When surfing legends Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbridge and Josh Kerr launched Balter Brewing in 2015, it was greeted with some cynicism from within the beer industry.
The entry of a moneyed celebrity outfit with no industry pedigree surely signalled that the craft beer boom was entering an unhealthy phase.
There was also Josh Kerr's link with Saint Archer, the San Diego 'lifestyle beer brand' started by a harem of surfers, skateboarders, artists and entrepreneurs in 2013. That particular company sold out to brewing giant MillerCoors after operating independently for little more than two years.
The real deal
Against this backdrop and other short-lived celebrity forays into craft beer – such as cricket legend Shane Warne's ill-fated 99 Not Out Pale Ale – Balter had to prove it wasn't a gimmick.
The company went a long way to winning industry respect at the Australian International Beer Awards in May, when it picked up three trophies on debut including the overall honours in its class, Champion Medium Brewery.
In an impassioned acceptance speech, head brewer Scott Hargrave said he hoped he had finally proven what he'd been saying since day one: "Balter's the real deal".
The surfers themselves in fact have little to do with Balter's day-to-day operations. With them on tour, that responsibility rests with the friends they approached to help them get the venture off the ground, general manager Ant Macdonald and brand director Stirling Howland.
A former pro surfer, Macdonald's corporate career includes stints in marketing-related roles at Red Bull and Vodafone, while Howland spent almost 20 years working his way up the ladder at surf brand Billabong, eventually ending up as its creative director.
Their backgrounds are noteworthy for the absence of any brewing industry experience, which insiders generally deem mandatory for success.
The company's early achievements suggest a fresh set of eyes may be just as useful. In its first 12 months, Balter smashed its stretch production target to brew 800,000 litres of beer, a milestone that already put it on the cusp of becoming one of the country's larger independent breweries.
Bigger than one person
"From the very first meeting I told them, 'look boys, I'm not going to create a surf brand here. I'm not going to create a 'lifestyle beer' brand," Howland recalls.
"Surfing is such a small part of the world and good beer is so much bigger than just one sport or one person."
Balter has also worked hard to build its brewing credibility by putting Hargrave and his beers front and centre, rather than relying overly on the marketability of its owners.
Defining a craft beer
A respected brewer whose CV includes a trophy-winning stint at Byron Bay Brewing and several years in a senior role at Stone & Wood, Hargrave admits his own scepticism when he was first approached by the Balter founders.
"One thing I said to them straight up was… If this was just going to be some sort of cynical ploy by well known sportspeople with a bit of money to parachute into this latest craft beer trend, then I wasn't interested in that, because that's the antithesis of what craft beer really is and who I am," he recalls.
After his suitors finally convinced him of their good intentions, Hargrave set about creating the beer that would define Balter.
"What I didn't want to do was to go to all the trouble of building this brewery, and put out another 'me too' beer," Hargrave says.
Flavour and aroma
With a deceptively pale complexion, Balter XPA is five per cent ABV, with robust hopping delivering floral and tropical aromatics and a firm bitterness. It is high on drinkability and refreshment, but certainly no pushover, with plenty of complexity for beer geeks to ponder over.
It was followed up in the range by two interpretations of classic German beer styles, Alt Brown and Pilsner, neither of which could be considered to be going after the low hanging fruit in a craft beer market that is infatuated with aromatic hops.
Only recently has the company satisfied drinkers' demands for an India Pale Ale, with the seven per cent ABV Balter IPA further evidence the company will not be dumbing craft beer down for the masses.
"We knew from the very beginning, this was all a gimmick if the product part wasn't right," says Howland.
"People might try 'Mick Fanning's beer' once, as it used to be called, but they won't try it again if it's crap."