The Illawarra Brewing Company will always hold an important place in the hearts of beer lovers on the New South Wales south coast. Originally operating under the Five Islands name, the brewery and bar in which it was located, opposite Wollongong’s main beach, was for a long time the region’s lone voice when it came to producing and promoting locally brewed beer.
It was a rebrand to the Illawarra Brewing Company in 2011, combined with moving the brewery to a larger site in North Wollongong to increase capacity, that saw the brewery gain wider recognition at a national level, particularly when, with brewers Shaun Blissett and Ashur Hall at the helm, they began collecting a swag of medals at both local and international beer shows.
Their beer range, the core of which began as a crowd-pleasing selection including koelsch, pilsner, amber ale and porter, began to expand rapidly into a never-ending series of one-offs, from yeast-driven Belgian-inspired styles to the full force of American double IPAs. A barrel ageing program was initiated too, meaning there's always something different and interesting on the go.
Over recent years the brewery has moved from being a production-only facility to one that welcomes in visitors. There's now a six tap tasting bar overlooking the brewhouse where, once you've found a favourite, you can grab takeaways from their counter-pressured growler filling station. The hospitality side has continued to expand downwards and out; on Fridays and Saturdays tables and chairs are laid out beneath a wall of barrels while sun umbrellas, deck chairs, a barbecue and the occasional food truck sprawl out of the brewery floor.
A further rebrand in 2016 saw Illawarra consolidate a core range they felt had become too broad. That coincided with a decision to reduce the focus on sending beer to the bigger beer cities of Sydney and Melbourne and instead giving more love to the local Wollongong market and preaching the message of the importance of drinking beer fresh from the source. That said, you’ll still see Illawarra brews around the place, particularly when their caravan – complete with a four beer tap system – rolls into local festivals and farmers markets. And there's a chance you'll see them alongside Sutherland brewers Shark Island who they've teamed up with to create the Southern Brewers which helps push the cause for supporting local breweries south of Sydney.