Craft brewing success mixes beer and business

Mazen Hajjar is justifiably proud of the beer he produces at Hawkes Beer, including an imperial stout that won a gold medal at last year's International Beer Challenge in London.

When Mazen Hajjar first started brewing an imperial stout in Lebanon a decade ago, people thought he was crazy. He showed them!

By Mark Phillips and Martin Lenehan 

To simply call Mazen Hajjar a high achiever would be to sell short his remarkable drive, business acumen and willingness to take a risk. 

This is a man who by the age of 29 had already worked as a war photographer and investment banker, and had raised US$50 million to start the Middle East’s first low-fare airline, MenaJet.

In 2006, with the business world at his feet, Hajjar’s life took an incredible twist with the outbreak of the Israeli-Hezbollah war. Huddled inside his home as missiles rained down on Beirut for 34 straight days, Hajjar decided to indulge his passion for brewing beer. 

Using materials delivered to him by friends, Hajjar started producing an imperial stout, which would become the flagship of Lebanon’s first craft brewery, 961 Beer, named after the country’s international dialling code. 

By 2013, 961 Beer was available in 16 countries, including the US and Australia. Among those importing large quantities Down Under was chef and Lebanese expat Joseph Abboud, who ran renowned Melbourne-based restaurants Rumi and Moor’s Head.

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As the brews grew in popularity, Hajjar decided to fly to Australia to help Abboud distribute the beer, the pair hitting the road in Sydney as “hawkers”.

Wary of the likelihood of more armed conflict in Lebanon, and keen to explore the potential of the Australian market, Hajjar mortgaged his house, sold his stake in 961 Beer and relocated his young family to Melbourne.

“We were having a son and we wanted to be away from the stresses of the Middle East for a while, so we thought we’d come to Australia and see how it went,” Hajjar says. 

“I sold 961 to shareholders and staff in Lebanon for much less than I could have got from a beverage company that wanted to buy me out.

“I wanted to look after the people who had looked after me – the people who sweat and bleed and stay up all night to make the product as good as it can be. If you look after your staff, then everything else takes care of itself.”

Hawkers Beer imperial stout which won a gold medal at last year's International Beer Challenge in London.In 2015, Hajjar and Abboud founded Hawkers Beer in an industrial area in Reservoir, in Melbourne’s north. The name of the brewery pays homage to the hard yards the pair had put in two years earlier spruiking 961. 

“I was driving around Reservoir and I saw a cool old building for lease and I went for it. It’s a hip area now, with some big businesses around us, but back then people were saying I was mad building out there,” Hajjar says.

Built at a cost of A$3 million, the 1400sq m brewery is one of the biggest, most high-tech craft beer set-ups in the southern hemisphere.

As a start-up venture, Hawkers is going gang busters, with its core range of beers (a saison, pale ale, India pale ale and pilsner) winning two gold and three silver medals at the 2016 International Beer Challenge in London. It also collected Brewery of the Year Oceania honours and was named Supreme Champion Brewer. With Abboud refocusing on his restaurants, Hajjar is now sole owner and CEO of Hawkers, which has gone from four staff to 30 in just two years. 

In Australia, the craft beer segment is worth more than A$370 million (around 5 per cent of the total market). IBISWorld’s July 2016 Craft Beer Production in Australia market research report predicts that the craft beer industry’s contribution to Australia’s economy will grow at an annualised 8.4 per cent in the 10 years through 2021-22. 

“Economically, it’s very simple,” Hajjar declares. “We brew consistently good beer. That’s all we do. We are passionate about beer and we take it very seriously. The first problem I noticed with craft beers when I came to Australia was that brewers didn’t see consistent quality as paramount. From day one, our focus has been to employ the best technology, the best brewing techniques and the best people, and give them the tools to make the best beer they can consistently. 

“If you look after your staff, then everything else takes care of itself.” Mazen Hajjar

“You can spend a fortune on marketing and telling everyone how good you are but if you don’t have the best equipment then it’s like lining up on the grid in a Formula One race with a scooter. You might get lucky once, if everyone else crashes, but you can’t sustain it. 

“When we started out at Hawkers, every penny we had we put into equipment. We don’t do any marketing, because sometimes no marketing is the best marketing.”

With Hawkers Beer now sold in 1200 pubs, bottle shops and restaurants across Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia, it’s clear Hajjar’s philosophy is working. 

He makes no secret of taking a leaf from successful American craft brewers such as Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which have invested in technology. This flies in the face of a commonly held belief in Australia that craft beers are little more than glorified home brews.

“That view is completely wrong,” he says. “All the US craft brewers that evoke excitement have invested hugely in technology. You’re either a high-tech brewer able to produce quality consistently, or just selling direct to consumers with the scope to experiment batch to batch. It’s not that we’ve done anything unique – it was just not done before in Australia.”

Hajjar accepts that a lot of passion and “poetry” surrounds the craft beer segment, but ultimately insists that it’s an SMCG (slow moving consumer goods) business much like any other.

“A lot of brewers are driven by passion but don’t have a sense for business. Then there’s the extreme opposite – a bunch of business people who see money dangling in front of them but don’t give two hoots about the beer. The right attitude is probably somewhere in between.” 

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