Respected brewer DJ McCready and wife Harriet McCready in late 2019 opened Blue Mountains brewery, Mountain Culture Brewing Company, in Katoomba.
In this opening episode of Drinks Adventures Season Four, I drove west of Sydney to visit DJ and Harriet at the Blue Mountains brewery, for a chat about their journey to date and future plans.
American-born DJ exploded onto the Australian brewing scene at the inaugural Craft Beer Awards, now known as The Indies, in 2014.
At the time DJ was brewing with a little known start-up from Sydney’s northern beaches, Modus Operandi Brewing Company, where he created beers such as Former Tenant Red IPA, which won Champion Australian Beer at the awards that year and is still picking up gongs today.
Now with their new brewing company Mountain Culture in a heritage building in the centre of Katoomba, DJ and Harriet have built a fantastic brewpub that is already being embraced by the locals.
And as you would expect from a brewer of his calibre, the beers DJ is making up there are outstanding.
We began our chat by returning to that night in 2014 when the Australian brewing industry fast became very familiar with the name DJ McCready.
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DJ McCready of Blue Mountains brewery Mountain Culture: Full transcript
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah, that was really awesome. It kind of feels like we’re repeating history in some ways with Mountain Culture. We’re going through a lot of the same steps opening up. Of course it’s been this big struggle. But at Modus Operandi, we had been opened a few months. Now it’s kind of hard to remember back, but at the time I think we were just like, “Hell, why not? We’ll put the beers in and see how we go.”
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah, it was awesome. It really was one of those things that was so good after this really tough slog of opening up the brewery, to be like, “Hey, you guys are making awesome beer,” and people were appreciating it and yeah. Yeah. It’s an incredible way to start off my brewing journey over here in Australia.
JAMES ATKINSON: As I understand it, that was actually very early on in yours and Harriet’s relationship, and she kind of came along with you that night, and then she was like, “Wow, this guy must be pretty good at what he does.”
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah, I was contemplating back and forth whether I should have invited her. I don’t think we had been dating that long. I was like, oh well, I had this hunch that we might win something. I’m like, “Well, this will really impress this girl.” Yeah, it turned out to be a really good night for us award-wise. It maybe made Harriet think a little bit higher of me, I guess.
JAMES ATKINSON: As long as you were available to talk to her on the night, that’s all.
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah. I think I got passed around from a lot of 50-year-old dudes that started wanting to date me that night too, who were a bit into their beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: Then you finished at Modus. That must’ve been a couple of years all told.
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah. It was a couple of years all told. Harry and I had just decided that we wanted to go out, get married, spend some time traveling around. We knew we wanted to start up our own business together. It was a good time to do that.
DJ MCCREADY: The brewing industry is so full on that it’s kind of like you’re either in it or you’re not. So we decided to take some time off, and get to travel around a bit, spend some time with family all around the world, get to see some new places.
DJ MCCREADY: It was really great for me, because I got to get out and be inspired again by brewing, go and visit a lot of these places that I had only read about, and seeing they would be spots that I would actually never get to go and actually see and try the beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: What were some of those highlights?
DJ MCCREADY: There was a couple. One of my highlights was drinking sorghum beer out of a bucket in Africa, which was pretty cool, with this group of guys on the wild west coast of South Africa.
DJ MCCREADY: But obviously the more traditional breweries that we checked out, that were really cool and inspiring for what we want to do at Mountain Culture, were in Bavaria. We spent a lot of time in Europe traveling around and getting to see those places. I got to meet all my brewing heroes in Brussels and around Belgium, and some really neat places down back roads in the Czech Republic. It was awesome to go and take these trips, and become inspired by beer again.
JAMES ATKINSON: Harriet, as we were discussing earlier, has a background in media, so not really brewing or hospitality, but she was really keen to back you into doing something yourselves.
DJ MCCREADY: That’s right. Yeah. She has a lot of experience in media. We started thinking about it early on. We were like, man, this is really good. We have somewhat of a power team here, where I can handle all of one side of the business, and she can handle another side of the business. I think that works really well.
DJ MCCREADY: Two people that I’ve always looked to as a husband and wife team that owns Russian River, and they said their key to success was that they both handle different parts of the business, and their desks are about as far apart as possible in the brewery that can physically be done.
DJ MCCREADY: We’ve taken that model of Vinnie Cirluzo’s, and put it into our own group, where Harriet is the queen of social media. I don’t look at it, because apparently she just pays me out the entire time. It’s probably not too good for my own ego, but yeah, she handles all the media and communication side. I just do what I do best, which I guess is sticking into the beer and drinking beer with people.
JAMES ATKINSON: Was it always part of the plan that you were going to come back to Sydney, or at least New South Wales, and do something here?
DJ MCCREADY: Well, it was when I left Modus. We really had our eye on the Blue Mountains. We came back here. We were all gung ho that we were going to open up this place right away. Then it fell through. We were working on it for a couple of months, and the building just didn’t work out for various reasons. We had our hearts set on it. We probably put about six months of work into going through due diligence and all of this, and it didn’t work out. We were kind of gutted about that, but we kept trying, found another building, also shortly fell through.
DJ MCCREADY: We started to feel like is this ever going to happen. We got sidetracked a bit, where we just thought maybe we look for breweries in other locations; tossed around moving back to the US for a while, or over to Europe where Harriet’s father’s side of the family is from.
DJ MCCREADY: But then this place worked out. It was pretty serendipitous. Everything just kept falling into place, so we just kept going with it. We just looked up after a couple months of working on the building, it was like, “Hey, we actually have a shot of making this place work in the area that we had set out to have a brewery work in the beginning.”
JAMES ATKINSON: Now obviously, at Modus, you were very much known for making some pretty big and hoppy beers, such as the likes of Former Tenant and Zoo Feeder, to name another one. When you were planning to go out on your own, were you keen to stay on that path or keen to try new things?
DJ MCCREADY: Look, I really wanted to try new things. It’s been one of those things where, through the travelling that I did and to be re-inspired by beer, and also just going through this process of opening a new brewery, I of course wanted to have very different beer.
DJ MCCREADY: We had set our sights on mostly focusing on lager and mixed culture beer at first. Then we got into the building phase, and figured out how expensive it was to open up a brewery in the Blue Mountains, and all the renovations that needed to be done on the building. The local feedback was that a lot of people up here were really hungry for some big IPAs.
DJ MCCREADY: So we have opened up with a variety of things, which I’m happy with. Being a brew pub, I think to go in one direction is kind of foolish. We’ve opened up with some different beers, which would be more on the the lager side of things and the lighter side, much lower ABV and things like that that we would have done at Modus. But we also have a couple of heavy hitting IPS in our lineup as well.
DJ MCCREADY: The goal is obviously to constantly experiment. I would feel like a pretty lazy brewer if I was just brewing the same stuff that I had been brewing for the past couple years.
JAMES ATKINSON: There’s a double red IPA in there, about 8%.
DJ MCCREADY: Yup.
JAMES ATKINSON: But you were stressing to me that it’s definitely a very different hop bill to the likes of Former Tenant.
DJ MCCREADY: It is. That was one of the hardest things with coming out with our lineup, because everybody just kept being like, “Dude, you got to brew a red IPA.” Honestly I didn’t want to, because I was like, man, I had put a lot of time into that beer at Modus, and I really did brew that beer to a lot what I thought my palate enjoyed. That’s what I go with when I’m coming up with recipes and stuff.
DJ MCCREADY: I changed up just a lot about what I thought a red IPA could be like, and went for something that was way more on the citrus side, mostly going more towards US hops. It is still big. It is red, but I think it’s a pretty different beer than what we were doing before.
JAMES ATKINSON: You are still doing some experimentation with wild yeast. Did you harvest those from around here?
DJ MCCREADY: Absolutely, yeah. This is the part that I’m most excited about with the brewery is getting into to lager brewing, and getting into mixed culture stuff. We have harvested a lot of wild yeast strains from the area, mostly from down in the canyons in the Blue Mountains, but also just from some of the plateaus. We’ve got a culture that we’ve been developing. We’re starting to bring that side of it to life.
DJ MCCREADY: A big thing that I wanted to focus on when we were starting out up here was building trust with the local community. With that, we’ve opened up with a lineup of beer that I’m really proud of, but I think is approachable for folks that maybe haven’t had a lot of experience with craft beer. As we’re winning over the locals with some beers that they can sink their teeth into, I’m really excited to start just slowly incorporating some funky stuff into the lineup. I’m hoping that that will also become part of the local favourites up here.
JAMES ATKINSON: Katoomba doesn’t exactly have the most thriving existing craft beer scene, to my knowledge. What’s been the response from the local so far?
DJ MCCREADY: So far, people are really responsive to it. I’m pretty amazed. We opened up with two beers that I thought would be very geared towards somebody who maybe hadn’t had any experience with craft beer before. People would try them and be like, “Wow. These are tasty.”
DJ MCCREADY: Then they would go for some of the bigger beers on the menu. Now they’re just hooked on those almost instantly, where it’s like their second or third time drinking craft beer, and all they want is a kettle sour, or really dark motor oil stout, or some of these big IPAs that that we’re packing with almost over 20 grams per litre of hops. These people are just like they love them.
DJ MCCREADY: That’s really cool. I think the local community, they have much more advanced palates. I think also they’re very willing to try something that’s new and different, and embrace it.
DJ MCCREADY: So yeah, it’s been pretty awesome. We’ve been open for about three weeks. There’s been so many people that have been in there almost twice a week, every week that we’re open. That’s pretty good, the best kind of feedback I feel like I can receive.
JAMES ATKINSON: Many tourists coming through?
DJ MCCREADY: Right now, we haven’t really marketed at all. The word’s getting out organically. This last week that we were open, we had a few tourists pop in, but pretty much the first two weeks it’s just been packed full of people that are our neighbours. So yeah, it’s getting out in an organic way. So far, the ratio has been predominantly folks from up here.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now we had a look around the brewery before. One of the bits of kit that you’ve got there is a reverse osmosis plant, which is something that you don’t see in every small craft brewery. Tell me what that does, and why it was important to you to have that bit of gear.
DJ MCCREADY: We’ve put in the reverse osmosis kit, because I really wanted to expand somewhat of my horizons a brewer, and start focusing on the main ingredient in beer, which is water. We basically can take our water and start from a neutral base, stripping absolutely everything out of it. Then we can add the minerality into it that we want.
DJ MCCREADY: A good starting place is to look at the minerality from around the world, and see what people are doing in the Czech Republic is the example that everybody likes to use. Also with that, we still have the capability then of saying, “Hey, we really like it when we up the sulphite profile or the magnesium profile in a certain beer. We’re getting more of whatever characteristic we’re looking for.”
DJ MCCREADY: I love it, because it just gives me another element of control than like, let’s say, with hops or grain, where we can manipulate that water to be whatever the hell we want it to be for beers that we’re making. It’s the part that, right now, we’re experimenting with the most.
DJ MCCREADY: At some of the breweries that I had run in the past, we would say, “Oh, we want this, so we’ll just add more hops to it in this stage of the brewing process,” where now I’m messing around, enhancing those flavours through minerality in the brewing water, which I think is fun and something neat to play with.
JAMES ATKINSON: Trends come and go very quickly in the brewing world. I think the whole hazy, juicy craze has been something that’s probably really taken off since you left Modus. Is that something that you were following while you were traveling around? Because obviously you’ve got the Cult Juice in your lineup.
DJ MCCREADY: It was. No. It was something that had popped up on my radar before I left. But going back to the States, and meeting up with a lot of my buddies who were brewers over there that were coming out with this new style, and tasting these beers, was awesome. I thought, “Okay, cool. I’m going to bring that back to Australia and start doing that,” years ago. But then we had all these fall throughs happen.
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DJ MCCREADY: It’s amazing to see that beer really take off. It seemed to be more than just a fad. It’s sticking around. People really love that style. So yeah, it was something that was always on my radar to brew in the new place.
DJ MCCREADY: I’ve been really lucky. A lot of my mates back in the US have been in these breweries that started up doing that kind of stuff, or at least associated with the people that were starting up doing those styles, so I can’t really take credit for if people like the New England IPAs too much, because I’ve had a lot of help from folks overseas with putting those recipes together.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think is the secret to a good example of that style?
DJ MCCREADY: Well, like I was speaking about before, it’s another reason why I decided to take the leap and invest in the reverse osmosis, is because I do believe that building your water profile is so much of it.
DJ MCCREADY: So much of the advice I got was around that, where they’re saying the beer can go clear or not go clear, but if you get the water profile right and the hopping regime right, you’re pretty much going to have a winner, no matter what. If it stays really hazy and there’s a lot of biotransformation in the beer, or if it does drop out and go clear, either way, you know you’re going to be left with something that, when you’re drinking it, it’s like, “Well this is awesome.” At the end of the day, I guess that’s all you could really hope.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you’ve already got beer out in cans. Is that this mobile canning that’s made that possible?
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah. We’re pretty tiny up here, so we don’t have much beer to actually put in cans, but it’s really important to me to have that aspect of it. Having beers in the brewery with friends is really awesome. But I also like to finish the day, from rock climbing or mountain biking or something like that, and have a beer in the parking lot. Some of those beers, I think, are the best ones I’ve ever had.
DJ MCCREADY: So it was really important to me to get the beer into some kind of package that could go other places. So yeah, we’re working with a mobile canning line. Right now, we have three styles in cans, but we’ll probably get up to about six styles in cans before too long.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are they unlikely to travel much further than the Blue Mountains brewery itself?
DJ MCCREADY: I would say predominantly they will be sold in the brewery. We’ve had a few of our friends who really wanted to carry them, and that have been so supportive of us during the process of building the brewery, that I’ve tried to get them cans, but unfortunately, with our size right now, I’m pretty limited to how much I can get out there.
DJ MCCREADY: If somebody’s coming to the brewery, I want to make sure that they can get the cans. Even there, we’ve done our first run, and we’re pretty much out of them at this point. I’m kind of counting the days until we can package again and get some more beer into can.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you’re saying it’s a 220-capacity venue. It’s not the biggest brewery in the world. It strikes me that if you get really busy over summer, you could struggle to keep up with just servicing people coming into the venue. Is there scope in that venue for you to be able to put in more tanks, et cetera?
DJ MCCREADY: There is. It’s something that I am definitely concerned about. This year, I think we’ll be all right. I was literally brewing my ass off for the last couple of months to just stockpile as much beer as we could, especially beers that would age well and be okay to leave in keg. Obviously, anything hoppy that we have I don’t want it sitting around in a keg for longer than a couple of weeks, ideally.
DJ MCCREADY: There is opportunity to up our capacity. We’re lucky enough to build this deck on the back area of the brewery, which we also have a massive underground area in, that we made sure it was high enough that we can fit more tanks. Right now, we have five fermenters that we’re working with, but we could get about 15 of them down there in the future.
DJ MCCREADY: They would be small tanks, so it’d still be one off batches going into them. But if we had 15 more tanks, that would allow us to age things a bit longer, take a few more risks, get a little bit more of our cans out there in the market, et cetera, et cetera. That is definitely something we’re looking at in the future.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the building. It’s got a lot of character. You must have felt like, when you discovered that, this is going to be perfect for a brewery.
DJ MCCREADY: I was actually pretty hesitant about taking on that building. It was really run down. It had a lot of character to it, but it needed a tonne of work. From its size and location, it was also a bit tricky to figure out how we were actually going to get the brewery in there.
DJ MCCREADY: But as we’ve come through the process, the building is really polished up nice. We’ve definitely taken a lot of time to try and fix it up the best we could. It’s a pretty neat looking home for the beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you know much about its history? What was in there before you?
DJ MCCREADY: Most recently, it was a Civic Video, which we used to go in and rent DVDs, oddly enough. We were looking at it at the time being like, “This location is pretty awesome.” But back in the day it was the printing press for the town.
JAMES ATKINSON: What can people expect when they come visit you at the Blue Mountains brewery? You do do food at the venue?
DJ MCCREADY: We do, yeah. We’re a full venue. We have food. We also have natural wine on tap from a few small producers that we’ve become friends with. Yeah, we’ll also have some entertainment at the brewery. We’re trying to support local bands from the area.
DJ MCCREADY: So yeah, it’s a great place to come and hang out after a big day in the mountains, if you’ve been out hiking or climbing or something like that, want to come in with your mates and have a beer afterwards, and some dinner, and hang out at night. It’s a good spot.
JAMES ATKINSON: Having been away from brewing yourself for a few years, and traveling and then setting this place up, what are your thoughts on how the brewing scene in Australia has evolved over that time?
DJ MCCREADY: It’s incredible, man, to see how many breweries are out there. I popped into the craft beer conference in Sydney last year, and just seeing all the new faces that were out there, and the new breweries that have popped up everywhere, it’s really amazing. It’s really awesome. It’s so good for, I think, the craft beer scene, and changing the public perceptions where it is like this is a very accepted, very real industry that’s going to stick around.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. Well, wish you the best of luck with the new venture. I hope you and Harriet have got your desks far enough apart.
DJ MCCREADY: Yeah. We’ll try and keep working on that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Thanks for joining me on the show, mate.