My first encounter with Owen "OJ" Johnston was one of the most memorable of my early years in the Aussie beer world, one vividly etched in the memory banks and which still raises a chuckle for both of us to this day.
Moo Brew were about to start brewing at their current site, having outgrown the original brewery that sat atop what is now MONA. But it was still a work-in-progress, so when I reached into my rucksack to pull out my DSLR it didn't go down well: OJ switched from tour guide mode to stern disciplinarian, demanding – in no uncertain terms – the camera went back whence it came.
"Jeez. Who's this guy? That was a bit unnecessary," I thought, visibly taken aback (and possibly with the odd swear word going through my mind too).
"Who's this guy here, thinks he can swan onto private property and start snapping away? Cheeky sod!" is what I imagine was going through OJ's head at the same time.
We soon got over our little tiff and, looking back, the real takeaway from that first visit to Moo Brew in Hobart – other than just how excellent their Pilsner tasted – was the lengths to which OJ was going to create a brewery that would allow them to keep creating the tight, consistent beers for which they were becoming known as much as the elegant bottles in which they came. His pride and joy wasn't so much the DME brewhouse or the space they now had to play with; it was the wastewater system out the back of the shed. Given much of my experience inside breweries to that point had typically been of the rather ramshackle giant-saucepans-and-lots-of-hoses affairs, it made an impression.
It's been more than six years since OJ left Moo to become the first of what's been a steady stream of award-winning brewers enticed to join Hop Products Australia (HPA). It's the Tassie-based wing of the global Barth-Haas Group and is responsible for growing more hops in Australia than anyone else, including the ground-breaker that is Galaxy. Yet the personality he created for Moo's beers – always flavoursome yet with a control and balance not found with such regularity at many other local breweries – lives on, these days under the guidance of Dave Macgill, who worked with OJ in the early part of the decade.
As well as designing the aforementioned Pilsner and its core range stablemates, the annual Seasonal Stout release and the barrel-aged Vintage version that followed twelve months later – dubbed The Velvet Sledgehammer – were among the earliest beers of that ilk in local craft beer circles. The Vintage release appeared in individually numbered bottles (2,500 each year, if I recall correctly) and retailed at $25 a bottle; back then, this was unheard of for what was effectively a stubbie, albeit a very beautiful one, although that didn't stop people buying it by the slab.
He joined HPA as the operation was gathering steam as a prime mover in the development of new aroma and flavour hops – a development that has put Australia on the global beer map more than anything else over the past decade. In his role as sales and marketing manager, he gets to work with brewers, advising them on how best to use hops and which varieties might suit certain beers in their lineup best.
In the first few years after making the switch from Moo, OJ kept his brewing urges sated for a while under the Hop Trial banner. He'd release batches of beers featuring HPA hops with decals explaining not just what the variety was but in what volume and at what point in the brewing process the hops had been added.
Given hops' ascendance to rockstar status (although maybe it's more superstar EDM act these days) and many brewers' eagerness to shout about just how many they've added to their latest hazy DDH double IPA, it's an approach that feels rather ahead of its time. That said, OJ's intention was always to educate rather than show off and I imagine he shudders at the wastage involved in many such beers, even as his employers must rub their hands with glee!
So, as we close in on the last week of our end-of-decade series, we find out what he's made of an era in which the number of small breweries in his home state has exploded and hops have devoured the craft beer industry.
What's been your highlight of the past decade?
Seeing the continued growth of diversity and a vibrant beer culture here in Australia has been something I’ve always been stoked about. I often think about the scope of beer in Australia nowadays and can't believe it from where we were only a short while ago.
When I started brewing there wasn’t another craft brewer in Tasmania. I admired the likes of Mountain Goat, Holgate and other early operators for the boundaries they were pushing from the isolation of our little brewery. So much has changed since then.
What's surprised you the most about the Aussie beer scene?
I think the rate at which brewers are innovating and releasing beers, responding to trends and customers, has surprised me. Tied right in with that is the hopping rates you see out there now – wow, that definitely surprised me and I still struggle to reconcile it some days.
What are your thoughts on the health of the beer industry as we approach the end of a remarkable decade?
I think the industry faces challenges, and the decline of certain styles of beer, but generally is positioned really well to continue on through the next decade.
If every brewer is out there spruiking the benefits of great beer, working on recruiting more drinkers to beer, it will be a great thing.
The hyperlocal brewpub will continue to emerge in Australia, which will bring so much diversity to local offerings and bring brewing a little closer to everyday people.
What's your number one goal for the coming decade?
My absolute top priority is to put more Aussie-grown hops in the hand of Aussie brewers to make the best beers possible.
And, if you had one Christmas wish for beer in Australia, what would it be?
I hope that whatever beer people are drinking on Christmas Day, people can pause for a moment to appreciate the work that goes into making great beer – from farmer through to the brewer. We can all say cheers to that!
We're opening a door on Crafty's Advent Calendar every morning up until Christmas Day and you can find them all here.