Women in business: Meet Harriet from mountain culture
Harriet has two passions in life: beer and mountains. So she and her husband spent two years travelling across the world, exploring the best of both until they finally decided it was time to get a real job. So with a lot of hard work they launched Mountain Culture, a brewpub that fast became one of Australia’s most respected beer brands.
Tell us how Mountain Culture started?
My husband DJ and I had a vision for opening a brewpub where we’d brew our own beer – but not just any beer. We wanted to release at least one new beer a week and be really experimental. Like beers where you add raw cocoa nibs, or different fruits like strawberries and guava, plus use different yeast strains.
We knew we wanted to open Mountain Culture in the Blue Mountains because we are both really outdoorsy people and are really inspired by the area.
But unfortunately opening a brewery isn’t as simple as having the idea and settling on a location. It took us two years to find the right building, which was a heritage listed old Civic Video store – the second last in the country – in Katoomba. And then it took us another two years to obtain all the licenses, get the equipment made and renovate what was a very dilapidated building that had trees growing out of it and bright purple and yellow walls!
We began brewing in mid 2019 and then opened the bar in Katoomba on a Thursday night in October 2019 with 14 different beers on tap and since then, we’ve stuck to our guns to release at least one new beer a week. Today, we’ve released almost 200 different beers.
When did you first realise you liked craft beer?
I actually don’t like beer in general – but I like Mountain Culture! Well, actually I like beer brewed by DJ so you could say the first beer to turn me was the first beer I ever had of his – an IPA with mango in it. And then I followed that with a jasmine tea session ale and my mind was blown. Until that point, I had no idea beer could actually taste delicious.
How has MC grown as a brand?
Ironically, it was Covid that helped Mountain Culture grow – and in a totally unexpected way. Before Covid, we had this amazing community of local drinkers who would come into our brewpub to try our different beers and shoot the breeze. Then, in 2020, we obviously had to close our doors. The place was eerily quiet and sad. And we were thinking, well that’s it, that’s the end of the journey, because we suddenly had an empty venue and a tonne of beer with no way to sell it and no sign of things opening back up. It was a pretty scary time, to be honest.
But we thought, ok, let’s just sell the beer we have already produced because we don’t want to pour it down the drain.
We built a website (yes, I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t even have a website!), got a mobile canning company to come and put all our beer in can and then did a social media post to try and sell the beer online through the post.
That’s when I discovered the power of word of mouth. People started to post on social media photos of the beer with nice words and suddenly, our online orders took off. We would release a beer on Thursday at 11am and by 2pm we were sold out.
It meant we actually had to expand our production to keep up with demand because our little Blue Mountains brewpub with maybe a few hundred visitors a week was now being asked for in pubs all across Australia. We went from producing 60,000 litres of beer per year to now 2 million litres per year and we’re stocked in bottle shops and bars nationally. None of this is something we thought would happen so quickly, and we’re so grateful to our community who support us and champion our beer.
You work with your husband. What’s that like?
We are careful to make sure we’re husband and wife first because Mountain Culture might not be around forever, but we want our marriage to be.
In saying that, I think a lot of people think we share a desk or something but to be honest, I can go whole days without seeing him. Obviously we come together for big decisions because we need to be aligned on the big picture stuff, but day-to-day, he has a very different role in the business to me and we’re responsible for making quite different decisions. I think our partnership works because I completely trust that he’s got what he’s doing covered and vice versa.
Neither of us expected the business to grow this quickly or this big, and with that has come a lot of challenges and it’s put an unprecedented amount of stress on us. Not going to lie, it’s hard. But seeing something come to life that you’ve worked so hard on with your best friend is pretty special.
What’s been the biggest lesson from working in beer?
There is still a stigma around beer being a blokey drink. I love working at the bar at Katoomba and have women come in and say to me, I don’t like beer, so can I please have a wine? I’ll always say, I hear you, but do me a favour and just try this beer. No hard feelings if you hate it,. And it always makes me laugh when they’re so genuinely shocked that they actually enjoy it!
You’re in a male dominated industry – what’s that been like as a woman.
I’m thankful I came into the brewing community when I did because I’m sure in the past it would have been a lot tougher for women. But there’s been so much education and hard work done, and the whole community has really listened and implemented changes where needed. Today there are so many female voices in the industry. Would I like to see more and is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But I do feel like the value women can and do add to the industry has never been more respected or appreciated.
How has being a women influenced the business?
DJ and I had a baby girl nine months after opening the doors (do the maths!) and because Mountain Culture was in its infancy also, I was back to work (probably too) quickly. It meant I was breastfeeding whenever/wherever necessary including the brewery floor. Bar staff would hold Dorothy while I did something urgently and she was often in her bouncer in meetings. I wouldn’t say that is “normal” for a brewery and I can’t even imagine something like that happening even a few years ago, but I didn’t want to separate that part of my life. The simple fact is I’m a woman with a newborn baby and also a job that must get done. It should be normal.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
I’m literally laughing to myself because I don’t know where to start when answering this question! Between the fires, floods, Covid, raw material shortages, shipping delays and now a potential war, we have had a very rocky first couple of years in business. With that context, I think the overarching challenge has been just finding the resolve to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That is so incredibly hard some days, and on those days, I turn off technology to reset and come back the next day. The power of a nap or a good night sleep never ceases to amaze me!
What has surprised you about running a business?
You really can start and run a successful business with no idea what you’re doing – I’m winging it 99% of the time! The catch is that you have to be committed to your vision, open to learning, always follow your instincts and be resilient.
What are you most proud of?
Our team. They’re the best bunch of people who are so crazy talented and work so hard and what they’ve created with Mountain Culture is incredible. I just love them all. I’m also very proud we’re Australia’s #1 brewery.
What is the focus of Mountain Culture this year?
We are doubling down on our mission to push the boundaries of beer. That means we’re going to be doing lots of experiments. For example, we just released a series of four beers where we pioneered a new brewing technique we’ve called “microdosing”. It’s kinda like what people are doing with LSD but, you know, legal! We made our own hop blends and then we added really small amounts continually throughout the brewing process (where normally we would only add only one or two hops, twice). The result has been amazing with really complex flavours.