Hawkers Beer founder Mazen Hajjar on why he went from being a war photographer to running a $8 million craft brewery

Hawkers Beer Mazen Hajjar

Mazen Hajjar

Former airline founder, investment banker and war photographer Mazen Hajjar began his first foray into the craft brewing scene in the middle of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, “pissed off” at his country, which he says knew nothing about craft beer. 

After running a successful business for almost ten years, a distribution trip to Australia opened Hajjar’s eyes to the the way the Aussie beer market was lagging behind. Seeing an opportunity, he left his hometown and began Hawkers Beer in Melbourne.

Today the business turns over $8 million annually and has won an array of awards and accolades. Hajjar spoke to SmartCompany about the struggles of uprooting your life to begin a business abroad and the “nosebleed” which is the bureaucracy involved with launching a business Down Under.

I started my first brewery in the Middle East in 2006, right in the middle of the July war between Lebanon and Israel. Before that I was a war photographer, then I was an investment banker for nine years, and then I started my own airline at the age of 29.

It was called menaJet, and it was the first low fare airline in the Middle East, and three years later we landed a partnership with the Lebanese government.

One day I woke up and decided I had had enough, so I moved back home and started 961 Beer, one of the first craft breweries in the Middle East. At that point, I had never been to a brewery in my life, and I had no idea about making beer.

I originally had a plan to go and buy a piece of land and retire making wine, but it didn’t seem feasible as there were way too many vineyards back home. I was also obsessed with flavour, as my family had an orchard and small farm.

Lebanon has a great food culture, but no one knew about craft beer – and that pissed me off. We only had five light fizzy industrial lagers on offer back home.

Eventually, the brewery was exporting to 26 different countries, one of which was Australia. I was in Sydney selling beer door to door, and my business partner and I were talking about what we would do if another war broke out.

He said we could just come back to our roots, as Lebanese people first came to Australia as street hawkers.

Because we were exporting to a lot of countries, I had an outsider’s look at the Australian beer market. It was 15 years behind where the US was, so it seemed like I had an opportunity to do something.

I knew where the market was heading, so I began Hawkers Beer with my Australian distributor and we started selling beer in February 2015.

The challenges early on were mostly personal challenges. Starting a business in Australia put a strain on my family life and cost me a divorce.

Moving countries is no easy task, you’re uprooted and put in a new place with no social connections and no support structures. It drains you on a personal level.

Not only are there cultural nuances you’re not aware of, but you don’t know how the market will perceive each flavour, you don’t know if it will work. Making beer is easy, everything else is hard.

I had been to Australia quite a few times and I picked up on a lot, but there was still a lot of bureaucracy and over-regulation of every little minuscule detail. Trying to understand employment was a nosebleed with all the different awards.

There were a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

Today I think there’s a growing awareness that the craft beer industry is a big contributor to the economy, and I feel there’s a shift in political will to help craft brewers in a sense. When we set up in Reservoir our local council had no idea what we were talking about, but we’ve built a solid relationship since.

We started off with four employees which has grown to almost 30 now. There’s a lack of technical skills in the brewing industry, so qualified workers can be quite scarce.

That’s why we’ve been investing a lot in training and bringing people up through the ranks. Right now we’ve got an employee who started off packing beer off the line, and now he’s the head brewer.

We’ve won 52 different medals for our beer, and in 2016 we were crowned the Supreme Champion Brewer at the International Beer Challenge in London.

We don’t read too much into our awards – sure they’re more marketing, but we don’t use them that way. Everyone has their own taste palate, and just because people say something’s the greatest thing on earth, that doesn’t mean it is.

It’s nice when your peers recognise you as the best brewer in the world, but we don’t want to feed off that frenzy.

The Australian craft beer industry still has a while to go to catch up to the rest of the world, but it’s moving at breakneck speeds. The focus on quality has dramatically improved, and there’s been an explosion of craft breweries around Australia.

All additional competition isn’t a zero sum game. There is a sense of camaraderie around what we do in the beer world, all about introducing good beer to those who haven’t had it before and helping improve the sector as a whole.

I am obsessed with sustainability, and I’m a self-proclaimed tree-hugging hippie. I have a three and a half-year-old son, and I want to pass on the Earth in an equal or slightly better condition than how I received it.

Ninety-eight percent of all our waste is recycled, and 40% of our energy comes from solar. We’re looking at installing malt silos to reduce our carbon footprint.

It’s very important to look at sustainability, and we think about it every day.

We don’t do it as a point of difference, we do it because it’s the right thing to do. That’s not what makes our beer special. I would never expect someone to buy shit beer just because it’s sustainable.

We’re not even nationwide yet, but by September we will have covered New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia. We’re taking small measured bites.

If anyone’s getting into the industry for the money, that’s the worst possible reason. You have to be madly in love with it.

I wake up in the morning and I’m genuinely happy to be at work and be in Australia and Melbourne. If you think only of the money, it will be way harder to make money.

The brewing business is heavy on capital, so whatever you might think you need to get started, triple it. Things go wrong all the time.

Be in it for the passion, but remember it’s a business. In your head, you might have a great story, but that might not translate to consumers, logistics, and cashflow, and that can push you out of business.

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