First brew at new Mountain Culture site

After more than 10 months in development, Mountain Culture Beer Co. has brewed its first pilot batch at its major new production facility in Emu Plains.

Brewer and co-founder DJ McCready, who opened Mountain Culture in Katoomba in 2019 with partner Harriet, has started to brew the first beers at the brewery this week, although the opening of its taproom venue will be delayed due to ongoing lockdowns in NSW.

“Knock on wood, I’ll be brewing the first batch tomorrow,” McCready said earlier this week.

“It’s been a really big push in the last two weeks, we had a construction shutdown in NSW which threw a spanner in the works, and a lockdown as well.

“We were so close to having it completed right as everything went into lockdown, it really made us do some quick thinking, but luckily, I’m the guy that did all the install and commissioning for these systems in Australia, so I’m the master of my own destiny on that front.”

This is certainly not McCready’s first rodeo, having worked for Premier Stainless Steel previously, but marks a huge milestone for Mountain Culture.

“I’ve opened so many breweries, this is the second one of my own. Before I did Mountain Culture I was installing and commissioning for Premier, so I was part of a lot of other Australian and New Zealand breweries in their opening phase.”

But it was a sense of mixed emotions as the long-awaited day approached.

“People are always asking me, ‘Are you excited? Are you relieved?’ It’s really just changing what the daily workload looks like. Over the last six months, I really felt like a tradie and production manager so now I’ll shift gears into being a head brewer in a new factory which has its own fun kinks to work out.

“I don’t know whether I’m relieved or in mourning!”

Of course with the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, setting up a whole new brewery and everything it entails in the midst of snap lockdowns was never going to be easy, even for veterans of difficult trading circumstances.

“[With COVID], having that constant ‘what’s going to go down? What is lockdown going to look like today? Will I have people turning up?’ Just the endless, what is going to happen? I would love to know what it’s like operating a business in normal times,” said McCready.

“We had about four normal weeks of operating Mountain Culture before we had massive bushfires that lasted for months, and then we kinda recovered from that and COVID happened.

“Whatever the joys of running a small business are, this just added more complexity to it.”

The Emu Plains brewery

Mountain Culture had already expanded its original Katoomba brewpub after demand surged during COVID-19, but McCready explained this extra capacity was maxed out by Christmas 2020.

“We couldn’t fit another piece of equipment in that building, I stacked containers everywhere to utilise every square metre, and we have this massive waiting list from accounts and if people want to drink our beer I want to get it in their hand.

“We had a few accounts from the beginning who we want to keep supporting the more popular we become, but we have so many accounts that have been waiting up in Brisbane and down in Melbourne, all over the country really, so we’re stoked to be able to finally get them some beer.”

Mountain Culture announced in January this year that the new facility would help keep up with this demand, and it includes some additions to its 25hL Premier Stainless Steel kit.

“We invested in a really high tech super energy efficient chilling system for our fermentation side of the brewery. There really aren’t many folks qualified to install it, but we engaged a company from Brisbane and the week they were coming down is the week we went into lockdown, so that presented a challenge!

“We had a few savvy plumbers that took it on themselves to spend time learning from the manufacturer’s system, and the company that installed the chilling system, really made that happen for us. It was an awesome thing to see these local guys that have taken it on themselves and were invested enough in the brewery to make it happen.”

The Emu Plains site also has extra room to manoeuvre for any future expansion.

“We’ve got a lot of room to grow if we so choose to, and it won’t be a limiting factor as far as the building goes, we can put in more tanks and toys to make the beer better and give it a longer shelf life, give cleaner ferments, we have heaps of room for a lab.”

But whether the McCready’s have an optimal size in mind for the brewery is another thing.

“I don’t have a cap on the size Mountain Culture could grow to, I want to keep torturing myself!

“I was lucky enough to meet Ken Grossman [founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company] in the US. He ended up building the second brewery next to my hometown in North Carolina, and seeing that guy, he’s been in it for 40 years and he’s so stoked to figure out how to keep making Sierra Nevada better and that really stuck with me. And if I stop doing this, what the hell am I going to do all the time? I’d be bored with going fishing. I like getting my hands dirty in machinery and how it works.”

Getting the right people in

With any expansion, as growing brewers like Brick Lane know, comes extra pressures on staffing. But Mountain Culture has been relatively lucky in its new site, explained McCready.

“We have folks that we’ve been working with in Katoomba for a while now, some of which had experience before joining Mountain Culture and some of whom were really primed for the brewing industry so we took them on, so we’ve got a solid team moving down to Emu Plains.

“This was with the intention of bringing the culture of what we’re doing in Katoomba down to Emu Plains, so we’re not having a completely new set of staff. But we have hired a fair few folks to help us with the new expanded brewery that have a lot of experience.

“We have one person in particular trying to bring in from the US which is a bit tricky in the current circumstances, that’s an ongoing saga.”

Mountain Culture is also bringing in new processes to Emu Plains, which is under an hour’s commute from both Sydney CBD and the original site in Katoomba.

“We have a lot of staff who moved to the Blue Mountains to be part of the pub and have fallen in love with the area.

“It is a bit of a commute but we’re trying to do some stuff to make way better beer than in Katoomba, and to give the brewers a bit more breathing room, so they’re not focusing on labour intensive tasks that don’t equal good beer, stuff that doesn’t matter.

“We were trying to do production out of a brewpub, but things will be more streamlined now.”

Work life balance has been a key consideration for Mountain Culture, as it was when Harriet and DJ moved to the Blue Mountains, and while it might not be quite a reality for them just yet, McCready is keen to give staff the option.

“I want to bring in four-day week jobs, so a bit longer hours, and things done efficiently, but so people aren’t having to commute as often.

“I worked four-day shifts at Oskar Blues and it was a really good work life balance – you get to recharge your batteries, and that’s what we’re shooting for.

“We have a really good team, we want to keep them happy and engaged in brewing and not burn them out on mundane tasks.”

The beers

The key to Mountain Culture’s success has been investing time and effort in its beers, and last week the NSW brewery made the top five globally on Untappd’s best Hazy/NEIPA’s list for its Be Kind Rewind IPA.

“It was great to see that come out, being in the thick of opening up this place, it’s stressful and overwhelming. You start second guessing yourself in some ways and what’s happening with the brewery, my head has been down and focusing on production and putting in a quality factory.

“So it was awesome to look up and see that, where we were on the same list as Monkish and Tree House.”

The first brew going into the system this week is its New England pale ale Status Quo, said McCready.

“It’s gone crazy for us, it’s still the beer we’re all going to back to and drinking at the brewery – you can tell we’re onto something when you see the brewers pour it on a Friday afternoon and take cases home.

“It’s gone nuts for us as a beer that’s a good representation of what we’re doing at Mountain Culture, we will definitely start with that one and get a few batches going, and get our yeast culture built up down there to do some bigger IPAs. After getting on top five on the list, Be Kind Rewind might be pretty popular too so we’ll do a few batches of that.”

Packaged will still be a major focus for mountain Culture when venues start to open back up, as will its Emu Plains taproom, which will open when restrictions are eased.

“We’re very focused on packaged product and a big part of what we’re investing in at Emu Plains is more package stability,” explained McCready.

“Lowering our DO to keep our really hoppy beers super fresh as long as possible, so people are cracking them open in WA and Tasmania and they’re tasting just as fresh as in the Blue Mountains.

“The bigger I get the better I want the beer to taste. If I start making decisions to see our beer last forever and do things like pasteurising, that’s when I would stop.

“What’s the maximum amount we could sustainably produce beer that still is top quality? That would be it, that’s my cap for Mountain Culture. If I’m not proud to drink the beer we make then what’s the point?”

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