“I brew things that I personally really enjoy drinking,” says Simon Walkenhorst. It’s a credo that many of us could live by and one that’s easy to admire in the founder of Hargreaves Hill Brewery, a craft beer producer in the Yarra Valley.
There’s plenty else to admire about Walkenhorst. A classical pianist by trade, he turned his hand to beer after a chance tasting of a mate’s homebrew. “It was a fairly simple beer in terms of how it was made,” he admits, but he remembers it as being “quite fantastic”.
“My wife had grown up in the Yarra Valley and we were looking for a little business idea to create something. I thought that maybe it was something I could do.”
While it might seem as though the two professions are galaxies apart, Walkenhorst has found some similarities between pianos and beer. “In both professions you’re really dealing in something sensory,” he begins to explain. “If you want to take brewing beer and playing the piano back to first principals, it’s that beer has to taste good and music has to sound good. Of everything I’ve learnt about brewing, it’s that if you start by making something appealing, in aroma, how it looks and how it tastes, not many people are going to be concerned about style. It’s the same with music.”
With beer, Walkenhorst has some simpler instruments with which to create his frothy symphony: malt, water and hops. “Our beers are really based around Australian products – Australian malts and Australian hops,” Walkenhorst says. “The freshness of the malt is a really important one. You get a lot more flavour in a beer by using something that’s quite fresh.”
While Walkenhorst has been brewing for over a decade, he’s still dedicated to improving his product. “Instead of making the same beer again and again and again, we’ll change it from year to year,” he says. “Even our Pale Ale, which is the first beer we brewed, we make changes based on what hops we can get. We don’t age for consistency. We just try to make a beer that’s consistently good.”
Walkenhorst is also a man of great tenacity. In 2009, the young brewery suffered a catastrophic setback when the Black Saturday fires swept through the family property, levelling the Hargreaves Hill production plant. “The old brewery was on my mother and father-in-law’s property in Stuarts Creek. It was completely knocked over by the fire,” he recalls. “They lost their house and we lost our business.”
But the couple decided to turn the disaster into an opportunity. By investing a little more money, they significantly scaled up the brewery on a new site, allowing Hargreaves Hill to produce more beer than it ever had before. “It was a pretty crazy time, but we worked hard at getting the new place up and running. We had some really great people working for us and we wanted to keep the team together,” he says. “We thought we could probably find a wider market if we made more beer, so we made the best of a very rough situation.”
The risk has paid off. “There seems to be more interest in [the beer] year-on-year,” says Walkenhorst. “Sydney, which has always been a pretty quiet place for craft beers, is really coming alive as well.”
According to Walkenhorst, Australia is only at the beginning of its love affair with craft beers. In the past, pubs might have held pouring contracts with the larger breweries, but once those contracts are finished many are deciding not to resign. “There are more pubs that used to sell the incumbent lagers that are switching taps over to craft beers,” he suggests. “People, like they do with their wines, are expecting more from their beers. They want to know more about it and there’s an expectation of better flavour and better quality ingredients.”
It’s comforting to know that sometimes, doing what you love can pay off, especially if what you love doing is drinking beer.
Hargreaves Hill Hefeweizen is available on tap at the Middle Park Hotel