Signifiers

Climbing Without a Rope — Mountain Goat Beer in Victoria, Australia

It wasn’t the first time an Australian brewery had sold to a larger entity, but this time things felt different.

“I wasn’t really ready to talk about it before now, to tell you the truth,” Mountain Goat Beer co-founder Cam Hines tells me in November 2016, a year or so after his brewery was acquired by Asahi. “It was the right time and it was the right partner to see Goat carry on. I’m still coming to terms with it, but it feels like it was the right thing to do.” 

To understand why the sale of Mountain Goat means so much, first we need to look at the Australian craft beer industry. Unlike many countries, Australia’s big brewers seemed to identify quite early on that “craft” beer would take off. As a result, many an Australian drinker’s first step away from Lagers is toward a brand owned by either Carlton United Breweries (SABMiller/ABInBev) or Lion (Kirin). 

Those two companies account for some of the most prominent beers in the Australian craft space, such as Matilda Bay (Carlton United Breweries), Little Creatures (Lion), and James Squire (Lion). With nothing to prevent breweries with larger ownership from using the word “craft,” they all employ it to varying degrees in their marketing, labels, and so on.

One of the few independents to challenge at a national scale was Mountain Goat. Founded in 1997, many drinkers, particularly in Melbourne, found their first exposure to craft beer with the brewery. 

And 18 years later, on Sept. 28, 2015, it was announced they were being acquired by Asahi. It was a decision that was difficult for both founders.

“I think I went through some emotional volatility you could say,” Hines remembers. “It’s an expression of Dave [Bonighton, Mountain Goat’s other co-founder] and me, this business, and everything you see around you here in the bar, and on the label and in the beer… To let go of that is a very big thing to do.”

“That process itself [was] awful,” Bonighton agrees. “There was lots of heartache. Going back through 18 years of our lives, it was tough.”

While the announcement saw Hines and Bonighton’s hard work celebrated publicly by Australian beer fans, there were questions swirling about Mountain Goat’s future. Eight of 11 frontline sales staff had left within a couple of months.

One member of that team was Tom Delmont. His scruffy blonde hair, broad smile, and upbeat demeanor led many to see him as a face of the brand. He told me why he made the decision to leave in the days after the announcement.

“One of the things we always preached, and this was a direct marketing point, was ‘brewed by hand, not by corporation,’” he says. “‘Staunchly independent’ was said to me by one of the brewers on my first visit. All of a sudden you’re not really walking the walk and talking the talk that you have for the last eight years.”

“For me you either change the spiel, which means you don’t have much integrity, I think,” he continues. “Or you get out and find a new home with an independent company.” 

So that’s what he did.

He wasn’t the only departure, either. The bulk of the sales staff left, and both founders consciously pulled back. Once prominent, they had stepped away from the public eye. There was a sense of uncertainty for a beloved brand. 

 

When I first started drinking in Australia, there was one beer to which I kept returning. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why. Maybe it was the unique horned tap decal standing proudly above traditional round badges that every other beer bore. But maybe it’s just that it was different.

Mountain Goat Hightail Ale is an English Ale/American Amber hybrid (4.5% ABV, 25 IBU), and it was an oddity at Melbourne bars and restaurants long dominated by Lagers. It has a rusty-red color, fresh new-world hop aromas, and a malt body sporting toffee and biscuit notes. Bonighton describes it as a “mongrel of a beer.” It’s a beer equally at home in the blustery Melbourne winter as it is in the searing Australian summer heat. It soon became one of my favorites.

That process itself is awful. There was lots of heartache. Going back through 18 years of our lives, it was tough.
— Dave Bonighton

Pete Mitcham, a Melbourne-based beer writer and event host, was working in restaurants and bars when Mountain Goat was first starting out. He says Mountain Goat Hightail was a revelation in the local market late in the late ‘90s. 

“The first one [I drank] I thought, ‘Geez this is going to be hard work,’” Mitcham remembers. “It was like doing a jigsaw for the first time! You kind of knew from the box what it was supposed to end up like, and you knew you could get there, and you knew you had the bits there. You just had to work at getting them in the right order.” 

Another drinker who became enamored with this “mongrel” beer was Delmont. He came to work for the business as a fan of the beer after finding it on tap at his local bar in 2003.

“The owner at the time poured me a beer and I didn’t know what it was,” Delmont says. “I looked at this big 600ml stein of what was Hightail. I fell in love with it. I remember the incredible fruitiness from the Cascade hops, and so much more layers and depth than I’d had [in other beers].” 
 
Delmont had moved to Melbourne from Adelaide for his government job as a Quarantine Entomologist. That taste of Hightail would soon see him following a completely new career path.

“One Friday after working my government job I rode my bike down to the brewery and I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a cool place,’” he says. “I tried all the other beers and I was just madly ringing and texting friends saying, ‘You guys have gotta get down here and check this out.’ We ended up going there almost every week for a couple of years.” 

We were very determined and we really believed it was just a matter of time ‘til craft hit, especially in Melbourne. It took so much longer than we thought it would.
— Dave Bonighton

When a sales rep position opened up in 2007, he jumped at the chance. Meanwhile, Mountain Goat was on the cusp of finding wider success. 

While the idea of “craft beer” has become more commonplace in Australian drinkers’ minds over the years, in 1997, it was still a pretty foreign concept. People didn’t understand what Mountain Goat was trying to do. Australian drinkers were—and still are—extremely parochial. Each of Australia’s six states and two mainland territories, in a country that spans roughly the same geographical size as the United States, has only a couple of top-selling beers. In ’97, the idea that you might stray from those was almost unheard of. If you were to beer-hop, it was usually from one Lager to another—and both were likely made by the same company. Bonighton says selling customers the idea of big-flavored, small-brewery ales was tough.

“We were very determined and we really believed it was just a matter of time ‘til craft hit, especially in Melbourne,” Bonighton says. “It took so much longer than we thought it would.”

“We had to sell that concept first,” he says. “Then we had to sell them the concept of a Mountain Goat beer.” 

At the time, it was Hines on the front lines, with Bonighton looking after the beer and brewing.

“[Cam] got lots of knockbacks,” Bonighton says. “People saying, ‘Is this what you have to do to sell the beer, call it Mountain Goat?’ We got yelled at, laughed at heaps. Heaps.”

The small number of breweries around at the time usually marketed their beer as a heritage or regional brand. Hines’ approach to marketing was unique in that regard. With a background in booking and managing bands, he applied his knowledge to beer.

“It wasn’t so much about how the label looked,” he says. “We knew that it had to look different and irreverent and had to say something, [but] it was also the grassroots approach to building a brand, staying out of mainstream places.”

A big driver of this, Hines tells me, was simply cost. Screenprinting t-shirts and utilizing word of mouth was the only marketing efforts they could afford.

“Where we did get support, it was more about Dave and me being local guys, being friendly enough, and having a go,” Hines says. “It wasn’t so much about the beer initially.”

Before starting Mountain Goat, the pair had tasted great beer—mostly via their travels around the world. Bonighton studied in the States before traveling around Europe. He recalls trying beers such as Sam Adams Boston Lager, Anchor Steam Ale, and Sierra Nevada Pale, plus a slew of Belgians, Czech Pilsners, and English Real Ale. Returning home was a let down once other parts of the world had been in his glass. So he started homebrewing. 

When Hines visited Vancouver and tasted some locally brewed beers, he caught the bug. It was his idea for the pair to start a brewery.  When Hines returned to Australia, they set about trying to acquire financing from banks. The only collateral they had was two mountain bikes, three surfboards, and an old Australian car—an EH Holden. 

“Dave and I were asked to list our combined statement of position and those assets were the full extent of it,” Hines says. “The bankers laughed, of course. In the end, one banker said he’d loan us $50,000 for some kegs if we could raise the rest we needed from our mates, which we ended up doing.”

The loan and help from friends allowed them to start contract brewing at a small brewpub in Geelong, just outside of Melbourne. 

“Then, of course, no one bought it,” Hines says. “It was only Dave and I and our mates drinking it. Which was a bit depressing, but that’s the way it was back then.” 

They were producing maybe 10 kegs and 50 cases a month. After a year, that increased to a still-pretty-modest 30 kegs and 80 cases. However humble, the commitment and belief was always there. “It seems ballsy now,” Bonighton says. “We were in our twenties and we just had so much fun. We believed it was never not going to work.”

We did 24 kegs in a three-hour session one night. It was absolute bedlam and those nights absolutely paid the rent.
— Dave Bonighton

In 1999, the pair purchased a small 2000 litre second-hand brewhouse and moved to their own premises in Richmond, Melbourne. Needing cash flow, they opened up as a taproom on the first Friday of each month. Hines says even though they never wanted to go down that business route, they wouldn’t have survived without those nights. They were a financial necessity, but also proved an important brand building device.

Bonighton believes it was their almost-hidden location and Melbourne’s love for the small, new, and undiscovered that gave them a much needed boost. “We did 24 kegs in a three-hour session one night,” he remembers. “It was absolute bedlam and those nights absolutely paid the rent.”

By 2004 they’d outgrown that space and moved to nearby North St. in the same suburb. The monthly nights soon became twice weekly, in a bar space that remains largely unchanged 12 years later. They still consider it one of their best marketing tools.

While the Goats toiled for years, craft beer still wasn’t taking off in Australia. A small handful of breweries had sprung up, but the market was still underdeveloped by most modern standards and not showing many signs of life. Bonighton recalls doubts creeping in around 2006-2007. He was starting a family, and the brewery had been chipping away for a decade. Nevertheless, he says “there was never any thought of throwing it in.”

Then, in 2009, they launched Steam Ale. The market was finally catching up. For Mountain Goat, this was the beer that things turned around. Inspired by German Dampf and American Steam beers, Steam Ale was their own take on the style. Vibrant, fruity, and drinkable, it’s the beer Bonighton says “changed the business overnight.”

These days, Steam Ale makes up 40% of all of Mountain Goat sales. Followed by their Summer Ale, a canned beer Bonighton calls a “version” of the Steam Ale, just a bit drier and slightly hoppier.

Meanwhile, their American-styled Pale Ale, simply called Pale Ale, which was relaunched in 2015, is catching up. It replaced their IPA, which was a style that never worked for them in packaged form despite trying two versions over the years.

“The first iteration of the IPA was organic—it was probably a dumb beer style to produce organically,” Bonighton says. “You need lots of hops and not many people are growing organic hops. It was the wrong choice of beer.” 

After stopping production of that in 2010, they revisited the style in 2012, as a non-organic version with Australian hops. But they again found that packaging an IPA wasn’t working from both a freshness and business perspective, and halted production a second time in 2015.

“We find that we need to be more commando about IPA,” Bonighton explains. “Get ‘em in, make sure they are fresh, and move on to the next one. That’s going to be our approach to IPAs.”  

As Summer and Steam became their two biggest sellers, Bonighton says those were the two beers that caught the attention of Asahi. In 2012, Mountain Goat came to an agreement with the Japanese brewer to contract brew their packaged product at Asahi’s Melbourne-based brewery in the outer suburb of Laverton. 

“When Steam Ale became popular and we couldn’t brew it here, we began contracting at William Bull Brewery,” Bonighton says. “Asahi was after that.”

The decision to move to the larger Asahi plant gave them more flexibility, not to mention a greatly-increased capacity. Bonighton believes that agreement was a precursor for the eventual sale. 

“They knew exactly how the brand was growing and they could see the appeal of craft,” he says.

Asahi had dipped their toes into Australian craft beer already by that point. In 2013 they purchased Cricketers Arms. A contract-brewed Lager only available at a handful of Melbourne pubs, it was a brand that existed in a bit of a no-man’s land in the Melbourne beer landscape. Asahi bought it with the intention of marketing it as a craft brand.

At that time, Mountain Goat had just released Summer Ale, which the canning line at the Asahi facility had given them the ability to do. Summer Ale has since gone on to become an archetype for Australian canned beer. While Mountain Goat wasn’t the first Australian craft brewery to release cans, Goat’s bright-orange containers soon became one of the most recognizable beers in the land. 

The beer built for the Australian summer has since seen other major craft breweries in Australia follow suit. Nationally distributed brewers such as 4 Pines and Little Creatures have gone on to make canned beers in a similar vein, carrying the “summer” descriptor. Even Asahi’s Cricketers Arms have their own Scorcher Summer Ale, featuring a similar shade of orange to the Mountain Goat version.

One thing both co-founders shared was surprise at the public reaction to the sale. Bonighton says the impact to the brand was a major concern in the lead up. He expected their heartland of inner Melbourne to “abandon” them, and a slew of angry drinkers screaming bloody murder. That didn’t happen. He believes it was the hard work they’d done in the years previous that softened any shouts of “sellout” from customers.

“Perhaps it’s because we’d been in the game for 18 years and we weren’t in for a couple of years flipping a brewery,” he says. “I think that had a part in it.”

While the pair are less publicly visible than they were, they’re still just as present at the brewery. Bonighton says it was a conscious decision on his part to step back. He’s still involved with Australia’s Craft Beer Industry Association (CBIA), for example, but he’s no longer on the board and instead helps out behind the scenes. He also told me during our interview that it was a matter of time before the CBIA decide to place an ownership stipulation around membership, in line with the United States’ Brewer’s Association. Since our conversation in November, the CBIA has, indeed, announced they’re reforming membership. Mountain Goat will be excluded. 

Meanwhile, life goes on at their Richmond brewery. Their Christmas release, a strong Belgian Golden Ale, is being prepped for barrel aging during my visit. I watch brewers weigh hops for a “Rare Breed” small batch—a Blood Orange IPA. Thirty-liter homebrew fermenters are squirreled away with single keg experiments, destined for brewery taps.

“We have such little contact with head office,” Bonighton says. “They just let us run our race. I think the guys that are in the head office are bending over backwards to stay out of the place.”

So, after almost two decades, what’s different in Australia’s beer scene? Over the last couple years, the industry has rapidly grown. Where there was once only had Cam and Dave, there are now a seemingly endless line of breweries following in their footsteps. As a result, drinkers such as Mitcham, who still professes a love for the founders, aren’t drinking Goat beer anymore. He instead points to other breweries who have ex-Goat staff in brewing roles. Breweries big and small, such as Two Birds, Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Riverside Brewery, Fury and Sons, and Fixation. (Tom Delmont is now a managing partner at the latter.)

“Mountain Goat was a fertile nursery for creative beer talent,” Mitcham says. “But I can’t wear [Mountain Goat] t-shirts that say ‘Think Local, Drink Local’ and buy an international brand.

Delmont tells me a bottled Hightail he tried recently was everything he remembered it to be. And like Mitcham, he still has a lot of respect for the two guys who started the company.

“There are a lot of people that poo-pooed them selling the business after 18 years, but they don’t realize the hard slog they did years before even I came along,” he says. “It’s a bit rich to not recognize their important place. I had emails from brewers when I resigned saying, ‘Thanks for paving the way for us.’”

And what’s different for the guys that started it all? When asked, both founders say they share less concern about brewery finances and general day-to-day clutter. As a result, it’s their personal lives that have seen the biggest improvement. With two children each, they’re spending more time with their families. Bonighton mentions thoughts of further university study. For Hines, it’s simply about being able to breath—especially when with his kids. 

“I wasn’t present at all and I am now,” he says. “Which is a really nice thing.”
 

Words + Photos by
Luke Robertson