A Decade Of Duck

Next Tuesday, Scott Wilson-Browne will be the guest brewer at The Local Taphouse's Ale Stars. Remarkably, it's his first appearance at the long-running beer appreciation night. It's remarkable as Red Duck has been operating for a decade, during which time many much younger breweries and brewing companies have joined Ale Tsar Shandy onstage in St Kilda. And remarkable because the sort of beers for which Scott has become known – among the pointier end of the craft beer world, at least – are of the sort that The Local Taphouse's owners, particularly via their annual Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular, like to celebrate.

It's fair to say that Scott is one of Australia's craft beer pioneers – and not just because he's been around a decade, placing him alongside Victorian brewing alumni such as Hargreaves Hill (10 last year), Red Hill and Bridge Road (both 10 this year). During that decade, along with a core range that's typically been centred around traditional beer styles, he's been playing with sours, barrels, Medieval ales, meads and more, often long before almost anyone else was looking beyond water, malt, hops and yeast.

So why a decade to receive an invite to drive into Melbourne from Ballarat? Perhaps because he has often been tagged as an outlier in the local beer world despite, as he points out over coffee, his biggest selling beers by far being the first three he launched with: an amber, a porter and a pale, the last of which accounts for around 50 percent of all Red Duck sales.

It's a tag he's keen to shake – at least a little; when you rock up to an interview with an imperial stout, a vinous, Port barrel-aged French farmhouse ale, two international collaborations, an 11 percent ABV imperial porter, a 10th anniversary, 10 hops version of a brewery favourite, an amber ale featuring coffee and lactose and the latest in a series of hop free ales inspired by beers from Ancient Egypt, it's clear this isn't a guy who's planning to give up experimentation and focus on perfecting a 4.4 percent golden ale anytime soon.

But, with 117 different beers released commercially to date, he says: "Being 10, I'd now say I've brewed too many different beers; the plan now is to brew a lot less.

"We'll go back and repeat some that have been popular, but the thing about limited releases now is that people only want slightly weird, not really weird. So Berliner Weisse is getting widely accepted because it's unusual but not that unusual."

Given Scott has brewed super sour beers with sourdough yeast and made his own nettle goo for a beer in which he deliberately scorched the unusual grain bill, he's au fait with "really weird", even tagging some releases as "EXTREME" and saying of some beers they are to be experienced as much, maybe more than, enjoyed. What's more, like fellow experimental brewers such as Moon Dog or Bacchus, not every one of those 117 beers has been a success, even if, like his fellow experimenters, the beers have rarely lacked interest.

At the same time, he's watched in recent years as more breweries have started playing in the sort of areas in which he was previously free to roam alone.

"What I find is we have to compete to survive," he says. "We're no longer pioneers as the market has gone ballistic. I'll never stop pushing the boundaries of what beer can be, but I'm not going to release two or three super sour beers in a year.

"When we go to events, I still have to explain what a Kolsch is [as you're often] dealing with the 99 percent. I can say it's a bit like a pilsner and some will say, 'What's that? Like a lager?'.

"I can't say it often enough: we're in the craft beer market and we think it's going great guns, but it's still a really small percentage of the market overall."

That the market has reached the point it's at now is down to the groundwork put in by pioneers like Red Duck and the fellow brewers, big and small, who were brewing flavoursome beers well before the market knew they wanted them. It's something that, as Scott and wife Vanessa mark 10 years, must give him a sense of achievement, pride even, when he looks back to the early days.

Yet, instead of a self-congratulatory "pat on the back" response we might have expected, such a suggestion brings out something else entirely. Like another brewer who's often operated in the more obscure regions of the beer world – certainly before others developed an interest, Two Metre Tall's Ashley Huntington, Scott recalls tough times from the early years.

"I look back and feel a lot of pain and emotion and hardship," he says. "Because to do what we've done and survive is the hardest fucking thing I've done in my life.

"Running a microbrewery in the early days, I used to go in holding my heart and thinking, 'Is the brew going to work?'"

He says he "stuffed up" many early brews for a number of reasons: not understanding certain brewing processes, or receiving liquid yeast from Wyeast he didn't realise was dead on arrival until it was too late. He estimates that, in those early days, 30 to 50 percent of beer went down the drain; at one point they started contract brewing out of Mildura to ensure there was Red Duck beer he was happy to sell.

"When I realised it had stuffed up again, I'd sit down and cry. Vanessa would come in an hour later and say, 'Oh dear'.

"We'd think, 'When is this going to turn around?'"

However, once he'd got to grips with operating a glycol system, for example, things did.

But, he says: "People say, 'What an awesome thing [to run a brewery' and I say, 'Yes'. But I can't answer that without feeling the pain."



As well as marking a decade since the first brew in a wooden dairy building (pictured below) on Purrumbete Homestead's land, 2015 also saw the release of Red Duck's 100th beer.

The beer that received the landmark guernsey is Valhalla, a barley wine that's being released in two parts. Scott initially got the beer to a steepling 14.2 percent ABV using just an ale yeast and filled two kegs with the beer in that state, one of which was tapped at The Mallow last Friday and the other of which will be tapped at Ballarat's Avoca Hotel this weekend as "Valhalla Light". The rest was nudged beyond 16 percent with champagne yeast and is waiting in fermenter for ornate bottles of the sort favoured by Italian craft brewers to arrive from New Zealand to be bottled ready for Christmas.

This attention to presentation is another feature that runs through Red Duck's history, a legacy of Scott's other career as a graphic designer (he's currently reinventing Tooborac Brewery's brand). Red Duck's beers have always been presented beautifully, often with quirky little motifs and jokes tucked away for the inquisitive to discover. And the latest and forthcoming releases are taking this a step further.

Dr F, his 2015 GABS imperial stout, and La Foret, the Port barrel-aged biere de garde we mentioned at the top, both came out in elegant champagne bottles, complete with wax seals and Helter Skelter style wraparound labels; La Foret's label features the sort of comically psychedelic, shroom-flecked artwork that's been an ever present through the career of another experimental bunch, Welsh legends Super Furry Animals.

Future limited releases – at least those that don't get the 750ml champagne treatment – are adorned with eye-catching white labels that, again, reward close inspection.

"I'm optimistic [for the future]," he says. "There's some good stuff coming. There were times when I did think, 'Are we going to make it to 10?' but now summer's coming I'm positive.

"I've been heading out on the road one day a week with the reps, getting the mojo back. We've learnt that if you're passionate about your own product then the best person to sell it is yourself."

Part of that positivity is likely to come from their growing success in the city where the brewery is now based. In late 2011, Scott and Vanessa moved the brewery to Ballarat for family reasons and closed down the Provedore they'd operated in Camperdown. Four years on, with Ballarat finally starting to embrace craft beer in a big way, it seems Red Duck has made its mark there. One month this winter, says Scott, the brewery sold more beer within the city than it did in the rest of the country combined.

"It's wonderful," he says of their hometown success.

The next area in which they hope to reap success is with spirits. Most of the 60 barrels he has amassed over the years are with a cooper being readied for the launch of Kilderkin, a gin and whisky spin-off from Red Duck named after the traditional ale barrels, that will use a still being built by Knapp Lewer in Hobart. The intention is to release a series of whiskies as well as a couple of gins: a traditional London gin featuring juniper and another showcasing native Australian ingredients such as lemon myrtle and wattle seed.

When they're ready – the first gin hopefully in 2016, whiskies to follow a couple of years later – they won't actually be the first Red Duck spirit. But they will be the first you can obtain commercially.

Back in the earliest days of Timboon Distillery, the founder approached Scott to obtain some liquid to distill. Scott gave him 500 litres of what would have become an amber ale, batch four at the brewery in fact, which was used for a trial distillation.

"It came back as 50-odd litres of spirit," says Scott. "I put it into a barrel for seven years and it evaporated a fair bit. [Because of the small size of the barrel] it's like 22 to 25 years in a full size barrel because of the surface area. It's cask strength, a beautiful colour: an amazing, robust, malty whisky that's delicious."

But back to the beer and the decade of Duck: such an article wouldn't be complete without asking about favourites.

"I'm guilty of being the worst sort of customer for my business," says Scott. "I'm not brand loyal – I'm hopeless!

"But if I didn't have a brewery and I went into a shop I'd be buying a six-pack of Hop Shark: hoppy but not too hoppy. That said, there's always 50 or 60 beers in the fridge.

"Golden Dragon is always a favourite [and a hopped up Double Dragon is the brewery's 10th anniversary beer] but the best beer I've ever made is La Foret: Lapin [a hoppy French farmhouse style ale] aged for six months in Port barrels. It has a vinous character and if you pour it slowly [as you go through the 750ml bottle] it changes colour and by the time you get to the bottom you have a different beer.

"It's just got so much amazing soft complexity and soft spiciness; it's the most beautiful beer I've made in my whole life."

He describes Canute the Gruit, his hop-less, scorched, nettle goo'd Medieval dark ale, as a "landmark beer – sour and smoky. I don't think there had been a beer like that in Australia, even going back to Captain Cook."

You could probably place Ugly Duckling in there too: possibly Australia's first braggot, it was a 14.1 percent ABV release that was a blend of a barrel-aged strong ale and a mead made with locally sourced wild honey. He brewed his first barrel-aged beer, Loch Ness, nine years ago too.

"One of the reasons we [started the brewery] was to change the landscape," he says. "I was sick of walking into a pub and not wanting to drink a beer. Ten years ago I hated beer because what was known as beer in 99 percent of those places I didn't like.

"I wanted to be able to walk into a place and have a nice beer. You can either sit around waiting for someone else to do it or be one of the instigators. That's what Goat was doing and 3 Ravens too: let's get out there and make a positive change."

A decade on, no one can deny that Scott and his many pioneering peers have done just that.


You can join Scott and Vanessa at the Avoca Hotel this Saturday if you're around Ballarat or head to Ale Stars in St Kilda on Tuesday.

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