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 off too, meaning every visit to the brewery was almost certain to turn up something different and interesting.
Over recent years, visits to the brewery have become an increasingly comfortable experience as they moved away from being a production-only facility and opened a a six tap tasting bar overlooking the brewhouse. That comes complete with a counter-pressured growler filling station which means you can take a couple of litres of your favourite beer home with you. The hospitality side has continued to expand downwards and out, with the brewery floor now housing tables and chairs beneath a wall of barrels while sun umbrellas, deck chairs and a barbecue take pride of place outside the brewery on Friday and Saturday afternoons.
A further rebrand in 2016 saw Illawarra consolidate a core range they felt had become too broad, coinciding with a decision to focus more on the local Wollongong market, as opposed to sending more beer to the bigger beer cities of Melbourne and Sydney, and encouraging more people to visit and drink fresh beer from the source. That said, you’ll still see the occasion Illawarra brew around the traps, particularly when their caravan, complete with a four beer tap system, rolls into your local festival or farmers market.
While the history of the Illawarra brewery is very much still being written, when it is looked back upon it won't be measured only by the impact it has had on promoting local beer within its own region. The cast of brewers that have honed their skills here, both in Five Islands days and under the Illawarra name, has regularly gone on to found or head craft breweries elsewhere in the country and push the cause for better beer everywhere.