These days, if you want to catch drinkers' eyes from the off, chances are you’ll plump for something overloaded with hops, high in alcohol, aged in a barrel or based on an obscure style. New Melbourne-based brewing company Barrow Boys decided to do things a little differently, however: they launched with a lager, that oft-dismissed-by-the-hardcore branch of the beer family.
That said, it’s not your common or garden pale lager. Sure, it’s not overloaded with hops, high in alcohol, aged in a barrel or based on an obscure style, but it’s different enough to catch the drinker’s eye. Rusty amber in colour and awash with layers of toffee and biscuit malt flavours, it’s loosely based on the Vienna lager / Marzen style that is usually only rolled out by brewers as a one-off at Oktoberfest time. In fact, so rare are permanently available Vienna lagers in Australia that when we discovered recently that we could find no Sam Adams Boston Lager for a beer course we were running (that was due to start in an hour) with Miro Bellini from Good Beer Week there was a moment’s panic.
“Who else brews or brings in a Vienna lager year round?” we asked Miro.
“There’s Brooklyn Lager.”
“Yeah, but we’re already using their Black Chocolate Stout.”
“Hang on. What about the Stormy Lager from that new lot, Barrow Boys?”
“I’m standing right in front of some now.”
A fortnight later, in the company of Ash Hazell and Justin Trail, two-thirds of the fledgling company set up by former Little Creatures CEO Ross Sudano, it turns out this was no accident.
“It’s a wide open playground,” says sales/marketing guy Justin of the gap in the current Australian beer market for a darker, maltier lager.
“People are brewing great, hoppy beers,” adds Ash, “but I figured that the real hero of beer is malt.
“I love a good craft lager so when we started out doing trial brews and having a lot of conversations about beer, we wanted to do a lager or darker beer of some sort. We got some of my favourite dark lagers from around the world and then it was up to me to take our ideas and make them into a beer.”
Thus it was that he created the Stormy Lager, featuring a range of specialty crystal malts, as Barrow Boys' first release.
“You give it to a customer [expecting a pale lager] and they start looking at it sideways,” says Justin. “They see it pour and it’s so dark but then there’s that comfort when they try it and it tastes light. It’s a bit of surprise.”
The style wasn’t chosen purely to fill a gap in the market or to surprise people. It is a beer close to brewer Ash’s heart. He learnt his craft at Little Creatures in Fremantle, where he spent eight years working alongside head brewer Russell Gosling as well as brewing at the Generous Squire brewpub in central Perth. During that time, he worked on a number of their Single Batch releases, including the (in some quarters misunderstood) Marzen, a Vienna lager that was his favourite of all Single Batches, designing the Puffing Billy Bock (another dark lager) and brewing a Marzen at the Generous Squire for good measure too.
More recently, he was enticed to switch coasts by his former boss.
“Following the Lion takeover [of Little World Beverages that owned Little Creatures and White Rabbit] I didn’t want to be there much longer,” he says. “Then Ross called me and said, ‘Ash, would you consider moving to Melbourne?’ and I knew what was coming.”
He joined Justin, who has past experience in the beer world with Matilda Bay and Thunder Road in Australia and Good George in New Zealand, and set about getting Barrow Boys off the ground. Much of the early months were spent looking for a venue in which to open their own brewery, with the intended location North Melbourne. That hunt continues – still focused on inner Melbourne – with Ash regularly travelling to Mildura Brewery to brew and package their beers in the meantime.
The name, however, was inspired by their search for a site around the markets of North Melbourne.
“Barrow boys is a term for the market vendors, the ones who would spend too much time hanging around the markets,” explains Justin. “They’d be selling fresh produce, hand sold, and be happy to put their backs into it.”
And that’s how they envisage Barrow Boys the brewers: suppliers of fresh, locally produced beer into their local market. Indeed, for now at least, there are no plans to target markets outside Melbourne with both Justin and Ash enjoying the challenges of being part of a small, start-up business.
“We share everything,” says Ash. “That’s what small business is. The main thing is it has to be sustainable, but we want to do our craft and to create a work environment that we enjoy. It’s never going to be the next Little Creatures or Matilda Bay.”
As for immediate future plans, the next notable milestone will be beer number two. They’re keeping things close to their chests, stating at one point that it will be “hoppier” and “an ale” before adding: “Nothing’s set in stone.”
Most immediately, however, they will be at Flavour Exchange in Fed Square this week if anyone is in Melbourne and fancies sampling some Stormy Lager with them in person. And, as of yesterday, their website is live too.