Bali’s Hottest Cold Beer
Island Brewing gave us beer for Stab High last year. We wanted to shine a light on em to give thanks.
“I was never trying to start a business,” says Island Brewing’s 32-year-old founder Mattia Di Bitonto, “I just wanted to drink good beer.”
Launching a beer company during COVID might not be the kind of idea the investors on Shark Tank fight to bankroll, but if you grew up in Indonesia and developed a thirst for IPAs while traveling the globe in search of waves, who cares what the suits have to say?
While Mattia might not have set out to build an empire, what began as “a fun thing to do with friends” quickly escalated into the slick Black Sand Brewery in Canggu, Bali, followed soon afterwards by Island Brewing, with a world-class production facility, a team of sponsored surfers, a company boat to shuttle them around the islands, incredible memories made and a lifetime more to come.
“It’s crazy,” laughs the Milan-born, Bali-bred goofyfooter, “all of this came from sitting in my backyard with mates, barbecuing and drinking homebrew.”
“All of this” means not only Black Sand the venue, but Island Brewing — a brewery, cannery and cold storage space which produces over 60,000 litres of beer (roughly 180,000 cans or 3000 kegs) every month and is now seeing demand grow at such a rapid rate that Mattia and his partners are wondering what they need to do to keep up.
To find out how Island Brewing ran into this most welcome of headaches we first need to meet the man behind the biz.
Lightly framed with olive skin, scruffy stubble and closely cropped (endangered?) hair, wearing a baggy white tee, faded black jeans and scuffed Vans, at first glance, Mattia Di Bitonto doesn’t stand out from any other 30-something surfer in Canggu. The Rolex on his wrist tells a different story, however.
While travelling in California, Mattia realised beer fridges offer life beyond Bintang. It wasn’t until he and his friends had ploughed through all the Budweiser and Coors Light and were forced to raid their parents’ stash of IPAs that the penny really dropped.
“That was when I first tasted real beer,” says Mattia. “And then I’d come home to Bali and it was still all green bottles (Bintang), nothing else. I bought all the homebrew equipment I needed, then hit YouTube University and went for it in my shed!”
While Mattia’s first brews were (by his own admission) inconsistent, the good times sitting around talking story with mates were not. And the beers got better with every batch.
It was Mattia’s dad who suggested taking things beyond the backyard. “Pop said, ‘Why don’t you do a brewery?’ and I was kinda shocked. Nobody’s ever really done it here, there’s only big beers.”
Black Sand Brewery opened in the heart of Canggu in 2019 and was so busy straight off the bat that Mattia struggled to keep up with the thirst for his range of delicious craft beers.
“I knew good beer was overdue and I had a vision,” says Mattia, “so I wasn’t surprised. Then six months after we opened, bang, Covid hit, and it was a whole ’nother set of rollercoasters.”
As the island lay dormant through the pandemic, the team were forced to roll the dice once more. “We had a beautiful venue,” says Mattia, “but there weren’t many people around, and they weren’t allowed in anyway. We were just getting by and that’s when we decided if we could get beer out to as many people as possible, we could stay afloat.”
With the popularity of Black Sand, Mattia hatched a plan to build a world-class production brewery that could package and sell beer out to Bali and beyond. They just had to build it first. “That was probably the long-term plan anyway,” says Mattia, “Covid just forced our hand.”
With another round of investment secured, the next step was going to need gun brewers, sourced from all over the world, who knew how to build something big. “Looking back, it helped so much that I knew how to brew beer,” smiles Mattia, “and I’m really happy that I did it to begin with, so that no one can just say I hired professionals. I’m proud to say that we got busy before the professionals got involved!
“We took about a year to build Island Brewing, from breaking ground to finally releasing the product. Our mission statement was ‘to create a world-class production facility that makes really good beer’. But we couldn’t just say that, we needed a proof of concept — a test beer — so we just labelled it Island Brewing cos we’re surfers, and we wanted to make a beach beer. We had so much energy at the beginning but as we got closer to completion we were running on empty. Then, the minute people had that first sip, and we got that first smile, we were so refuelled to keep going.”
The test beer was such a success that plans to contract brew went out the window, and a full pivot was required. “Once we got the pilsener in it went crazy, and now we can barely make enough of our own beers, let alone brew more for other people.”
If the Black Sand Brewery venue was a success, the Island Brewing experience is in another realm altogether. Two years later there are taps at Bali’s International Airport, and a team of cold trucks shuttling kegs and cans to beer lovers across the country. “It’s so fucking cool,” says Mattia. “If we were gone, people would be sad.”
Would Bintang be sad? “They know we’re here,” laughs Mattia. “They sniff around and keep an eye on us, and I’ve had the board of directors in as guests before. They know what we’re doing, and they wanted to meet me, which was cool.”
Apart from Island Brewing’s sparkling new facility and quiver of pilseners and pale ales, as far as Mattia’s concerned, the best part of running a successful business is reinvesting the profits wherever he sees fit, and for a tube hound who has long been sponsored to park his culo inside the archipelago’s hollowest lefts, that was only ever going to be surfing.
“When you’re creating a brand you cannot make shit up,” says Mattia, “it needs to be what you know. Surfing is a part of the everyday lives of everyone who’s been involved in the creation of Island Brewing. Surfers lead great lives, love a beer to celebrate that, and it all flows from there.”
These days Island Brewing is on tap at warungs and restaurants at many of the best waves in the country, and local and expat rippers alike make up the ambassador team. Island Brewing supports local boardriders clubs, and partners up with events like the Rip Curl Cup at Padang Padang, and even our own Stab High at Lakey Peak too. Best of all, Mattia bought a boat the moment the finances would allow it, and suddenly his champagne taste for inter-island swell missions was paid for on a beer budget.
The facility, the surf team, the boat, the ever-growing market share. Do people realise what’s gone into it all?
“I don’t think people have a clue! It’s been a crazy journey. People just want the beer, and most of the time they want it for free! I’m like, ‘motherfucker, can you see how much hair I’ve lost doing this, do you know what’s behind all of this?’ We’ve changed lives, which might sound cocky or whatever, but it’s true, and it’s rewarding.”
What does the future hold for Island Brewing?
“A lot of good times! That’s all we want. The beers are going to get better. Will Big Beer ever buy us? Possibly? That’s what happens all over the world, big breweries buy little upcoming ones, but that would never happen until we’re totally ready to let it go. So, I don’t know for sure, but whatever happens, we’ll be doing it with our friends, by the beach.”
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