“As soon as we saw it, we thought, ‘We have to have it!’,” says Matt King of the building that will be the new home of the Grifter Brewing Company, the gypsy brewing business he started with friends Glenn Wignall and Trent Evans.
In the three years since they've been brewing, the Grifters have gained a fine reputation in the Sydney brewing scene. Theirs is one that has been forged quietly; they seldom package their beer, rarely hawk their wares at festivals and don’t host many events. It’s not a been deliberate attempt at shying away but a matter of doing what can be done amongst busy lives – working other jobs, running other businesses and raising family. Despite that, they’re more committed than ever to brewing and are finally at a point where everything’s coming together.
"We come off pretty casual sometimes”, says Glenn, “but what we’re doing isn’t just a side thing after our other jobs. It's taken a lot of work and sacrifice on all three of our parts to get here."
Here, in the area bordering Marrickville and Enmore, is a very exciting place to be right now as they’re on the verge of opening the doors to an industrial space big enough to house a brewery, a bar, all their hopes, all their dreams and still have room to store a fleet of zeppelins.
“It’s a 900 square metre building,” says Matt, “an old pressing and dry cleaning place that’d been here for 25 years. The lint on the ceiling was about three inches thick across the whole thing and it took us three weeks to remove, with one of us up on a scaffold while the others pushed it around. That was really painful. But it feels so long ago and we’re kind of on the home straight now.”
Lined up along one wall and all ready to go is the original brewing kit from Young Henrys on which they first learned to brew commercially. It was snapped up by the Grifters when the Newtown brewery expanded and is now happily resettled after a prolonged period in storage.
“It’s a turnkey system. Everything here was at Young Henrys originally and we’ve just added two more 24 hectolitre tanks,” says Matt. “As soon as they said it was for sale, we wanted to get it.
"It’s what we started on, we know it, and I’m really looking forward to brewing on it again. We only just realised it’s been in storage for a whole year so it’s been awhile since we’ve used it, but we’re really keen to get it up and running."
With approvals in place, brewing could start in the next month.
"We could actually brew tomorrow if we were ready, but it’s just plumbing the tanks and some electrical things that need tinkering with," he says. "We’re still going through the process for the bar but, because we’ve been looking for a long time and done our research over the years, I think we’ve got a pretty solid case to have a tasting bar in here.”
That research, combined with a decent amount of experience, is what led them to choosing such a big space to begin with.
“I remember when we started at Young Henrys,” says Matt, “having room to work with was such a luxury. You could have stuff everywhere and not be working over the top of each other. When we speak to other brewers, everyone’s saying they’ve got no room and they come in here and say having all this space is the best decision we could’ve made. We’ve made the wet area really big so we can add capacity but still have room to move. It should be quite comfortable in here for a while.
“I’m actually freaked out that it’s so big that people will walk in and think there’s nothing in here. Hopefully we can add some tanks to fill it out a bit. Until then I’ll just have to be really messy and leave kegs and grain bags everywhere so it looks full.”
Over the past couple of years, the Grifter name has come to encompass a fairly substantial family of beers, though through it all the pale ale has been their only permanent release.
That’s something which is set to change, with the imminent freedom affording them the opportunity to have consistency around a core range while revisiting past experiments.
“We’ve built a bit of a range, so it’ll be good to have some constant beers,” says Matt. “Beers that’ve been popular we’ll definitely look at bringing bring back, but there are some we did at the start that I’d really like to work on again. So I think we’ll be aiming for four regular taps and four rotating taps.
“At the moment things come up and you wish you could’ve made a beer for a particular occasion but can’t, so to be able to walk in here on a Monday morning and say, ‘Let’s make this today’, then pump out 20 kegs of it is so perfect for us.”
While they’d been brewing out of Young Henrys since the Newtown brewery first opened, the host has experienced incredible growth which put pressure on their ability to supply their own customers, let alone accommodate other brewers. Such is the life of a gypsy brewery, the Grifters had to look elsewhere for a temporary measure that would satisfy the demands of existing customers while giving them time to build their own place. Their solution lay at BrewPack, about 40 minutes drive west of Sydney.
“Some people in the industry are a bit funny about it [contract brewing],” muses Matt (pictured below centre with Trent left and Glenn right during one of their very first brews at Young Henrys), “but since we’ve been brewing there it’s been really good.
“Our mate works out there, so he heads up our beers and he’d done a few shifts with us at Young Henrys so he’s pretty invested in what we’re doing. He’ll text me every day about how the beers are going and I can go out there whenever I want. As it stands I’d been going out there three or four times a week anyway, but the beer quality has been amazing. Every batch of beer that’s come out of there has been really good and I’m 100 percent happy with it. I’m actually kind of scared to do it myself again.
“The reality is that, without them, and without things like Kegstar, we wouldn’t have been able to grow. Brewing with BrewPack actually forced us to make more beer and go out of our comfort zone. Otherwise we’d have still been down at Young Henrys making 40 kegs a fortnight.
“We hope to bring everything in-house but, depending on how things go, we may need to rely on a batch here and there being done elsewhere as new tanks don't turn up overnight. Glenn will come on full time –finally – and Trent’s got a big workload [he runs the skateboard/accessory/design company Pass-Port] but he'll be able to focus a bit more on what he's good at. It’ll be great to have everything happening here, but kind of scary at the same time.”
As well as having Glenn joining him in the brewery full time, Matt views having a home of their own as a hugely significant step in terms of business growth.
“We still get enquiries and we’re actually busier than ever, but the main thing is having a home base. This will help because I still think people are confused at who we are or what we are, but that’s partly because we don’t really get out there and advertise ourselves.
“But to be able to say to our customers, ‘Come down and try some beers’, that’s going to be so good. I can’t wait and it’s going to help them understand a bit more about what we do. We like to rely on natural growth – I mean, at the moment it’s just me and I don’t have time to go out and do sales calls, which sucks, but I kind of like it that way. It means all our customers are really close: Inner West, City, Surry Hills, Bondi – that’s pretty much it.
“Being in Marrickville it’s very community focused so hopefully we’ll get support from a few venues around here. I guess it’s just about creating awareness that we’re here and that people can come down and have a look.”
Community feeling is one thing, but what happens when your community already has several breweries competing for tap space? The Crafty Pint asked Matt whether Grifter’s introduction, and even that of other new breweries like Wayward, will make it tougher for business.
“It’s hard to know, but I don’t think so," he says. "I mean, between Young Henrys, us and Batch there’s a good run of breweries now – almost a proper trail, station to station – and a lot of places are built around this kind of thing. You go to certain cities around the world and do a tour of breweries. It becomes an attraction so I think that’s going to work in everyone’s favour.
“I think any business owner would be a little anxious, especially when you’re sort of winging it like us. We've worked really hard to get here but for all we know, this could be it. We could be using this kit forever. We’ll just see what happens.”
That we will. But if you can get this far just by winging it, you’re probably onto something good.
We’ll update the Grifter Brewing Company page on the site once the brewery's officially open and it’s all looking pretty...