A penchant for the wild
Monday 28 December 2020
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Founded in 2009 by Matt & Andrea Houghton, Boatrocker has certainly come a long way from selling its first beers from the back of their car. Even so, Matt’s fascination with beer goes back even further, to staying with his older brother at 16 and watching the legendary show Beer Hunter on public TV, presented by Michael Jackson.
“I was watching this man travelling the world tasting different beers, talking about Belgian ales, drinking beer out of the champagne flute… it sort of blew my mind, and remember thinking it seemed like the best adventure a person could take,” says Matt. My dad’s from England originally, so I really got fascinated by that beer culture, which gradually expanded into looking to travel around Europe.
“When I finally saved up enough money, in 1998, my first guidebook for Europe was the Pocket Guide to beer, which just led me to some amazing experiences and bars and breweries. My first stop when I landed with Cantillon. Back then you could do your own tour, and at the end a little old lady would shuffle in to serve this little glass of beer completely flat. I’d never smelled anything like it before; this still, sour beer completely changed how I thought about brewing.”
Returning home, Matt enrolled in a photography degree course, but remained an avid home brewer. During his studies, the realisation gradually dawned that, amid a growing interest in craft beer in Australia, his pipe dream of owning his own brewery might not be so far fetched after all. So Matt went back to uni to study brewing, where he also discovered his other passion; his wife Andrea.
Together they then set about planning a brewery, initially gypsy brewing a pale and pilsner, to the acclaim of not just friends and family, but also judges at international beer awards. But after a few years, Matt and Andrea were in a position to build a brewery of their own, and late in 2012 did just that. The first items Matt purchased were 60 used wine barrels, starting the wheels turning on what would later be Australia’s first barrel room and cellar door. The first beer: a turbid mashed lambic style beer.
“There weren’t many people playing around with barrels in Australia in 2012, and it was very hard to get allocations of Belgian beers that had been long-term aged in wood, so I thought let’s give it a crack. And then we started playing around and putting lots of different beers on wood; we also had the luxury of a nearby distillery – Starward – who liked our beers, so we’d borrow their barrels.”
Boatrocker’s use of wood has only got more ambitious over time, and the brewery now has around 300 barrels with a multitude of crazy experiments on the go. One that caught our eye was its use of a solera system to preserve and develop cultures for wild fermentation.
“Yeah, we felt like, a lot of the time with the barrels, we’d start out with this beautiful culture inside, and then you rinse it out and clean it for the next use, and you never see that culture again,” explains Matt. For us, we feel we feel we get a lot more depth of flavour and and complexity with taking out two-thirds and then re-topping it up with fresh wort. We just add a little bit of saccharomyces to help bret along a little bit, or it gets a bit too much phenolic character, but then we’ll get some really fascinating flavour profiles that way.”
Having clearly taken so much of their inspiration from Belgium, Matt and Andrea are very happy to see a more serious appreciation of beer taking hold in Australia, and in particular the gastronomic hotspot of Melbourne.
Matt says: “We’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of work with a gentleman name Rob Kabboord, who was previously the chef de cuisine at Quay, one of Sydney’s most highly-rated restaurants. He’s originally Dutch and he really understands beer as well as food, and how the two can work together. That’s an idea that’s slowly gaining a foothold here, and when it does I think it could lead to the most amazing culture.”
As well as having one of the largest barrel ageing facilities in Australia, in late 2017, Boatrocker became Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers, after it merged with the distillery Hippocampus.
“We’ve got so much we want to do, so many more beers we want to make,” says Matt. “But on the spirit side of things we’re also pushing a lot of boundaries, living up to the boatrocker name! We made a whisky wash a number of years ago, which was actually a beer that was distilled; our very first pale ale. And that was put into a bourbon barrel for five years and became a whiskey. The whisky purists didn’t like that, because it’s not a whisky wash, even though it’s a barley malt base, there’s no hops added post. And it tastes incredible. We’ve got similar ones reaching maturity now, imperial stouts distilled and aged in barrels as well. They’re really quite unique, but delicious as well, with all the complexity that you’d expect from a long term aged whisky.”
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