Boatrocker brewery founder Matt Houghton on a decade of eclectic drinks in Braeside: Season Three, Episode Four

Boatrocker brewery produces sour and strong ales that are undoubtedly some of Australia’s finest.

The company is home to one of the largest barrel-ageing facilities in Australian brewing, which you can visit at Braeside in Melbourne’s south east.

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Founded in 2009 by Matt and Andrea Houghton, Boatrocker brewery is also excelling at the more commonly available lagers, pale ales and IPAs.

And in 2017, Boatrocker Brewing became Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers, as the Perth-based distillery Hippocampus was merged into the Boatrocker brewery business, opening up a whole new array of experimentation.

Matt Houghton Boatrocker brewery
Matt Houghton of Boatrocker Brewers and Distillers

I caught up with Matt Houghton at the Boatrocker Barrel Room in Braeside.

Help us fund Season Three of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

Boatrocker brewery founder Matt Houghton: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Matt Houghton, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

MATT HOUGHTON: Thanks for having me.

JAMES ATKINSON: When Boatrocker brewery first started out, you started out contract brewing and you were making predominantly hop-focused beers, is that right?

MATT HOUGHTON: That’s right. We originally started with the intention of let’s start a brewery. From there, the GFC came at the really unfortunate time, so some family investors who were going to invest lost a lot of money and couldn’t. We had the recipes, we had the designs. That was a good stepping stone for us to at least see if the market was prepared for something that we were going to make.

JAMES ATKINSON: So when did you move into starting to make some of these sour and Belgian sort of styles of beers?

MATT HOUGHTON: Well, when we first started our brewery or started building it, was in October, 2012, got the keys to the premises. My first thing to buy was 60 used wine barrels from Yering Station. We’re really lucky as well, because the winemaker, he liked beer. I did a bit of a part payment, part swapsie for Pilsner and he threw in the wine racks as well. So I think for 60 barrels and wine racks was $5000, which these days is unheard of.

JAMES ATKINSON: Did you know that there was a customer out there for that style of beer when you set upon that journey?

MATT HOUGHTON: No. But I figured for $5000 investment, out of the scheme of things. I mean, we had about $420,000 to play with to build the brewery and buy everything basically, and get it all set up. So out of that $5000, was worth the risk of it not working. At the time, American breweries were doing a lot of barrels and I really wanted to emulate some Belgian styles. That’s sort of what I love and get a lot of satisfaction out of.

MATT HOUGHTON: Traveling to Europe, I’d saved up for a year. Working on the premise that my guidebook was going to be Michael Jackson’s pocket guide to beer. First port of call was Brussels. Landed at Brussels, went to Cantillon. Had never had a sour beer before, but reading the excerpt from his book was, “You must see this brewery. The beer is the most unique in the world.” At the time in 1998, that was the most unique thing I’d ever tasted. Completely different to beer as I knew it.

MATT HOUGHTON: My wife does all the accounts and the bookkeeping. I didn’t tell her until I told her we’d bought the barrels. Her first comment was, “Aren’t we starting a brewery, not a winery?” And, “Trust me, we want to do this, this, and this.” Thankfully, it sort of came to fruition.

JAMES ATKINSON: How many years did it take until you opened the venue across the road, which is the Boatrocker brewery Barrel Room? Maybe you could just talk about what you’ve got in the Barrel Room.

MATT HOUGHTON: We were approached by the founders of Little Creatures. They liked what we were doing and they were prepared to invest, to build a barrel room, which was something we knew that was probably not back then so much essential as it is perhaps today; essential to have a venue and a front of house of your own to just give that point of contact. But that started in 2015. At the moment, there are just under 300 barrels of varying types. We’ve got 36 puncheons, which are 500 litres, maybe 40 hogsheads, which are 300 litres and then a whole swag of barriques which are 225 litres. We’ve got a lot of bourbon barrels mainly from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Barton. Then we also have a lot of Starward distillery barrels. We’ve got one foeder which is one and a half thousand litres, which was picked up from our old winery called Stonyfell in South Australia.

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me how it works having the Creatures guys; Made By HAND is the name of their investment vehicle. Do they have much input on a week to week basis?

MATT HOUGHTON: No.

JAMES ATKINSON: Is it more just when you call on them or

MATT HOUGHTON: Look, I mean really they had their ideas at the start when they first invested, but very much they’re hands off. They’re purely, there is just, you know, if we do need a little bit of advice on certain things they might be able to give it, but they’re purely sort of early investors that allowed us to get that barrel room off the ground and up and running. Basically.

JAMES ATKINSON: One of the things that strikes me, and it’s actually one of things I love about Boatrocker brewery is, you know, when I look in the fridge when I was just over, over the road and just see the incredible array of different beers that you have in your portfolio. Thinking back to, I don’t know if you listened to the Stone & Wood episode that I did at the beginning of season two and I spoke with Howard from Little Creatures and he was talking about, you know, if you want to go to the next level in terms of scale, you need to sort of have one flagship product. That’s obviously not something that they’ve been pressuring you to do and or is that something that you put pressure on yourself to think, you know, do we need one product that’s got to be the flagship Boatrocker brewery product?

MATT HOUGHTON: Look, we do. I mean when we first started out we had Alpha Queen Pale Ale and then we had the Pilsner. They were our two initial beers. The downside with both those beers is that other hoppy Pale Ales were already been done by so many people and the Pilsner, it relied on hop that is so rare. The riwaka hop, which is ridiculously priced at the moment, it’s like $75 a kilo, which is insane. It’s an amazing hop, but to use that as your, your volume vehicle for products is probably a little bit difficult. And I think when Stone & Wood and Little Creatures first started out, I think that mindset is correct. Strangely enough, our flagship beer probably is Miss Pinky because it’s nationwide in all the Dan Murphy’s. It’s about to go into BWS in Victoria; another 120 stores in Victoria then First Choice and Liquorland.

MATT HOUGHTON: So bizarrely it’s sort of one of those beers that I think would be our flagship moreso than our Pale Ale.

JAMES ATKINSON: So it’s obviously done really well in Dan Murphy’s then?

MATT HOUGHTON: Well enough to warrant them putting an order in for 750 cases in mid-winter, which is great. It’s one of those things where there aren’t many beers like it on the market in those sorts of stores, like Dan’s has maybe Citray Sour from La Sirene. Maybe the Colonial Sour. It’s one of those things where it stands alone, which makes it easy for people to perhaps recognise. But if we came out with a Pale Ale and we’re in that situation now with Alpha Queen which is our first beer, getting lots of pull throw on tap, but to compete at the packaged level, it becomes really comes down to scale and volume and price. That’s something that we can achieve with Miss Pinky mainly because we’ve done so many days and months of trials and testing. With a beer like this, because it does take two days to make the wort.

MATT HOUGHTON: You need to really make sure that it’s same pH every single time without fail and it has a nice clean, bright acidity as opposed to any other sort of strange funk.

JAMES ATKINSON: And is that a beer that you find appeals to a wide cross section of people?

MATT HOUGHTON: It does. A lot of men who come to the barrel room in the early days were hesitant about drinking a pink beer I don’t quite get that, but that’s their problem. The one thing that this beer I guess is translated beyond is people who don’t say they don’t like the, we get quite a lot of people who come in who are there with their partner who love beer and they often say, Oh, I don’t really like beer. So we’ll often give them samples of Miss Pinky, maybe a barrel aged sour that they can have an association that’s perhaps more akin to wine.

MATT HOUGHTON: The raspberries are recognisable. It’s sour, but it’s not ‘tear your face off’ sour. We’ve got them, but they’re different types of beers.

JAMES ATKINSON: And I was just sort of thinking, I mean you know, this might be your flagship out there in the chains, but arguably Ramjet, it must be kind of like a flagship and in the beer geeks’ arena as well.

MATT HOUGHTON: Absolutely. It is. Ramjet’s one of those beers that has surpassed any sort of expectation that I ever had for it. It started out with one of our old brewers used to work at Starward and suggested that maybe we could get some whisky barrels. I like the idea of making a an Australian Imperial stout, aged in, a local whisky maker’s barrels. I’d really enjoyed things like Founders KBS, some big American Imperial stouts, but they had bourbon barrels which were not that easy to source at the time and I thought, well wouldn’t it be nice to make something that was Australian and we massively undercharged for the first batch, because back then it was 10 and a half per cent. I think the first Ramjet was meant to retail for $12 or $11 and we were still thinking, crikey, is anyone going to buy it? It was sort of the time when I guess ten and a half per cent beers are not that common, but then it sort of snowballed from there and had really positive reviews on flavour profile. People really did enjoy it and it probably has a right amongst the beer geeks it’s probably got… that’s what people recognise Boatrocker brewery for I think probably; ‘Oh that’s Ramjet’.

JAMES ATKINSON: And some time in the last couple of years you had the Hippocampus Distillery relocated from Perth to here in Braeside. How did that all come about?

MATT HOUGHTON: Yeah, we were approached again by Made By HAND. They had set up Hippocampus in Perth and I think one of the troubles, that the great idea for them at the time, but I think the operational side of things were not that feasible. They approached us and said, would you like to make Hippocampus and bring the distillery into the barrel room. Andrea and I have always been one for opportunity and what that might lead to. And we said, yeah, okay, let’s make it work. So we relocated Hippocampus and the idea was to obviously continue with Hippocampus products, but also create our own range of Boatrocker brewery products. We’re slowly bringing those products out to market. A lot of things revolve around barrels and barrel ageing and those things just take a bit of time unfortunately. So the distillery arrived in August, 2017. We Just released our rum. We’ve got a product that’s distilled beer; ‘beer schnapps’, or ‘bier de vie’, we don’t even know what to call it yet. We’re working on that one still and, a whole lot of different things in the pipeline.

JAMES ATKINSON: The flagship for Hippocampus would be the gin, though?

MATT HOUGHTON: Probably moreso the vodka. There are not many people who are dumb enough to make vodka from scratch, to batch it from Australian wheat flour in a mash mixer and create our own wash takes a lot of time from that perspective and then obviously distilling it three times across the road to get it to a point that we’re happy with is, which is why our vodka does cost more than Grey Goose, due to the laws and the scale of what we do, but I think also it tastes a lot better too.

JAMES ATKINSON: What else have you got coming up from a distilling point of view? I mean you’re already doing that for the vodka. There’s no plans to start making whiskey?

MATT HOUGHTON: Look, we’re not, I look at Starward and I am amazed at the scale and breadth of that operation and they’ve also had some sizeable investment from larger spirit manufacturers, but I don’t know if I want to get to that point where we have 7,000 or 8,000 barrels filled with spirit. That becomes a scale that whilst it could be exciting in its own right… I’m constantly impressed with Starward, how they do manage to do lots of little experiments here and there, but they’re also limited. They’re mainly, their experiments are around the casks they age in, the previous inhabitant of the cask. Whereas for us I want to play around with different grain types for different whiskies and end up with whether it’s esoteric or not, maybe we, we’ll strike something that is absolutely fantastic and we will turn it into a volume business.

MATT HOUGHTON: But I think the money required to make a single barrel of whisky is crazy. So for us, we’re not going to become a major knock out barrels of whisky, of which we have some already.

JAMES ATKINSON: Of course!

MATT HOUGHTON: Which it would be silly not to. We did a collaboration with Starward before we even had the distillery, which was we distilled leftover contract brewed beer that had gone out of date and has been sitting around. We didn’t want to sell it cause we were making our own. We didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to throw it out. So what did we do? We distilled in that Starward, we had 3000 litres of beer. It was enough to fill up one bourbon barrel and we’ll just let it sit for nearly four and a half years. The result was a whisky, I called it a whisky; a few people disagreed with me on on a some whisky forums and beer forums, but it met all legal obligations, under Australian law to be called a whisky, so we clarified it and called it a ‘beer whiskey’. That was delicious and unique.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of the beers Boatrocker brewery is currently working on that you’re most excited about?

MATT HOUGHTON: One of the beers, I guess the we played around with recently was, not that we’re renowned for them, but like a hazy IPA. We’d always sort of shied away from hazies until we were knew what we were going to do and how to do it. I’ve had some fairly lacklustre hazy IPAs. I’d never actually had the real deal from America and at our tenth birthday celebrations, one of our loyal supporters brought a whole swag of freshly flown in three week old American hazy IPAS and tasting them compared to the local versions, they’re actually remarkably different. There is a juicy note there, but they’ve got bitterness and it’s pronounced, it’s not something not at all bitter, and so that set me on this path of okay, how do we do that?

MATT HOUGHTON: Then the whole biotransformation, choosing the hops, that’s a lot of fun working out what will and won’t won’t work. So I guess that was probably one of the most recent ones. That’s your normal type of beer, but it’s anything but normal when you look at the process, the grist was 33 per cent rolled oats, 33 per cent carapils, 33 per cent American ale malt. Then the hop load was insane and the Americans are doing even more again. Ours had 15 grams per litre of hops, which is absolutely stupid. Thinking a double IPA might be six to eight and you’re going, ‘this is nuts’ and it’s all for non-bitterness, it’s all all for aroma and flavour and added three times. Once during a just when krausen’s kicking off the other third added just as krausen’s tailing off, then the last third, once fermentation’s fully finished and intentionally trying to create a stable haze, which is the antithesis of what we working against for so many years, so that was a fun one to do. But then I love sour beers, big Imperial stouts, barleywine. I think that’s why you see so many different products in the fridge because every one of them excites me. A lot of it harks back to traditional process. The wild ales, we follow, as much as we can with a two vessel brewhouse, a turbid mash system. For pilsners we lager for five weeks, which we think gives a better flavour profile.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’re pretty much brewing beers and using brewing processes that cover the whole gamut of beer styles really within the Boatrocker portfolio.

MATT HOUGHTON: Pretty much I look at, yeah, from pale ales, pilsners, berlinerweisse, barrel-aged sours, wild ales, imperial stouts, stouts aged in whisky barrels. We cover nearly every beer style. I think if you haven’t got something that you like about beer, there must be something across the road at the cellar door that you can, that you can find that you’d want to drink. If not, you’ve got spirits. So there’s got to be something.

JAMES ATKINSON: The beer and distilling landscapes just changed tremendously in the last decade that Boatrocker brewery has has been around. And in fact I believe there’s another brewery that’s coming to the area. What’s your feeling for the current market? Like do you feel positive about the future for Boatrocker brewery, but also for the industry generally?

MATT HOUGHTON: Yeah, look, I’m running a small business is always hard work and there’s always a fine line on some months, particularly a lot of big retailers and even small retailers are trying to extend their terms. And I think we’ll probably start seeing more and more of that where we, we’re aware that people are like Dan Murphy’s and First Choice are 90 days from the end of the month, which is effectively 120 days. And that’s what it is. So you plan for it and you’re covered. The one thing we know with them is that they will always pay. It’s some of these smaller but larger operations, some large pubs and whatever else, they start introducing terms of, you know, 30 days from end of the month. So that’s 60 days and that’s not how it used to be. It normally used to be 14 days, and pecial events, it might be 30 days. So for us, you get your busy moments and the madness of dealing with growth means that you’re putting a lot of cash into growth and then you have to wait a long time until that money comes back and that can lead to stretched cashflow and whatever else.

MATT HOUGHTON: But if you plan for it in a proper budget, then you’re fine. The new entrants coming in, I think they just have to be prepared for it and be prepared that it will be more competitive. And we’ve seen that over the last 10 years, how much the industry has grown. Like when Boatrocker brewery first started out, gypsy brewing, contract brewing in 2009 I think there were 170-odd breweries nationwide. There’s now nearly 700. That’s insane. People want something new all the time and in some ways that’s going to end up eating itself as a way to get to market because the quality is going to dip and there have been some pretty atrocious beers put to market just to come up with something new or it’s a minor variation on the theme that I don’t know if that’s a good thing for the public and whether they’ll start shifting back towards more approachable beers or just consistent quality beers… I think that’s the key. If you can be consistent in quality and be good quality, then you should do well, but I fear for some of the new entrants coming in, the market’s a lot more unforgiving and with so many brands on the shelf, if they don’t like you, they’ll move on and forget about you and try something else. So it’s a tough gig. Definitely.

JAMES ATKINSON: What do the next ten years hold for Boatrocker brewery? You obviously don’t have a huge amount of room to keep growing where you are currently, but do you expect to just stick with these two sites or are you looking to grow and move somewhere else?

MATT HOUGHTON: We’d like to grow. That’s one of those the things that I think humans have never gotten around a way to be sustainable without growth, be it in any industry. It’s always around growth. We can knock out with the current layout of this brewery about 400 to 450,000 litres of beer, so a little bit of time to go. We’re not a big brewery in output. The barrel room itself really is reaching that point where we can probably fit in another a hundred barrels, absolute max…

JAMES ATKINSON: Where are you going to put those?

MATT HOUGHTON: I don’t know, so I say a hundred but.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah.

MATT HOUGHTON: It’s one of those things where maybe we can’t, maybe it’s only 50 barrels. Already we’re playing Tetris with moving things around, which is frustrating for the brewers and the bar staff as well cause everything is operational Monday through Friday up until about midday and then it’s like crikey, we got to open in two hours, clear everything out, bring the tables out and then we set up for the weekend and then it goes away again.

MATT HOUGHTON: So it’s not an ideal scenario for a venue and if we were to choose somewhere bigger, we would need to be, the convenience of having one site would be fantastic, just like it’s fine being across the road, but it’s also quite annoying, especially when you leave your drill or your keys or something over there and then you come back and you realise you’ve forgotten something else and you have to duck back and said, my only only chance to get exercise in the day.

JAMES ATKINSON: Nothing on the immediate horizon though, there?

MATT HOUGHTON: No, look, I think what we want to do is grow the venue currently. It’s amazing how much an outdoor space, which we only got licensed just before last Christmas for an outdoor section. Since then, we’ve pretty much doubled our volume of people coming to the barrel room every week and growing, so that’s really good. So if we can help develop that more and make that more of a, I guess a customer experience.

MATT HOUGHTON: We are in the middle of an industrial precincts. We’re so, we are a destination venue, but it’s one of those things I think where if we can make the punter happy and they can keep the kids happy and have a couple of wine drinks and listen to some music…I think if we can really max that out, then that might be another two or three years in that space. And then we’ll have to start looking for somewhere else.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Matt, it’s been a pleasure chatting to you and best of luck for the next decade with Boatrocker brewery.

MATT HOUGHTON: Thank you, I’ll probably be full of grey hair by then, but much appreciated.

JAMES ATKINSON: No worries.

Author: James Atkinson

Accomplished freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®. Founder Drinks Adventures podcast.

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