Red Hill Brewery are living my dream.
- They are a successful brewery having established themselves over 10 years ago
- They grow fresh hops on site
- They’re in the country, outside any major centre
- Their beer is deeeelicious
- People love them
They’re pretty much everything we want to be when we grow up!
In the true nature of the industry, I hit up the owners, Dave and Karen, and asked a simple question. “Would you mind if we flew down to meet you and pinch some ideas?”
To which Dave quickly replied. “Sure mate, let me know when”.
Incredible. Gotta love brewers.
A couple of weeks later my old man and I headed down and got the grand tour.
Interestingly they were forced into growing fresh hops by the local council after a four year battle for DA approval. Apparently, it was something to do with the need for a rural component to the business to receive council consent. We visited in the middle of winter when the fields were bare other than the 5m trellies.
We visited in the middle of winter when the fields were bare other than the 5m trelles.
These trellises are probably a metre too short according to Dave, but the poles were the longest lengths of treated pine available at the time.
They grow several varieties in a relaxed fashion, without paying too much attention to spacing. The one thing that was hammered home was their thirst for water. Adjacent to the hop yard is a man-made dam which I guestimate at 100,000litres. Waste water from the brewery is piped directly into the dam with and a pump running 12hrs per day to keep the water moving. Aquatic plants help to filter the water, but even then, it smells a bit like a public toilet (without the urinal cakes) up close… Apparently, it’s from all the “nutrients”.
Harvest takes place around March and they recruit free labour from their pool of loyal drinkers. The pitch is simple “Free booze and food if you help us pick thousands of hop cones” and by all accounts, it’s a great time of year to be at the brewery.
Dave shared a few mild concerns on our ability to grow hops in Bucketty due to the need for extended sunlight hours. Longer days result in a higher yield with more “laterals”, which basically means horizontal shoots off the main bine. A quick check on google reveals an extra 45mins of sunlight during the summer months between Red Hill and Bucketty… Which does seem like a lot? Dave tells me there are some growers that have erected flood lights across their fields to trick the hops into growing longer, so that’s always an option.
The drying process is also quite ingenious. They stick the fresh hops on netted racks and put them in a shipping container. Have you ever been in a container on a hot day? If you have, you’ll share my admiration at the simplicity of this design. They run an air pump to filter the air, then freeze the dried hops for future use.
The brewery is surprisingly small with a single 1,000L kettle, mash tun and 3 x 2,000L fermenters. For a brand that’s so well established, I expected something bigger, but as the saying goes, “it’s not how big you are, it’s how you use it”. During the next hour, it became clear Dave and his team value quality of life (and beer!) over growth. There are no aspirations to become the next Little Creatures. This permeates across his jovial team of blokes who have all trained up over several years and keep the brewery running.
The brewery equipment was sourced from The Pub Brewing company in USA with fermenters purchased from China.
Using whole hop flowers (instead of pellets) they’ve been forced to build a couple of filtration systems to stop the pipes and pumps from clogging.
They harvest all their own water and I was surprised to learn they only store 66,000 litres across 3 tanks (about as much as a large 4brm home would store). Since they opened, they’ve only needed had water delivered a handful of times.
Here you can see the boys filling up their latest batch with the $100k Maheen automated bottling machine capable of labelling and filling up to 2,000 bottles per hour.
I was told before they purchased this automated bottler they’d hand filled and capped an astonishing 1,200,000 individual bottles. Sheesh!
“You need to sell directly to the public if you want to survive” was Dave’s biggest recommendation when discussing the feasibility of Bucketty’s.
“Capture the local market, because that’s where the margins are at. Otherwise, you’ll need to hire a shit-hot sales guy constantly pushing your beer to venues”.
Dave looks a little frustrated as he tells me about the changing industry and the emerging difficulties facing Brewers.
“Back when we started, we had no issue selling our beer wholesale, now it’s hard. There are just too many breweries competing for the same market” Red Hill is certainly a premium brand with a 24bottle case, retail price of $100 or more. $100 for a box of beer is a fair whack… I wonder how much that has an of an effect their sales?
He then looks me in the eye with an air of caution and says “There’s a brewery every week opening up in Australia, you’re going to need a lot of money and a well thought-out marketing plan to succeed”….(gulp)
The vibe of the place is warm and welcoming, the venue was shut while we were there with everyone going about the business of making beer. Aside from the one guy who’s job it was to put 5,000 custom labels on by hand, everyone was having a great time. Dave strikes a fatherly role as the head brewer with Karen working as a quasi business/marketing manager.
Red Hill have combined a beautiful setting with a viable business model and great tasting, complex beers. Their Scotch Ale remains one of my favourites and on the day of our visit, Dave cracked a limited edition truffled version, made from locally grown truffles infused within the barrel.
And with that, we bought the only remaining Scotch Ales they had left on the shelf. Poured a pint and dreamed of what Buckettys could one day become.
My key takeaways from Red Hill Brewery are:
- Council approval could take longer than I expect.
- We’ll need to build a damn for waste water away from the brewery due to smell.
- There’s demand from wine tourists for a brewery alternative.
- Bar sales are critical to our success.
- Don’t stress too much about the hops. Provided they have enough water they’ll grow.
- Use a shipping container as a drying room (ingenious).