Brewing in the shadow of the CUB breweries in Abbotsford, Victorian locals and beer enthusiasts Dave Bonighton and Cam Hines have taken a passion of what beer can be beyond a bitter ale and morphed it to their very own brewery and beer company, Mountain Goat.
In October this year, 30 year-old Dave and 29 year-old Cam celebrated the third birthday of Mountain Goat's first commercial sales with this reflection. They have:
remained totally independent
Not bad, eh? And it all started like this.
Dave, the bloke with the homebrew kit and a few bottles of plonk, teamed up with Cameron, the guy with the wacky glasses and the business savvy to create their own brewing company which they named after a hairy animal that'll never fall down. Get it? Anyway, Dave used to bottle his own beer in his backyard in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. It started when he was at uni because he felt he needed a project, a hobby. Fair enough, they say it's good to have one. While Dave bottled away his days expanding his set-up from his backyard and into a mates garage, Cam went abroad to Canada where he found his way in life.
Most people find enlightenment and the Celestine Prophecy a good read while backpacking, Cam on the other hand, found the microbrew. "They were everywhere, little tiny brands. You'd walk into a corner pub there'd be 10 locally brewed beers. It was unreal." It wasn't just the fact it was small guys making beer, but that the end result was a cut above what he'd been taught was good beer back in Oz. "I'd only ever had the mainstream beers in Australia and they're all quite one dimensional. I was tasting these preservative free, natural, locally produced ales and lagers and I just couldn't believe the taste difference. I thought God, beer can be really amazing. I immediately thought of Dave homebrewing back home and I had a vision so I sent postcards saying, 'Dude, we so have to do this'."
Now, the pair have two beers the High Tale Ale and the Pale Ale for which they received five awards at the recent Australian International Beer Awards. Their beer is sold in 70 outlets throughout Victoria, they have their very own range of Goat merchandise as well an organised following called the Goat army - bit like the Kiss army, only much, much different. It's a web-based network of friends who they invite to their R&D beer tastings and regular goat parties held at the brewery. And all of this cocooned in an honest and healthy passion for what they do, you know, keeping it real.
"We just don't want some guy coming in and flogging it off and making it so it's just about numbers and stuff." Cam searches for a more business-like way to say his next comment, but there isn't one. "We wanna have fun. We wanna do it ourselves for as long as we can afford to."
The sense of inevitability in the "for as long as" bit of that statement leads us onto to talk of The Big Guys. Yeah you know 'em, the fat cats and gangsters of the beer world - the New South Welshmen Lion Nathan who own Tooheys (amongst others) and the Victorian locals CUB. Collectively these blokes own everything but a minute 3 or 4 % of the Australian beer market. "It's a completely hopeless situation for us," explains Cam of Lion Nathan's recent purchase of about 50 pubs in Victoria. "Take the Builders Arms for example", For those who aren't aware, the Builders Arms in Fitzroy in inner city Melbourne was until recently, one of the old school pubs where everyone knew your name and that of a few premium beers. "Now you can't get anything that's not owned by Toohey's - you can't even get a Cascade or a Coopers. And we approached them to see if they'd stock us and originally they were like "Oh yeah" but now they're not going touch it."
It's not just the brewery owned pubs that make things tough for the Goat boys but the whole deal of contracting out tap lines in the pub. Explains Cam, "They're saying, 'here's a deal, now you pour only our beers on these taps for the next three years'. I mean, we haven't been booted out of any bars because of that but we've had a few bars who were keen on stocking us on tap. Now its' like, 'we'd like to stock you guys but we can't.' So it's really hard."
These challenges are one thing, but even if the Big Guys loosened their grip on the balls of the beer industry, Mountain Goat still have a challenge of a different nature - the beer palate of Australians. Like our exchange rate, our fashion sense and our population, we're a little limited. We're taught that lager is beer and lock that in as the perfect beer. "Its pretty easy to get Coopers followers drinking goat but getting a hardcore VB drinker or a Melbourne Bitter guy onto it is hard," explains Cam. "People say to us 'Oh there's so much flavour' as if it's a bad thing." Bewildered yet hopeful he presses on, "It is hard and a bit frustrating but slowly it is changing and probably the wine revolution is helping things as well."
All this talk of tastings and beer and flavours, urges one to ask how the hell they get such good grits in a glass - I mean, what's so good about their beer? Well, throw that one at head beer maker Dave and the answer sounds more like some old bloke explaining the homemade pasta recipe his Sicilian godparents taught him when he was barely tall enough to pick the olives fresh from the tree.
First up, its an ale, not a lager meaning its foggier and much much tastier than your average Aussie brew. Also, their beer is made "ye olde way," using only four natural ingredients - 100% malt, natural hops, yeast and water. Not only that, Dave the brew master seeks out the best hops and yeast to mix into the brew. These blokes care about their beer. Teamed with the absence of any filtering, which knocks a percentage of the flavour out, and sugar, which waters the flavour down, Dave and Cam have created two blurry ales which don't taste bad at all, especially if you like your beer to come a bit hairier and bawdier than most.
But the most impressive thing these blokes have created is a passion and enthusiasm for expanding the beer minds and palates of Australians. No longer do we have to choose between Fosters or XXXX, Melbourne or Vic, Holdens or Fords - we're a little wiser now and want more variety.
Who knows where this beer movement will take us? If these guys keep at it, the beer world in Australia might morph into another industry we know and love. A world where you can traverse the globe on exclusive tasting tours of different beer regions, where you're encouraged to cough up close to a mortgage payment for a taste of a specially bottled beer, where the profile of brewers is raised to rock star status and beyond, where you sniff, spit and gargle your beer rather than drink it, where tastings become formal and your beer comes with medals and a guide book. But then again, where would the fun be in that?