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, or at least was, for all intents and purposes, a one man show. More accurately, one man and his dad. For years, Phil and Mike O’Shea did everything here: brew beer, clean tanks, fill bottles, make deliveries, pour beer, run the bar, write emails, balance the books. Occasionally, other family members would help out as the brewery grew, the taproom become more venue like and thus embraced by even more locals, and new tanks arrived.
That said, unusually for a society where rapid and perpetual growth is valued above most everything else as a measure of success, Five Barrel has been 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 their flagship Hoppy Amber, or Navigator Red IPA as it became following a 2020 rebrand, plus subsequently added XPA and NEIPA represent this in the core range but there’s a perpetual cycle of one-offs and experiments; single hop beers, imperial stouts, quirky sours 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.
Sure, the place has changed over time, as inevitably as the city and the people around it will continue to do. Most notably was the move into cans in late 2020, about the same time Phil admitted it was time to bring in some help from outside the family and hired brewer Brent Edwards, who had been at New Zealand's fast-growing Good George but was moving with his partner and daughter back to her family.
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.