Kings of the mountain

Cam Hines, left and Dave Bonighton from the Mountain Goat Brewery in Richmond, Melbourne.
Cam Hines, left and Dave Bonighton from the Mountain Goat Brewery in Richmond, Melbourne. Photo: Thom Rigney

This month, Melbourne's Mountain Goat brewery celebrates its 15th birthday with a journey that mirrors the maturing of the local craft beer scene. The story began in 1997, when the operation produced 6000 litres in its first year at its original Richmond base.

''We really didn't think that far ahead,'' says Cam Hines, who founded Mountain Goat with co-owner Dave Bonighton.

''We just had the dream and the grand plan to open our own brewery.

Extreme beer ... Mountain Goat Hightail Ale has gone from exotic to mainstream.
Extreme beer ... Mountain Goat Hightail Ale has gone from exotic to mainstream. 

''In the beginning it was like trying to push a cement truck which just isn't moving - now it's like we're in the truck and driving it.

''It's got momentum.''

The brewery's two staple beers are the amber, English-inspired Hightail Ale and the lighter, easy-drinking Steam Ale. Rare Breed beers, which change with the season, also appear from time to time. In the early days, many publicans told Hines and Bonighton their beers were too flavoursome.

''Back then, Hightail was probably quite an extreme beer for people at the time - now it's verging on an entry-level craft beer and we've moved on to make more exotic beers, like our Rare Breed releases,'' Hines says.

''Hightail is the beer which old-school craft beer drinkers know us by but Steam Ale is far and away our biggest seller.''

During the early years, monthly open brewery nights provided valuable cash flow to keep the business running.

''Without the retail component - our monthly open nights - we would have been out the back door before we started,'' Hines says. Mountain Goat's output continued to grow with craft beer's increased popularity. In 1999, it moved to much larger premises, just around the corner from the original site. By 2007, production was up to 400,000 litres annually. This year it has exceeded 1 million litres.

''There's no doubt, in the last couple of years the craft beer movement has really taken off here,'' Hines says.

''When we started, most pubs' beer taps were contracted to one of the big breweries and there might be one free tap which we were fighting for - usually with Coopers. Now you find pubs with six or eight free taps pouring local craft beer. That's what I saw in North America [in the mid-'90s], which inspired us to start Mountain Goat - it just took about 12 years to happen here.''

Hines says there are no short cuts to success in craft beer.

''You've got to be doing it for the right reasons - not for the money. It's about being patient and tenacious and doing things slowly. Opening our brewery [two nights a week] has been a great marketing tool.''

To celebrate the brewery's milestone, Hines and Bonighton have embarked on an eight-venue tour across six states and one territory.

Their mission is to take Mountain Goat's beer to the people - in this case a keg of their special Triple Hightail to each stop - to reward loyal drinkers.

''For our 10th birthday, we brewed a Double Hightail - a stronger, bolder version of Hightail,'' says Bonighton, who is also head brewer.

''For our 15th birthday, we're upping the ante again with Triple Hightail - more hops, more malt, more Hightail.''

Most of the birthday bashes have been at specialty beer bars in capital cities but the Goat tour has also gone off-road, with an event at the Goat Island Lodge, near Darwin.

''It's a bit of an unknown,'' Hines says. ''We decided to go to some place which was untouched by craft beer.'' Fifteen years on, Hines and Bonighton are still Mountain Goat's major shareholders, along with many friends and family who are ''extremely patient'' minor shareholders.

''They came on board in '99 when we expanded and moved around the corner and, so far, none have asked to leave,'' Hines says.

Tasting notes

Mountain Goat Hightail Ale (4.5 per cent)

Hazy copper-amber. Aroma: caramel, stone fruit and spice. Palate: dense malt up front, with a spicy bitterness interwoven with peach-nectarine notes. Overall: an unpretentious, flavoursome ale.

Mountain Goat India Pale Ale (6.2 per cent)

Copper-amber. Aroma: toffee, allspice, grapefruit zest, honeycomb. Palate: rich, toffee-edged malt notes give way to a dense, resinous hop bitterness that carries through the finish, with citrus-tinged hop flavours. Overall: punchy US hops win the day.

Mountain Goat Triple Hightail (8.3 per cent)

Hazy, amber. Aroma: rich toffee, dark plum and spice box. Palate: chewy, caramel notes initially, earthy hop bitterness emerges, along with dark fruit-candy hints and sweet syrupy notes; a warming finish. Overall: a new breed - it defies stylistic definition.