Back in the early days of The Crafty Pint, Adrian Chong was one of those keen beer lovers we'd see at events across Melbourne. Since then, he's enjoyed one of the most unlikely tales of anyone involved in the local craft beer industry.
He joined forces with relatives to launch Taps Beer Bar in Kuala Lumpur, which has helped fire up Malaysia's craft beer scene and been followed by a second venue. And, since returning to Australia, he's been helping drive the spread of good beer into Melbourne's outer west since opening the bar-cum-bottleshop Hopheads in Point Cook.
In recent weeks, he's launched a second Hopheads in Altona, which we figured was as good a reason as any to get in touch for another entry in our Behind Bars series to find out how the scene is developing in this fast-growing part of Melbourne.
ADRIAN CHONG – HOPHEAD
Tell us about your journey from craft beer lover to opening Hopheads via Kuala Lumpur.
As with a lot of people, it started with those good ol' Belgian beers. Probably the first beer that got me thinking about beer outside of mainstream lager was a Chimay Blue. But then the real descent into madness occurred when I first stepped in to Slowbeer in Hawthorn in maybe 2009/10 and realised that there was so much beer out there. A Rogue XS I2PA later and I was hooked onto hops. Haven't really looked back since.
I think the inspiration for the Malaysian bars were definitely venues like The Local Taphouse and Biero. Biero more so because it was run by my brother's friends, some of whom were also Malaysian, so we figured that this could be a thing back in KL. I suppose the big drive for us doing it (and this is a common theme) is that I got sick of not having anything good to drink when I was back in Malaysia, so I roped in some of my relos and Taps (pictured below) was born.
Being based in Australia meant that I wasn't involved in the day to day stuff in Australia but I wanted to stay in the beer industry. That's how the idea of Hopheads was born.
Why did you decide to open the first store in Point Cook?
To be honest, the major instigator for opening up in Point Cook was my laziness. I moved to Point Cook in late 2011 and I was still driving back to Slowbeer Richmond every other week to load up on beer. The missus wasn't happy that we were pissing away Saturdays and I was getting annoyed because it meant that I could only have one beer if I was driving.
I used to frequent the Park Hotel in Werribee. That was an amazing Local Taphouse substitute. That gave me some confidence (hope) that there just might be enough demand for good beer out west. I figured: "Well, if we've got a Local Taphouse substitute in the Park out here, we need a good bottlo a la Slowbeer and Purvis."
So we thought: "Why not?" At the very worst, I'd have good beer right at my doorstep.
What was the reaction like in the early days to such a venue?
I think people were curious; out west we are still maybe three to five years behind the curve as far as consumers go. Early doors, we got lots of requests for mainstream lager. But early on too we got many people who were also very interested in trying something different and we made ourselves an early bunch of regulars, many of whom still come very often today.
I felt that, overall, people were very welcoming of something new and different in an area that was mostly known for fish and chip stores and hair salons (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Have you seen your customers' tastes change over the years since the first store opened?
Yes and no. Some people just love particular beer styles. I've got customers who fell in love with big imperial stouts and won't touch an IPA and vice-versa. But then we've also had many a wine drinker come in and be converted into full on malt-hop-yeast-loving monsters.
What about those of you and your staff?
I'm still a hop lover. A dry, hop forward, double IPA will get me every time. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the whole spectrum of beer, but I'm still an IPA man through and through.
My staff have all had their own individual journeys and, while I think people fundamentally like what they like, access to a wide range of beer generally allows for some experimentation and, in the long run, a better appreciation for certain styles they may not have liked at the start of it all.
What have been the biggest trends through winter? And what do you think will be exciting people when summer rolls around?
Winter is all about big, dark, heavy imperial stouts. It's just the time for it, I think. But we also saw no real drop off in terms of the love New England IPAs got. I can understand why though – it's such a drinkable style.
What do I think will happen in the summer? I'd like to see a few more local breweries have a bit more of a crack at those Brut IPAs. But I think, trend wise, New England IPAs will continue to dominate for a while yet. And, funnily enough, I think the surprise trend for the summer may be the return of the wheat beer!
Presumably, you're still welcoming newcomers to the wide world of beer today, particularly with the second store opening in Altona; what advice do you give to people taking their first steps away from mainstream beers?
I think first and foremost is to encourage people to approach everything with an open mind. Some people have a natural aversion to darker styles and sours. I always tell them you'll be surprised what you end up liking. There have been quite a few "I told you so" moments over the years!
For the wine drinkers who always say: "I don't like beer" I always say that, if all I've ever had as far as beer is concerned is a Corona, I wouldn't like beer either. That usually gets me through the door.
What have been the standout beers for you and your staff this year?
Too many, but I like very much what the guys at Hawkers are doing. That IIPA they did was fantastic and their high ABV releases have been on the money.
I also really liked Feral's Shooter McGavin – thought that was excellent as well. Had a bunch of Wildflower beers at GABS this year and thoroughly enjoyed everything they were doing. Most of the Hop Nation New England IPA releases have been excellent. Green Beacon's Uppercut from last year was also very, very, very good.
As for the staff, Ryan, who is our new business partner in the Altona venture, has gone for Garage Project Boss Level, Green Beacon Barbary Coast, Crooked Stave Burgundy Sour, Boatrocker Banshee and Collective Arts Boyoboy Breakfast Sour. William's picks are the Hop Nation Market IPA, Shooter McGavin and Sailors Grave's Peach Melba Pavlova.
Edward went for Evil Twin Bible Belt and Batch Double Rainbow XXPA, Aled put in a second vote for Crooked Stave Burgundy Sour plus Modus Operandi's Future Factory and Lervig's Perler for Svin, while Brenton says Feral War Hog, Mornington Pale and Black Hops Fiens.
And who is your pick for brewery to watch in Australia?
I'd keep an eye on Hop Nation and Wildflower, I think. An oldie but doing interesting things at the moment is 3 Ravens with their Juicy variants. Green Beacon always produces excellent beer and their seasonal lines are very good too.
Thanks, Adrian. And best of luck with the new store.
You can find other entries in the Behind Bars series here.