It was enthusiasm, a will to succeed and a love of beer that drove Irish expat Dave Henderson and his Australian partner and business partner Shiree Phillips into their highly successful gypsy brewing company, Hop & Clover Brewing Co.
The couple, while living in Darwin in 2014, first started Hop & Clover after learning their dog groomer was brewing his own beer. They also discovered the wet season in Darwin gave them plenty of time to experiment with their own home-made brews.
Shortly after, Henderson and Phillips moved to Bexley in Sydney and made the decision to commit to their newfound passion. Henderson took to Gumtree where he sourced all his equipment from an ex-brewery in Orange.
He told National Liquor News: “I had been home brewing and doing all grain brewing for quite a while and was just looking through Gumtree when I saw the brewery. It looked too good to be true so I left it for a week and when nothing happened I contacted the seller and he invited us up to Orange to have a look.”
“So off we went on our merry horse to Orange for a trip. Shiree thought it was just going to be a small home brew kit but it turned out to be one of the smallest commercial breweries you can buy, a 200 litre system.
“It had a kettle, fermenter, the pumps, the keg, the pipe work and all the fittings. We came back from Orange with it and all the gear, including a small shed. We looked at our backyard and realised we were going to need a bigger shed so back to Gumtree we went and sure enough, we found one in West Sydney. I literally stripped the shed down, took lots of photographs, brought it back to Bexley and set it up again.”
Henderson continued to experiment with flavours and accidentally created the perfect product to enter the market with. Hop & Clover’s first commercial brew, the Bitter Ale, caused a sell-out opening week during a local tap takeover in a Naremburn pub with its unique flavour combination.
“A gateway for us into the market was our first beer, it was in cans and it was called a Bitter Ale. It was a mistake. I was trying to scale up from 100 litres to 1200 litres, to produce higher quantities. So I was adding everything times 12 as you would imagine,” he said.
“But when it comes to the hops side of a pale ale it does need to expand, you need to multiply it by a few more at least. So when it first came out and we tried it, we said ‘that’s not what we were expecting, it’s quite bitter.’
“But the market is saturated with pale ales so the Bitter Ale gave us a gateway into the market. It was a point of difference that no one else had. And from there, it was something for people sitting on the fence between full strength and moving to drinking craft beer to enjoy. We created a really good introductory beer to the craft beer markets for consumers.”
Phillips said another one of the biggest reasons for Hop & Clover’s initial success was the local support Henderson had built through his Friday night networking and social visits to retailers.
“Davey has quite a few locals in the city, and they were really big supporters because he supported them for so long every Friday night,” she said with a laugh.
“He was able to get into a lot of pubs that he was drinking at and they were our first supporters. Our first bottle shop was Porter’s Liquor in Bexley and that was our local bottle shop too.”
Henderson added: “We’ve got good retention throughout New South Wales, mostly Sydney. We’re as far as Shellharbour, Kiama, Mollymook, we’re in Canberra and we’re now as far up as Palm Beach and the central coast so we’re definitely spreading our wings.”
These days Hop & Clover is based in Mudgee and Henderson said its his committed connection to community, both from his heritage in Ireland and here in Australia, that helps the brewery continue succeed in this new location.
“One of the reasons why we are brewers is it still gives me a bit of a connection to home. It allows me to keep connected to Ireland culture and recipes, and also showcase it here in Mudgee. We want to grow into the community here.”
Henderson, an engineer by trade, balances work at the brewery with his work for the Australian Navy as a contractor and an army reservist. One of the keys to the success of Hop & Clover’s move to rural Australia, is his willingness to remain connected to his loyal metropolitan customers.
“I turn up to Sydney bottle shops every week or two and pop my head in to say hello, I’m not even trying to sell them anything. I’m just chatting about what beer is doing, checking in on them and then obviously trying to get some product moving as well. I think it’s important to have an individual touch. Don’t just think you can show up once and it will all work out. I always follow up and build a strong relationship with the customer,” Henderson said.
“When I was working on the Naval base in Sydney I was popping my head into Potts Point Liquor & Deli bottle shop each morning on my way to the naval base. Over years and years I was telling them ‘I’ll be having beers ready for your shelves soon’ and all of a sudden I had beer and let them know and the next day they were buying it off me and putting it on the shelves. So I was telling everyone on the base they can go there and buy it after work and support them.
“It’s about setting up those types of connections. He texts me often asking for ‘four more cases please’ and then he gets them the next day delivered by me, normally in the evening.”
Advice for retailers and small breweries
Phillips hopes the success independent retailers have had by supporting Hop & Clover will help others step up and take a chance on the multitude of small Australian breweries out there.
She said: “Just keep at it, just keep going and support smaller businesses. In Australia, we’re all very up for ‘let’s support Australian made’ and ‘support the small guys’ but the actual doing of it is completely different.
“Sometimes you just have to stick your neck out and give small brewers a go. It’s really hard to get out of your comfort zone because it’s so easy to get into a rut of just ordering the same stuff all the time.
“The retailers that have supported us are seeing really great returns, and I think they’ll find that the smaller players in the industry work a lot harder to get their products sold compared to the big boys. At the end of the day you’re supporting someone who’s got children and families and they’re just trying to pay their mortgage and bills and that’s really important too.”
Henderson added advice for small start-up brewers: “There’s a lot of white noise in the industry, with all sorts of people wanting to promote their brand. I think the best advice is to just keep your head down and focus on what your model and your concept is of your business, stick to your story and stick to your rits.”
A community focus from a family first brewery
Having grown up in Mudgee, NSW, Phillips always had a passion for the central west region and hoped to live there once again with her family. About a year ago she got her wish, with Henderson and their children moving to rural NSW.
“After our first daughter was born we decided that we were going to move up to Mudgee eventually. So we moved up here last year when our first daughter was starting school and moved the brewery up here as well. We’re still gypsy brewers but we’re based here in Mudgee now,” she explained.
The move to a regional town didn’t deter Hop & Clover from expanding however, selling to more than 100 venues and on the cusp of opening their own venue. Phillips said the early success and support in Sydney, made it possible for them to focus on local markets now.
“We’ve got a venue that we’re going to set up at the end of the year. It’s in a winery which is very exciting. We also participate in the Mudgee brewery school, so Dave teaches people how to make beer.
“We’re just pottering about in the community, doing little bits here and there. We’re in all the pubs in Mudgee now and in about 100 venues up and down the NSW coast and in Canberra.”
The Irish/Australian brewery is as family orientated as it gets, with Phillips’ father Gundy not only acting brand ambassador in Mudgee, but also featuring in the product range with his very own beer named ‘The Wee One Gundy’s Mid Strength Beer.’
“We made a beer for him because he doesn’t drink full-strength anymore and he drinks a mid. If I have a brewery I have to make a beer for my dad,” Phillips explained.
“He was a taste tester; it took us a year for us to get it to what he wanted. If he was going to put his name on it, he wanted it perfect. It’s called the The Wee One which in Ireland is what you call your child and it’s also a ‘wee one’ because it’s light on alcohol. It’s Gundy’s beer so he can go down to his local pub and order his own beers.”
It is the persistence and presence with their stakeholders that has allowed Hop & Clover to grow in the eyes of the independent retailer. Phillips and Henderson hope their success with independent retailers can translate to more confidence in the gypsie brewing market.