Off-grid Aussie winery thrives under China trade bans and global COVID-19 pandemic | Ralph-Lauren

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Lucky for Robe’s Tom O’Reilly, there was a “dire need” for brewers when he finished his Bachelor of Science seven years ago.

It may seem like an unexpected career choice for a plant and soil science major with an interest in human biology and agroecology.

“[With beer making], you’re basically trying to hit a whole range of different numbers, temperature, timing, pH levels and sugar concentrations,” Mr O’Reilly said.

To do all of that by hand, he said, took a lot of time and skill.

“It’s pretty amazing that 95 per cent of the beer in Australia is made by computer programs,” Mr O’Reilly said.

A man with long brown hair, a dusty cap, glasses and a black t-shirt stands smiling in the middle of a vineyard on a sunny day.
Loophole brewer Tom O’Reilly, at Cape Jaffa, SA.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Since 2016, Mr O’Reilly has been the head brewer at Loophole Brewing Co in Cape Jaffa, a coastal town on the southern tip of South Australia’s Lacepede Bay.

In the past five years, the 320-acre site has pushed the boundaries on its operations, growing from a little vineyard to a brewery, barley farm, veggie patch, restaurant and spirits producer.

Even before China trade bans and a global pandemic, the off-grid winery had been trying to source many of its resources — and much of its success — in-house.

Importance of place

The ability to diversify has been Derek Hooper’s plan since he started the winery in 1992.

A big part of expanding their output has been capitalising on their natural surrounds, a unique combination of local limestone and terra rossa, a reddish fertile soil typical of the Mediterranean.

“Where we are situated is a pretty amazing place,” Mr Hooper said.

A man in a large fleece jacket smiles from the drivers seat of an old SUV.
Cape Jaffa Wines and Loophole general manager Derek Hooper on the vineyard.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

They rely on the climate to fuel operations.

“Our solar aspect of things has really been something we’ve been quite passionate about for many years and being able to run the whole winery and brewery off 100 per cent renewables is pretty good,” Mr Hooper said.

“We’re actually not connected to the grid.

“We’ve moved away from having diesel generators for our prime power supply to having a fairly large lithium battery bank that gives that base power supply and then that solar tops it up during the day.”

A low brick building with dozens of solar panels next to grass, a gravel road, and lines of crops in the background.
The winery and brewery are powered by renewable energy.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Desert limes, lemon myrtle and more

Over the summer they planted a native garden with hopes the lemon aspen, desert limes, “strawberry yum”, golden wattle, muntries, karkalla and lemon myrtle would create a “sustainable microclimate”.

“We run our whole vineyard organically and biodynamically and we really want to do the same thing with the beer,” Mr Hooper said.

A close-up shot of shrubs with white flowers, against a backdrop of crops.
A native garden has been planted to create a “sustainable microclimate”.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Loophole has already found success infusing their beer with fruit, mixing in the vineyard’s grape skins.

Adding beer and other spirits

The progression from wine started in 2014.

“It’s always taken a lot of beer to make wine so it was a bit of a natural progression to make our [own] beer after playing around in the shed for a while,” Mr Hooper said.

The beer has done so well they are building a big shed to boost batching capacity.

A large shed sits on a large patch of dirt next to some scaffolding marking a new building project.
Loophole Brewing Co in Cape Jaffa on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

They have recently started growing their own barley.

“It’s just great to learn about that as a new agriculture vintage for us,” Mr Hooper said.

A pair of sun-wrinkled hands handle the bud of yellow barley crop.
Mr Hooper handles the barley crop on his Cape Jaffa property.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

During COVID-19, Tom O’Reilly and Derek Hooper pumped out 5,000 litres of a whisky wash.

After visiting a still in McLaren Vale, the whisky will sit in barrels for a few years.

“[Having] a brewer that is actually knocking out high-quality wash is fantastic,” Mr Hooper said.

Tough time creates new domestic market

The whisky trials and exotic beer creations are a by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long rows of vines sit under a blue sky, large trees and paddocks in the distance.
The vineyards at Cape Jaffa Wines, Limestone Coast, SA.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

With Chinese sales “on pause”, Mr Hooper hopes more Australians will look for local products, even if they cost a bit more.

“The next couple of years are going to be tough because there was a fair bit of booze that was going to China that’s going to be on this local market,” Mr Hooper said.

“If we can really give people a reason to come here or to drink locally … that’s going to be the real job we’ve got for the next couple of years.”

A sign with the words "Cape Jaffa, Limestone Coast" on top of a brickwork base.
A road sign for Cape Jaffa on the Limestone Coast.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

The signs are promising.

Thanks to a “huge influx” of domestic travellers, the winery is now expanding its cellar door experience by boosting its food offering and building a large deck to seat another 120 people.

Importance of creativity

Mr Hooper said allowing his employees space to be creative had been the key to their success.

“We all have a bit of a crack and everybody’s ideas go into the melting pot,” Mr Hooper said.

“You’ve got to keep them interested.”

A man wearing a worn hoodie and cap sits on an old wooden chair grinning, holding a shovel in a green garden.
Dion, the garden’s primary caretaker, was a barman in Robe before he joined the Loophole team.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Mr O’Reilly said the explosion of creativity and styles came from an array of skillsets.

“Some of the best brewers I’ve met have come from trades, like concreters, plumbers, sparkies, farmers.”

He said with few ways to become a brewer through tertiary or apprenticeship pathways, he hoped people in other professions would consider the jump.

“It’s really bloody handy if you know how to fix a pump or maintain your boiler, particularly if you’re operating a brewery in a regional area,” Mr O’Reilly said.



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