There's a new Canberra beer company in town. It's called Pact Beer Company and it's the brainchild of a familiar name in the capital's brewing scene – Kevin Hingston. But if you'd told Hingston five years ago that he would be starting a commercial beer company on the back of national success as a home brewer, he probably wouldn't have believed you. Hingston's the former social secretary of the Canberra Brewers club – he helped organise last year's National Home Brewers Conference held in the capital – and he's won national trophies for his beers.
Now he's bringing out his own brand of beer on June 4 with a quince hefeweizen and a pale ale. "People kept saying to me, "When can I buy your beer? When are you going to go professional?'" he recalls. "I kept explaining that it's a pretty high price of admission, it's pretty hard to get into, it's a different world. But then I thought I should start thinking about it positively rather than negatively and give it a go."
He's been invited to brew at the Great Australasian Brew Spectacular, a festival of experimentation that brings us Mars Bar beer and lemon–lime brews (that's where the quince hefeweizen or German wheat beer came from).
"So we're launching the Pact Beer Company in Canberra in June starting with the quince hefeweizen and also a more standard, approachable pale ale, a nice hoppy sessional beer to go with it," he says.
He's already got some support from the local bar scene. You'll be able to taste Pact beers at the Pot Belly in Belconnen, Transit Bar in Civic and the Durham in Kingston. And it'll be available at the alcohol merchant Plonk in Fyshwick. "We saw a bit of a gap in the Canberra market, we've got a few great brewpubs and they are great, great places – but while there are some great beers out and about there, it's not easy to find a Canberra beer," Hingston says.
Canberra's home-brew scene is deeply intertwined with its beer scene – our biggest and most acclaimed commercial brewers come from a home-brewing background. Christophe Zierholz built Zierholz from a Fyshwick microbrewery to the local pub at the University of Canberra and hopes to contend for a spot at the proposed arts precinct on the Kingston Foreshore. Richard Watkins was a champion home brewer before taking up brewing at the Wig and Pen and then striking out on his own with BentSpoke in Braddon.
But for Hingston the home-brewing bug bit pretty late – Hingston only took up the craft in late 2011. But he quickly grasped the art of fiddling with flavours, adjusting the combinations to create a new, interesting beer. "A lot of people will start home brewing to save money but for me it was about the exploration, so I've always been into experimenting, doing weird beers."
One of those weird beers was a coconut water porter ("with 100 per cent coconut water!" he says proudly). And while he still loves the challenge of producing a quirky flavoured beer, that's not necessarily going to help the company break into the market. "It takes a lot of discipline to – now that we're producing beer commercially – make things that are going to have a wide appeal, that are going to sell so we're definitely walking that tightrope of being creative but still being viable," he admits.
The beers are made in Sydney and Melbourne on the "gypsy brewing" system, where Hingston gets to play in another brewery and make his beers without having to simply contract out his beer recipes. "[It's] a little different to the traditional contract brewing which is where I hand a brewer a recipe and they hand me the beers after a month. That didn't appeal to me, I wanted to be involved," he says. "No one is going to hand me the keys to their million dollar brewery but the people we're working with are really open to being a part of it and for me as a brand new professional brewer it's great because I get to control the process but I also get to learn more."
Hingston is a born and bred Canberran. He grew up in Tuggeranong. Dad was in the air force and Mum was an interior designer ("and spent a lot of time raising two troublesome young boys"). Hingston went to McKillop College before heading to the University of Canberra to do a multimedia production degree. He's worked in IT ever since. "I was raised, in terms of career, pretty conservatively, there was a lot of pressure to get yourself a secure job," he says. But since he's ventured out on a limb with Pact Beer, his parents have surprised him with their support.
He doesn't plan to give up the day job just yet – not until the beer company finds its feet. But as his involvement in beer grew, so did his formal workload through the Canberra Brewers society. The capital's home-brew club is the largest in the country – Hingston estimates there are about 150 paid up members - and there's been a small influx of new women members. "We've always had female members but this year I think we must have 5-10 new females who have joined the club," he says. The club's beer judge certification program – a fortnightly tasting session that explores a range of beers - now consists of equal numbers of men and women. "I think what craft beer offers to not necessarily female palates, but discerning palates, is beer that doesn't taste like what people think beer tastes like," he says.
His wife Jing Chua isn't a brewer but has recently joined Hingston as a beer aficionado. "My home brew converted her. She had a porter I brewed her last year, a dark roasty beer that turned her onto beer and she'll come out and drink beer now," he says. The couple got married earlier this year and yes, beer featured heavily in the ceremony. "One of the vows she said to me was, 'I'll taste test your uncarbonated beer samples,' so she's definitely committed now," Hingston says with a laugh. But her support extends to more than just testing samples – Chua is a designer and created Pact Beer's bold yellow labels and distinctive look.
So the hefeweizen and the pale ale. "They're both born out of home-brew recipes that I've tweaked over time," he says. The hefeweizen recipe won prizes for best wheat beer two years in a row. "So it's proven and a pretty tried-and-true recipe. I've had some really respectable judges tell me it's as good as any German wheat beer they've ever tasted and hopefully it translates well at the commercial scale." He still works out his blends and prototypes at home.
To go from starting out in homebrew to producing your own commercial beers in just a few short years would take anyone by surprise. When Hingston won his first national medal in 2013, he realised he was "making good stuff" but even when he won the Champion Brewer award at the Australian Amateur Brewing Championships last year, the idea of turning his talents to a proper beer label was far fetched. "It was only in the weeks after, when I had a chance to pause and reflect, that I thought if I can scale this up, if I can do as well at a commercial scale as I can here, then people are going to like this stuff."
And the other brewers have been warm and generous, he says. "I was talking to Richard Watkins from BentSpoke yesterday – he's really excited to see new people on the scene. It's not a competition. Craft beer commands such a small fraction of the market and it's only growing, there's so much slice of pie to go around," he says. "If the general public in Canberra get behind me even half as much as the bars and brewers do then we're really going to make a go out of it."
Pact Beer Company will be launched on June 4 at Transit Bar. 6pm.