The legendary Mazen Hajjar from Hawkers Beer unloads (about everything)

The legendary Mazen Hajjar from Hawkers Beer unloads (about everything)

Kaddy Community | 21 June 2023
2023 Vintage Series Artwork Reading The legendary Mazen Hajjar from Hawkers Beer unloads (about everything) 14 minutes Next Hawkers Beer Barrel Aged White Stout Series '23

Author: Andrew Graham, Kaddy Community
Original Article published on 21 June 2023

Welcome to the most honest interview in Kaddy Community’s history.

Actually, this chat is better titled simply as ‘Mazen unfiltered’ because that’s the best way to describe any conversation with the outspoken Mazen Hajjar. The co-founder of the renowned Hawkers Beer in Melbourne, Mazen’s wild backstory includes the creation of the Middle East’s first microbrewery during wartime (961 Beer, named after the country code for Lebanon) and starting a low-cost airline (Menajet).

For those who haven’t met or spoken with Mazen, picture the most open person in your address book, stir in a deep knowledge of craft beer, combined with the scars and badges that come from decades of wildly varied business (ad)ventures, and you’re on the right track.

In this interview with Andrew Graham, the only challenge is condensing the sometimes spicy Mazen tangents on beer, brewing and life. Consider this something of a highlights package, and the perfect feature for us to celebrate exiting voluntary administration.

Speaking of highlights, things are booming at Hawkers. Five gold medals at the 2023 AIBA’s and with volume on the up over the last year, even despite the headwaters faced by the industry, where Mazen believes that many craft brewers are seeing volume drops by up to 30%.

Mazen Hajjar: You know, anyone who is saying they have an increase in packaged beer is lying.

This year, our volume is going to be up by 10%, but we’re going to make a loss. Everything is going up. I’m being squeezed by the big boys on one side and then squeezed by the little brewpubs on the other. It’s a shit time.

Kaddy Community: So what’s really working for Hawkers?

Hawkers brand, but not Rover. Which is surprising.

On that point, how do you balance out the core range and (limited edition releases)?

I think a lot of breweries have gone in and based that climb to fame on the back of rotational limited crazy, stupid beers.

When you’re in the middle of COVID, and you’re sitting at home. You have a lot of disposable income; those crazy limiteds will bring you joy. That’s the novelty, the flavour de jour. Everyone queues up to get it delivered.

But after you’ve tried five hundred or a thousand IPAs, you’ll eventually come to the point – if you’re not one of those OCD ‘beer tickers’ – where you realise that you have five or ten that you really like, and maybe three or four that fit in your price category and you really like them and they become your fridge fillers. Am I going to continue to pay $15-20 bucks a can when I know a lot of them are going to disappoint me? Or does the novelty of trying all these crazy things wear off?

What we’ve done at Hawkers, I think, is that the consistency of our (limiteds) program says a lot. We’ve built them up. We didn’t start something and then lose interest. And our biggest performer is our barrel-aged beers – I don’t think any other Australian brewery does as much as we do in the barrel-aged Imperial stout space.

I’ve always wanted to ask you about that focus on barrel ageing. Hawkers have been doing that for quite a while now; what first dragged you into barrel aging? Where was that moment where you’re like, ‘I love this style’?

Samuel Smith Imperial Stout. That was my first epiphany. I used to drink Guinness, which I still like and is one of the only commercial beers that I drink, and then I discovered the Samuel Smith.

When I dug into it, I discovered they were using open fermenters and the mystique of the whole thing. Then I started getting into barrel-aged imperial stouts.

I think it was an Avery’s beer that I tried, and that was it. I was hooked. I love the stuff. I am acutely aware that the Australian beer-drinking snobs that claim they want to see experimentation in barrel ageing don’t.

Bourbon Imperial aged stout, that’s it. Rum barrel? Maybe on the outer limit. Aquavit? No, no, no, man, I’m not interested in that shit! Bourbon barrel-aged wheatwine? No, no, no. Barleywine? Maybe.

It’s slowly getting better, but people were very against coming out of their bubble and their comfort zone. This year we have 25 barrel-aged beers coming out.

On that topic, how was the Terroir Series (a range of single-farm, single-hop beers using Citra from three different farms in the US) received? Did people get it?

Some people definitely get it. Our experiments will continue as we’re about to release ‘Fashionably Functional’. It’s a collab with Freestyle Hops in NZ, that is late vs early harvest Nelson Sauvin hops.

With the Terroir Series, for example, we put forward three different states to make it obvious. We could have picked a single farm and got the same results. People talked about Oregon vs Idaho but it’s bullshit. We could have compared Idaho and Idaho, and it would be different! Different plots on the same farm on different picking dates can be different.

It’s just like wine.

Right. Because next year in Idaho, it could rain too much or not enough. Who f*cking cares! Instead, it should be these are the flavours that I might get from this hop. People say the Terroir Series is so revolutionary, but it’s not that wild. Brewers, every year, go top hop harvests and say, ‘yes, I want those hops and that harvest’. They’re already doing that – we just put it in front of consumers.

For the last 30 years, Australian brewers have really just relied on Richard Watkins (co-owner of Bentspoke and one of the first to bring many specialist American hops to Australia) because he was the only person doing hop selection for years. All the respect for him, but if Richard got a cold when selecting Amarillo, we all got shitty Amarillo! Not a diss on Richard, but we all brewed based on his selections. It’s a credit to him because he was bringing these hops when no one else did it. He is an unsung hero. All the credit and love to him. But the issue we have is educating consumers about what we’re trying to do. It’s not fashionable to educate people, either.

I mean, look at the haze craze. ‘Here is a hazy, which is different from the last one, we’re we’ve moved from 30% Citra & 70% Mosaic to 35% Citra, 65% Mosaic’ and you’re just like ‘they taste the f*cking same’.

Before you start playing around with the ingredients in that way, show me that you have an understanding of the ingredients. This is like a chef who specialises in grilling meat but doesn’t understand the different cuts of beef. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. It’s not fashionable, and it’s boring, but it seems to have gotten some traction, and some conversations started.

So, with Hawkers, you’ve accomplished lots of your goals. But what are you still excited about?

That’s the question that I am asking myself right now.

Hawkers has been a great adventure for me. It started off on a personal level when me and my ex-wife wanted to get out (of the Middle East). And we were excited by Australia, And so, the stars aligned, and we felt alright. And I loved Melbourne. But then, I got a divorce, and Hawkers became a personal challenge that this was going to be my legacy for my son. Because my son was living halfway across the world.

But during COVID, I had to evaluate what was really important, and I’m still trying to figure that stuff up.

From a personal perspective, I came here as an immigrant. I started the first craft brewery in the Middle East, which was seen by a lot of people as an accomplishment, but having the first idea, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the best at what you do, right?

Coming to Australia as an immigrant, starting a brewery in the most competitive city for breweries in Australia, and being able to build a brewery from four to 50 people and then take out champion Large and Champion in Victorian Brewery. Where do you go from there? That is the big question, right? Because even if you come in second, it’s a step-down. That’s it.

What excites me still is that I work with a wonderful team. We have a lot of ideas. We’re expanding our barrel program. We’re going to be launching a new venture that is a tangent. We just put in place a tunnel pasteuriser, which might mean we go heavier on hops yet control the hop burn. Or pastry stouts or wild fermented sours.

What doesn’t excite me is this very challenging market environment. I talk to people, and it seems a lot have their heads in the ground, and they think that ‘we’ll beat inflation, and we’re coming back on’. I think the world economy has bigger structural issues that won’t be resolved in the short or medium term.

I was talking to someone last week who was trying to convince me that core range is the future, with everyone cutting back their spending. What do you reckon?

Anyone who talks about core range coming back is a f**wit that lives only in the top 0.0001% of the market. Please explain when did core range go away? Outside of those people who always buy the most recent limited? That is not the market. 99% of people go buy a slab of Rover or a slab of Mountain Goat, or 5 slabs of Carlton Draught.

We all get stuck in our little bubble, and we think this is where the world is. But the world doesn’t care about your pastry stouts!

People say, ‘I want a beer that tastes like beer, not a f*cking fruit basket’. When we start talking about mosaic vs citra, we’re in an alien sphere to 99% of the population.

When people tell me core range is coming back, When did it go? Core range it’s only gone for people who aren’t selling kegs into bars and restaurants, where you have to ask for every hazy keg they are buying vs how many pale ales?

That’s right; it’s just pale ale and lager every day.

I think the breweries that have made their business model on 50 new releases every month will see (an impact) as the big beer fascination slows. But it’s not slowing for everyone – we’re doing more limiteds at Hawkers than ever, and they’re selling out. If you’re not on our mailing list, good luck! And we’re not making small volumes. We’re constantly trying to increase the volume without doing the doubling jump into a bigger tank.

I have endless pressure from my sales reps to up my volumes, but I am not greedy. I don’t want to sell into the market and have it sit on the shelf.

I think that’s where brewers have made a mistake. They see the increasing demand and get greedy. Okay. I made 5000 litres of this, and I’m going to make 10,000 for the next one, and they sell through. But that’s not the real market. Selling it in bottle shops is not the real market. Or selling it to the clubs is not the real market. It’s getting the consumers to pick it up. And that product moving off the shelf into the consumer’s home and then being consumed, that’s the real market. You can always front-load the market with anything!

If you don’t create the pull of the shelf, then everything that you’ve done is basically taken that (bottleshop owner’s) money, pissed them off because he’s got an expensive beer, sitting on his shelf, not doing anyone any favours as it ages.

Are limiteds profitable though?

Yes. Only idiots don’t make money on beer. This is the business. It cost me a hundred dollars to make. I’m gonna sell it for $150. There’s a fixed margin that we do on everything.

The difference is that limiteds take so much more energy and headspace. You’re getting 20% of your revenue from 80% of the work that you’re putting it. And it’s that balancing act, but we don’t look at it this way because it’s exciting for us to make them.

Otherwise, brewing is just another process, isn’t it?

Correct. Also, for consumers, I think we’ve been very successful. I mean, did we put up some beer that we weren’t as excited about? Yes. Did we put up any shit beer? No. But with a Hawkers, you know it’s going to be in style, and it’s going to be good.

When is the Double West Coast coming back?

Next week (it has since sold out again).

That’s a great beer. You could make that core range.

Yes, you say that. But look what happened to the Hawkers West Coast IPA (which won Best IPA at the 2019 AIBAs and exploded in popularity). West Coast is a very interesting story.

So we (West Coast) core range, and all the bottleshops loaded up on it because it was core range, and you want to be part of the cool kids. But if that’s not really your market and you’re in some regional nowhere town and not treating it well, you’re soon selling close to your best before dates, and people are discovering that it doesn’t taste the same.

We learnt our lesson. We pulled the volume back and let it sell out and then did not refill until after it sold through. We reduced volumes by 30 or 35%, because we cared about the integrity of the product. We didn’t care about the money that we were making. People lost their shit. But sooner or later, everyone realised that we give actually give a shit.

So the Double West Coast will sell out too. We’ve split it into two. It will come for a small release, then disappear for 6 months, then come back for another small release.

That’s just good for the hype too.

Yep. Now you’re getting it!