Opening image: Extreme brewing at the edge of the world. Tim, Alastair, Cécile and friends traverse the steep volcanic slopes of Mount Gower in search of ingredients. Photo Jack Friels


Iridescent ocean blues flash through the palms as we fang it south along the Lagoon Road at sunset. We chuck a left at the little museum and ride up the hill towards Joy’s Shop, skidding north again down a dirt road that loops around lopsided weatherboard sheds and lurid green rainforest. You can hear the wind rustling palm fronds, the island’s perennial wild backing-track of a few thousand seabirds wheeling high overhead, and the sounds of music and laughter drifting through the air.

Soon enough, we arrive at the brewery — Lord Howe Island’s home of fine frothies, an endemic palm nursery and a thriving market garden. We park our treadlies in the rack, weave our way through a crowd of grinning locals and, following the smell of woodsmoke and pizza, wander up to the outdoor bar to order a few cold pints of bully bush lager.

A welcome sight on a sunny arvo in paradise—there’s an ever-changing variety of traditional and more intriguing bevvos on tap at the bar of the Lord Howe Island Brewery. Photo Ula Majewski.

“It's a logistically difficult operation,” says owner Tim Maxwell. “We're the most remote brewery in the world, as far as we know, and being on Lord Howe, everything has to be extremely environmentally conscious. It's taken a long time, but we’ve made a brewery that really speaks of the natural environment around us and the community that we're trying to provide to.” 

The island’s off-the-tap natural wonders are no secret. Lord Howe was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area back in the ‘80s and is home to the world's most southern true coral reef. Sir David Attenborough rated it as “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable... few islands, surely, can be so accessible, so remarkable, yet so unspoilt.”

Not a mobile in sight. Cécile Denis and brewery friend Liv Rose take a moment to smell the palms at Lord Howe’s endemic plant nursery. Photo Ula Majewski

Communication happens in a slow and considered way on the island. Mobiles don’t work, there’s very limited WIFI and rusted-up bikes are the primary mode of transport. It’s simple and old school and wonderful.  

“We're kind of connected through being disconnected,” says Tim. “You make a commitment to meeting someone, and you have to wait there because you can't change it. There's this cooperative spirit that exists here. Whether you live off the land or from the sea, or if you've got a business here, everyone tries their best to share, to fit in with each other. That's why we're only open for three nights a week. Other places are open three other nights a week.”

Brewer and gardener-extraordinaire Alastair Gillespie and ‘The Grainfather’ — his special experimental 20L pilot brew kit. Photo Trent Mitchell

The brewery serves up a more traditional assortment of hops-based bevvos, but what really lights up Tim and brewer Alastair Gillespie is the remarkable array of untapped flavours growing wild across the island. Lord Howe was uninhabited (apart from birds, reptiles, stick insects and other invertebrates) prior to 1789, and as such, there is no intricate traditional culinary knowledge of the island’s plant ecology.

“We started to look at the ingredients around us,” reflects Tim. “From an edibility point of view, it's a bit unexplored. There’s well over a hundred endemic species of plants on the island, and we don't know how many of those are actually edible.”

Another day in the office. Alastair and Tim Maxwell are perpetually on the lookout for new endemic edibles. Photo Jack Friels

Tim, his partner Cécile Denis, Alastair and their mates have adventured to remote parts of the island — traversing the rugged slopes of Mount Gower and weaving their way through misty rainforest gullies — in search of new ingredients. They’ve collected rare plant samples and sent them across the seas to be tested, to Southern Cross Uni on the mainland and as far afield as Imperial College and Kew Gardens in London.  

“There's some rogue species of tea tree that are endemic to the island,” explains Alastair. “They've got these beautiful geranium floral aromas, and when we got them analysed, some of the compounds were similar to the ones in hops. We started thinking about how we utilise these plants that are only on Lord Howe to replace hops or add extra dimensions to the beer. That lager that we had on tap was brewed completely without hops, just using bully bush.” [Cassinia tenuifolia, a flowering shrub endemic to the island].

The brewing process begins here, in the ingredients’ aisle of Lord Howe’s high-altitude brewing supplies store. Photo Jack Friels. And it ends right here — free diver Liv Rose takes her first swig of a cold island lager at the brewery bar. Photo Ben Lawrence 

“The weirdest brew we’ve made so far was a big boozy seven per cent stout with wild-harvested wood ear jellies and some reishi, shitake, lion's mane and oyster mushrooms that we grew on last year’s dried tomato stems. I studied mushrooms at university and I'm a big fan of alliteration, so a shitake stout was on my mind for a number of years.” 

For decades, the brewery site was the heart of the island’s thriving Kentia palm trade. The islanders collected and propagated millions of seeds of this endemic botanical beauty and sent them out into the world. The palms had acquired serious bling status in the late nineteenth century, becoming the high-end houseplant of choice for monarchs far and wide — Queen Victoria was so enamoured she left instructions for Kentias to be stationed around her coffin. But over the years, large-scale Kentia propagation operations sprung up closer to the lucrative Euro market and back on Lord Howe, the island’s nursery business fell into decline. Weeds overran the growing sheds until a decade ago, that is, when the Lord Howe Island Board called for expressions of interest around the future of the vacant site. 

Two hundred years ago, the Kentia palm was the high-end houseplant of choice for monarchs far and wide. Today, the island community has revived the local nursery, collecting and propagating Kentia palm seeds, along with other endemic plants. Photo Ula Majewski 

“My dad thought this would be an amazing community hub,” says Tim. “So, he put in a proposal that had different elements to it — reviving the Kentia palm trade, setting up a produce growing operation, setting up a microbrewery and having a place for us all to enjoy the fruits of the labour. The board agreed, and since 2014, we’ve slowly been realising these different parts.”

The challenges of setting up a brewery at the ends of the earth are formidable, particularly with minimal brewing skills. So, Tim and his dad went to Chuck Hahn, the godfather of Australian craft beer, for advice. They’d seen what he’d done with the Kosciuszko Brewing Company in Jindabyne, another small community living in an iconic, remote landscape. “He basically said, ‘Yeah, we can make this happen,’ and he set to work thinking up a design where one brewer could operate the whole thing. It all started there.”  

Once the Maxwells began researching different wastewater facilities, they came across Alastair — a South African surfer, scientist and mushroom propagation specialist who was using a special bio system to minimise environmental impacts whilst he was head brewer at the Byron Bay Brewery. 

“Fast forward to February 2019,” recalls Tim, “Alastair contacted us and said, ‘Look, I'm super into oceans, in terms of fun and activity, in terms of food. So, if you are looking for a brewer, I'd like to put my hand up high.’ And that was that.” 

Tim explains the intricacies of setting up a brewery at the end of the world to Patagonia ambassador Lauren L. Hill, while Alastair keeps a close eye on the growth of the woodfired pizza toppings. Photo Trent Mitchell

These days, Alastair spends his days brewing, plant fossicking, fishing, surfing and looking after the brewery’s market gardens. One sunshiney arvo, he shows us around the tall Danish-style greenhouses, filled with a cavalcade of cucumbers, capsicums, tomatoes, papayas and basil plants with leaves the size of lettuces and the beginnings of a mycological fruiting room. Outside, there’s a wild orchard of lemon, lime, lemonade, mango and banana trees, all presided over by an enormous avocado tree, named after the garden’s original grower, Bill Thompson.

“We get these 30 knot winds blowing in all this fresh air,” says Alastair. “It’s so rich in oxygen, it just brings a whole lot of vitality to everything that grows here, and everyone that lives here too. I still can’t believe how fresh the water is that I get to brew with. There are no contaminants in that. It's rainwater in the middle of the ocean. We serve it straight out of the tanks that we brew into, which saves on water and cleaning. It means the beer is really fresh.”

Things may change, but for the moment, these fine frothies don’t leave Lord Howe — there’s no canning, bottling, packaging or freighting. The beer comes out of the tap or in takeaway stainless-steel growlers — it's local brews for local island crew only and the lucky ones who get to travel here.

Lord Howe Island is home to a multitude of extraordinary places to prop yourself with a sweet sunset vista and a knock-off growler of cold lager. Photo Ula Majewski

While you won’t find a tinny of bully bush lager on the shelves of a mainland bottlo anytime soon, the brewery crew are fizzing over what’s to come — plans for new brews, ferments, plants and pizza ingredients abound. 

“The whole thing is an experiment that we get to share and grow with our community,” offers Tim. “We’ve got someone like [fifth generation islander, legendary raconteur, guide and botanical expert] Jack Schick who's been walking past these plants for decades. For him to then try one of them in a beer, that's a whole new way of thinking about things.” 

“It’s a unique situation,” says Tim in summary. “We have a brewery in the middle of a nursery, so if we do find an interesting botanical, we've got the capability to propagate it, so we're not harvesting from the wild anymore and we’re also furthering that species. Everyone who comes here recognises how special Lord Howe’s environment is and every decision that could be made here always runs through the question of how that’s being protected. At every single stage and every decision point, the island always comes first.” 

We travelled to Lord Howe Island to make a film about protecting Australia’s ocean for good, and unexpectedly came across the most remote brewery on earth.

Find out what it looks like when we get things right — watch KIN. 

Opening image: Extreme brewing at the edge of the world. Tim, Alastair, Cécile and friends traverse the steep volcanic slopes of Mount Gower in search of ingredients. Photo Jack Friels


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