 to $100 per square metre per annum. Add to that outgoings (rates, insurance etc), and the price per square metre can blow out pretty quickly. What’s more, there's no guarantee that people will turn up. As a startup, that's a massive risk, and one that we weren't prepared to take.
Instead we opted for a good sized factory space in Melbourne's south east, where floor space was $50 per square metre. We still have to pay outgoings, but they are considerably less than an inner city venue. At the end of the day, it's all about cash flow. We searched for months looking for the right sized venue, and to be honest, there aren't that many out there have have the right ceiling height, gas connected, plenty of three phase and a nice landlord who doesn't mind if you rip up their flooring! Thankfully, we've found an understanding landlord.
Taking a step to one side and away from the practicalities of setting up a brewery, how have you decided what beers to brew? What has been the inspiration for the Alpha Queen, Hoppbier and Smash?
We've always brewed beers that we have wanted to drink ourselves. Naturally there are constraints as a contract brewer, because whilst I love DIPAs [double IPAs], doing 60 hectolitres [of such a beer] is pretty risky, especially when there might be QC issues. So we chose beers that were both tasty and accessible, without compromising on ingredients. I can't think of many Aussie contract brewers who use entirely British or German base malts.
Alpha Queen is our flagship beer, as that was the beer that we kickstarted Boatrocker with. Inspiration for that came from numerous sources, although if I were to point to two beers, they would have to be Little Creatures Pale Ale and Matilda Bay Alpha, both lovely beers in their own right. Creatures was a revelation when I first had it. I just loved the hoppy zestiness of the beer when it first came out. I think it has changed over time (or maybe that's my palate?), but that's fine. And I loved Matilda Bay Alpha for it's luscious maltiness, although I always wanted more hop aroma and bitterness…
As for the Hoppbier, that was inspired by my time living and touring in Germany. It was summer in the late nineties, and German lagers were just damn nice, particularly Jever Pils. And really reasonably priced. So we wanted to make a beer that paid homage to nice hoppy pilseners, but with a distinct New World kick. And so Hoppbier was born. It's just a shame that the hops we used for it are so rare.
As for the SMASH!, we wanted a beer that was smashable on a hot day. It is still somewhat of work in progress, however. We like the flavour, but we just didn't get the aroma we wanted, so when we are brewing it on our own gear, we'll really ramp that up.
You’ve completed a couple of tours of Belgium, one of which you wrote about for this site. Is that a source of inspiration for your brewing and can we expect to see some Belgian-inspired releases from Boatrocker in the future?
Belgium is such an inspiration for us, and I'm sure for many brewers around the world. When I was backpacking through Europe in '98, I had many revelation beer moments in Belgium. Michael Jackson helped open my eyes and my palate to some amazing beers.
I'll never forget my first visit to Cantillon. After walking around the brewery in awe at this working museum and sitting down to receive my free glass of beer as part of the admission fee, along hobbles this old lady with a ceramic pitcher, plonks down a glass and proceeds to fill it up with barely carbonated cloudy pale liquid. I smelt it, and was just amazed. Such complexity in the aroma… And then I had a sip. Wow! That was my first experience with Gueuze. And I have been hooked ever since on sour beers.
There are so many other experiences that are too numerous to list, but suffice to say we will be most definitely trying to pay homage to the artisan brewers of Belgium with our own range of Belgian inspired beers.
As part of our commitment, we have purchased 60 wine barrels (13,500 litres capacity) from a winery in the Yarra Valley, and will be dedicating a temperature controlled room for the production of sour beers (pLambic, pFlemish Reds and so on – please note, I use a p, which stands for pseudo, in front of the Belgian names, as technically only beers made in the region of Lembeek can be called Lambic, and Flemish reds can only be made in Belgium).
This is a big investment in both time and money, as it can years before these types of beer are ready for release, but boy will it be worth it!