Chef and restaurateur Joseph Abboud (Rumi, The Moor's Head, Moor Please) was never a big beer drinker, but now he owns a brewery and can't wipe the smile off his face.
"Beer has changed my life," says Abboud. "I really had no idea that it could taste so good and could have a place on the dining table like wine does."
Abboud's beer awakening has seen him join forces with Mazen Hajjar, the Lebanese beer guru he met about three years ago on a trip to Lebanon to source new beers for his restaurants. Hajjar, who has moved to Australia with his young family, is known around the international beer traps as something of a craft beer crusader. He founded 961 Beer during the 2006 Lebanon war, and the range has won acclaim for the use of local spices and herbs including za'atar, sumac, chamomile, sage, anise and mint.
Abboud became 961's exclusive Australian importer, and now the pair have launched Hawkers Beer, a 1400-square-metre brewery in the industrial back blocks of Reservoir in Melbourne's northern suburbs. The brewery is named after the time they spent on the road together in Australia, hawking the 961 to restaurants and bottle shops.
It's a project that's met with instant success. Within hours of brewing their first keg of pale ale last week, the pair took home the people's choice award at Geelong's Great Australian Beer Festival.
"It's a pretty satisfying drop," says Abboud, surveying the brewery's high-tech stainless steel brewing gear. "People kept coming back at the beer festival asking for more. That's when we knew we'd hit the sweet spot."
The next brew to come off the Hawkers production line will be an IPA (India Pale Ale), followed by a traditional Czech pilsner and a saison (French/Belgian farmhouse ale).
Both Abboud and Hajjar live within walking distance of Hawkers, and spend all their spare time tinkering, bottling, and cleaning the warehouse-turned-brewery.
Huge crates have been flipped over to create a makeshift bar plonked on top of a Persian rug right next to the gleaming brewing equipment. Visitors can sample brews on tap or buy a slab on site. It's a friendly, casual space - a kind of craft beer paradise. There's even a pool table.
Several Melbourne bars are already pouring Hawkers, including Thornbury's Carwyn Cellars, East St Kilda's Local Taphouse, the CBD's Papa Goose, Toorak's Hawksburn Hotel, Footscray's Station Hotel and Newport's Junction Beer Hall. Once fully established in Victoria, Abboud and Hajjar plan to sell their beer nationally.
As Abboud says, "It's hard to believe that a few years ago I didn't even drink beer. That's all changed."
Hawkers Beer, 167 Henty St, Reservoir, Vic, (03) 9462 0650, open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm.