Brewer Oscar McMahon, on bands, beers and beards

Myffy Rigby
Oscar McMahon, on-site at Young Henrys.
Oscar McMahon, on-site at Young Henrys. Photo: Nic Walker

 "I often worry if Young Henrys closed tomorrow what job would I get? What is my experience? It's a really weird higgledy-piggledy mess of different bits and pieces."

It's not exactly prescriptive, but 13 years playing and touring with hard rock band the Hell City Glamours stood Oscar McMahon in good stead for running what has become one Australia's most popular craft breweries, Young Henrys. "I think hospitality years and rock 'n' roll years are kind of like dog years," McMahon says. "If you can do 13 years in a band, you should get double long-service leave."

Working in a band, he says, most decisions are made on gut feeling. "When we started Young Henrys, I just started applying that [mentality] to this."

Unicorn Hotel partners Jake Smyth, Oscar McMahon, Kenny Graham and Elvis Abrahanowicz.
Unicorn Hotel partners Jake Smyth, Oscar McMahon, Kenny Graham and Elvis Abrahanowicz.  Photo: Janie Barrett

A stint as a model was a happy accident. "I was a young musician [and had] the opportunity to make a bit of cash on the side. I never identified as a model. You have to take it seriously to do well at it. I wasn't interested in cutting my hair or changing my look for jobs. I think I've always been very happy just being myself. To be good at [modelling] you need to be ready to be whatever the client wants. I wasn't into that."

McMahon had been working in pubs for years before he and business partner Richard Adamson came up with the idea of the bar and brewery. But it was while working at Frida's, a small bar and restaurant in Chippendale, that he started to get a more holistic sense of hospitality.

"I was working five nights a week with this incredible crew of people who are just so knowledgeable and passionate about food and whisky and wine. I was kinda the beer guy in amongst all of that, and that was an incredible experience."

Like-mindedness allows any company to transcend geography.

Oscar McMahon

All the while, craft brewery and bar Young Henrys was taking shape in the back streets of Newtown. "Back then we were petrified of this thing we just built," says McMahon. "It was the most expensive thing we'd ever done. The white knuckle terror of 'how the f--- are we gonna pay this off?'"

Today, you'll find the beer nationwide, with 70-odd staff running the business from the original digs. The new challenge is keeping the hyper-local mentality and applying it to a product that can now be bought around the country - not just from a tiny inner west hop bar.

"We believe that Newtown is a collection of like-minded people who choose to live in a place because everyone lives a certain way. We like to eat out. We like to drink out. We don't complain about house parties or bands playing at the local pub. And you know what? There are people with those values all throughout Australia. Like-mindedness allows any company to transcend geography."

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Having been a Newtown resident for 24 years, it was important to McMahon that that's where he'd set up shop, site permitting. Opening a brewery, though not quite as volatile as a distillery (Young Henrys also have a gin still, but it's housed behind bomb proof glass) is still large-scale industrial project. "We were trying to find a place that had industrial zoning that was close to Enmore Road. We wanted people to be able to wander in."

As a result, they're extremely plugged into their neighbourhood. "People are engaged and look after businesses that are doing good things within their hometown. There are people here that look after local business because they like their contribution back into the community."

Recently, they created an ad campaign as a reaction to products specifically marketed at women (pink pens, pink power tools, digestible low-carb bread). The tagline was "made for your mouth, not your genitals".

Solar energy specialist Jake Steele and Oscar McMahon, co-owner and brewer from Young Henrys, which has a rooftop solar farm.
Solar energy specialist Jake Steele and Oscar McMahon, co-owner and brewer from Young Henrys, which has a rooftop solar farm. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"On the night that we were releasing it, I almost had a panic attack. If people didn't get that, I was going to look like a f---ing arsehole. I had this real moment of, 'Hang on, we know it's right and we know it's funny but …' "

It worked. The feedback was good. Still, it was a risky move. "You can't do bold things without the fear that eventually we're going to do something that doesn't hit. It does weigh on you."

McMahon is also one of the founding partners of Paddington's Unicorn Hotel. "I love watching the pub progress and I'm really proud of it. Everyone that works in there loves it, and knows exactly what the pub is and what it stands for. We're happy to be the ratbag pub in Paddington."

It's not always easy wins and smooth sailing. There's a lot of hard work under the tattoos and ratbaggery, and with the hard work comes the stress. "There have definitely been many times in the last couple of year where I've felt like the most non-zen human being on the face of the earth. It's a total work in progress, and stress is one of the hardest things to keep on top of. You need to keep yourself calm and sane so that you can actually make better decisions."

On top of everything else, McMahon recently become a first-time dad, and has had to reassess life once again. "All of a sudden the enormity and the longevity of what you've done sort of hits. I think that becoming a dad is the most profound thing and also a new feeling of weighty responsibility. You know, that, and joy."

Quickfire corner

Music to brew to: I actually don't listen to anything when I'm working. Because, if I'm listening to music, I focus on it, and when I'm working I need to be focusing on the task. All of a sudden I just glaze over and then I'm like "I haven't heard that horn part before, that's really cool."

Indispensable work tool: My favourite work tools would actually be my brain, nose and mouth.

Formative food moment: The reason that I got into hospitality in the first place was because I was focused on playing in a band, and I needed a flexible job. Once I started getting into beers, and started wanting to push the beer range that we had, [the pub I was working in] allowed me to have a tap that I could rotate, which was really cool.

Smartest person you know: My friend, Maria. She probably has the biggest knowledge base because she's a psychologist. I reckon she's probably the smartest person I know because she's the person that listens the most.