Scott Hargrave can remember the first time he smelt a mash, that bubbling combination of grain and water that’s the very essence of beer. The former Canberra concreter, who’s now one of Australia’s top brewers, knew his life was about to take a turn.
“There was something really primal about it, something really familiar,” Hargrave said, from the headquarters of Balter Brewing Company on the Gold Coast, where he’s been head brewer for just more than two years.
“It was really weird, I was never a brewer, I hadn't been around beer production or anything like that, I'd only made a couple of Coopers kit beers at home, which were terrible.
“As soon as I smelt that mash, that proper mash, it was all over for me.”
He’s happy to admit he always liked a beer - his first taste was a sip of his dad’s KB, “I remember thinking why did the old guys find beer so attractive” - but in between raising a young family, concreting and playing in a band, he didn’t think there was much more to it than drinking it.
Around 2000, “about the time beers like Little Creatures and James Squire came on to the market”, he says, he started to think there might be.
“I was always telling people try this, don’t drink that,” he says.
He enrolled in a brewing course at the Canberra Institute of Technology run by Lachlan McOmish and Richard Watkins who were running the Wig and Pen in Bunda Street at the time. They put him in touch with the Canberra Brewers, after a couple of months he cobbled together some second-hand equipment and started brewing.
Fast forward about six years - “everyone told me I had to get that first beer right if I wanted to be taken seriously” - and he won Best first time entrant at the Australian Amateur Brewing Championships and the following year his hefeweizen was nudged out by half a point for Champion Beer of the Show.
Then the calls started coming in.
When the Sunshine Coast Brewery phoned him to see if he wanted a job he didn’t even know where the Sunshine Coast was.
“My wife Nicole and I had to look it up on Google maps. We had a young family, it seemed so far away, I wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot us all for beer.”
It was a cold winter’s afternoon and he was finishing up a concreting job out the back of Belconnen somewhere.
“I was sitting in my bobcat and the sun was setting early, it was cold. I remember Nicole was peppering me with text messages all day asking if I’d phoned the brewery back.
“Her last message of the day said ‘Don’t f***ing come home until you ring that brewery’, so I did.”
He did 12 months on the Sunshine Coast before moving down to Byron Bay for stints at Stone and Wood and the Byron Bay Brewing Company.
In March 2015 the boys from Balter gave him a call. Situated in Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast, Balter came out of a conversation among some surfers you may have heard of.
Mick Fanning, Bede Durbidge, Joel Parkinson and Josh Kerr were contemplating life after a Durbidge was lucky to survive a horrific pipeline wipeout in 2015. They rallied a few mates who had worked for Billabong and Red Bull and called Hargrave because he brewed one of their favourite drops.
“I told them if it was about putting the surfers’ faces on the cans or something, that was lame, and I wasn’t interested,” Hargrave said.
“Mick and guys are great blokes and our greatest supporters, but it’s about the beer.”
And for Hargrave it’s about the joy a simple beer can bring. He talks a lot about connectedness, about a time where people knew who baked their bread, who grew their vegetables, who brewed their beer.
“We live in global times, technology plays such a big role, but I truly believe as much as people reach out they’re inwardly yearning to lead smaller, calmer lives. I think people are looking for that village feel in things more now. I like that.”
He enjoys a beer at the end of the day when he’s cooking dinner for his family.
“The bumps of the day get smoothed out a bit over a beer,” he says.
“The whole thing about brewing for me, it’s still my philosophy in a lot of ways, is about providing for the people you care about.
“Once upon a time everyone had to make their own beer at home, like their own bread, it's very much about providing for your clan, the people you care about.
“The beer I've made, thousands of people drink it. I’ll never meet most of them but the idea that they’re enjoying it, getting comfort from it, that their day is just that little bit better because they drank something I made is a great feeling.
“People get a lot more satisfaction out of my beer than they ever did my concreting.”