Step into Mornington Peninsula Brewery at 72 Watts Road this year and you’ll find a brewery run by a new set of hands. Well, kind of.
Tar Barrel Brewery & Distillery, a new company launched by Mornington Peninsula Brewery founder Matt Bebe (pictured above), has taken over the site less than eighteen months after selling the brewing business to Tribe Breweries. But despite the change in ownership not all that much is actually changing – both the beers and the Mornington Peninsula Brewery brand that Matt launched with his mates back in 2010 are staying at Watts Road.
What's more, Matt is back at the helm and has brought another familiar face back into the fold too. So, less new set of hands, more old hands, perhaps.
Around a year after selling the business to Tribe Breweries, which also owns Stockade Brew Co and WILDE Gluten Free Beer, and runs a major contract brewing facility in Goulburn, Matt says he approached Tribe CEO Anton Szpitalak. He was eager to focus less on Mornington Peninsula Brewery’s overall strategy and national distribution and go back out on his own.
"It was more for me," he says. "My long-term desire was to have a brewpub. And it’s fortunate that Tribe were open to having that discussion."
Like the name of his first venture into the world of brewing, it's a local reference: the name of a spot on the Peninsula well known by locals, cyclists in particular. The ethos is local too: Matt says Tar Barrel’s focus will be on pouring what they brew over their own bar.
“The benefit is that you walk into Watt Road and it will continue to look and feel like Mornington,” Matt says. “You’ll see Mornington on tap but there will be a bit more of a focus on specialty beer.”
The person behind the new beers is the man who helped launch Mornington Peninsula alongside Matt, Andrew Gow. The brewer better known in the industry as AG was head brewer until 2017 before joining gluten free brewery TWØBAYS in nearby Dromana. Now, he's splitting his time between the two breweries, with Matt describing their reacquaintance at Tar Barrel as like getting the old band back together.
“We were the first two employees at Mornington when we started and we’re the first two employees of Tar Barrel too,” he says.
As well as increasing the number of beers they brew, Matt says they’ll also rework the food menu and increase the focus on their wider hospitality offering. They’ll also increase the number of taps on the bar from the current eight to a dozen and stock a broader range of local wines and spirits, which is where the second word in Tar Barrel’s name comes into play.
By the middle of the year the site will also be an operational distillery, with gin and whisky the immediate focus (though it will be some years before we can taste the latter). It’s not an entirely new path for them: Mornington Peninsula Brewery has always made the wash for Chiefs Sons Distillery in Somerville, allowing Matt to work with, and learn from, the distillers.
Outside of those four walls in Mornington, little else is changing. Tribe will still brew and distribute Mornington’s main beers and the larger Latham Street brewery around the corner from Watts Road remains part of Tribe, with Mornington Peninsula head brewer Kristian Martin still steering the ship there.
As for the why, Matt says he wanted to refocus what he was working on and felt the role he found himself after selling the brewery to Tribe wasn’t where his skills or talents lie.
“I was going down a commercial path and that’s what I left ten years ago and I’ve always been much better at the people parts of the business which I can completely do here,” Matt says.
“This could have gone very sour very quickly. But Anton and the other investors, including private equity, were very willing to talk about it and we worked it through and worked out how to do this.”
As for Tar Barrel, unlike the original incarnation of Mornington Peninsula Brewery for which Matt gathered a group of investors to finance the operation, it's solely his.
“I’m self-employed for the first time really," he says. "Which is scary and I’m drinking a lot of coffee shots.”