We hear plenty of stories of breweries growing in leaps and bounds, building huge production facilities, forging partnerships and making an impact on a national scale. On the flip side, we hear the occasional story of brewing companies or venues going under. But we hear far less about the quiet achievers.
When the Champion Small Independent Brewery trophy at the 2018 Indies was announced, many people were thinking the same thing: “Moffat Beach Brewing Co? Never heard of them.” Given they also won the Champion Session Beer trophy, those same people may have been scratching their heads too, wondering: “Have I missed something?”
To which the answer is yes, but hardly surprising. You see, you won’t find their beers in a Melbourne bottleshop – or even a Brisbane bottleshop, for that matter, despite the fact they’re brewed on the Sunshine Coast. No, if you want to try them, you have to head to Moffat Beach, pull up a stool overlooking the ocean, and taste the award-winning beers while the salty breeze is brushing past and the hush of the waves is in your ears.
To find out more about them, we sat down Matt Wilson, who launched the business with wife Sharynne, for a warts-and-all chat about organic growth and how a beachside café that started out making “shit beer” became Champion Small Brewery.
Matt and Sharynne moved to the Sunshine Coast from Sydney in 2012.
“I’m not a Sydney boy myself – I grew up in the country," Matt says, "and Sharynne didn’t want to live there anymore. I’d been made redundant from a job, and she just found this place was vacant online. We thought, 'Righto, we’ll fly up and have a look.'.”
They saw the space – and the stellar location it inhabited – and decided to go for it. They hopped in the car and headed north to open a café: Blackwater Trading Co. But it wasn't long before their hopes for the place included more than just coffee and food.
“Before we took possession of the place, we went and got a six-pack from BWS around the corner and we sat at that bench there, overlooking the beach," Matt says. "There were heaps of people around, and we thought, ‘Why is no one doing beer here? The place is born to have some beers on, and someone playing a little bit of music.’ ”
And so it began.
When they first opened the doors in December 2012, their liquor licence wasn’t finalised, and they didn’t yet have beer taps. But they didn’t let that slow them down. As soon as they got through their first Christmas trading – Sharynne cooking, Matt making coffee – they “begged, borrowed and stole” to be able to install taps.
“We made a conscious decision not to put in any mainstream stuff ‘cause we wanted a point of difference from the surf clubs and the mainstream pubs that were around. So we just had totally independent beer from the start, which we’ve still stayed true to.”
It made perfect sense to Matt to serve only independent beers; after all, he didn’t enjoy drinking the mainstream stuff. But what about the Sunshine Coast locals who weren’t sold on craft beer yet?
Initially, Matt reckons, it was a "hard slog". They started off with 4 Pines Kolsch and Pale Ale, then, as the system expanded, they added Holgate Mt Macedon Pale Ale, Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, Moo Brew Pilsner and Murray’s Whale Ale. It's all stuff that’s now considered easy-drinking, but in 2013 it was “fairly extreme” for the locals. Indeed, it took two months to move their first keg of IPA – Murray’s Big Wednesday – because it was too radical for some people.
“One of the first ones I had was Holgate’s Road Trip," Matt says. "I remember these guys were sitting out at the bench – they’re still customers of mine – and they got it 'cause they liked the name Road Trip. And one of them’s just gone, ‘Mate, I don’t know whether you should be selling that. I really struggled to get through that. That’s, like, heavy stuff.’
"At the time it probably would’ve been. And I really love that beer, but now I reckon some of my customers would find it pedestrian, almost. People’s palates have changed.”
Just Brew It
Wanting to educate himself about beer, Matt started brewing at home once a week. But he admits they always had the dream and the vision of putting in a little brewhouse at the back of the space, in the dead space that didn’t have a sea view.
So Matt went from homebrewing "just to educate himself" to working towards a future where he and Sharynne would be serving up beer they’d made themselves. They ran the numbers. They did the research. They inquired with council, who didn’t really know what to think – no one had ever asked them if they could have a brewery in a cafe on the beach before – but the shock-and-awe worked in Matt and Sharynne’s favour and they got their licence. And got to work.
Treating the homebrewing as part of his job, every Tuesday Matt would brew one or two beers. Some of the recipes he developed are still on rotation at Moffat Beach today: their Passenger Pale Ale, Deadbeat Boyfriend, the Summer Ale and the ESB were all born in his garage.
Having a craft beer venue made the move into brewing easier in some ways: they already had their own taps and their own market. But installing a brewhouse, going from brewing 30 litre batches to 300 litre batches, and then having to sell their own beer – particularly without a strong brewing background – was never going to be without its struggles. The steep learning curve put a strain on their finances and their marriage. Matt wasn’t always happy with the beer, but sold it anyway to pay off the “bloody expensive” equipment.
“In hindsight, it made me a better brewer… we just started banging away, improved with each batch that we did," he says. "And we entered beers in competitions, ‘cause we’d get the feedback from that, and took that feedback on board.”
Keeping up with demand
In 2015, Blackwater Trading Co became Moffat Beach Brewing Co. Given the initial uphill battle to sell craft beer at Moffat Beach, it’s easy to understand why they only installed a small system. But, almost immediately, they found their customers couldn’t get enough of their beer.
"Even when the beer was shit, there still wasn’t enough capacity for us,” Matt says.
Over time, they’ve made small changes to cope.
“Everything we’ve done has been organic and within our means – when we could afford to improve something, we’ve done that.”
Two years ago, they upgraded their fermenters and almost doubled their capacity, taking some of the pressure off, but even now it’s not enough. It’s a good problem to have, and one that gives them space to feature guest taps, but Matt says it stresses him out when people come to try the beers they’ve heard of and they’re not on tap.
“We were running out of beers at Christmas time… Our double IPA is one of our biggest-selling beers, and people were coming in to have it, so I tried to have it on the whole time," he says. "But I kegged off a batch on Christmas Eve, and it was gone by New Year’s Day. Just got smashed.”
Time to shine
If it wasn’t already clear, Matt is happy to call a spade a spade, not least when it comes to his beers. He started entering his “shit beer” into competitions, just for the feedback. He admits they only entered the Craft Beer Awards for the first time because they were taking place just down the road in Brisbane.
At their second run at the Craft Beer Awards, in Adelaide the following year, they picked up two silver medals and a gold – not to mention more feedback. In 2018, they entered the Australian International Beer Awards for the first time, scooping up a couple of bronzes and silvers. But it was at the 2018 Indies (the new name for the Craft Beer Awards) where Moffat Beach Brewing Co really shone: a fistful of medals, Champion Session Beer for their mid-strength pale Social Jam, and Champion Small Brewery. (By all rights, Matt should have won Champion Moustache as well, but that’s an argument for another day.)
Matt is typically modest when it comes to the triumphs.
“With those competitions, I really do think there’s a fair bit of luck involved as well. Sometimes it’s just your time to shine.”
And he’s always willing to laugh at himself.
“It’s no secret that I like big, full-flavoured beers," he says. "I’m an unashamed hophead – I love IPAs and double IPAs, and that stuff. So my wife thinks it’s really ironic that the first trophy I won was for a mid-strength beer, ‘cause it’s something that I just don’t drink. But, in saying that, we’re really happy with how that beer turned out.”
So, what does Moffat Brewing look like today? Well, Matt’s full lineup is popular with the locals, but he’s seen the hoppier beers take on a life of their own – a world apart from the days when IPAs were too extreme for most of his customers.
“The Summer Ale and our mid-strength are probably our best-selling beers. It used to be our Cream Ale [Deadbeat Boyfriend], which is our easiest drinking beer, our closest thing to a lager, ’cause we still had that conservative, rural Queensland palate getting in here quite a bit," he says. "But that’s definitely changed now. We’ve really seen the shift towards the hoppier stuff.”
The Josh Porter Pale Ale (“It’s not an XPA, whatever an XPA is, but it’s got lots of Mosaic and Amarillo in it, so it’s big and punchy.”), the IPA and the double IPA are all close behind.
“We’re spoiled here, ‘cause our stuff is always fresh, ‘cause we can’t keep up with production!”
With Matt running the beer and Sharynne the books and the rostering, the two have forged a handy partnership.
“We both keep each other in check," Matt says. "If I was in charge of the money, we’d go broke, because I’d drink it all and I’d spend it all; if she was in charge of what I do, we’d probably go broke too, ‘cause she’d use the cheapest shit possible. We’re a good team.”
Of course, escaping Sydney to own a small brewery at the beach sounds like the ideal life, right? Yet there's plenty of hard yards involved too. Unlike traditional brewpubs, they’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The only day they closed last year was Christmas Day.
“Because of where we are, people come here for holidays," Matt explains. "We’ve gotta be open. That’s our bread and butter. People are here on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t move in here. It was feral.”
“We do have aspirations of doing a bit of wholesale, but we definitely don’t have aspirations of sending it national," Matt says of future plans. "That’s not our thing.
"We’d love to see some of our beers pouring in this South East Queensland pocket, but that’s our headspace at the moment, not seeing it down in Melbourne, or Perth, or Adelaide.”
For the most part, it’s all about the brewpub: the ability to have the freshest beer possible; to hear feedback direct from their drinkers; to be a part of the community.
“I think this brewpub model is not only great for us, but it’s great for the consumer as well," he says.
"I remember growing up, we went to the pub. My dad went to the pub. And I don’t think people are doing that anymore. There’s no atmosphere, there’s no soul. Whereas here, we don’t have any pokies, but we have music in here, and fresh beer. And I think families and young people would rather hang out in a place like this than sit in a soulless place with a pre-prepared chicken schnitty.
"I see no reason why there can’t be a brewpub in every town in Australia. I really think that’s the way forward for our communities.”
You'll find Matt, Sharynne and co at 12 Seaview Terrace, Moffat Beach.