THE southern Grampians town of Glenthompson has long been associated with that most humble household item: the brick.
The Glenthompson Bricks chimney stands sentinel on the Glenelg Hwy, between Ballarat and Hamilton, while the bricks themselves, still stacked by hand in the kiln, are distinctive of the town’s red clay soil.
Over its lifetime, which dates back in various guises to the late-1800s, it has faced many threats.
But none more so than that faced by owner Simon Henry in recent years.
Faced with cheap, commercial, mass-produced bricks Simon – who took over the business after the sudden death of his father in 1998 – has been forced to reduce staff numbers, target new markets, and redesign the business model.
But what really saved the brickwork’s bacon, so to speak, was the pizza. To be precise, Simon’s own outdoor woodfired pizza oven.
"There has been lean times, but if it wasn't for the ovens, we wouldn’t be here today. Without doubt the ovens have saved us," says the 41-year-old father-of-two.
Tapping into our new-found love of alfresco dining, five years ago Simon played around with his building blocks and hit upon a unique design: arch-shaped, two-tonne kits, sold for $1200.
And pizza-lovers – and for that matter anyone who enjoys cooking roasts, lamb shanks, or any meal that suits an earthy hearth – can’t get enough of them.
A large chunk of the business now sees Simon travel around the state installing the ovens for those not confident in tackling a kit. "This is not a traditional woodfired oven, but we designed it for entertaining as well, so if the door is open it throws out radiant heat," he says.
Saving the business with the oven has meant more than just bricks and mortar for Simon, whose great great-grandfather worked for the company back in the day, transporting bricks around Victoria.
He says the brickworks has seen many owners since it was first fired in the late 1800s – when builders took advantage of the area’s clay – but while the owners have changed, the techniques to make the bricks remain the same, taking about a month from start to finish to create, while there is a three-month waiting list for the product.
The red and cream clay for the bricks continues to be extracted from a deep on-site pit, with about 500 tonne extracted once a year, a few days in summer.
Unlike mass-produced bricks, which are wire cut with holes in them, Glenthompson Bricks are solid clay, individually pressed using the original 1940s press, each with an imprint of "Glen" in the brick (to help bond the bricks with the mortar).
About 7000 can be produced in a day and when the target of 40,000 has been reached, they are loaded into the kiln (made from Glenthompson Bricks) by forklift and hand.
The recycled (car) oil-fuelled kiln runs for 80 hours at 1100C. The final product comes in a range of 10 colours, although Simon says customers are encouraged to come and make their own blends.
Simon has reduced staff to just three and now makes bricks to order – dropping from a production of one million bricks in 1998 to 400,000, and increasing the price to $1 a brick - in particular targeting architects and owners of heritage homes.
"People buy our bricks if they want an older look, whether it’s a new house or a renovation," he says.
"It’s not for a kit house, or a housing estate where every house looks the same."
- Glenthompson Bricks
- or ph: (03) 5577 4303