To many beer aficionados, for the majority of its life at Canberra House, the Wig & Pen Tavern was synonymous with one thing above all others: the beers of Richard Watkins. The brewer spent 17 years there, twice winning Champion Australian Brewery titles and creating an unrivalled collection of cask ales, Belgian beers, hoppy ales and, perhaps most famously, barrel-aged sours back before most people in Australia knew such things existed.
Today, both the Wig & Pen and Richard Watkins have relocated. The former is now found within the capital’s ANU building, the latter within the home of BentSpoke Brewing Co, the brewpub he launched with partner Tracy Margrain in Braddon in June 2014.
It launched with a bang, with an estimated 3,000 litres of beer and cider pouring through BentSpoke’s 18 taps on the opening weekend, and has barely paused for breath since. On The Crafty Pint’s first visit, while all other Canberra venues we passed on the Monday and Tuesday evenings had attracted a handful of patrons, at BentSpoke the tables out front and inside were packed; much of the upper floor, which houses the brewery, was populated too.
It’s easy to understand the appeal, not least because of the quality of the beers and cider that flow. At all times, 18 different drops are on offer, some of them permanently, others one-offs or seasonals that come and go. They range from traditional (and less traditional) ales on hand pump to a range of hoppy, US-inspired pales that rise in steps to some seriously high ABV and IBU brews and among which which the Sprocket is a true gem. Then there are spiced ales, beers pouring through the custom-built “hopinator” (Richard is the designer and builder of most you find around Australia today), dark ales, Belgian ales, beers showcasing unique ingredients, such as the Heat Freekeh brewed with the ancient grain of the same name, and anything else that he challenges himself to brew.
Then there’s the look of the two storey joint. Built into the lower floors of a new build apartment block in the revitalised suburb of Braddon, it puts the brewery front and centre. Behind the downstairs bar sit a row of tanks, while as you head upstairs you pass the brewhouse where Richard goes to work.
There’s plenty of clever touches too. The hand rails on the stairs are actually pipes through which beer is pumped from the brewery to the tanks below, kegs are used for seats and malt bags hang from walls, while the tap handles are all individually conceived and handcrafted by BentSpoke regular Peter Rogers. The retired cartographer used to design the decals for Richard at the Wig & Pen and has now taken his creativity to another level, carving and moulding ever more cunning and outlandish wooden, plastic and metal handles.
It’s all in keeping with the dazzling industrial look of the brewpub, from the expanses of timber, glass and steel to the incredible hanging light shades (a term that doesn’t do them any sort of justice) welded from bike parts by Tracy and the Rat Patrol, a local group of bike builders. Similarly, the tasting paddles – or handles – are made with actual handles.
The look is itself in keeping with the ethos of the place, with the “spoke” of the title a nod to the world of cycling. As for the bent, well, Richard is well known for brewing “bent” beers, many of which appear alongside more orthodox beers, all of which you can take home in stylish growlers.
That’s not all that’s bent about the place, either. The food that has played its own significant role in BentSpoke’s popularity isn’t afraid to step outside the boundaries of what you might expect to find on a quality brewpub menu. Sure, there are tasty hot wings, Ploughman’s platters and the like, as well as dishes making use of the beers and their raw ingredients. But there are often offerings for the more adventurous, such as lamb’s brains in a crushed grain crust. And quite delicious they were too.
In November 2015, Richard and Tracy took possession of a second site in Mitchell, where they are developing a second brewery and venue that includes a canning line that, in November 2016, produced their first two packaged beers, with Barley Griffin and Crankshaft getting the nod.