The first time The Crafty Pint crossed paths with Richard “Richo” Moroney at Colonial Brewing in Margaret River was a moment still etched in the memory. Sat across the table in an expensive looking pink shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal a sweet watch, and with sharp shades completing the picture, he looked more sleek salesman than craft beer advocate.
Yet, despite initial apprehension, an hour later – after we'd listened to him espouse on all manner of things beer and otherwise – we were sold, declaring: “Please come over for Good Beer Week so we can put you in a room full of people – you’ll convince any crowd of the virtues of beer.”
Almost five years later, as Colonial looks to expand significantly in the east and with craft mid strengths on the rise, Guy Southern caught up with Richo to chat about Colonial’s Small Ale and found the discussion turning to the very essence of beer.
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“Beer is just culture, I think, and we have a philosophy about it.”
So says Richard Moroney, of Margaret River’s Colonial Brewing, as he expounds, Lebowski like, on their approach. We’ve met up ostensibly to talk about the second canned beer in the brewery's range, the Small Ale. It’s the first beer in Australia to come in a can with a 360 degree lid that, once removed, turns the tinnie into an aluminium glass, and feels symptomatic of some larger movement happening at Colonial.
Richard's background in hospitality stretches back to the 1990s and he believes that part of the development and acceptance of Colonial beers, particularly the hoppy, big in flavour yet low in alcohol Small Ale, is down to a natural recalibration of the beer world.
"All that time around hospitality and corporate hospitality, dealing with so many different people and being lucky enough to be around beer early on in the piece and watching it go from 'super' and 'unleaded' to now where it is, has been a cool ride, a privilege,” says Richo with typical eloquence.
This perspective gained from two decades in the industry, not to mention his general thankfulness at being part of it, puts Richard in a unique position to comment on the current beer climate.
"I think it needs to snap back a little bit,” he says.
"I think where it's got now, for me, it's just got to a point recently where I almost want to start calling 'bullshit' sometimes and get a bit adversarial. There's this one or two percent of chattering classes, these extreme beer Nazis or super geeks. You'll see them on the various Beer Advocates or whatever and they'll have a crack at someone ... and you're thinking, 'That's not what beer is about, dude'.
"It's not about a fundamentalist ideology that's governed by absolutes – it's about beer. Good beer. Just beer. It's about life and experience.”
Richo (pictured below right) offers up another example: "I was at my son's soccer game and I met this dad for the first time and he's looked at me and he's gone, ‘Do you want a beer?’.
“I said, ‘Geez, mate, I thought you'd never ask.’ And he sort of hesitated and he's given me an Emu Export. I was, ‘It's cool mate, I'll drink that.’ And he's like, ‘I know you make beer and I didn't know how you'd react to that.’
“And I've gone, ‘Mate, it's not about that. It's about this moment.'
"We need to do that in the beer industry a lot more at the moment because, if we don't, we'll keep alienating people. It's a problem.”
With this sentiment and the desire for a drinkable mid strength beer in mind the brewery team took a different path to creating a new product.
"The way it actually started was we have a thing called the 'Beer Department'. It's a collective of people that come in and out that have various roles around the place. Primarily, it's a few of us around the beer and the brewery and other people that want to just hang out sometimes,” he says laughing.
"Then there's a thing called ‘Project Beer' [which is] what we use to describe when we're sitting down at the end of the day and are having a few beers and we still haven't switched off and we just explore concepts, ideas and see what happens. Basically it’s sitting around having a beer and talking a bit of shit.
“Out of that happens things like, 'Why don't we see if we can get a land speed record for a can of beer?’ or 'Can we send a can into space?’, 'How deep can a can of beer go?’ cos someone said that if the density of beer and salt water is different, apparently if you are deep enough and you open the can no beer will come out. You could drink your beer out of it with a straw.
“So on my list at the moment is to find the technical diving club in Perth and work it out.”
But back to the Small Ale, one of a growing number of light and mid strength beers coming out of small Australian breweries right now. From the start, Colonial’s brewers wanted the beer to have hop aromatics and full flavour and when it came to the name they didn’t want to tie themselves in knots with something like "Reduced Alcohol India Pale Ale".
"We all discussed a name and an idea and we ended up settling on Small Ale and sort of going back to the history of beer with the Parti-Gyle system: small beer from medieval times, and we rolled with that,” says Richo.
The beer first appeared on tap at the brewery a few years before appearing in cans, then in some of the Colonial Leisure Group’s venues, with demand rising over time. Soon after their canning line was installed in late 2014, the Canadian install technician showed the team some of the other projects he'd worked on and head brewer Justin Fox honed in on one clip in particular.
"We instantly locked on this lid … that opened up the whole beer and we said, 'We absolutely need to have that' and six months later we ended up getting our hands on it.”
Trials proved successful to the point that the possibility of putting them out into the public was keeping Richo awake at night.
"This has to happen,” he says. “We can't not do this.”
So they did, although when the full order arrived, Richo started doubting himself, given the cans had been out in North America two years already.
"Just before they arrived I had a really clear thought that if [these 360 degree cans had been available] in one of the world’s largest consumer markets for a couple of years, why isn't it a universally accepted thing and why am I doing it? I had a mini freak out and talked about it with our group and they just said, 'It's going to be fine.’”
The appeal of the can goes beyond its lid, with the skin featuring eye-catching artwork. Unlike the stark, minimalist approach of their first can, the popular Kolsch rebranded as Draught, this time the look came about through a fortuitous meeting between Richo and the people behind the Emergence Creative Festival – a one stop shop for creative work that took place in Margaret River early in 2015.
"So I got involved and I said, 'I don't know, do you guys need any beer?’,” says Richo with a laugh. "Then that turned into, 'Hey check this out' and, before I knew it, we thought it would be cool to get some of [the festival artwork] on a beer can.
“I was in the Mixtape Creative space meeting all these dudes and seeing this art that was being put together for the branding of their documents. We liked different segments and there was a bit of confusion around it because we were a bit overwhelmed about what was going to go on a can label. The we ended up getting two artists and they collaborated on drawing what is now on the can.”
He adds: “We got to the point that a can of beer is a great way to bring art, to bring ideas, to bring thought to some people. Going to a gallery for some people might be confronting. [A can] is a blank canvas that's flying under the radar to get into your hand. You are actually participating with art, you are interacting with it, it's becoming utilitarian…
"That skin is part proof of that universal currency of beer. It's your hope, your dreams, your good day, your bad day, your need to relax, your being with friends or thanks for mowing Nana's lawn.
"Beer is normally selling what it is not why it is. We want people to have to opportunity to connect with the why.”
"Why?" was a question some asked when the Kolsch was rebranded as Draught when it came out in cans. After all, this was the first time the beer was available in something other than draught form.
"I did have one guy – I think I broke the internet – he had a massive go based around, ‘If it's a draught why does it come in a can?’
"I said peaches come in a can and they're still called peaches. End of story,” says Richo, explaining that the reason behind the name change came down to confusion over what a Kolsch was – echoing comments by Scott Wilson-Browne of Red Duck on this site last week – and a desire to get back to why people want a beer.
"I've stood at the coal face at Colonial for six and a half years through tens of thousands of people asking, 'Can I have a colche, a koltch, a Grolsch?’ – anything but calling it Kolsch. If you can't pronounce it or you don't understand it you’re not going to buy it.
“Draught beer for us is all about reasons. It's a time when you just had one or two beers in a pub and everyone, whether it was the Queen or the guys putting five bucks on the dogs, all drank that same beer.
“We kinda wanted to be part of the why you wanted a beer.”
All of which led to the Small Ale and its 360 degree lid.
"It became a thing about moments. That triggering of memories: small moments. That's what it's about. It's that moment when you crack that lid – that concept of seeing people with the beer in their hand and that not being the end destination but the start destination and making their own story.”
Colonial is set to open a long-mooted East Coast facility in Melbourne soon, meaning more of Australia will have access to their fine beers. We'll be catching up with head brewer Justin Fox soon to find out more.