Nick O / 29.06.12
What do you know about Wollongong? That it has the deepest port on Australia’s east coast? That, for some reason, it is home to the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere? That it has a Motorlife Museum? Until we visited, neither did we. Yet, remarkably, it’s all true.
We also found that if you make the trip to Wollongong to get lost amongst these cultural wonders, you’ll be utterly relieved to know that, after a hard day’s exploring, you’ll be able to quell your thirst with what is officially the best Koelsch in Australia.
The beer, brewed by Shaun Blissett and Ashur Hall of Illawarra Brewing Company – two guys in their mid 20s with little formal brewing training – was awarded gold at the 2012 Australian International Beer Awards. Add to that the gold it picked up at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show earlier in the year and you have somewhat of an official endorsement of quality.
This begs two fundamental questions: how and why? The answer, strangely enough, lies in Canberra.
It was in the nation’s capital where the two, completely unbeknownst to each other at the time, were studying Political Science. As most people will appreciate, there’s only so much politics one can take before they’re driven to drink and the Wig & Pen proved to be an alluring and obliging host. Indeed, Ashur credits their stout with helping him through many a cold winter afternoon.
While access to good beer provided blessed relief and lead to an epiphany of sorts, the lack of employment in the ACT’s public sector became the ultimate and unintended driver towards a career in beer on the NSW coast. For Shaun, Wollongong had always been home and for Ashur the local university allowed for a change in direction and a chance to study engineering. They made the move and, as a result, met for the first time after landing the obligatory hospitality jobs at what was then the Five Islands Brewery bar.
It was there where the pair began to take more of an interest in what it really took to make craft beer. As Shaun says, “being in the brewery bar, we obviously stocked all the beer that AG (Andrew Gow, Five Islands’ brewer at that time) made. He’d occasionally pop into the bar after an afternoon shift at the brewery and sometimes there’d be no other punters around, so I’d pester him with a million questions”.
Ashur was the first to make the transition into the brewery, landing a shift or two per week. Shaun recalls of his own introduction to the brewery that “at one point Ashur had done some damage to his knee and ended up wearing a moon boot, so they needed someone else to help out. At the bar, I’d gone from washing dishes to being the deep-fry guy – which was actually a pretty important job at a place where everything on the menu used to be deep-fried – to doing some DJing then managing the bar. From there, I basically pestered AG into giving me a shot in the brewery.”
Around about this time, AG departed for Mornington Peninsula Brewery which left Five Islands short of a brewer. Rather than go to the wider market, the owners placed their faith in a couple of young guys who’d been showing plenty of enthusiasm and, after negotiating a six week handover period, the pair were handed the keys to the brewery. Shaun recalls that “six weeks seems like a long time now but, to learn everything about a brewery, it really wasn’t. There was definitely a lot of note taking! And once AG actually left, we were on the phone to him every single day for months afterwards.”
They continued brewing the Five Islands beers until an ownership change led to the establishment of the Illawarra Brewing Company brand. And with new ownership came new opportunities to pursue their own preferences. Says Shaun: “We essentially wanted to brew to our tastes – what we’d want to drink. All the original recipes have been changed slightly, some more than others, to get to the quality and standard we want.”
Fast-forward a year or so and the brewers, the beer and the brand are more than holding their own. Putting the success of the Koelsch aside, their Nelson Pale also picked up gold at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show while four of their other beers also claimed medals. They have been complimenting their core range of beers with a diverse range of seasonal brews, the most recent example was their Saison Rouge which was well received at the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular. Next out of the tank is a Belgian Dubbel, which has just been released.
One reason for the expanding range is a relatively recent move to a new premises with increased brewing capacity. Crucially, this has also allowed the continuation of the contract brewing side of the business they had also inherited, which provides an ongoing education. Through a constant rotation of recipes and input from outside brewers and breweries, Shaun and Ashur are continually being introduced to different perspectives, techniques and problems, helping them to keep their standards high.
As Shaun says: “In the end, it’s just great that other brewers are happy with the quality we’re providing and are coming back to have us brew for them again."
With the industry clearly giving a nod of approval to what the guys are producing, the next step is to win over local drinkers. As with any lone craft brewery competing against the hardened loyalty of mass-market drinkers, convincing people to try something new can be a struggle. But, almost drinker by drinker, they are winning people over. In a positive sign, the brewery bar has seen the IBC beers gain parity with the big name brands, and many of the punters who only drank mainstream beer have changed their tune and are justifiably proud drinkers of their local brew.
Once this attitude catches on further, it’s only a matter of time until Illawarra Brewing surpasses the Buddhist temple and Motorlife Museum amongst Wollongong’s pantheon of icons.