Wood panelling, retro 80s decor and walls of Vinnies-worthy Australiana collectibles. An old-school pool room filled with prints and memorabilia. A suburban-style Chinese restaurant. Tinnies and taps emblazoned with an illustration of Australia’s 23rd Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Sepia-tinted social media of old family photos and historic shots from newspapers harking back to a heyday.
It’d be easy to look at Hawke’s Brewing Co. and its Beer & Leisure Centre venue in Marrickville and wonder if it’s a gimmick. A brand tapping into the affectionate fad for vintage aesthetic and nostalgia. But at its core, Hawke’s goes deeper than just Bob and beer. It’s about a yearning for an authentic Australian connection, linked to a memory of a time and place, tied in with an Aussie icon and his lasting cultural legacy.
And yes, a love of honest froths.
The spark for Hawke’s Brewing Co. lit when two homesick Australians shared a dream of having a beer with former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. In the end, Nathan Lennon and David Gibson ended up going one better and co-founding a whole darn beer company with their “fantasy beer mate”, before going on to brew award-winning beers that really are One For The Country.
Who else but Bob? Apart from being a top bloke and good company, no Australian (let alone Prime Minister) has ever been as synonymous with beer. From stadium-rousing beer sculls at the SCG to his time as world-record holder for downing a yard during his Oxford Uni days, to teetotalling throughout his entire tenure as PM.
But when Nathan and David set out to bring a Bob-approved beer business to the table, they weren’t interested in building a gimmick based on clichéd associations or simply slapping an iconic face on the side of a can.
“Beer was obviously a part of Bob’s strategy to connect with people, from his early union days in Carlton’s John Curtin Hotel, to his 10-second party trick that came out in his later years at the SCG,” Nathan said. “His approach was simple – before you get serious, you need to strike a chord and build a connection. And few were as effective and authentic in connecting with Australians than Bob Hawke. It seems hard for a politician to be able to do that these days.”
It was Nathan and David’s need for reconnection to Australia that catalysed their idea for Hawke’s, after a shared bout of homesickness took hold of them while they were living as expats in New York.
Says Nathan, “Like any Australian who’s lived overseas for some time, you inevitably start to miss home and unpack what you miss and why. It’s mostly those quirky things, unique to only Australians. The simple stuff you see in movies like The Castle. Plus our nature. We got this sudden pang of homesickness. I asked David, “If you could be back home right now, who would you most like to have a beer with?” Dave said “Bob Hawke”. It was such a spot on answer. We were instantly snapped back to the 1980s and our childhoods, and overwhelmed with so much incredible nostalgic imagery, so much of which Bob himself was a part of. We suddenly thought, wouldn’t it be incredible if we could build a brand that evokes these same feelings, while tying into Bob’s national image. A purpose-driven business that would give back in some way, shape or form. And ultimately, a company that we could convince Bob Hawke to start with us.”
Bob didn’t just say yes, he agreed to co-found the company with Nathan and David on the grounds that 100% of his royalties be donated to Landcare Australia, the environmental charity he helped establish in 1989. A perfect cycle of beer that gives back to the land its ingredients are grown on, through a charity that was close to his heart.
Flavours of Australia’s Past & Present
There were grassroots beginnings, running operations out of Nathan’s nan’s garage, as the pair worked with former Port Melbourne-based CBCo head brewer, Justin Fox, to refine and test a classic lager that would eventually meet the approval of Australia’s 23rd Prime Minister. On 6 April 2017, Bob poured the first schooner of his namesake lager at The Clock Hotel in Surry Hills.
“Lager is an egalitarian style. A beer’s beer. One that’s been spilled on more RSL carpets than any other. It’s also a style we knew Bob would have no qualms approving for launch,” Nathan said.
“And in the timeline of craft breweries putting commercial effort behind their lagers, we knew we would be one of very few. This supported our on-premise distribution strategy, as we wouldn’t be trying to compete for real estate with the hundreds of pale ales and IPAs vying for taps in pubs. There was simply a lot less competition with indie lagers back then. Hawke’s became an indie option if you didn’t want to drink mainstream beers, like VB, Carlton Draught or Tooheys New.”
In an indie craft beer market of wild flavours and staggering ABVs, Hawke’s keeps it simple, with beers brewed for our simple Australian lifestyle. Beers for watching the cricket, sunny days with mates, and a low ABV session for when it’s your turn to watch the BBQ.
“It’s unusual for an independent brewery not to range a pale ale, so Hawke’s Patio Pale was next out of our pilot tank,” Nathan said. “But we still had to win over a man in his late 80s who’d never touched a pale ale in his life. I think Bob’s initial reaction was along the lines of ‘I prefer the other one.’ We considered that a green-enough light to go into production.”
Just because Hawke’s beers are simple doesn’t mean they’re not painstakingly crafted. Its flagship Hawke’s Lager won 2018 AIBA best Australian Style Lager. When it comes to classic Australian beer, the OG, it doesn’t get much better than that. Its Patio Pale also took out AIBA Gold “American Style Pale Ale” in both 2018 and 2022. And its Underdog Session Lager also has an Indie Gold – a beer that “punches above its weight.”
The beer profiles are smooth and malty, with no chunky tropical hops or sweet imperial stouts to overwhelm the taste buds. It’s simply good beer, like you remember from the old days.
“The role of Hawke’s is to help create an emotional, nostalgic-like connection to our country. To look and feel like a brand of beer that’s been around since the 1980s,” Nathan said. “Similarly with the experience at The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre, we try to look at the world through a familiar lens. Personally, and maybe I can speak for many of us, today’s world is swirling around us super fast. Sometimes it’s nice to just slow down and remember the good old days. For me, I have vivid memories of spending time in old school-looking pubs, or my grandparents taking me to the local Chinese restaurant for lunch on Sundays. The Beer & Leisure Centre deliberately brings these types of memories back. From the smell of sizzling beef wafting from the Lucky Prawn kitchen, to the wood-panel-clad pool room, adorned with iconic photos and personal memorabilia that unpacks Bob’s story, to the tiled-floor public bar, lined with taps of Hawke’s beers.”
The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre bar is Hawke’s head brewer Brodie French’s best opportunity to tweak and improve Hawke’s core range, as well as test the unfamiliar through the brewery’s ‘One Hit Wonder’ series.
“If we’ve got a feeling about a particular style we want to experiment with, we put it on tap at the venue,” Nathan said. “We can get a sense directly from our guests as to what’s working, what they really really love. That said, our brewery isn’t designed to pump out limited releases every month. Our primary focus is to brew our core range to a gold-medal standard, consistently. Moving forward, if we release something new into the world, it will have had to pass a few internal hurdles.”
A Legacy That Gives Back
Bob passed in 2019, but his impact on Hawke’s Brewing Co. continues. He left a massive legacy, a part of which is an independent Aussie beer company born out of genuine love for the country.
“From the outset, even at the idea stage, we wanted to build a business that gave back,” Nathan said. “That was really important to us. We presented this ethos to Bob as being a core part of what we would do. It’s rewarding to know we can continue to build our dream, while financially supporting our charity partnership with Landcare Australia, as well as build on our sustainability initiatives, all because of Bob’s generosity. We’re honoured to carry on a piece of his legacy.”
“Interestingly, Bob wasn’t nostalgic or sentimental in any way. He was always focused on the future. Which is ironic, given so much of what we do is rooted in nostalgia. But sometimes, it helps to look to the past to draw inspiration for what we can and should do in the future.”
This article was made in partnership with Hawke’s Brewing Co.