Motive Beer Co
Meet Simon O’Keefe, the founder of this freshly launched brewery
Saturday 03 July 2021
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Launched one year ago in the gloomiest depths of lockdown, Motive came out swinging with a line-up of truly excellent US-style hazy IPAs. These beers are everything that European takes on the style often miss – they’re floral, smooth rather than cloying, with shimmering, fresh hop character that you’re compelled to keep coming back to. We went in search of the man behind this surprise hit of the Croatian summer.
Founder Simon O’Keefe, who has been brewing professionally for a decade, started his career in Ireland, working for a first-wave craft brewer that was bought out early by one of the big guys. While brewing the same red ale, pale ale and stout every shift doesn’t sound like the craft beer dream (and Simon confirms it certainly wasn’t) he maintains it was excellent training in disciplined, technical brewing, and that he picked up a rigorous approach that some other breweries lack.
From there, he moved to the US, working first at a brewery in California for a couple of years, then to Indiana, where he ran a large brewpub just down the road from 3 Floyds and 450 North (which was at the time just starting to experiment with small batches of its notorious ‘slushie’ beers).
“The brewpub was quite large, so in effect was also a production brewery,” says Simon. “We were brewing more conventional styles, so IPAs and sours, fruited beers. But we also had some imperial stouts, with barrel ageing and some more interesting stuff. We had a distribution all over the states and down in Tennessee, and then slowly moved into Michigan was well. So that was a pretty intense period of craft beer in the States, so three years there gave me a good grounding in the commercial side of craft too.”
At the end of that time though, Simon was finding the American attitude to work/life balance “a little full-on” so seized the offer of a job as head brewer of a new outfit in Croatia.
“It was a complete disaster,” he recalls with a grimace. “The guy who set it up just didn’t really know what he was doing, so for example we had a brand new brew house, but he’d run out of money to connect up the steam and water, so it just sat there in the corner. Eventually he handed over control to myself and a couple of the more responsible people involved, and we started kind of chipping away at things, but it was all too late. So that place was pretty much closed down about a year and a half ago now.”
Having experienced several very different kinds of brewery over the course of his career, a couple of Simon’s friends convinced him that it was time to put that knowledge to use on a venture of his own. After a lot of work devising a business plan and bringing investors on board, it was finally time to take the leap and break ground on a brand new brewery, all of his own. Then the Covid lockdown hit.
“In more Western European countries, the investors saw that it was only a matter of time before everything was going to shut down in Croatia, so they backed out. At first, this felt like game over, but then we realised it would be the ideal time to start as a contract brewer; it would give us flexibility, and a lot of the established breweries would have spare capacity available at a good price. So that’s what we did,” Simon says.
Motive’s first beer went into the tanks around May 2020, and it’s put out seven or eight more since then. The first batch, a tentative 1000 litres of hazy IPA, flew off the shelves, so Simon and the team had to radically scale up their ambitions.
“Probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced is knowing how much to put in kegs and how much in cans. It’s felt like the timings of the various lockdowns have all gone against us, because every time we can people are back in the pubs, and every time we keg they’ve been stuck at home again for three months. Even so, it’s selling really well so we’ve got a great foundation to build on.”
Style-wise, Simon’s time in the US shines through pretty brightly – the two Motive beers in this month’s Beer52 box are a showcase of the fresh and zingy, hop-forward, hazy styles which have gone down so well among Croatian drinkers.
“And I mean, overall, I love hoppy beers,” says Simon. “That’s what first attracted me to craft beer, and the fact that you couldn’t really get any good ones in Ireland was what made me want to start learning how to brew my own. So our main focus definitely is to shine a light on hoppy beers, and how I believe they should be made.
“Too often brewers just pour hops into the fermenter, without actually working backwards from what they want the end character to be. I think it’s gotten back to a point where it was like 10 years ago, with everyone competing over IBUs [bitterness]. Now it’s just folk dumping popular dry hops in, which just results in unfinished beers, hop burn, rough around the edges. I think, learning to professionally brew in a brewery that was so focused on really drinkable, sessionable beers, I’ve retained that mentality. I don’t think beer should be challenging.”
These “delicate” hoppy beers – delicate in the interplay of flavour, aroma and mouthfeel, rather than in the individual elements themselves – have given Motive a great introduction to the market, but the plan is to broaden out into other styles as lockdown eases and things can get properly off the ground.
“The focus is on hoppy beers, because with limited production capacity, we want to make what we know is going to sell,” says Simon. “But we’ve just started the funding process for a brewery of our own again, and I feel like now we’re coming at it from a pretty strong position. Once that’s in place, I really want to see a development in the styles we’re putting out in the next 12 months. Obviously, I want more stouts, more sours, but I’m also not going to shy away from witbiers, saisons; people think good craft beer has to be hoppy, or have some exotic ingredient thrown in, but there's so much you can do with the constituent flavours of these traditional beer styles, and I’d much rather we were known for that.
“I’m not saying we’re doing anything unique here. We’re not the first brewery in Croatia to do good hazy beers, obviously. But where I think we are different is that we’re doing these things right out the gate, right from day one. When a brewery has been around for five years, they have their fans and I think people expect them to brew in a certain way. We’re setting out our brand in a certain way, saying we’re a brewery that’s not afraid to do things like this, and drinkers seem to be reacting well to it, so I’m very excited.”
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