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Thorny Devil understands craft beer isn’t just what you drink when you go out with friends.
Well, it is that, but for some craft beer brewers it’s a passion to which they devote their entire lives. There aren’t many beverages out there able to captivate people with their storied history and artistry—let alone through their exquisite flavour. Well, there are, but beer possesses an accessibility and room for opportunity to grow skills and imagine novel tastes that seem to ignite said passion.
If you were to draw up a list of people who deserve acknowledgement for their roles driving beer in Australia to where it is now, there’s every likelihood Brad Rogers and Jamie Cook, two of the founders of Stone & Wood Brewing, would feature. The former has a brewing pedigree that takes in many of the best beers to come out of Foster’s / CUB in the past two decades (all, sadly, pretty much consigned to the past now) while the latter has been pullings strings in various guises ever since the earliest days of the craft beer revolution.
Yet it’s Stone & Wood that, from this week, is instead taking the lead in acknowledging the industry’s trailblazers with the launch of the first Forefathers beer. These collaborations will become an annual affair, each created with a different Forefather of the industry, with Phil Sexton number one on the invite list.
To the uninitiated, Phil was one of the guys that opened the brewpub credited as the birthplace of modern craft beer in Australia. They turned the former Freemason’s Arms in Fremantle into the Sail & Anchor in the early 1980s, brewing beers on a homemade kit at the back before building the original Matilda Bay soon afterwards. The impact of that business went beyond simply breaking the shackles the country’s dominant lager brewers held over what people drank in their own venue: they opened a series of venues across Australia, began importing beers and set up their own distribution channels too.
Years later, after returning to wine and working with a number of breweries in the States – creating the first American IPA for BridgePort along the way, as one does – Phil was enticed back to Australia to help establish Little Creatures.
Today, while he remains involved in beer – invited to given the keynote opening speech at last year’s Australian Craft Brewers Conference – his main concern is the Giant Steps / Innocent Bystander wine business in the Yarra Valley. Yet it’s fair to say the Australian beer landscape wouldn’t look like it does today if, inspired by time in the UK and Europe as a young brewer, he and his uni friends hadn’t had the balls to ignore the accepted wisdom of the time and strike out on their own.
“It wasn’t really a thought of ‘Who should go first?’,” says Brad (above, fourth from left) of the decision to launch the series with Phil. “There are a number of people who have significantly contributed to the rise of independent Australian beer but, timing wise, we decided to kick this release off with Phil.
“Phil was integral in breweries and brands like Sail & Anchor, the Matilda Bay Brewing Company, then Little Creatures, so it just made sense to kick it off with him.”
The beer itself, a northern English Brown, was chosen in collaboration with Phil. It’s a nod to the beers he enjoyed while training as a brewer in Birmingham and, while unintentional, also doffs a cap to the very first beers brewed at the Sail & Anchor. Phil and son Harry – currently home brewing his way through university – travelled to Stone & Wood for the brew (pictured above), where the former claims he drank beer with his mates while Harry did most of the work.
“[It was] so good,” says Brad. “It was nice to have Phil and Harry in the brewery helping us but also being able to catch up with him and introduce a person who we respect to the team.”
To mark the launch of the series, we chatted to Phil. It’s only 18 months since we last interviewed him when compiling the 150 Great Australian Beers book but much has changed so we asked him about today’s beer world and where he sees it heading.
TODAY’S SHIFTING LANDSCAPE
“We are seeing a complete realignment of a beverage called beer. I’m sure the big guys wouldn’t agree with me, but I don’t think beer is what it used to be in Australia and the big guys are struggling to accept that.
“The market is moving ahead of them. People are interested in stories and provenance. And they’re not going to drink as much of it. That changes the nature of the business because that had been about large volumes being consumed consistently by a market that consumed tribally. That market is diminishing quickly.
“You used to see beer cans lying at the side of the road – people throwing them out the windows after drinking them while driving – but you don’t see that [anymore].
“It’s a major change. I don’t know what the percentage [of craft beer within total beer consumption] is in Australia but it’s pushing up quickly. The US is well ahead of Australia and generally we will go where they go. The big guys over there have really struggled with their craft acquisitions. It’s the independent ones that are really powering through things.
“It’s an incredible market now. You can get anything from a sour to a supercharged hoppy beer. If you go back to the early days it was damn hard to get people to look at a different beer; now they won’t look at it if it’s not different! That genie is out of the bottle.”
NOT SO LITTLE CREATURES
“We didn’t imagine that there was a second wave of craft beer coming through. The first was crushed – or we had tripped ourselves up – but the second wave has been far more successful. We were at the start of it but didn’t realise we were.
“If you asked me about how Little Creatures started, I was convinced that the only way [to succeed] would be to sell a really good beer across the bar. That [development of a second wave] was driven by Nic [Trimboli] and Howard [Cearns] more than me.
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