The foodie industry on the Sunshine Coast is booming, and fostering that growth is GrowCoastal, the region’s first food accelerator supporting the most innovative food and beverage operators on the Coast. Ahead of the launch of this year’s program in April, we catch up with GrowCoastal alumni Matt Hepburn and Christen McGarry of Your Mates Brewing Co.
It’s a stinking hot day here on the Sunshine Coast, and Matt Hepburn and Christen McGarry are cooling down the best way they know how – with a crisp, cold beer.
They’re unabashedly living every man’s dream, brewing and selling their own craft beer, a business idea the roommates conjured up while knocking back a few one afternoon.
“I was a project manager in construction and my brother had just bought a bar in Caloundra. I was planning on going back overseas and wanted to learn how to pour beer and shake cocktails, so I quit my job and started working there. At the same time, Christen was a school teacher and he saw I was having these fun times and chilled lifestyle, so he quit his job and we were bar managers,” says Matt.
It was 2014, a time when there wasn’t a lot of craft beer on offer here on the Coast, prompting Matt and Christen to introduce craft beer on tap and start a beer club, where local and interstate brewers would come and talk about their beers.
“There were no new-age breweries on the Coast, so we started a bar in the garage, like everyone does,” says Matt.
“We started renting this shed at Moffat Beach and invested all of our money, which wasn’t a lot, into the 50L pilot batch system. McGarry is the brewer and he would test beers, test recipes. We didn’t know how to brew properly, we were just winging it and it was his job to learn the back end and my job was the legalities.”
In mid-2015, they launched Your Mates Brewing Co.
“When we started we were pretty naive, ‘How hard would it be to start a brewery?’ But there was a definite moment we said, ‘If we're going to do this, let's do it properly and as well as we can’. It’s an opportunity to make beer and sell beer for a living. It’s every man’s dream,” says Christen, taking a sip of pale ale.
Matt says once they were confident with their first beer, they ran it through the bar, unlabelled, to test the market. Now needing a much larger quantity, they contract brewed out of sites at Baffle
Creek, Ipswich and Brisbane, which had the capacity to brew 3000L in the same time their pilot system could brew 50L.
By that stage, Matt and Christen were selling just enough beer to cover the cost of its production, without being able to pay themselves. They needed another source of income and opened The
Basement bar in Nambour in October, 2016. Then at the beginning of 2017, they started brewing in Maleny and Your Mates became the first new-age brewery on the Coast.
“Rather than us paying a premium price to have someone else do all the brewing and take all the risk on, we started to do what’s called gypsy brewing – paying a hire fee to the brewery, but I’m the brewer – we do all the work for it,” says Christen.
“All the risk is back on us, if we mess up, we pour beer down the drain and that happened in the first six months. But we’d rather pour beer down the drain than sell beer that we didn’t think was up to standard, because that is what craft beer is about – using premium ingredients and creating a product that tastes delicious.
“It was quite daunting to have the reins, we’d be brewing 3000L in a day, which would equate to $10,000 of beer.”
Last year, Your Mates was selected to be part of the first GrowCoastal program, a 12-week intensive program providing 12 Sunshine Coast food and beverage innovators with the opportunity to accelerate their business growth, engage with industry leaders, secure new customers and build a network of helpful connections.
“I went in there really knowing our business and we still live together so we talk about our business every day, we drink our beers every day – I went into GrowCoastal thinking, ‘What are these guys going to be able to teach me?’ But the most valuable thing was realising you don’t know everything about your business and taking that constructive criticism on,” says Matt. “If I did that program when we started it would have made our lives so much easier.”
This year, GrowCoastal has partnered with the Food Agribusiness Network to manage the program, which launches in April, and will see a new wave of local innovators benefit from the mentorship of food and beverage marketing specialist Jacqui Price, Innovation Centre CEO Mark Paddenburg, and other local experts.
The participants will benefit from accelerated learning and exposure in areas including lean startup, target market identification, business planning, financial management, PR and marketing, legal and intellectual property, distribution and fulfilment, market research, exporting, pitching and securing early stage capital.
The Sunshine Coast has a strong reputation for quality food innovation and the GrowCoastal program is designed to be a catalyst for the next generation of successful food and beverage companies,” says Mark.
Throughout the program, Matt and Christen launched a crowdfunding campaign to get their pale ale, Larry, in a can. They raised $32,000 in pledges, exceeding their $30,000 goal, which Matt says is more than any other brewery in Australia has raised through a crowdfunding campaign.
In July, they canned their first beer, in December canned their dark ale, Donnie and in January, they introduced their ned ale on tap.
“The beers in cans sell themselves, we can’t keep up, we have an empty cold room,” says Christen.“It’s been two-and-a-half years and we’re only now testing the waters of our third beer. Most breweries smash out 12 to 20 beers in that time, but we want to make sure we do things right and do things well.”
In recognition of their success last year, Matt was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2017 Sunshine Coast Business Awards, a title which has only given the boys more motivation.
“We don’t have the capacity to get into Brissy yet and that’s the biggest craft beer market in Queensland, we’re just on the Sunny Coast. We need to take the next step, but it’s a million dollar investment,” says Matt.
“There are breweries opening daily with no product, no market, no presence and we have all of those things, we have a demand we can’t keep up with, so we’re in a really good position. It’s a really exciting time,” Christen adds.
Cheers to that.