Explore and Create Stories #10: Duncan Gibson and Sam Hambour

A core part of living a life where you are always exploring and creating is being open to new opportunities. This is where Duncan Gibson and Sam Hambour of Hop Nation Brewing Co. are a glowing example of how their love and passion for beer, and great tasting beer with hop forward flavours (that’s one of the ingredients that imparts bitter, zesty or citric flavours…and smells devine) shines. I’ve been chatting (and watching with a smile) these guys who burst into public eyes in 2016 with one cool, trendy and vision packed brewery and tasting house in the inner West suburb of Footscray in Melbourne, Australia. What I love is their genuine passion and desire to continually create new recipes that are not only bursting with flavour but are original and punchy as a whole package (you just have to check out their names and art work that go with each beer, way cool). They are passionate about sustainability that comes with small batch brewing, and produce beer made using quality, natural ingredients, with no fining or pasteurization and minimal filtration.

Dunc and Sam take pride in contributing to a new area where community and very happy “locals” can continually enjoy. I’m so excited that they are the next feature in the #exploreandcreatestories interview series. We have two young men one growing up in NZ and one in Adelaide. Their passion for exciting our taste buds with delicious beverages has been running through their veins for a long time. Coming from a wine background while also being home brewers (or backyards brewers as they fondly share) in their spare time, Dunc and Sam have now landed in Footscray with all their creative juices and energy flowing to delight us with the aroma of hop forward beers. Hop Nation Brewing Co. started in 2014 and opened its doors to the public in mid 2016. You’ll find them down an industrial alleyway and within the walls of a most beautiful warehouse with history dating back to whale candle and soap making. Each beer is carefully crafted to produce a specific style of beer. The name, the art work, and the brand are also carefully considered, illuminating the art of beer making and how it is now appreciated for being a creative process. 

I sat down with Dunc and Sam on a Saturday afternoon at their bar. We chatted about their past, future visions, the creative process, and how they work as a collaboration. I also gained some insights into how they show some self care for themselves as they develop their business, join the Footscray (and I like to think Seddon) community, and become a standard product on the beverage list for our barbecues, parties, and casual Sunday afternoon drinks. 

Narelle: Hop Nation is your big project. I've been hanging out here since you've opened but I know there's a whole back history. Tell me about Hop Nation?

Sam: I guess initially we kind of met over in New Zealand when we were making wine and working for wineries over there. We were brewing kind of on the side in the back of the winery, in the sheds and having a bit of a home brew culture. Slowly we developed some recipes.

Dunc: We entered a few home brew competitions and I bet Sam in it (laughing with a big smile).

Narelle: …up against each other?

Sam: He took the samples in and put me in the wrong category.

Dunc: That's what he says anyway.

Sam: Yeah (big smile). So he lived in the town next door. So it was always a bit of a rivalry with my brewing to friends and then his brewing setup. Yeah, his inferior beer would be at Arrowtown and we're in Cromwell. So that was kind of where the brewing started (laughing with each other). It never was commercial over in New Zealand but I moved over to Mornington (Victoria, Australia) and Duncan went to Canada. Then one day we just started talking about maybe turning a couple of the recipes commercial and maybe starting a brand.

Over a few months a lot of ideas came forth. We wondered 'What should we focus on?' We both really enjoyed hop forward beers. So we wanted to look at the origins of where the hops were coming from and then the name started to develop and the recipes kind of followed. We explored with these ideas and we started tweaking them and brewing them on a small scale… on our pilot kits. Then we kind of both settled in Melbourne and then developed the brand, registered it, and got the recipes we wanted to release.

Dunc: We started contract brewing after that. So we brewed first out of Hawkers and then out of Cavalier for a bit as well. So we probably brewed for about a year, I'd say, roughly a year, just contract brewing. Then one of my good friends in New Zealand, he still is the brewer at Silversmith Brewing Co., which is just north of Auckland, were upgrading their whole brew house. So he offered us a deal to buy it.

So we bought all the equipment there but part of the deal was that we had to go over there and pack it into containers and then take it over here. So we had to do all the deconstruction. So I went over with my dad and we packed it all down into containers. It took us about two weeks. So we had to decommission the whole brewery, label every pipe, every screw, everything… including the cool room as well. We pulled it all to pieces, packed it into containers and then shipped it over. It arrived in Melbourne in March this year. So when it all arrived then we started working on this building and it took us March, April and we opened May/June.

Sam: So we signed for this place (warehouse in Footscray) at the end of 2015 just before Christmas, and then got the lease took it over in February 2016.

Dunc: So then we started our council application in November 2015, still doing the background business elements, brewing off site, and while setting up the brewery. Then the goal was to get this like front of house open as fast as we could because it's good cash flow. So, we just like worked really, really hard, 24 hours a day basically until it was open. Then pretty much as we started brewing we had this side of it open (pubic tasting room) as well. Then we were using contract beers at this stage. Then as we started setting equipment up, our beers that we brewed here came online. All the beers that we taste here now (November 2016) have been brewed here on site.

Narelle: The multi layers of setting this place up while also exploring the creation of new beers is complex, not many people would acknowledge that?

Sam: That took us like so long. It was unbelievable because we started that in November last year. So we only got the Council tick on the Thursday before we opened on the Friday.

Dunc: We were like 'We're going to open this weekend. You guys have to come and like do the inspection now.'

Sam: The council had already shared it on their social media, that we were opening…so it was like 'Come on guys. Let's get this happening.'

Dunc: We made the party on the opening Friday night for friends and family and it was kind of extra special knowing how sleepless the weeks and especially the two weeks were before…Both Sam and I were in full time jobs as well.

Narelle: Yeah.

Dunc: So Sam's just quit his job, so he's going to be here full time in about three weeks' time.

Narelle: Congratulations.

Sam: Thanks.

Narelle: That's big.

Sam: Yeah, it's good. I don't have to work as many nights now.

Dunc: I had quit my ‘day’ job and I've been working here full time for two months now. It's still lots of work though…but at least it's a little bit more reasonable.

Narelle: I'm interested about the collaboration between you guys because it obviously works. So what do you think makes it works for you both individually and collectively?

Dunc:  I think Sam and I have different approaches to think about problems and that I think makes it work. It's weird I guess, that have our own interest and how we look at things is quite different. But it's comfortable and we can say 'Hey, your idea is good'. We just kind of work around it, because if we were exactly the same people, and always doing exactly the same things, it would be a bit hard.

Sam: Yeah and I agree. Splitting the roles of the business is big enough and we can't do the same things as well otherwise things won't get done. So, we both just take different areas. We also have Steph that works with us. She lives in Canada. She's been with us since the beginning of the whole design part of it, and runs the website and our social media. I've actually never met her but I speak to her every day which is kind of weird but she's coming in January 2017 for a couple of weeks which is great. She is on the payroll and is a shareholder and is very much interested in the success of the business as we are but she just kind of does it more of a part time level. She's never been here in the space either but pretty much designed half this place. She's super excited about coming over.

Narelle: That will be a magic moment because she knows it but …

The multi tasking collaboration of Dunc trialing the recipe for the latest brew “THE PUNCH” Mango Gose and Sam maintaining the multiple social media channels for the business.

Sam: Hasn't felt it.

Narelle: Yeah.

Dunc: We work with Steph on all the ‘creative stuff’. We brainstorm together and guide her with the ideas and she focuses on labels, naming and how we're going to present a brand. She does that whole side of it which is good because neither of us can really do that.

Narelle: So her creativity is your branding but your creativity has been much the brewing, like your recipes [the product]?

Sam: Yep, exactly. We also have an artist (Monique) in New Zealand who Duncan grew up with and she has done all the label elements. They are actually all paintings that she's scanned into the virtual world and then Steph turns it into labels and we talk about how the long-term branding is going to make things fit. We all talk about that but Steph’s definitely the one that understands pantone colours and printers and things like that which isn't our forte. But, the brewing and the business side of it is us.

Narelle: Something's changed in the community where microbreweries now are cool and there's a fascination about trying small labels, small brands and small batch brewing. What do you think is changing?

Sam: It's been a movement not just in beer but food, clothing, art, music. I think people are just wanting to know more about what they're buying, where it's coming from, support actual local people and not a multinational board overseas. Beer got commercialised after the industrial revolution. All the big factories were making a homogenised bland beer and people thought that was beer. So there used to be more bars and breweries than there are now in Australia, but they all got bought out, closed down and now there's like a resurgence of the local bar not just selling a factory beer, but making the beer themselves or serving locally produced beer. Beer is one of those products that doesn't travel very well, so unless you pasteurise it and filter it to an extent. So when you drink it at the source it's the way it's meant to be, which I think people are getting a taste for. The idea of community is Important as well. We now want to be able to go somewhere within the community where there's a culture around it.

Narelle: Are you noticing a lot of regulars?

Sam: Yes. I would say it now would be closer to half the people are regulars which is great. You get to meet some great people that live in the area and it's good. They come and support you. You enjoy it.

Narelle: Yeah, that's great. The area has been hanging out for something like this as well so I think that's an exciting element to it.

Sam: Yeah. That is part of the reason we chose this warehouse. There's a few other breweries around. You don't want to come and step on people's feet. We're looking to get our lives together and move here as well because we like the area. It was part of the reason. We knew there was people that like to drink over here and enjoy craft beer. So it has to be industrial zoning. So each suburb has an industrial zoning. So there's only certain blocks that you can choose where you can be.

Narelle: So you collaborated with Up in Smoke. How did that come about?    

Sam: Just following on from what I was saying, they come in and drink in their lunch break. We've got to know them as a great bunch of guys and girls. They wanted to do something for Food Week. They wanted to have their own beer because a lot of them are beer enthusiasts. So that's how we came up with the idea. I think they have thought about it and then we talked about it and we got some hop flowers, took it over and they used their cold smoker and some of the grain and they put in their meat hot smoker. Then I wasn’t here that day but Dunc was, so post smoking they all came here. They all helped brew and got into it and a lot out of it. They learnt a lot. Now they're matching it with a dish over there. So you get four of our beers and four dishes, like a food paddle match. That's part of Good Food Week. Yeah, we went there last week and had it. It was pretty good. But you obviously know the food is really good.

The idea of community, culture, sustainable, local, and meeting others who live in the area underpins Hop Nation Brewing Co.

Narelle: Yeah. That's another place we frequent.

Sam: So it was pretty rich and full on but it's delicious.

Narelle: Tell us about your approach to your own recipes your creative approach to brewing and the recipes?

Dunc: I think we always try and keep very clean flavours in our beers. We try and keep our beers not muddled, but focused on a direction. So with The Chop we wanted to really show American hops off. So we brought all of the malt right back in the recipe so that the hops could show themselves. We put a mixture of hops in there that we know complement each other and kind of go in the same direction. So for me when I'm drinking beer I like to see like a direction. It's like clear and easy to understand and not muddled. So I think most of our recipe development we're trying to do that.

Sam: We also try and keep relatively interesting beers but not try to make generic kind of flavourless beers. So there's always something interesting in each of the beers that is a point of focus.

Narelle: So, how do you keep zen or relaxed or show self-care because it's been a pretty wild journey, even if you just think of this past twelve months.

Dunc: It's difficult sometimes. Sometimes things get on top of you, for sure but you've just got to take a step back and realise that it's just beer at the end of the day and no one's life's at risk and things like that. So it's just like putting it in perspective. Just having a day off every now and again helps and is quite good as well. Just getting away from it. I think we both love beer and love what we're doing and that makes it pretty easy to be excited and always thinking about things to do, like pushing yourself a bit as well, it makes it easy.

Narelle: I think that's a big one. When you love what you do it does make it easier.

Dunc: Exactly. I really like being quite involved, so it's really nice. Running your own business means that every week we work with a particular salesman. One morning I might be tired or not much is on I’ll come in later so I don't get tied to anything, so there is flexibility. So it's like that in respect to self-care. I think it's more efficient as well because if you just don’t feel like doing something, just don't do it and do it later when you do feel like doing it and have the energy. So it's all about balance I think.

Sam: I agree. I don't really go up and down that much. I'm always pretty much relaxed – when I have time kind of outdoor activities, mountain biking and surfing and golf and things, but just drinking and eating and cooking.

Narelle: What are your future visions?

Dunc: We've got lots of things we're sort of working on. In the near future we're planning expanding our range of beers and a lot of cool, seasonal stuff.  We have to do a lot of preparation for that. We want to start doing lots of collaborations with other brewers. So for early next year we're doing a collaboration on Coedo, which is a Japanese brewery. He's coming in and he's brewing a beer with us here.

Narelle: Do you think Good Beer Week and the popularity of that now has almost opened up the chance to collaborate whereas it previously collaborations like this were more unique?

Dunc: Yeah. So for our one here, he is going to come to the brewery and we going to brew a beer together. We have organised a ticketed event for 2017 Good Beer Week. It's cool because at the moment we're going back and forth with ideas of what to do. We want to make something that's Japanese-Australian. That's the time of the year the Japanese green tea harvest is on so he’s going to bring fresh green tea leaves over with him and Japanese hops or sencha. We're trying to figure out we can do this side. So we want like a seasonal fruit or vegetable or a herb or whatever we can find and then use Australian hops to then make a beer like a IPA, or something like that, and use those two ingredients from both countries. I don't know what we're going to use for our Australian. It's like wine harvest but we always do our wine harvest beer. So not sure if we’ll use that, we are thinking and discussing as we create.

Dunc: Yeah. So that's like short term and then a bit longer term than that we want to get a kitchen in here and carry on just expanding slowly. We don't want to expand fast but just slowly chip away at it.

Narelle: So as you grow and also find balance, is there anything that you're reading or listening to at the moment that's really inspiring you?

Sam: Recently I was listening to a podcast called Big/Beer Business Radio which is really good, really inspirational.

Dunc: See all the books I read aren't really inspiring books. It's always like true crime. Like I just read the Narcos about Pablo Esacobar but I love those sort of books. They're really like wild and out there. It's kind of like escapism.

Sam: I can't actually read novels. I haven't read one for about 15 years. Those new TV series are addictive once you get going, and they are a great way to relax.


You can continue to connect with Sam and Dunc of Hop Nation Brewing Co. via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, through their website, or Untapped.