Aussie Exports: Mike Roberts - Cru Brewing Systems

April 2, 2024, by Will Ziebell

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Aussie Exports: Mike Roberts - Cru Brewing Systems

Australians love to travel. So much so, in fact, that it’s something of a universal truth (and global punchline) that you can be at a bar in just about any place on earth and, as soon as someone hears your accent, you'll hear: “G’day! Whereabouts are you from?”

The last time it happened to me was while ordering a Belle Meade Bourbon at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee. The person asking the question was former Mountain Goat brewer Mike Roberts.    

Like me, Mike was in Nashville for the Craft Brewers Conference. He now lives in Canada and works for Cru Brewing Systems, brewhouse designers and suppliers based in British Columbia. Mike’s role sees him work closely with breweries in planning or those who are growing and looking for the right gear to make their beer.

“The best of my job is the customers – everyone’s awesome,” is how Mike describes it.

“Going to CBC and just hanging out and drinking beers with everyone is the best. It reminds you again of why we’re in the industry.”

Cru’s customers are primarily based in Canada and the US and, while both are mature beer markets that, like Australia, are faced with plenty of challenges, from Mike’s vantage point he sees plenty of new breweries opening and longstanding businesses finding new pathways to growth too.

“We’ve got breweries going into new regions that we’ve never shipped to before,” he says.

“There are new areas of the US where the customers are just coming around to craft beer. So all of a sudden there’s a new boom area.”

They’ve found interest outside of North America too, which has Mike hoping to see his own systems make it Down Under.

“We just sold our first system to a brewery in India, but I’d like to have more stuff go to Australia,” he says.

 

Mike walking one of his customers through their new Cru system.

 

As someone who works closely with breweries to create brewhouses, Mike has something of a bird's eye view of brewery trends, particularly given the North American focus of the operation.

“There’s this focus on Czech, Bavarian and just the highest quality old world lagers,” he says. “Fifty percent of the brewhouses I’m building right now have decoction features and are going to be just lager brewhouses.”

Beyond the growing spread of lager-focused breweries, Mike sees another lasting trend centred around not just the scope but the size of the breweries he’s been working on.

“It was getting bigger and bigger and people were looking to distribution nationwide,” Mike says, “Now it’s all brewpubs and that’s despite COVID – that model is still so successful right now.”

Before making the switch from brewing to brewery installs, Mike spent plenty of time at breweries that were growing fast. In 2011, he joined the team at Mountain Goat after he returned home from his first stint brewing in Canada.

It was a period of rapid expansion at the brewery’s Richmond home and, although it was hard work, Mike looks back fondly at the time and the scrappy nature of an industry in its infancy. In particular, he recalls the deep love Mountain Goat’s founders, Cam Hines and Dave Bonighton, had for what they were doing.

“They used to sell a keg and then just go and sit at the pub, bring all their friends and blow the keg,” Mike says, adding that a similar passion could be found throughout the brewhouse.

“The people were the best, that’s what made it. My second brewing job was under Jayne [Lewis] and then, after that, it was Dave Edney and I was working with Craig Eulenstein and Naz [Shane Edwards].

“I had this conveyer belt of unbelievably experienced people feeding knowledge into me.”

 

Mike, once again inside a tank, this time with Mountain Goat co-founder Dave Bonighton and brewer Dave Edney.

 

Working at Goat also provided Mike with connections when he and his wife decided to move back to his wife's native Canada. The brewer reached out to Caolan Vaughan, who today heads brewing operations at Stone & Wood but, when Mike made the move in 2014, was heading up production at Vancouver’s Steamworks Brewing.

“I contacted him and was picking his brain while even asking if he had a job for me,” Mike says. “He didn’t have a role for me but he was instrumental and pointed me in the right direction.”

Ultimately, it saw Mike start at Old Yale Brewing, where he oversaw a major brewery upgrade using Newlands Systems (NSI), which ultimately saw him switch from brewing to brewery installs.

“You could tell it was built by brewers and built the right way and they ended up offering me a job,” he says.

Following a few years at NSI and its merger with DME, Mike joined the crew that formed Cru Brewing Systems. In the years since, he's remained a frequent visitor to these shores and notes changes from across the industry, including the rise in beer quality and expectations from Australian beer drinkers. 

“I’ve noticed an increase in quality, every time I come back I Iove the beer I’m drinking," Mike says. "The biggest thing I’ve found is that consumers have become more educated, people know their shit. People know when a beer isn’t right and they just won’t have it.

“Even my old man knows what diacetyl is and I didn’t have to educate him on it – I purposefully didn't because I didn't want to ruin beer for him.”

A year on from bumping into Mike, and less than a month from the next Craft Brewers Conference, we asked him to tell us his thoughts on beer in Canada, America and Australia as part of our Aussie Exports series. 


Mike Roberts

 

Where in the world are you and what prompted the move?

I'm in Mission, British Columbia, which is just inland of Vancouver. I moved here because I married a Canadian. She and I met in Canada and then she lived with me in Melbourne and also worked at Mountain Goat for a little bit before we moved to Canada to get married.


What's your role in the beer industry?

I work at Cru Brewing Systems, a premium brewing equipment manufacturer. 

I work primarily in sales but I also do system installations, commissioning, R&D, process audits and so on. I'm basically a consultant and work with everyone from startup brewpubs, established craft breweries and also ABI, Sleemans, Molson Coors and others. Most of my time is spent working closely with brewers and owners of small to medium sized breweries across North America. 

I love my job.


What first got you into craft beer?

I was a Carlton Draught guy, but then I was travelling Europe and my first beer was a Pilsner Urquell, and that was it; average wouldn't cut it any more. 

On my travels, I found myself in Edmonton, Canada, and my plan was to study brewing once I got back to Australia, but I needed work experience in a brewery first. So I offered my sweeping and keg lifting services to every brewery around town until I got a job at Ambers Brewing. 

The brewmaster there, Gord Demaniuk, was a 30-year Carling guy and one of the smartest people I've ever known. He quickly put me to work in the cellar, in packaging and then on the brewhouse. It's sheer luck that Gord put me under his wing, I owe him so much.


Where did you work in the beer industry while in Australia?

After finishing up in Canada and heading home, I knew I was starting at the bottom again so I offered my top notch sweeping services. 

I worked at Southern Bay Brewery and a little bit at 3 Ravens and a few others. But I visited a Melbourne pub with some friends and had a pint of Hightail Ale and knew right away that Mountain Goat was where I needed to be. I got a trial run on the canning line, along with a few others, and when I was the only one left smiling at the end of the week and wanting to grab a few beers, I was hired! 

Once again, luck would have me working with and for the best of the best there: Dave Bonighton, Cam Hines, Jane Lewis, Dave Edney, Wags [Mark Wagthorne], Sammie Howard, Naz, Craig Eulenstein, the list goes on. 

From grain to glass, Mountain Goat was packed with talent and I soaked it up. I can't fully express the love I have for my time there.

 

Mike hosting a brewery tour in Goat's earlier days.

Do you travel much for work? What breweries have been exciting you on your recent travels?

I travel a lot for work. I visit breweries all over North America on a regular basis. I've recently been to Tennessee, Colorado, New York, Ontario, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Illinois and California and, of course, BC. I can't believe I get paid to do this haha.

I don't travel as much now with young kids, but it's still the most enjoyable part of my job. To name some breweries, we really need to sit down over a few beers and go through the list.

To rattle some off that I've visited lately, both for the beer and the brewery experience: Cohesion, Cerebral, West Bound & Down, Four Winds, Wayland, Godspeed, Savage, Fait La Force, Cannonball Creek, Structures, Monday Night, there's so many! 

I'm a big fan of the lager trend, so beers from Cohesion, Godspeed, Cannonball Creek, Four Winds, Abandoned Rail and Wayland really stand out. The Pilsner Urquel barrel release at Godspeed was excellent. But the best beer I've had recently was an Italian pilsner fresh off the line at West Bound & Down. Unbelievable!


Do you pay much attention to the beer scene back home Aus? How would you say the scene in Australia compares to when you left?

I follow from afar through friends and my regular Crafty Pint email. I'm not really connected like I used to be.

I got a sense back then that the innocence was gone. So many breweries were selling or had sold or were closing down for various reasons. I don't begrudge anyone who sells their brewery. They did it! They built a successful business and someone wants to pay them for it so they can go to the next phase of their life, congrats! I'm actually jealous. 

But I dropped in for some beers at Two Birds and a chat with Jayne during a recent visit and I can't do that any more and it makes me a little sad. It used to be just an industry of people who loved beer, so they made beer and then we all got together to drink beer. 

I'm not sure if that's the same any more but the impression I got was that things had changed. There are also WAY more breweries than when I left. Some great, some not so much, but the best had gotten much better and the beer was awesome. The industry has matured, mostly for the better.

 

Mike during last year's CBC in Nashville.

If any Australians make it to your neck of the woods, what beer experiences should the make sure they don't miss?

We live in the mountains and by the ocean so taking in some breweries that embrace that is a must. Four Winds Brewing has won so many wards, and for good reason. They've reinvented themselves numerous times and every time they do, it's stellar. 

Go to Coast Mountain Brewing in Whistler, and then keep going to The Beer Farmers in Pemberton (the most beautiful brewery setting you can find) and you won't be disappointed with the beer and the experience. 

Go to Vancouver Island and just brewery hop: there's so many good breweries in a relatively small area. East Van is great for brewery hopping too, and so is the Shipyards Brewery district in Nth Van and Brewers Row in Port Moody. 

Come out to the valley and spend a day with the family at Farmhouse and drink beer while looking up at the mountains and then go to the Okanagan and visit any number of breweries in Kelowna and Penticton. Abandoned Rail is in a beautiful setting and has amazing beer, you can't go wrong. 

This might make some Aussies cringe, but the shiraz in the Okanagan is right up there! Stop at some wineries in Oliver, grab a bottle and look around and you'll swear you were drinking shiraz in Australia. 

And, if you still have time, go mountain biking, snowboarding, hiking, floating, fishing... anything. Maybe I should be on a tourism BC ad haha.


If you're an Australian headed to the Craft Brewers Conference in Vegas this year and want to say g'day to Mike, the drop in and see him at Booth 999 on the BrewExpo floor.

You can check out other Aussie Exports features here. Know an Australian working in the beer industry elsewhere? Let us know.

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