For our 11th episode I chat to Balter co founder Stirling Howland and Head Brewer Scotty Hargrave about their amazing rise and success. We chat about their unique design, branding and absolute killer beer and how this has really set the benchmark for craft beer in Australia.
You can browse our full range of Balter beers here.
Full Text Transcript Below:
Lachlan McLean: Welcome everyone to another episode of The Inside Word. My name is Lachlan McLean from Beer Cartel, Australia's number one craft beer retailer. For our 11th episode, I chat to Balter co-founder Stirling Howland and head brewer Scotty Hargraves about their amazing rise and success. I hope you enjoy this chat with one of Australia's leading craft breweries.
Lachlan McLean: Thank you both for joining me today.
Stirling H.: Thanks for having us, you're welcome.
Lachlan McLean: I guess first questions that I always like to ask on the podcast is what's happening in Balter? What's brewing, what's been going on?
Stirling H.: Well, we just had our Friday lunch with the team, and we just... Aussie just brewed us up some amazing chicken burgers. So we're all running a bit full and happy right now.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, my pineapple was slightly overdone I think but [inaudible 00:00:51] it was pretty standard Friday fare.
Stirling H.: Bit of a written warning, I think, for that overdone pineapple, maybe.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah. First warning.
Stirling H.: Yeah.
Lachlan McLean: So is it a normal thing to have a Friday lunch with the team?
Stirling H.: Yeah, it is. Yeah, we fire up the barbie every Friday and we've got all these awesome people throwing food at us like Bread Social who make amazing bread, and then Aussie's on the tongs and he's a mate of the Three Blue Ducks boys, so he knows how to cook pretty good. So...
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, nice.
Stirling H.: Yeah.
Lachlan McLean: And is there anything brewing today in particular, Scotty?
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, we're always brewing, so today we've got a bunch of XPA on the go. We've also got some more lager going into tanks. We're looking ahead to the next four to six weeks, and we've got a lot more of that beer out there. So [crosstalk 00:01:43]-
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, absolutely. I know ours just landed, and it's tasting great.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, nice. Thank you. Yeah, it's funny. It's one of those beers where it seems so simple, but they're often the ones that you have to put the most work into. So yeah, a bit of lager through the brew house today, some XPA, which is never far away from having just been brewed or it's about to be brewed. So being such a mainstay we've always got to keep that one ticking away. Couple of other bits and pieces down in the pilot system, couple of surprises here and there.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, nice. So I thought that before we kind of get into the Balter story I'd like to have a chat about both of your backgrounds. So I'll start with, I guess, Stirling. What were you doing before Balter?
Stirling H.: Mate, well basically I've been a creative director most of my career and a digital marketer for a big chunk of my career as well. I started out at Billabong when I was 14 years of age, got into the marketing department there when I was 18. Thankfully didn't have to go to uni because I'm not the best at books. I'm more of a practical person who loves to learn on the job and...
Stirling H.: Mate, so I grew up in Billabong. I was there for 19 years, was exposed to digital revolution pretty early on in the late '90s and 2000s and, yeah, it kind of shaped my career there and became a... I guess, a brand marketer out of all that and was the head creative director of Billabong. And then I left there to work for a fintech company called Nimble. We did a bunch of above the line marketing and a bunch of different stuff in that space, which is really, really fun.
Stirling H.: I wasn't super jazzed on the product so I sort of left there, and then that led us to Balter, and Balter was started obviously by Mick Fanning, Parko, Bede Durbidge and Josh Kerr. And we all had a friendship that went back to our teenage years. So, that's kind of how we came about to start Balter. That's the [inaudible 00:03:46] in Stirling's career.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, did you have kind of a interest in beer before that or where did that all come from?
Stirling H.: Yeah, I did. So, I remember I got belted over the sort of craft beer head when I was about... probably about 10 years ago. We were at the Supper Club in Melbourne, and they were serving these beautiful beers out of bottles called Little Creatures Bright Ale and-
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, nice.
Stirling H.: ...at that stage I was really just into lagers like everyone else. And I like Japanese beers and that was my height of premium at this stage and then this beautiful, floral, fruity little bright ale came along, and it was just totally epic back in the day. And that was my first memory of going, "Oh, okay. So beer's more than what I think it is." So...
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, nice. So, Scotty, I guess your history. So you're head brewer. How'd you get into brewing?
Scotty Hargrave: I had a concrete business in Canberra [inaudible 00:04:45] and basically I had to work away for a couple of weeks to go and help out some relatives of mine, a couple of hours north of Canberra. This is about 2006, I think it was, and I'd a long-term, I would guess you would call it, interest in beer. Sort of back around '99, 2000 I first started to check out new beers, and back then that was the very sort of start of Little Creatures Pale Ale, which was called Little Creatures Live back then, and the very first of the James Squire beers came out and it was very sort of early days, I guess, in Australian craft beer. It's like there'd been a sort of a start in the '90s. It sort of faulted a bit with Matilda Bay and whatnot and a couple of others. And then some of the real pioneers like the guys at Mountain Goat and Holgate and those sorts of guys, and Bridge Road, but there weren't that many.
Scotty Hargrave: And so, yeah, I was up in a town called Grenfell in central New South Wales, and I was annoying my cousins with their beer choices at the end of the day after concreting in 40 degree heat all day. And my auntie just ended up saying, "Yeah, Scotty, maybe you should do something in beer. You seem pretty passionate about it." And all she meant was I was annoying everybody being this sort of beer nerd guy, I guess, a proto beer nerd guy and I actually went back to Canberra and thought, "You know what? She's right. I'm intrigued by beer, but I don't know very much about it."
Scotty Hargrave: So I enrolled in a one day adult education course. It was being held at the Wig & Pen Tavern in Sydney in the middle of Canberra. And I went in there for this course this one day and Lachie McOmish, the owner of the place, went and he's talking through the history of the beer, and he went and got a kilo of malt and ran it through Richard's mill. And added some hot water to it in a lunch box Esky.
Stirling H.: Bentspoke, Richard on top of that.
Scotty Hargrave: Bentspoke, yeah. So Rich Watkins from Bentspoke and because he did seven [inaudible 00:07:01] years in at the Wig. So anyway, as soon as Lachie sort of put this match in the little lunchbox there was just an epiphany moment for me. The smell of that mash just was so primal but it was really, really familiar to me. I'm not sure why because I'd never done any brewing as such, but I think that day it actually changed the chemistry in my brain.
Scotty Hargrave: So I remember going home just enthralled by it and lying in bed the next morning wondering would I even dare dream to be a brewer or be in the beer industry one day, and then one of the last things Lachie had said on that day was, "Go check out these guys," and it was a poster of the Canberra Brewers on the wall at the Wig. So I went along to a couple of Canberra Brewers meetings and started to get to know some folks there, and started to get some hand-me-down brewing gear off those guys. Started making beer and started making better beer, and started winning medals and competitions, and it pretty much snowballed from there into an offer to be the head brewer at the Sunshine Coast Brewery about just under three years after my first home brew. So [crosstalk 00:08:16].
Lachlan McLean: No, no, my home town.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, I think it accelerated pretty rapidly for me. I'd always been one of those guys that was just sort of good at most things. But brewing seemed to be the one thing where I was... that I could actually knuckle down and really get more competent at, I suppose, and sort of operate at a level that I could sustain.
Scotty Hargrave: There's a lot of hard work that goes with all the... everything to do with brewing. So the concrete background made that...no, I don't know if it's easier but it certainly prepared me for the grind of brewing. And me sort of mixing stuff, as we like to say.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: I'm good at mixing stuff apparently.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah. Brewing is a... it's certainly not a... what's the word? I think people glorify what it actually is, a lot of the time.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah. Well, that's right. But it's one of those things where people ask me about it quite a bit, like "Oh, sheesh, not many brewers could just do this or that in the industry," and it's like, well, this is... if you're prepared for the grind, yeah, if you'd more or less do this, show up every day even if you weren't getting paid and still put in stupid hours and commitment then, yeah, there's probably a good chance it's for you. If you're just sort of hanging around for the glory or because beer's in at the moment then you'll probably be found out fairly quickly just by the job itself. So...
Scotty Hargrave: But, yeah, so I did the Sunny Coast and then I was there for a year then went down to Stone & Wood, was there for the first four years really at the fairly early days. I think they were proud of [inaudible 00:09:57] beer, what eventually got renamed as Pacific Ale, they'd been doing that for about six or seven months, I think, before I got there. And, yeah, played a part in all the early days of that then I went to Byron Bay Brewing Company for 18 months.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: And just got to tinker a lot around there, which was really good. And then because I've always been a home brewer, so I was always brewing all week and then brewing all weekend anyway. So I just spent the best part of 18 months, two years really just playing around with new things and bits and pieces and beers like XPA that was developing in the garage. And then one day I got a phone call about this potential brewery starting on the Gold Coast, and got in contact and away we went.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah. So I think I'll jump over to Stirling. So, Balter, before we kind of get into how you got Scotty up there, how did Balter all come to be?
Stirling H.: Mate, so Bede Durbidge, one of the seven founders, he just had this thing in his head he wanted to start a brewery, probably since about 2012. The boys are all pro-surfers and they've been scooting around the world, getting paid to go surfing for a living. And I think when they started out as teenagers they were all traveling the world just drinking a lot of real cheap piss, and normal beers, and stuff like that. And as they started to get older, and a little bit more knowledge, and a little bit more sophisticated, they started sort of running into a lot more good beers, especially when they were traveling through America.
Stirling H.: And it sort of just triggered something off in Bede and for the next two years Bede just kept going around the sun and talking about wanting to start a brewery, a craft brewery, and it got to Hawaii in 2014 and they were sitting around going, "Shit, are we going to just continue to talk about this, or are we actually going to get off our arse and do something about it?"
Stirling H.: And it was at that point that I got a call from Mick Fanning, and it was a couple of days before my first daughter was due and Mick was going, "Hey, Stirl, I was thinking about starting a brewery and we're wondering whether you wanted to get involved." They knew early on that they had to get a team together to bring this to life. And they're off surfing for a living, their skillsets probably don't fully overlap with running a full-time brewery.
Stirling H.: So they got me onboard. We knew we needed a GM at the time, so we got a guy called Ant MacDonald onboard and Sean Ronan, who is a friend of everyone's as well, who had a lot of business experience. So between the marketing and branding side, between the sort of GM role that Ant took on and myself we knew we could pull a team together to at least start the process and see if we could see this thing come to life.
Stirling H.: In our first meeting in January 2015 we decided very early on, because I didn't want to start a surf lifestyle business, you know?
Lachlan McLean: Yes.
Stirling H.: We'd all been in the surf industry and we knew the good beer was so much bigger than a surf beer per se. So, we knew very early on that we wanted to make the very best beer we could and we needed to find the very best brewer we could. If we were just going to put something humdrum in that tinny there's a good chance that we're just going to be a gimmick and a celebrity endorsed bit of nothingness, you know?
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Stirling H.: And we knew someone might try Mick Fanning's beer for the first time but if it's shit they're not going to come back again. So, very early on it was not about being a celebrity brand, it was about being a good beer company, and that's where we went on the hunt. And we had a bunch of brewers that were lined up, but there was one that really kind of drew our attention right in, just his knowledge about beer, his approach about beer. And he wasn't available, so we found Scotty. No, no, I'm just kidding!
Scotty Hargrave: He actually loved... the truth is, the first six guys weren't available. But I was.
Stirling H.: Yeah. No, so we... Scotty, yeah, we just were attracted to it. But in classic Scotty sort of nature, and he contests this a little bit, but it was true, we were like, "Oh, he's... bloody knows his stuff, but he's scaly. I don't know if he likes us. I don't think he wants to do this with us. I just don't think he likes us at all."
Stirling H.: But he was just skeptical. He was skeptical about the fancy marketer. He was skeptical about the boys. He was skeptical about why we're coming in to do this, and it was good because we had to sort of earn that trust. And I think over the next eight weeks we hung out a lot, we got to talk a lot, and we did earn each other's trust. And I don't think it hurt saying, "Hey mate, we're going to try and raise enough money here that we could help build your favorite brewery, the brewery that's in your mind, but you can."
Stirling H.: And he went home that night and we always say this because if it wasn't for Nick we might not have got Scotty, and Nick, Scotty's wife who's... she's a matriarch of Balter in a lot of ways, she gave him a good kick up the arse and said, "You'd be crazy not to take the opportunity." And he came back the next day and he gave us a resounding 'yes'. So yeah, that's got us to Scotty.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah. And that was the sort of second time my wife had bullied me like that, as far as my brewing career goes. When I first actually saw the first job interview and I'm still in Canberra, we're still concreters, I've got a Bobcat and a couple of trucks, and I saw this ad for a brewing job on the Sunshine Coast and I showed it to Nick, my wife, and I said, "Look at this," and she said, "Yeah, good. Ring him tomorrow," like, "Ring these folks tomorrow."
Scotty Hargrave: And the next day I'm out at work and I'm digging up a driveway or something in the Bobcat and I kept getting these continual messages, "Have you rung that brewery yet? Have you rung that brewery yet?" And it was, "No, no, no. Leave me alone, I'm busy. I'm at work. I'm digging this driveway out," or whatever it might have been. And I'm pretty sure it was about the 20th message that I got from her that said, basically, "Don't effing come home until you ring that brewery." So, that was a pretty-
Stirling H.: Thanks, Nick.
Scotty Hargrave: ...solid shunt, if you like. So I certainly, I got on the phone and rung Greg up at Sunshine Coast Brewery, and I think within about 48 hours I was up there talking to those guys, taken a bit of beer up with me from my garage, from beer at home. And basically by the time I flew back down to Canberra the next morning Greg was on the phone saying, "Job's yours if you want it." So...
Scotty Hargrave: And again, when it came to Balter I was, having been through a pretty hefty grad stage, I guess, with the start, the early days of Stone & Wood and seeing what actually happens when something like this takes off and A, could it ever happen again? And B, I know what we're in for if it does. It was much more about that than me not liking these guys, because I did.
Scotty Hargrave: I love them now, they're mates and family to me, but at the time, yeah, I was a little wary. It just seemed to be... I sort of wondered, is this the first of the swoopers? The guys who've been watching from the sidelines and think, "You know what? We can chuck in a few bucks and very quickly just flip something out of this," or the... cook the goose that laid the golden egg or something.
Scotty Hargrave: So that was always in the back of my mind, but it became pretty obvious after, as Stirl said, after a few weeks that their intentions were pure. They were nothing more than, "We want to build a brewery. We've got no bloody idea how to do it. We've heard you're the man, come and build your dream brewery and make the beers you want to make." And while I'm pondering all this it was definitely my wife, Nick, who said, "You're a knucklehead," is probably a politer way to put it, "What the hell are you waiting for?". So, yeah.
Lachlan McLean: Was there ever a, I guess, point or a conversation that you had that kind of gave you an inkling of where Balter might go? Did you ever expect it to get to this point?
Scotty Hargrave: I don't know. It's one of those funny things. I remember when I spoke to Sean early on, because my initial contact was with Sean and here's this American guy FaceTime-ing me from San Diego which is kind of flattering because San Diego's got an awful lot of great breweries and it's in the other ways craft beer central in the US. So, that was kind of flattering. But also just the sort of size and the scale and I could just see he had this sort of grand... there was an optimism and it was pretty insane, initially, like the premise of how big this could potentially be.
Scotty Hargrave: And for me it was like, well, I certainly didn't start Stone & Wood and I didn't create Pacific Ale, but I was there from the pretty early days and through a pretty massive growth stage, and I know that sort of thing only comes along once in a lifetime. So I thought he was just thinking I'm overlaying an American template over what our industry was like here, being much smaller, and I remember pointing out to him that we've got 25 million people and California has 44 million people just in the one state.
Scotty Hargrave: But I guess you hope for the best. I couldn't help think that with, particularly with Stirls and Ant onboard, and no disrespect to the guys but it wasn't about these personalities because that's one thing I was wary of using, because that was just going to cost everybody a lot of money making some dumb celebrity beer if we were going to be really cynical about it. But once we'd sort of all established that, no, this is fair dinkum and were going to have a real crack at this, then it became a lot easier just to knuckle down on A, putting together a brew house that's going to be able to make the beers I want to make, and the XPA was one I had there, and I can remember saying at one point, "We'll, actually build the brewery around this beer, and this beer will help us build the rest of the brewery," and luckily that's sort of how it panned out a bit, otherwise I'd look like an idiot.
Scotty Hargrave: But I guess there was an optimism and it was really weird, because I didn't really know these guys that well and it was in the process of raising money and designing and then getting to build the brewery that we sort of got to know each other. A lot of these guys had long-term friendships, but I guess I was the outsider. In a lot of ways I felt like I had to prove myself to these guys as much as they did to me that it was the right thing to do. And anyway, yeah, onwards and upwards it turned out to be the right thing so far.
Lachlan McLean: You mentioned there that the XPA was a beer that you kind of brought with you.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah.
Lachlan McLean: Was it just a beer that you'd been plying around on the home brew?
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, that's correct.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, where did it-
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, it was like I'm always brewing. It used to be a joke when I was at Stone & Wood that I brewed 5000 liters on a Friday or something, and then go home and brewed 50 liters in my garage on a Saturday. And, sorry, but that was quite true, because that really taught me in the really early days how to brew, and it taught me a lot about ingredients and process and all this sort of stuff.
Scotty Hargrave: So it was something that I'd sort of never stopped doing, even when I was already a pro brewer I was always doing more home work, if you like, and XPA was just a beer I'd really started to get better access to a bunch of American hops that I was really liking, and it was like, "Well, how can I get these hops into a beer that just remains really, really drinkable and sessionable and doesn't lose any of that sort of drinkability factor, but still be able to show off American hops?"
Scotty Hargrave: So I was playing around for a long time, because I'd nailed a few other styles, dare I say it, I'd been fairly well known for my wheat beers and German beers and stuff. We were getting better and better access to American hops all the time, so I was really starting to put them to work and put myself through the hoops as well and see what we could come up with. So it was kind of handy, I guess, that from a momentum point of view that pretty early on, we knew that we already had a flagship beer long, long, before we had any stainless steel here. Long before we had a brewery to speak of we had a beer that we knew that we could start with. So, that helped.
Lachlan McLean: And then the name itself, XPA, before it came out I can't think of too many beers that use that style, especially ones that have been super popular. Where's that from?
Scotty Hargrave: Well, for me X in XPA's always stood for Extra Pale, comma, Ale. And there were a couple around before ours. There was Riders XPA, there was Wolf of the Willows, had an XPA.
Lachlan McLean: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.
Scotty Hargrave: [crosstalk 00:23:54] Deschutes have always had for years done an XPA in the US which stood for them for Experimental Pale Ale, so a different premise. But some of the ones I had tried, a sort of mix of international ones and Australian ones, in a lot of ways for me were still quite American pale ale sort of focused and variants of that. And I wanted a beer that had basically to take out all the crystal malt, which adds those sort of darker colors. But the thing about crystal malts is as they stale they actually add a lot of the sort of dried fruit-cake sort of characters which I'm not a big fan of.
Scotty Hargrave: So I wanted a beer that was a lot leaner and I guess maybe almost like a bale-y West Coast IPA, in a lot of ways, that was able to showcase these really bright, popping, luscious, fruity, tropical hops but that weren't going to fall about when the malt structure sort of started to age and let the beers down, and then they become cloying, and for me the oxidation just becomes really evident, the staling character. And so it was about keeping a beer that had all the luscious hop character, but it had a really tight and bright sort of malt base as well. So it was just... I think I remember saying to Stirls at one point, "Sprung like a sports car," sort of thing.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, right. Yeah. Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: That was way back before that. That was my intention when I'm at home in Byron in the garage, just trying to find a way to really express these hops but not trip over the cliff and go too far and make the hop character too out of balance or astringent, but at the same time have just enough malt.
Scotty Hargrave: It was almost like I was trying to make a beer that had just a tiny little bit too much and you know that in time that's probably enough as your audience, I suppose, kind of catches up to what you're doing. And we didn't know... I would never claim to have invented the term 'XPA'. If I did anything with this beer, and we did as a brewery, it's like we kind of made XPA a thing in Australia.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and I guess the XPA's kind of been the real driving force behind Balter, and I was just going through some of the stupid amounts of awards that you've won: the AIBA 2017 Champion Medium Size Brewery, the 2018 Large Size Brewery, GABS Hottest 100 Champion '17 and '18. Over thirty medals in the last three to four years. How does that feel?
Scotty Hargrave: It's great. It's great. There's no denying that it's better than being kicked in the head or booed at for your beers. But the biggest thing for us really is that we've got 60 odd employees in this business now, and we've managed to build a robust brewing company that's based on quality and great beer, and great branding, and a great experience. If XPA's been able to do anything, sure it's won lot of awards but it's...
Scotty Hargrave: I've got one of my brewers was one of our builder's laborers here when we first started, and in some way our beers have been able to give Gavin a new career. At 50, he wouldn't have ever thought he was going to turn into a brewer at 50, and seeing a lot of those guys lives be transformed is at least as cool and... I'm lost for words, really. It's a thing that you see that where you actually get to transform someone's life or whether it's a drinker who's just... you've knocked off the rough edges a bit for him because they've gone home to their favorite beer on a Friday and it happens to be your beer, or whether it's someone who you work with who had a completely different career path a while ago and you've given them something else, and a new lease on their working life, and led them to new experiences that they probably could never have imagined they were going to have. Because that's what happened to me.
Scotty Hargrave: Being a brewer is just... the things that have sort of happened to myself and my family since we became brewers is just not something I could ever imagine would have happened as a concreter in Canberra. So it's pretty awesome all round. And we've got a bunch of beers that have done well. We've got, I think out of our core range, I think four of the five beers have gold medals at least somewhere. We've got three of the five that have won trophies at different competitions, so let alone all the public sort of acceptance and appreciation for what we do. So, that's the beer people obviously. Stirls's side of the coin, the branding and marketing play a huge part in that as well.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, I was going to touch on that. I think there's a massive congratulations to yourself from the brewing department and the qualities of the beers that Balter's producing. But I think almost maybe not as equal but very, very close to that people kind of know Balter for is the branding and the identity that you've created, and Stirling, I'd imagine you're chief responsible for that. The logo and the branding from Balter, it was so unique at the time, where did it come from?
Stirling H.: Yeah, so it was an interesting one. Through my career I was always drawn to minimalism. I love it. I love using way less words to communicate an idea, to communicate a campaign, or whatever you're doing, I think less is more all the time. So when we set out to do this it was about creating a simple, beautiful aesthetic. Our pulse check at the time was: there was no white cans in market, and I was very fond of the color white. But outside of that maybe a lot of the branding was fairly busy, and it was very heritage sort of based.
Stirling H.: So for us, we just wanted to create something that was a timestamp for when we were starting a brewery in 2016, our first tinnies went out and we just started at that point. And before we even had the name 'Balter' we'd written down 'beer smiley', because that was how we feel about it. And you'll see the beer smiley on all our cartons, it's on the front of our building here, and I think it's the world view of nearly anyone who loves beer. So for us we had a really nice foundation to build the brand off and to create a tone of voice. And it's funny, we had about 150 names and they were all just turd names. They were so bad. It sounded like we were just trying to start a craft brewery and these are the craft brewery names we've come up with.
Lachlan McLean: Are you able to share what any of those might have been?
Stirling H.: Ah shit, they had numbers in them and like... just a lot of colloquial, a lot of colonial references, and a lot of brothers and this and that, and it just wasn't working for us. And nothing wrong with if you've got those things in your name, but it just was not working for us.
Stirling H.: And anyway, Mick was lurking around the internet. We always say he's really good at surfing but it turns out he's all right at the internet too, apparently. But he was lurking around the internet and he found this word on this Tumblr blog and it was 'balter' and it said, "To dance artlessly without particular skill or grace but usually with enjoyment," and I loved it because it's pretty much human nature all summed up in one sentence. But the 'with enjoyment' bit just played straight into the beer smiley and it kind of set the tone for Balter.
Stirling H.: So out of there, you see that happy little can get made with a bunch of design principles in there that people might not be able to articulate but they can definitely feel it, and I'm super proud that people love to hold that tinny in their hand and share it with their mates. So... And I think the big thing about the design too is I never wanted to create something that overpowered what Scotty was doing. I didn't want something where it was all about, "Look at me! Look at me!", just because it was ostentatious. It had to support what Scotty was doing. It had to be kind of like an assist to the beer we were making, not something that overshadowed it. So I think there's just a beautiful marriage between design and beer.
Lachlan McLean: If you're looking for any of the Balter beers, new releases or an old favorite, be sure to check out the Beer Cartel website at: www.beercartel.com.au
Lachlan McLean: Was there ever a point, you mention there that the whole tinnies and all that, but 2016 it was still a very much a tipping point in the industry where cans were coming to prominence with, I guess, Pirate Life from a few years earlier and a few others. But it wasn't at the domination that it is at the moment. Was there any particular reason you chose cans?
Stirling H.: Yeah, a few of us here just enjoyed tinnies. Scotty had a definite love for them. I think from my side I prefer them as a vessel just from a technical standpoint and quality but also from an aesthetic point as well. I think we're a new brand, we have to make sure that our product ends up in people's hands in the best shape possible, and we strongly believe and feel, until this day feel, that cans are the best way to do that. So for me it was both a branding and aesthetic thing but it was more so a quality control thing. We just didn't really think of anything else. It was always going to be cans.
Scotty Hargrave: No, I can remember an initial meeting with Stirls and Mick and it might have been Josh Kerr, I think, and it might have been Stirls. The guy sort of leaned across the table and we're like, "So Scotty, what do you think of cans?", and I sort of jumped back like I was going to take a swing at him. And I was 100% for cans.
Scotty Hargrave: I don't actually want to do this in any other format. I'm not interested in doing bottles, that's for sure, because I've done plenty of that and I knew the challenges, and for me there was this weird thing happening back around 2015. There was couple of brewers that were starting to use cans but the rest of the craft beer world was still sort of firmly entrenched in this idea that, no, better quality beer is always in bottles, and that was just a long way from the truth, because I knew the technical aspects of it and performance wise that tinnies offer much better protection, they're safer around kids, they're endlessly recyclable, they give someone... we're still sort of branding firepower a much bigger canvas, I guess, to work on.
Scotty Hargrave: There was a whole bunch of reasons like that, but for me it was primarily that the technical and the quality aspects of what it does as a package for beer and a close second behind that was what I thought Stirls, with what he was already sort of showing us he'd be able to come up with. And yeah, there was never really any doubt. And we've always very much sort of been of that mindset. And I remember at the time, "Okay, not many people are doing it," and I was like, "Well, good." But it's going to be the best thing for us.
Scotty Hargrave: We knew that regardless of what other people thought this is what we wanted to do and we were just going to go hammer and tong at it. And there was some thoughts that out in the industry that the small scale canning mines weren't performing as well as small scale bottling mines, but I didn't think that was true at all if we got it right. And we had this little cask canning line that served us so well until about 12 months ago. And we'd won Hottest 100, we'd won the AIDA Championship and Best International Pale Ale and a bunch of other medals all over the place for our beers, even in that little entry level canning line, if you like. So...
Stirling H.: And the tinny was actually beating draft nearly in every comp, which was pretty amazing.
Lachlan McLean: Wow.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah.
Stirling H.: Our first goal was the can outscoring the draft, you know?
Scotty Hargrave: Yep, yep. We actually had that for the first couple of competitions and when XPA won the trophy at AIDA in 2017 both the entries, the canned product and the keg, both got gold medals, but as Stirls just said it was the can that actually clenched the trophy because it was rated half a point better. And that was, again, that's going back on this primitive little entry level canning line. So if nothing else that proved the concept then and there because we basically built this business on that little canning line, pumping out-
Stirling H.: Yeah, you used to get a rattle up, I can tell you that much. [inaudible 00:37:30]
Scotty Hargrave: At the best. And this is no word of a lie, sometimes when... it's actually operated in part with rubber bands, and when a rubber band would break the canning line stopped.
Lachlan McLean: Oh my God, wow.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, true story. True story. It's on the lid dispenser for anyone out there who understands these machines. So when we got our new canning line about a year ago, a much more sophisticated machine from Germany. It can run a lot, lot faster and performance wise it's much better, the packaged product better than it's ever been because we built and supported a lab to support the packaged product and whatnot. But we got an awful long way on this tiny little canning line. So I just have no idea what life would have been like for us if we'd have gone down the bottle track. I dare to think we would have had to stop midstream and start thinking about planning lines.
Lachlan McLean: Absolutely. I think the domination of cans, I think yourselves were a big part of it, and it's just like us, here at Beer Cartel, it's just like something we've never even seen before and it's just got absolutely crazy.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, well it's amazing. And it's a global thing too. You have a look in the US now and there's so many fairly large scale breweries that have built their brands on bottles but also have to have canning lines and just because out of sheer consumer demand. I actually saw a photo today on the internet on Instagram, I think, of La Chouffe Blond Ale in cans like-
Lachlan McLean: Oh, no way.
Scotty Hargrave: No idea whether... that they would have ever considered that five years, but I don't know how long they've made beer in cans. And like you see Rodenbach are using cans. I know they've been around for a couple of years.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: But I guess it's a technology and in the advancements we've been able to make as an industry that people have just come around, you know? There was this-
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, absolutely.
Scotty Hargrave: ...whole sort of 1970s, 1980s urban myth about beer in cans tasted metallic and tasted tinny and all this other rubbish and it's just not true. It's not true [inaudible 00:39:51].
Scotty Hargrave: It's funny that it took craft beer to actually bring back this huge mainstream lager package back into something that's super credible now. I doubt there's very many breweries that would start packaging going, "Oh, we're going to do bottles and no cans." But...
Lachlan McLean: I guess another... talking about the whole craft beer industry and the changes it's been going through, another one that I know we've seen a lot of and it is a worldwide trend is limited releases. Consumers always wanting new and always wanting the newest and latest and all that. How have you found that as a brewery and I guess in the brewing sense but also in like a marketing sense?
Stirling H.: Yeah, I think that from a marketing standpoint our limited releases have been just this beautiful drum beat of great beer that underpins a really strong core range. At Balter we've never fallen into the trap of chasing a trend. We'll make a beer because we really, really believe in it and a beer that we really love to drink. And sometimes, well most times, it's crossed over with the audience as well.
Stirling H.: But there definitely has become this race. I think new is nearly better than good these days. People just want new, next, now, now, give me more, give me more, and I personally don't believe in it. I think there's a fair bit of faulty beer getting around out there that might be new but it's not necessarily good. And we just want to make sure... we can only take responsibility for our own actions and I guess from our point is, we just want to make sure we're pumping out the very best stuff when we do do it, and not at a frequency that causes burnout either. I think we like to keep it interesting, but we don't want to burn out in that process. So we're just sort of finding our feet in terms of frequency and drum beat, but right now we feel like we've got a nice sort of steady stream. But that's sort of probably from a marketing point of view.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, definitely.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, what are the challenges from a brewer's perspective?
Scotty Hargrave: Oh, I think there's always your [inaudible 00:42:01] I know there's... and again this is global, there's a lot of breweries that just find it really hard to hold the line and avoid not releasing one or two brew beers every week. And it's really... I'm assuming it's giving up a lot of time, and resources, and discipline and what have you for breweries that feel that they're on that treadmill, that they have to...
Scotty Hargrave: There's an insecurity, I think, where you're just dropping a new beer every week because you're worried that no one's going to pay any attention to you the week after. And I think there's a danger as an industry globally that, in a lot of ways, the breweries themselves, we as an industry have trained our audience to have a really short attention span, because there's always someone who's just going to falter and just put out a new beer this week, next week, and the week after when they probably may not have been wise to release any of them.
Scotty Hargrave: So, as Stirls said, people are thinking that new might be superior to better, and there's this constant discarding of, you've tried this beer once and then that's it, you never go back to it again. And people talk a lot about sustainability and these sorts of things these days and from a purely practical point of view there's no efficiency in doing a one-off that may or may not be loved and that may not have really done anything for beer. We won't make a beer unless there's a reason for it. And it's got to be above the fact that, "Oh, those guys over there did this last week, so we need to do it this week."
Scotty Hargrave: We took our time quitting [Hazy 00:43:46] here, but I'm glad we did. Stirls was at me for a while going, "Check this out," and I'd been in the US and drunk a bunch of hazies and still wasn't convinced and came home and tried a bunch here that were as equally sort of up and down. Some were great and some were absolutely shit-arse. It seemed to be that unless you were under the fermentor tap the day before it was meant to be canned you'd kind of missed out on the best of that beer.
Scotty Hargrave: And in that particular instance I thought, "There's got to be a better way." So we took our time and we made a beer here on the pilot system called Citrapalooza, and we just got a lot of awesome feedback. And I had to keep making it on the pilot and that's what told us that, no, there's a real audience and a market for this beer and a real great response when you do. This deserves to graduate up to the big system.
Scotty Hargrave: So, again, Stirls went and weaved his magic and came out with that sublimely beautiful looking can. We put a great beer in it and away it goes. But it wasn't something that we decided in one meeting or over a two hour lunch break or something. This was something that was 12 months plus coming down the line from initially brewing it on our pilot system and looking at the feedback and doing it again, and again, and again. I wanted to make sure that that wasn't just a one-off, that it wasn't just a golden eagle, unicorn sort of beer that was repeatable and that it would stand up. That people, that wherever they were in Australia could actually get a go at, say Hazy, and it would be in great shape for them. And I'm very proud that that beer has held up so well. So that's-
Lachlan McLean: I think you have, yeah, you have absolutely nailed it. And you mention there that it took you over a year to come up with it. I remember talking to... I can't remember who I was talking to from Balter, but they were talking about for a Captain Sensible. This was, I think, after you'd released your XPA and all that, but this was the beer you'd actually been almost working on longest-
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah.
Lachlan McLean: ...and you refused to release your session until you were happy with it.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, that's right. We did, we probably had six or eight different versions go up on the tap room and it was a beer where I probably was... initially probably started to try and outsmart myself. But I was thinking about, "Okay, well this needs to be a beer that a lot of people..." I'm trying to cater for a lot of people to this beer, and after one or two iterations like that I sort of realized, "No, what I've got to try and do is make a great Balter beer that just happens to be 3.5% alcohol."
Scotty Hargrave: As soon as I changed my mindset about how I approached the beer itself it started to come together. But again, yeah, that took a while to get that beer to where I wanted it before we were at the point where we're like: bang, all right, let's go. This one can graduate into the core range, and a beer we can proudly put the Balter stamp on out in the wider world.
Scotty Hargrave: And I'm very, very pleased to say that in the last two beer competitions that I've entered the beer in, in a row, it's won a trophy and then a gold medal at the AIDA. So from a peer based judging technical point of view it's standing up really well as well. And that's certainly not why we make beer. We don't make beer for awards, but when they come by you from a professional judging peer based competitions like these ones, they're a great benchmark for your business and your brewing crew and your team and your whole philosophy top to bottom about what we're doing. And yeah, it was, it was a lot of work, but it's now very satisfying to see that beer out and about in the wild and people enjoying it. That's what it's about at the end of the day, smiles [crosstalk 00:47:35].
Lachlan McLean: Yeah, absolutely. I think the whole story that you've been telling, from the marketing, the beer side, it hasn't been a slap together job to take advantage of the names, but everything is done with thought and is done to a top level and top quality.
Lachlan McLean: You talked about previously of the canning line that you were using, and that you upgraded it a year ago. I know you've got a fantastic tap room in Currumbin, but has there had to be expansions? What's been happening, I guess, on the expansion front?
Scotty Hargrave: Well, we're just... the canning line we've had for nearly a year now. We've just put in a new keg line which has been about in the works really for about 18 months we first started talking about it till now, till we've actually got in commissioned here. And that canning keg line actually takes our keg beer to a new level as well. So it's a lot safer, it's going to be much more consistent, it's a lot quicker. The beer is definitely getting into the kegs in better condition. The kegs themselves are being washed and prepared to accept beer in much better shape than they could have possibly had happened for us before.
Scotty Hargrave: And some of these things only can happen if you're growing, if you're doing well enough to be able to swing yourself up to the next rung on the jungle gym and grab that next hand place and swing yourself along. And you kind of got to be patient. You got to be in good shape, and you've got to stay in the game and be making great beer in the first place to actually be able to get to make better beer, if you like, or to be able to deliver better beer out there. So it's just one of those things about the industry. You sort of can't start with everything at once, so-
Lachlan McLean: Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: ...but we've always maintained that we want to grow into what we're doing. We've focused really hard on what's the best option for us, say even from an equipment point of view.
Lachlan McLean: Okay.
Scotty Hargrave: This is what I want to use. This will help us make the best beer. Shit, that's a lot of money, we can't afford that. How the hell do we get there? And we've managed to find a way and take a long-term view of how we do these things. I've just installed a new vessel in the brewhouse to also help us with our capacity in the brewhouse so now that we can knock out up to six brews a day in an eight hour shift which-
Lachlan McLean: Oh, wow.
Scotty Hargrave: ...this time last year we were down to three. So, that also helped us as well. So it helps reduce the stress on the business when we get to the pointy end of the year with October, November and into the Christmas mayhem to be able to well and truly have the capacity to make as much beer at our... what I consider to be very high standards day in day out.
Scotty Hargrave: We don't have to compromise our standards when the squeeze is on. And that's what's behind the expansion we do, is to make sure that we can actually get through every summer, every year. And that's, for us, that's probably the overriding thing. We've got to make the best beer we possibly can. We've got to make as much of it as we need to when we need to make it and to be able to do that. And again, never let our guard down.
Lachlan McLean: Is your brewery from a physical space still got plenty of room or can we expect additional sites or, yeah, how's that kind of going with the increased volume?
Scotty Hargrave: No, we're very lucky we've got a good site here. We've got a [inaudible 00:51:16]. We've got a landlord who's very happy with us, so we're here for the long-term, and we're blessed with the room we've got on this site to be able to do everything that we could conceivably want to do here.
Stirling H.: We're also really fortunate too. We've got a guy called Aza Waters who works here and Aza built the brewery for us, and Aza, we've planned, not that we'll probably ever get there but if we wanted to on this site could brew up to 30 million liters one day, if that was the case. The work I guess Aza Waters puts in there, he's an amazing project manager and we've planned this out to the nth degree. And I think it's kind of reflective of the people a little bit there too.
Scotty Hargrave: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Stirling H.: Yeah, because one thing we found when we were setting up Balter was everyone was knocking out walls all the time and basically creating a maze. And we knew quite early on for us that we needed to just find a bunch of blank canvases, and we've been very lucky. We had 750 squares here, then another 2300 behind us, and then another 750 just across the ways. So it's all in one precinct, and so all up you've just got over 3000 squares or 3700 squares, and it's definitely allowed us to sort of not have to think about moving from here which is bloody a good thought.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah, our borders tend to be not vertical walls but horizontal roofs.
Lachlan McLean: Yeah.
Scotty Hargrave: So, yeah, and as Stirls was saying, we've got Aza, Aaron Waters, in his background in architecture and design has just been a godsend in project managing the build at this building. As a concreter I knew that I wanted the floors to be pitched at a certain rate and have the drainage work a certain way. So, yeah, we kind of were lucky having those previous life skills and external skills between all of us. We'd all done other stuff that lent to our current disciplines, I suppose.
Scotty Hargrave: So being able to start from the ground up like we did and Aza putting so much effort into the aesthetic and the look with our tap room and the greater build. He's always two steps ahead thinking about where the next roof's got to be raised or how we've got to get this concrete poured out of here, and dealing with councils and governments and making sure that our licensing side of it, our authority to operate as a business is always looked after as well.
Scotty Hargrave: So there's so many sides to being in a brewery just apart from making beer or talking about it even. There's the day-to-day stuff of how do those trucks operate in and out of our site? There's just the pure logistics and day-to-day nuts and bolts of having things work and work well and work smoothly that are just such an important part that gets missed in all the sort of glamor side of things. Because we wouldn't have what we've got without Aza and what he does, and let alone obviously the sales guys and the other logistics guys and all the team top to bottom. And being able to have a site... when you come here, this place is Balter top to bottom, and it's just because we've managed to infuse Balter right through every brick in the place, let alone every tinny. So-
Lachlan McLean: It has been an absolutely stunning four and a half years, or about four and a half years, or three and a half since you first released a beer. But I guess last but not least what can we expect for the future? What's on the horizons?
Stirling H.: Mate, we just want to keep that 'with enjoyment' thing alive. We have a lot of fun as a brewery, the way we communicate, the way we run our vents, the way we make our beer, everything we do, and for Balter we just want to sort of keep that dream alive, I guess.
Stirling H.: We love what we do for a living. We feel really fortunate that we get to make beer for a living and I hope people at the end of the day feel that joy and that excitement that we get from doing our work. There'll be plenty more limited releases down the track and probably a few more collaborations on the horizon and stuff like that.
Scotty Hargrave: Yeah. And I mean that's the thing. We'll keep on keeping on, I guess. Like you say, sometimes it seems like we've been at this for 10 or 15 years and it's hard. But you realize when someone else says, "Back to you, we've done our bit." Three and a half years in the market and realize yeah, wow, okay, that's a pretty short period of time. So, I guess we've found our feet. We're constantly growing and there's always stress, and pressures, and the to and fro of all that sort of thing but we've managed to do it. I like to think we've managed to do it really well, and we're at that point now where we can move forward confidently.
Scotty Hargrave: A big thing for me is it's not just the capacity side of it and the new toys it's just being able to make sure that our beer's great day in, day out and that real quality piece and consistency piece is what's brought Balter a long, long way already and just as our people get more miles under their wheels and the team gets better and better and more consolidated, and there's a whole bunch of things where we're improving in every which direction. I like to think we're getting better at what we do, right across the board. So...
Lachlan McLean: I think from a consumer point, especially I guess myself working in the consumer point, in retail, the beers have been so well received from the core range through to the limited releases and there's, I guess, massive congratulations on what you've done in the last three and a half, four years.
Lachlan McLean: I'm super excited to see where you guys are, what happens to Balter in the next year or two years and further down the field, but I guess thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute pleasure hearing the Balter story from how it was, I guess, first conceived through to where it is now. And yeah, thank you so much.
Stirling H.: No, thanks a lot, Lachlan, we've enjoyed our time with you, mate, and yeah, thanks for listening to us.
Scotty Hargrave: Thanks for having us Lachie, awesome to talk to you, mate.
Lachlan McLean: Cheers.
Lachlan McLean: Balter has truly changed the landscape of craft beer in Australia. Their unique design, branding, and the absolutely killer beer have really set the benchmark for craft beer.
Lachlan McLean: Once again thank you so much to Stirling and Scotty for joining me today, and if you have any questions please let us know on our Facebook group, Beer Cartel's Craft Beer Collective.
Lachlan McLean: If you'd like to continue to stay up-to-date with the latest from the craft beer industry please hit subscribe at either iTunes podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcast. That's it for today. I'll see you next time.