Five Barrel Brewing

Wollongong is a changing city. Built on the blue collars of smelting and heavy manufacturing, those industries that bought middle class prosperity are in decline, though hardly dead yet; you can still catch a whiff of them each time the open coal carriages roll through town or the smoke stacks of the steelworks begin to wheeze.

But they feel at odds with a newer energy helping power the local economy, one where health is the biggest drawcard and education not far behind – the University is of high repute and it brings youth, vibrancy, multiculturalism and bright minds. If the place is not yet outright progressive, the sensation is bubbling away.

Its attractiveness is not harmed by the region itself being quite beautiful, a thin sliver of civilisation hemmed in by the Tasman Sea to the east and a towering escarpment in the west that contains everything within; golden sand beaches, fertile soil for a small scale agrarian economy, lush bush to wander in and blue sky in which to dive.

Having all this close enough to commute to Sydney means a great many do, lured by the prospect of a life where home ownership and avocado on toast are not mutually exclusive – not yet, at least. With that great southern migration comes the inevitability of gentrification; the cafes, the small bars, the boutiques. Still, things tend to happen at a relatively slower pace here.

By way of example, compare the two cities through the prism of brewing and it’s been the harbour city sprinting away in recent years, with small breweries opening up at a rough rate of one every few weeks. For the best part of a decade Wollongong had a solitary one. But when it got its second, in 2016, it won Best New Brewery at the Sydney Craft Beer Week awards. Yes, amidst all that is good and great in Sydney, they claimed a Wollongong brewery as their favourite. Is that not the ultimate compliment?

You can still see that trophy on display at Five Barrel Brewing today where it stands out because it looks so out of place. Not because it was undeserved in any way, but because the place itself is so utterly unassuming.

At the southern part of Keira Street, the warehouse sits in inauspicious industrial surroundings, with the brewery stretching down one side and the cellar door down a portion of the other. While it lacks the colourful artwork of many of its northern contemporaries it’s not a cold place, just sparse. Mostly it’s crimson brick and various greys, function over form.

The minimalism comes mainly because Five Barrel is, for all intents and purposes, a one man show. More accurately, one man and his dad. Phil and Mike O’Shea do everything here: brew beer, clean tanks, fill bottles, make deliveries, pour beer, run the bar, write emails, balance the books. If they don’t have time to add a flourish of colour, it doesn’t happen. And, quite frankly, they don’t have time. But they do have a plan.

Unusually for a society where rapid and perpetual growth is valued above most everything else as a measure of success, Five Barrel has become consciously constrained. It used to be, for example, that you could get their beer at several spots in Sydney. Now, not so much. In the face of a changing industry where global beer giants now compete insidiously at a local level and even small breweries are cutting each other in a race to the bottom, Five Barrel has chosen to change how it plays the game.

Distribution is not high on the agenda. They are content – proud, in fact – to be a local brewery, selling as much as they can within the community that in turn supports them most. The decision to become less visible to the world beyond the Illawarra comes down to a simple reasoning that if their beer is good enough, that should be enough to run a sustainable business. And their beer is certainly good enough.

They make it in small batches, about 600 litres at a time – the name Five Barrel refers to the capacity of their brewhouse as measured in the quaint yet stubborn American way. If there’s a direction to which the brewery is predisposed it is, you could reasonably argue, towards hoppy beers best drunk fresh. A Pale Ale and Hoppy Amber represent this in the core range but there’s a perpetual cycle of one-offs and experiments; single hop XPAs, New England IPAs, country or season specific IPAs and an annual double IPA always worthy of attention.

From very early on Phil has been playing around with barrels in limited quantities – a chardonnay barrel aged golden ale here, a Flanders style red ale there and a very fine imperial stout each and every year. None of these register highly on the industry hype-o-meter, but all have been splendid.

With the cellar door having eight taps and the core range occupying just half of that there’s always a surprise or four awaiting and waiting to be taken away; growlers if you have a large thirst today, bottles for less urgent consumption. Despite each of the latter being filled almost painfully slowly with a hand bottler they manage to keep the fridge stocked with the full range and more, the single colour labels drawing your attention like a little rainbow in that simple grey room. And the more you consider it, the more that seems like an apt visual representation of the whole business: focus on the beer. The rest is just noise.

Sure, the place will change in time, as inevitably as the city and the people around it will continue to do – it’s easy, for example, to imagine the cellar door taking on a kitchen and evolving into a true destination rather than just a brewery – but the more important thing is their roots have been firmly planted and they’re prepared for the long haul. They know that any change will be done on their own terms: slowly and incrementally, with local support and without compromising quality or integrity.

In an industry where authenticity is becoming increasingly important, the Five Barrel way feels increasingly like the right way.

Nick Oscilowski

Name
Five Barrel Brewing
Address

318 Keira St
Wollongong
NSW 2500

Phone
(02) 4200 8881
Website
Regular events

Food trucks most weekends

Hours

Mon to Thurs: midday to 6pm
Friday: midday to 9pm
Saturday: midday to 4pm

Five Barrel Brewing Regulars

Five Barrel Golden Ale

In the relatively restrained craft beer market of Wollongong, if you want to encourage the bulk of locals to ditch the mainstream brands and give your local drop a go, you want to help them make that first step. You want to give them something they can relate to and the golden ale is that beer. It’s an inherently simple but well balanced drop, made with just pale malt and Galaxy hops to render it lightly fruity with a gentle bitterness. While it’s approachable enough to appeal to the everyman,… Read more
Style
Golden Ale
ABV
4.5%

Five Barrel Pale Ale

Inspired by America and built on Australian ingredients, Five Barrel’s pale ale finds a place of balance between the two influences to deliver a full serve of deliciousness. Flush with Cascade and Galaxy hops it’s indisputably fruity through a show of passionfruit and citrus characters, followed with a lick of pine. But it’s also a touch darker and a lot maltier than many New World pale ales, awash with luscious biscuit and caramel flavours that build with every mouthful and ends up leaving… Read more
Style
Pale Ale
ABV
5.3%

Five Barrel Hoppy Amber

There’s a reason that Five Barrel has no IPA in their regular range: they don’t need one. They have the Hoppy Amber. Of all the beers sampled when The Crafty Pint team first called into Five Barrel in the brewery’s early days and lined up some tasting paddles to sip on, this one was fully gulped down. In the intervening time it has gone on to become the brewery’s surprise hit – certainly the most popular amongst the beer cognoscenti – and you only need to try it once to discern the reasons… Read more
Style
Amber Ale
ABV
6.5%

Five Barrel Milk Stout

The black mark in the Five Barrel range is also the sweet spot, represented with distinction by the milk stout. This rich dark beer is notable for the addition of lactose which adds a degree of sweetness as well as a smooth and creamy character that serves to shave off the jagged edges of roasted bitterness you might expect from a straighter stout. From end to end it’s full of chocolate and coffee character, making it the kind of beer you could happily push in front of someone who says they don’t… Read more
Style
Milk Stout
ABV
6.0%

Five Barrel Brewing Specials

Five Barrel Brewing Barrel Aged Sours 2018

Tapped August 31st, 2018
It’s difficult to say this without sounding ungracious, so let’s just get it said: these are not the kinds of beers you expect to be coming out of Wollongong. They scream a sense of place, just not this one. A barn in a field in Flanders, perhaps? Definitely somewhere foreign. Somewhere more exotic. That's one of the quirks, though, of the modern beer world. Ideas travel fast and boundaries constraining styles have been obliterated. What was pale is now black. What was clear is now hazy. A farmhouse… Read more
Style
Barrel Aged Sour Ales
ABV
5.0% to 6.0%

Five Barrel Brewing Sour Ale Variety Pack

Tapped August 20th, 2018
There are four-in-one additional reasons to poke your head into the Five Barrel tap room as the Wollongong brewery has ventured for the first time into the world of exploratory variety packs. And, as far as experiments go, it’s an interesting one as they’ve essentially taken one sour style ale and presenting it four different ways: unbastardised, hopped, berried and fruited. The logical starting point on the tasting trip is the unadulterated Berliner Weisse, which dishes up lots of lemon character… Read more
Style
Sour Ale Series
ABV
3.5% to 4.5%

Five Barrel Brewing Imperial Stout 2018

Tapped June 29th, 2018
Winter. Some shiver and swear at the mere mention of the word. Others take a more holistic view of the year’s natural divisions and just get on with making the most of whatever weather gets served up. As if you don’t enjoy hunkering down beneath a blanket, rain on the roof, eyes on a film, one hand resting on your lover’s thigh and the other cupping a goblet of some rich, dark beer. Magic. Those that choose to embrace snuggle season in Wollongong will be pleased to know that Five Barrel has… Read more
Style
Imperial Stout
ABV
9.6%

Five Barrel Brewing Milkshake IPA

Tapped June 29th, 2018
Five Barrel has toyed with New England style IPAs occasionally over the last year or so, but they’ve never muddied the metaphorical waters quite like this. Milkshake IPA is hazy and hoppy but also creamy and smooth – a NEIPA made with lactose. The aroma here is pungent with pineapple, mango and other punchy fruits of the tropical variety, which combine in a manner reminiscent of some forgotten fruity soft drink from your childhood. On the palate it’s just as full on the fruit front, lots of… Read more
Style
Lactose IPA
ABV
6.0%
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