In October 2015, Staves, a small backstreet beer bar in Glebe, opened its doors to the public for the first time. Owner Steve Drissell (above right) had hoped to have a functioning brewery in there too, but simply restoring the building to the point where a person could safely walk through the doors and buy a beer – any beer, let alone his – had already been a journey of two and a half years, not to mention a minor triumph of optimism.
The sheer idea of brewing on site seemed to belong to some other, far-off reality. But you don’t spend that much time, nor the determination, working towards something only to have it fail to bear fruit. So it is that, almost a further year on, Staves has its brewery and its first beers.
In the constrained space afforded by the bar, the brewery is a small and simple setup by almost any standards: a secondhand and seemingly built-by-hand mash tun and kettle supplemented with a handful of new 450 litre fermenters which get used as uni tanks. Squeezed into the few gaps between this equipment you will find Staves’ brewer, Liam Jackson. For the past few months he and Steve have been plotting the kinds of beers Staves would be pouring on a regular basis and the conclusion is: they’re not exactly sure.
“The good thing here,” says Steve, gesturing to towards the bar, “is that we get feedback really quickly. You can see how quickly things turn over, so we’ll just see how beers are received. If people like them, if there are favourites, then they’ll stay on.”
Liam adds: “We do want to have a couple of core beers but that will be determined to some extent by the feedback. Having a relatively short brew length and that instant feedback, we’ll see pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t. We’re both pretty flexible in terms of thinking, ‘That might work, let’s try it.’”
With Liam's personal preference being for hoppier beers and Steve’s, more generally, being traditional British styles, there’s compromise but plenty of room to manoeuvre.
“The most important thing for me,” says Steve, “is having a menu that’s balanced. So you’ve got malty beers, hoppy beers, beers that are approachable and ones that attract the kind of people who’ll spend their weekends chasing new beers around town.”
Staves’ current exploratory approach represents something new but exciting for Liam. Having previously worked in mining, he became afflicted with the beer bug and made the move into brewing a few years ago. After starting out in Australia the winding road took him to Canada where, up until the end of 2015, he ended up as head brewer at R&B Brewing in Vancouver.
“I was working as head brewer there but we didn’t do too many new beers,” he says.
“When I came in they had an existing portfolio and I thought we would get rid of a lot of it because they’d actually gone bankrupt – another brewery had bought it and that’s when they got me in – and it would be a case of reinvigorating the place. But we ended up keeping most of the existing beers, just tweaking the recipes to be more in line with what we were happy with but not changing so much that people had drunk that beer all their lives were like, ‘Hey, what have you done with that beer?’
“It means that, even though I’ve been working in brewing a few years now, there are actually a lot of different beers I haven't had the opportunity to brew. And, in comparison, [Staves] is really small and really different, so it’s basically all new.
“My wife said to me, ‘Are you going to be doing beers you’ve made before?’ and I said, ‘No.'
“So she said, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ and I just said, ‘Not really.’
“It’s been a case of trying a bit of this, a bit of that, and using things I’ve not used before, but I’m pretty happy with how they’ve turned out.”
For Staves’ opening salvo Liam has turned out four beers: a 3.9 percent ABV Ardennes table beer, a Pacifica hopped golden ale, an American IPA using Amarillo hops and an oatmeal stout notable for its chocolate and vanilla characters. Collectively, they form an approachable but diverse initial range, particularly the light, yeasty and relatively uncommon table beer.
“We’ll do some traditional stuff and some crazy stuff,” says Steve. “The next brew we might go for something with higher alcohol. It’s really about getting a balance between doing things that are popular and not getting stagnant from doing the same thing all the time. You have to keep it interesting.”
With the brewery now functioning as an attraction in its own right, Steve is planning to broaden the scope of the events and hospitality side of Staves.
“We have held a few functions but events wise we’ll definitely do more,” he says.
“We’ve done different things like magic nights, which were actually a lot of fun, but I want to do some education like a Beer School. And, now that it’s Spring, the beer garden is looking good again – it’s such a good vibe in here on a nice afternoon. We’ve had a few food trucks and barbecues so more of those will be good, as well as adding a bit more live music because that’s not been every week.
"There’s a lot of potential in here, it’s just that the focus has been on getting the brewery running.”
With that all-consuming task more or less complete, how does it feel to finally have a bonafide brewpub?
“We’ve been so busy I haven’t had time time think about it!” says Steve. “But it’s a great milestone, for sure, and I guess now we can start to appreciate it because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all been about.
“We’ve spent so long telling people, ‘Yes, the beer’s coming,’ that you start sounding like a broken record. But I’ve got a few regulars and they understand this isn’t run by a big conglomerate of people pouring money in and oiling the wheels to make things happen faster. That’s something I could have done, but I decided that if you’re looking at doing this for a very long time and you have shareholders, even if they’re only small shareholders, they’ll want to tell you how to run it or what beers you should put on. And is that really why I’m doing this?”
Through the years, Steve has steadfastly stuck to his desire for total independence in business and that approach has meant things have happened slowly, patiently and sometimes painfully.
“It’s just made the road a lot longer,” he says.
“That’s the reality and it’s very testing. You have to have enough self confidence to think you can work it out, but not so much that you’re dreaming. I don’t know that I could’ve done it ten years ago. I don’t know if I’d be able to back myself in the same way. I think brewers that got in ten years ago are smashing it now, but it wasn’t easy for them by any means. It’s just different now.
“Sydney’s been slow to adopt [craft beer] but it’s really picking up now and the number of breweries is the clear evidence. It’s not a bad time to open a brewery, but you need a retail side because getting taps is becoming harder and harder. Some people think you can have an attitude of, ‘Build it and they will come,’ but it doesn’t work like that.
"People have said to me, ‘How could you possibly go wrong?’ Trust me: do it and you’ll find out!”
It’s been a long road and Steve has often travelled it the hard way, but he now has something to show for it: a brewery in a back street, hemmed in by loading docks, in the almost literal all day shade of the Broadway Shopping Centre. That may not sound appealing but it is almost a perfect setting for a craft brewery because, while you can cut and paste corporate franchises several stories high, it is often in the shadows and the outskirts at a place like Staves where you will find the growth and life of the beer industry.