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Moon Dog World
Moon Dog has shot from backyard beers with the boys to one of the largest brewery operations in the country. We talk to founders Josh UIljans and Karl van Buuren about the story so far.

Story: Christopher Holder

Moon Dog World:
32 Chifley Dr, Preston VIC
(03) 9428 2307 or moondogbrewing.com.au

A Moon Dog brew is always something special and very often something really quite out of this world. Some 10-plus years ago, when the rest of Australia was beginning to question why they were only drinking ‘a big cold beer’ rather than a beer with some hops and flavour, three Melbourne blokes were taking things way further, experimenting with barrel ageing and exotic flavours. Moon Dog was and is never meant to be a competitor to the huge multinationals but its new brewery HQ in Preston gives the craft brewer some serious capacity.

Moon Dog World is the new retail showcase for the brewer. It occupies a significant chunk of the factory site in Preston and has a 700+ capacity. It’s quirky, original, and is the perfect way to enjoy some of the most original beer flavours going around.

MOON DOG ORIGINS 

venue: What’s the Moon Dog story?

Josh UIljans: Moon Dog was established by myself, Karl and my older brother Jake. Karl and I go way back. We went to school together then start sharing a house as we worked various corporate roles.

Karl van Buuren: We started home brewing together. We’d homebrew every Sunday in the basement of Josh and Jake’s mum’s house.  Very quickly it turned from doing it to have some beer to drink, to realising that this was something we could actually make a go of.

Josh: This was all in the late 2000s and although craft beer was on the scene, it hadn’t quite blossomed in the way we might think about it today. Little Creatures and Mountain Goat, for example, were well established but we saw a gap in the market – no one was making beer that was exciting and different.

Meanwhile, we’d head to some trailblazing bottleshops around Melbourne and buy beer from Scandinavia, the US, Japan and some other places that were at the pointy end of the craft beer spectrum. That was the stuff that excited us and we loved to make. For example, I remember one of the first beers we made was a bright ale and another was a barrel-aged Tripel.

Karl: We tried different ways of incorporating ingredients and flavours into the beers. Some worked, some didn’t. It was quite a risky thing to do. But we thought that was our niche.

Josh: It was that spirit of exploration that drove us, and that was really the genesis of Moon Dog.

venue: Right. How did you start to turn a pipe dream into something real?

Josh: We worked towards tooling up to start commercial brewing operation. We did small business courses. We researched how to build a brewery and poured any spare money we had into buying up bits and pieces of equipment — scouring brokerage websites or eBay for stainless steel tanks etc.

Bit by bit we collected what we needed. Eventually we signed a lease on a property in Abbotsford.

Karl: Once the lease was signed, that was it, there was no going back. In fact, Josh and I moved out of our place in South Yarra to live in the Abbotsford site — we couldn’t afford rent on both.

I recall the banks didn’t want a bar of us. We were a risky prospect.

venue: Did the lack of finances slow you down or did it help forge who you are?

Josh: It’s intrinsically part of who we are now. We learnt so much the hard way. It gave us a breadth of understanding and an appreciation of the fact things weren’t going to come to us easily. Admittedly, there probably isn’t an easy way to set up a brewery, but if there was… this was certainly not it. It was also a lot of fun and an exciting way to set up a brewery. We were doing it because we were passionate but it wasn’t a ‘get rich quick’ scheme!

PERVERSE SEXUAL AMALGAM!

venue: Tell us about the first commercial batch.

Josh: The very first thing we ever brewed was a black, wild ale with cherry plumbs, aged in bourbon barrels. We called it Perverse Sexual Amalgam but it wouldn’t be ready for another nine months.

We’d continue to come up with amazing ideas, brewing on the weekends using the dairy equipment we bought on eBay. They were long days, but we got beer out into the market.

venue: How did you get the beer into the market?

Josh: Initially, we loaded up my 1997 Volvo and drove it around.

Karl: We knocked on the door of speciality bottleshops, told them our story and the kind of beers we were brewing. Mostly, they were very local, in Richmond, Collingwood and in the city. We were only making 80 slabs at a time at that point, and they were snapped up pretty quickly.

Josh: We probably changed some people’s perspectives on what craft beer was all about — the kind of boundaries that had previously existed weren’t there. Since then, of course, things have changed and there are many more breweries doing things with a high degree of creativity.

venue: This wasn’t your conventional start-up brewing operation.

Josh: That’s right, it wasn’t a classic brewing model: make a single product; eliminate as many costs of productions as possible; make it as efficient as possible; and churn it out in volume. It just wasn’t that.

Karl: We found out early on that the speciality bottleshops were willing to pay a premium for those kinds of beers. Just because there wasn’t much else in the market and people want to experiment.

FIRST BAR

venue: What was the next big quantum leap for Moon Dog?

Josh: In 2014 we opened our first bar in the original Moon Dog site. We were able to take all the things that Moon Dog means to us and put it into a venue.

Karl: We acquired a lot of secondhand furniture and mood lighting. We put up some posters from your childhood on the wall. It was a true warehouse bar — a perfect embodiment of the kind of beer we were making and the kind of people we were. When we first opened, I think it really resonated, especially with the local crowd.

venue: What are some of those core Moon Dog values you refer to?

Josh: We’re a very positive brand. We’re very inclusive. We’re about having fun.

Karl: To us, craft beer isn’t exclusive. We want to make craft beer accessible.

Josh: We’re also an innovative brand. We enjoy making certain beers with niche appeal. But we don’t make those kinds of beers so we can twirl our moustaches. It’s about having fun; it’s about putting a smile on people’s faces.

venue: Was the bar always a natural extension of what you do, or was it a leap of faith?

Karl: We knew how we wanted the bar to feel but we left the actual running and processes to some who knew what they were doing. In fact, our first full-time employee was our bar manager. It helped us to run relatively smoothly from the start.

Josh: It was also a very simple bar to operate in a lot of ways — one bar, eight taps, 100-person capacity, and if you wanted food, there was a food truck outside.

BREWING CULTURE

venue: I guess it’s one thing to know your brand values, but how do you build company culture?

Karl: We make sure we work with positive people who want to learn. In turn, they communicate our passion to the customers. We’ve had constant positive feedback from customers about just how friendly and welcoming our staff have been, and they know all about our beers and they want to tell people about our beers — that’s really important.

venue: What next after the first bar opening?

Karl: We opened up a second brewery two doors down, which allowed us to expand operations, set up a national sales team and push into export markets. When we set up the second brewery we figured it would last us five years before we needed to look at something larger. But only a  year and a half later we realised we were going to move a lot faster than that to keep up with demand.

venue: Was it hard to find a new HQ?

Karl: Surprisingly hard. Our requirements meant we were looking at industrial estates but we needed to be quite close to inner Melbourne, not the outer suburbs. So the choice of sites was narrowed to maybe two or three different pockets.

Josh: We looked at Port Melbourne, the Kensington through to Footscray area, a small pocket of Brunswick, and then Preston through to Fairfield. That was it.

When we first looked at the site back in 2018 it was full of 20 million egg cartons. It used to be a car parts factory, and as a result has an electricity substation.

To be honest, when we first saw the site, we spent 20 minutes looking around and left thinking it was entirely unsuitable. It looked like a scene from Mad Max. We didn’t have the vision.

Josh: Kudos to the commercial real estate agent. He persisted. We came back and did a quick survey and I ran some models in auto CAD. Bit by bit we realised the site was quite capable of accommodating a really significant industrial-scale craft brewery.

A NEW WORLD

venue: What about your vision for a hospitality operation on the new site?

Josh: Initially we thought it would be amazing to have any 250-person bar or perhaps a maximum 400-person bar room and tasting area. But we ended up going a little bit hog wild with it. We thought ‘let’s see if we can push the limits of what a brewery venue could be’.

venue: You weren’t nervous about the location?

Karl: A lot of people were a little nervous. It’s not near any tram or train or bus lines. It’s in bit of a grungy part of Preston. But we’re only eight kilometres from the CBD and a short distance from Thornbury.

The key is to build something that people are drawn to.

venue: Tell us about the design process.

Josh: It was a very organic process. We spent time in the space and looked at the way that it could function. One of the big questions we had was: how do you make the venue intimate, even though it’s a 700+-person, 1400sqm warehouse? So it was very much an iterative design process. We started with visualiser sketches to see how it could be laid out. Then we progressed to marking things out on the floor.

We had sessions with our team where we would discuss what makes a great venue — the experience we want for our customers. We incorporated all that into the design.

venue: Who’s the venue for?

Josh: We’re getting all sorts of people. From mothers’ groups here for a coffee, to hardcore beer aficionados here for a tasting flight of the full beer menu. We’re trying to accommodate lots and lots of different people in lots of different situations.

Karl: Regardless, we want everyone to be having a good time, and experience what Moon Dog is all about.

HIT THE GROUND RUNNING

venue: You’ve opened in October, presumably to get some runs on the board before heading into the Christmas period?

Karl: There was no soft opening. We had over 5000 people through on the opening weekend! We were at full capacity for 75% of the time.

The venue is set up to handle volume — we have 25 metres of bar front, 72 beer taps and a large kitchen operation — but we didn’t have enough POS terminals and we needed more staff. We also made the decision to offer table service and there were a few teething problems. But within a couple of days our operations team ironed the kinks out. We have some really experienced people on our team.

venue: Are people using the venue and accessing the various zones in the way you envisaged?

Josh: We were really adamant we had to provide the opportunity for people to have a different experience every time they visited. So there are some very distinctly different spaces. The lagoon is always popular. As soon as the venue begins to fill up the mezzanine areas become very popular. The beer garden is another favourite.

20 MILLION LITRES & COUNTING

venue: What extra capacity does the new brewing operations provide?

Josh: Right now we’ve got about 2.5 million litres of annual capacity in Abbotsford and we’re now maxing that out.

The new Preston site will give us north of 10 million — maybe 12, maybe 15, maybe 20 million — litres of annualised capacity. The new fermentation tanks have 5.5 million litres of capacity. We can scale up by adding extra tanks. There aren’t many breweries in Australia that have this kind of scale and this kind of infrastructure.

venue: What’s been the response?

Josh: The best feedback I think we’ve received is from people saying how much this place is Moon Dog. Yes, it’s much bigger and more amplified but it’s still us.

BIG SCREEN

The Moon Dog World AV is based around an Audac background music system a BluStream video-over-IP TV setup and a super-sized Philips LED display in the beer garden (pictured).

The BluStream system replaces a conventional MATV-style setup, offering low-latency BluStream Multicast UHD distribution of HDMI video over a 1GB network switch. Using lossless compression technology, BluStream Multicast delivers HDMI, IR, RS-232 and USB/KVM up to lengths of 100m over a single category cable. The beauty of Multicast is its flexibility and ease of installation — you don’t need specialised networking smarts.

The system sits on its own AV 1Gb network, separate to the Moon Dog World enterprise IP network, which in a fresh install is a relatively trivial investment in exchange for maintaining a clear distinction between the AV and business network demands.

The venue has six main sources — three Foxtel boxes plus two free-to-air set top boxes, with another source available for Apple TV, Fetch and the like. An additional source is positioned at the bar to accept the HDMI output from a customer’s laptop. The sources feed various screens around the venue — the latest Philips Q Line Commercial 4K displays in 55-, 65- and 75-inch sizes.

BluStream IP200UHD transmitters handle sources up to 4K for encoding and streaming on the 1Gb network, via a standard off-the-shelf small business Cisco switch.

The BluStream ACM200 acts as the control interface module in the rack. Moon Dog World staff can use a device to control sources on each display via the BluStream Drag and Drop TV GUI. That control data hits the ACM200 on the venue’s IP network and provides the advanced signal management for the AV network.

At the end points, a BluStream IP200UHD receiver takes the signal for display on the Philips screens — including the 137-inch Philips LED.

The BluStream AV-over-IP system has proven to be easy to install and configure, and easy for staff to manage.

The Philips LED display in the beer garden is a show stopper. The 137-inch hi-def screen is huge but appropriately enormous given the large area and viewing distances. The image is outstanding and provides a stunning focus on game day.

Karl van Buuren: The large screen TV in the beer garden really helps us to cater to the big sporting events. Josh and I are big AFL and cricket fans. And even in the Abbotsford Bar, whenever the cricket’s on or finals footy, we’d put on a big party.

Josh: The pleasure of watching live sport in the beer garden on one of the biggest TVs in town is a real delight. The big screen brings people together, it’s a shared experience for 200 people, which is something special.

CONTACTS

Corsair Solutions (Philips LED): (03) 9005 9861 or www.corsairsolutions.com.au

Westan (Philips Commercial Displays): 1300 963 963 or www.westan.com.au

BluStream: (03) 8691 1999 or www.blustream.com.au

Audio Logistics (Audac): www.audiologistics.com.au

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