A chance meeting in the university library was the start of a love story for a Woodend couple. For the past 15 years they have worked together to become a leading producer of craft beer in Australia.
Since graduation and travelling the globe, the chemistry graduates settled in central Victoria in 1992, due to their love of the Macedon Ranges and closeness to family.
It was on a trip to the US in 1997 that Natasha and Paul Holgate discovered the boutique craft brewing industry. In their own words “we were inspired to have a crack at our own business”.
They loved that the businesses were small, independent and run “by ordinary folks with love and passion not money”.
After years of commuting to Melbourne to work for multinational companies, the time was right to start their own business and a family.
“We thought we could have a go at this,” says Natasha, proudly overlooking the Holgate Brewhouse that outputs more than 500,000 litres of beer annually, equating to 10,000 kegs or 60,000 boxes. They distribute to more than 700 outlets and exporting is now on the agenda, as is an expansion of the brewery that should see production more than double in the coming 12 months. “When we look back it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. It was trial and error for us. But years on we still make beer that we enjoy drinking and hope that others continue to like them, too.”
Two years after their US return the couple cobbled together a brewery in their backyard and started selling beer. Paul brewed part-time on weeknights and weekends, while working another full-time job, and Natasha delivered cartons and kegs in the back-seat of the car next to the baby seat.
“It would have been a sight to see me driving around with the baby in the back seat - not what you would expect but we had to do what we had to. We had a business to run and a newborn.”
The family expanded with the arrival of baby number two and so did teh business, venturing into hospitality and tourism. They took over a historic hotel in Woodend that would become the home of their brewing operations and a dedicated outlet and ‘cellar door’ for their beer. The old Victorian building was built in 1896 as the Commercial Hotel; later it became Keatings Hotel and then Holgate Brewhouse.
“We always say we have ‘four’ children - in 1999 we started the brewery, our eldest Emily came along in 1998, James in 2000 and our ‘fourth child’ the hotel in 2002,” she smiles.
The hotel had been neglected for years so a bricks and mortar transformation began. Rooms were renovated, the bar and dining area revamped and an industrial kitchen modernised. Holding it all together is the flagship craft brewery. The Holgates employ 30 people and are a major supporter of community events. Roles between the couple are clearly defined - Paul looks after the Brewhouse and Natasha the hotel and accommodation. Each is happy with what they do and it's easy to see the partnership works well and effortlessly.
It would have been a sight to see me driving around with the baby and kegs and cartons of beer in the back seatNatasha Holgate
“When we started there were only three main players in the craft beer industry in Victoria,” Natasha says. “Now there are hundreds across the Australia.
“It is great that we have been able to take something that was initially a hobby to make a life for ourselves and a living for others in the community.”
Quality craft beer is enjoying solid growth in Australia. According to a report from business information analysts IBISWorld, craft beer is continuing in popularity as consumers eschew traditional mass-market beer for a more premium, healthier alternative.
Major players are expected to benefit more than others as the industry consolidates over the next five years, with boutique brewers being absorbed into a mainstream label.
“Traditional beer brands are losing market share,” IBISWorld general manager (Australia) Karen Dobie says. “Australia’s two big brewers – Foster’s and Lion – are combating this by bringing in domestic production of premium foreign beers and acquiring local boutique brewers.”
But with consumer demand for lighter wines and cider consumption climbing, particularly with younger drinkers, from generating just $0.9 billion in revenue in 2013-14, to $2.2 billion in 2018-19, it is not a direct threat to the craft beer industry, Paul says, which is tipped to have an expected 2.8 per cent annualised growth by 2018-19.
“Cider is from fruit, whereas beer is brewed, so it is a completely different taste and appeals to different markets,” he says.
Apart from changing consumer tastes for a lighter or more bespoke taste and flavour in alcoholic drinks, cider has also benefitted from increased taxes on pre-mixed drinks, commonly called alcopops. While the price for consumers is right now, cider production is influenced by the price of domestic fruit prices and changes in weather.
Meanwhile, the Australian Real Craft Brewers Association has asked the World Trade Organisation to take action against countries that provide subsidies to microbreweries. Local brewers say this allows microbreweries from overseas to gain advantage by offering subsidies to hoteliers to stock their brews.
With 150 craft brewers selling in Australia, not all products are 100 per cent family owned and operated, says Natasha, with bottle labelling leaving consumers unaware of who they were actually buying from.
“Many craft beers are brewed by larger mainstream brewers under another name, which people may not readily realise. They think they are buying a craft beer from a small brewery but they aren’t, which can be misleading to consumers.”
Even to this day I love the mystery of unravelling and discovering how things work. That’s the magical thing about brewing beer, it’s a skill of using science and art.Brewer Paul Holgate
All Holgate beers are brewed, bottled and kegged onsite by Paul and his team of brewers (“we now have three”). When it comes to bottling time, it’s all hands on deck as the bottles are packed into the labelling machine by hand.
“We only use four ingredients,” says Natasha. “Malt from the grain barley - mainly from Australia, sometimes we use a German malt for a special brew, hops from Victoria and Tasmania - again, special hops for a special brew may come from the US and Europe, the water is from the Macedon Ranges and the yeast is either lager or ale.”
There are no preservatives, no pasteurisation and no filtration. It takes three weeks to complete a brew and spent grain goes to an organic pig farmer. A ‘paddock to plate’ process is key to their brewing style as nothing is wasted.
“Because it is an agricultural product we can slightly vary the outcome, but it is a precise science with testing to ensure we have the right alcohol content and the flavour is there,” Natasha says.
Six craft beers are regularly brewed, with special brews appearing on tap throughout the year. The label features the shadow of a bull, which links back to Paul’s English heritage and family coat of arms, with all staff and family invited to have input into the name of the next brew. Each label has a history.
“Pale Ale is in honour of Mt Macedon, which dominates the landscape around here,” Natasha says. “Road Trip American IPA was named after our family holiday to hop heaven (the west coast of the US) in 2009.”
As for taste, Paul “cannot choose a favourite”. “I love them all,” he says. Natasha opts for the Hopinator. “It’s hoppy and very malty - a great flavour,” she says.
Crafting a brew from scratch will remain a long-term objective for this couple, who have found their niche in Woodend.
“Even to this day I love the mystery of unravelling and discovering how things work. That’s the magical thing about brewing beer, it’s a skill of using science and art,” Paul says. “It’s definitely magical.”