For many people the downturn in the mining boom in WA was a negative but Hamish Coates credits it for setting him on his current path and he has no regrets. With a major in geology and a minor in physics, Hamish describes himself as “basically unemployable” but he says it with a laugh. Unable to get a job related to his field after finishing university, he and his partner Mel Holland started a landscaping business in Perth. After a couple of years they moved back home to Busselton where Hamish started working at Margaret River’s Cheeky Monkey Brewery and whilst there, working alongside head brewer Ross Terlick for two years, the idea for a brewery was born.
Rocky Ridge Brewing is no ordinary brewery. They are growing their own barley and hops to use in their beer, the family’s dairy continues to operate on the farm and they’re pretty close to being ‘off the grid’.
The brewery is located on the family farm near Busselton and Hamish, a fifth generation farmer, says his great, great grandfather named the farm ‘rocky ridge’ after the “massive ridge of ironstone that runs through the center of our property” so naming the brewery turned out to be pretty straight forward.
“I wanted to use the farm and diversify in a number of ways,” Hamish says of his inspiration to build a brewery and also try to grow all the ingredients needed to make the beer as well, those ingredients being barley, hops and yeast.
“The land in the south west is so phenomenally productive that its always been my view that you can grow absolutely anything you want,” and it’s why Hamish started dabbling with growing hops whilst he was working at Cheeky Monkey Brewery.
“Barley grows really well but malting is another thing entirely,” Hamish says with a smile and a hint of sleep deprivation. “That’s a lot more technical than I think I ever gave maltsters credit for.”
“Learning about the science behind malting was a massive step for me.”
This years barley crop covered ten out of the farms 1000 acres which yielded 40 tonnes of barley and they’ll soon be expanding that to twenty acres and hope to double to yield. Expansion plans can almost be as big as they want given the farms size and that’s not including the additional thousand acres in a couple of blocks around the south west region.
Their barley is taken to Dumbleyung where Hamish’s friend Jamie Frost has a one tonne malting set up. Rocky Ridge have their own base malts plus Hamish says, a “different variety for each beer so that each beer has it’s own unique flavour profile.”
Their hop bines take up just over an acre and they’re aiming to triple that as soon as possible. From this years harvest they got 450 kilos of dry hop weight which Hamish describes as a “fair stash” but for them to grow as a brewery he says they will need to bring that number up significantly.
As a phrase, ‘hands on’ doesn’t seem to do justice to the hand maintenance of the hop farm which includes including harvesting the delicate hop cones. They’re hoping to partner with a couple of other hop farms in the region soon for a mechanical picker they can all share.
They are growing quite a few hop varieties and when Hamish lists them off it’s close to an automated response. There’s a couple of well known American varieties, Cascade and Chinook plus Goldings, Saaz, Hallertau, Hersbrucker, Perle, Styrian Goldings and Flinders. He is also keen to see if he can get some Centennial, another popular American variety, to add to the farm.
Cultivating their own yeast strain has proved to be the most challenging of beers four ingredients. Initial experiments at the University of Western Australia, where Hamish graduated, resulted in an excellent first generation but the second generation “failed miserably”. Whilst their own first generation yeast strains have been used in limited releases, commercial yeast strains are being used in their core range beers until they can get a strain that has a successful second generation. Eventually Hamish hopes to have a healthy yeast bank on site from which to pick and choose from.
“Four ingredients and each and every one of those four has an integral part in the end product”
Listening to Hamish talk about yeast, water, hops and malt, it’s clear the respect he has for each ingredient and every professional who works with them. The driving force behind Rocky Ridge Brewing is “Everything We Brew, We Grow” and whilst it is not currently 100% true it shouldn’t take away from its wonderfully ambitious goal that they’re working towards every day and how much of their own grown ingredients are currently in use. Whilst something like bean to bar chocolate making or the farm to plate food movement has a certain amount of understanding, this approach to brewing is largely unknown. In the US these types of breweries who grow their own ingredients are commonly called “farm breweries” or “farm to keg breweries” and in New York they have their own type of license. From the handful of articles I have read on the subject, the concept is still emerging in the United States and here in Australia it’s pretty rare. “The concept is hard to communicate,” Hamish acknowledges.
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“We have to be pretty careful about the beers we are brewing,” Hamish says. Growing their own ingredients provides Hamish with a unique challenge in selecting what beers to brew. For instance Hamish describes the Rocky Ridge IPA as a more traditional American west coast IPA style which relies on Cascade and Chinook hops, the two US varieties growing on the farm.
They haven’t brewed a traditional stout yet because they don’t have the appropriate malts. “Certainly with our malt profiles we’ve had to think outside the square cause we are not roasting any at the moment so we’re having to really work hard in the brewing process to get different flavours and different body profiles,” he explains.
“The challenge is good because it makes you think more and more about what goes into making good beer and how to get that desired end profile,” Hamish says.
I had assumed that given the scale of the project, getting Rocky Ridge off the ground would have been more difficult than opening a brewery already is but even Hamish admits, “it all happened a lot quicker than I’d anticipated.”
“So pretty much every brewery is going to hate me for saying this but it was actually really easy,” Hamish says somewhat quietly, referring to the council approval process. Rocky Ridge is not open to the public, a conscious decision by all involved due to the fact it is still a productive dairy farm so not particularly visitor friendly and so “everything fell into place because there’s no public access.”
It was roughly four months from concept to council approval and another 14 months between the laying of the slab to the release of their first beer.
“Hands on experience at Cheeky Monkey gave me a good grounding in beer, how to brew a good beer and then I decided to go and handicap myself and grow everything on site,” Hamish laughs.
Another challenge for Rocky Ridge is having a brewery the public cannot visit so having a satellite cellar door venue has always been part of the plan. Updates to the state’s liquor licensing allowed them to fast track their plans and they’re renovating the space as I write this with the aim to be operating before summer.
“It’s really difficult to create a brand identity without a home”
The satellite cellar door will provide their brand with a face and “create an intimate connection” between them and their drinkers. Their license allows them to do tastings on site and also sell packaged beers for takeaway consumption. Hamish is also keen to partner with local food trucks for the weekends. The cellar door will be located on Marine Terrace, just steps from Busselton town center.
Rocky Ridge have been releasing their beers in kegs only so far, a method Hamish describes as being “not a very profitable way to make beer.”
“The last four months having beers out, we’ve been really just making sure that quality control is in place, making sure that we are comfortable with the recipes and that we can supply all the ingredients for those recipes as well,” he says with particular emphasis on the supply aspect since they’re planning on releasing their beers in cans by September.
Another element of brewing Hamish speaks passionately about is building what he calls a “future proof brewery”. They are reusing all the waste from the dairy in the hop and barley fields and get their power from a solar battery bank.
“I don’t see a future in being connected to the electricity network because it’s all archaic”
Hamish feels strongly about being environmentally ethical, “if we don’t do it, who the f**k is going to?”
There are so many great stories in the Rocky Ridge Brewing journey so far and it’s still early days. Whether it’s how the brewery came about or what they are achieving so far in growing their ingredients or their commitment to operating an environmentally friendly brewery, chatting with Hamish is stupidly interesting for any booze nerd. Funnily enough though, of all these stories, the one that has resonated strongly from a marketing point of view centers around man’s best friend. Well, Hamish’s best friend – Ace, the border collie brewery dog.
“It’s really surprised me in what works well with marketing and what doesn’t,” Hamish says. “Ace sells beer well,” he laughs. When he posts a photo of Ace on social media it “goes nuts” which Hamish didn’t really expect when he named a beer after him – Ace Pale Ale and used an image of Ace for the beer’s logo. It’s not a case of ‘just a pretty face’ though, the beer is a great pale ale!
Keep an eye out for Rocky Ridge beers on tap at good independent beer loving places like Petition Beer Corner, Baby Mammoth, Dominion League and Dutch Trading Co to name a few; keep an eye out for cans in your favourite bottle shops in September and make sure to visit their satellite cellar door in Busselton this summer.