Gage Roads is pulling something of a Benjamin Button, recently announcing they will be parting company with Woolworths and returning to their original independent status. With this announcement comes a new strategic direction for the business – “Returning to Craft”, as they’ve framed it – as well as the release of their Little Dove New World Pale Ale, the 2016 AIBA Champion Australian Beer, in bottles.
The WA brewery’s head brewer and chief operating officer Aaron Heary (pictured above) says that, while it is a significant time of change at the brewery, it’s still pretty much business as usual, which for him means brewing beer the whole team can be proud of – something Gage Roads has been doing with increasingly regularity in recent years.
Aaron has been with the brewery since it was established in 2002 by Peter Nolin and brothers’ John and Bill Hoedemaker. Originally coming from a viticulture background, working at Margaret River’s Devil’s Lair winery, he first moved to beer when he joined the original team at Little Creatures in late 2000.
“I even peeled the plastic off the tanks,” Aaron says with a smile of the early days at the brewery that was to do so much to change the Australian beer landscape.
After two years at Little Creatures, Aaron decided it was time to get a little travelling done. He spent some time in Vancouver working for the Steamworks brewpub and also drove the West Coast of the US visiting breweries like Sierra Nevada and BridgePort along the way. Towards the end of his trip he ended up at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego where, as a “scruffy 20 year old”, he met Peter Nolin who was planning to open a brewery. From that introduction came a job offer to be part of the launch team at Gage Roads.
The journey of Gage Roads since then has been a unique one with a timeline that includes becoming a publicly listed company in late 2006 and partnering with Woolworths, who took a 25 percent stake in the business in 2009. Arguably, these two events pushed Gage Roads into the spotlight of the beer world, more so than many other Australian breweries. The extra attention, not all of which was positive due to the ties with Woolies, isn’t lost on Aaron but it’s not something he chooses to focus on.
“Beer is like being a police officer, if you haven’t got a thick skin then get out of the game,” he says, laughing.
In August, the brewery announced a capital raising venture to buy back Woolworth’s stake and social media was saturated with the news. The announcement means that once the buy back is complete, Gage Roads will return to their original full independence. Though their partnership with Woolworths has afforded Gage Roads significant growth over the years – “Woolworths have been a terrific partner to have,” according to Aaron – the decision comes hand in hand with a strategy that makes craft beer their central focus.
"They wanted to start a really meaningful craft brewery,” says Aaron of the early days at Gage Roads, and though they may have taken a different path in the intervening years, the "Returning to Craft" strategy is probably close to the original vision Peter, John and Bill had in mind when they started the brewery.
“Returning to craft is about us asking ourselves, ‘What are we passionate about and where do we see the business going in the future?’,” says Aaron.
The new direction will see Gage Roads showcasing their “lengthy craft credentials”, telling their story and being a greater part of the local community.
“We want to get our brewers out in front of people and show that Gage Roads is a real brewery run by real people,” he says.
Over the last couple of years, the brewery has invested heavily in a sales and marketing team as well as a major rebrand, two things Aaron feels set the platform for them to embark on their new direction. The rebrand served to bring a consistency that had been missing previously to a range that was reworked and expanded at the same time, with longer established beers such as the Sleeping Giant English IPA and Atomic Pale Ale joined by the likes of the Single Fin summer ale and Narrow Neck session ale.
The rebrand was also an attempt to connect the business, which is located in Palmyra, with its home state; each beer tells a local story and reflects the coastal WA lifestyle that inspired Gage Roads’ founders. Single Fin’s branding, for instance, shows the iconic Indiana Tea House on Cottesloe Beach and the old bell in the water that every Perth local has swum out to and jumped off at some point in their life.
Little Dove joins the brewery’s core range and comes with high hopes from the brewery, given its triumph in May at one of the world’s biggest beer competitions. The beer is the result of more than nine months of research and recipe development to create a beer that would “really push the boundaries of what we’ve done before”. With drinkers’ demands for hops and alcohol seemingly endless, Aaron wanted to put out a beer that was hop forward and more than six percent ABV but that remained “smooth and drinkable”.
The process started with the brewing team bringing together their favourite beers that fit the brief and, over three tasting sessions, they worked through more than 40 beers that inspired them. Nine months later, Aaron found himself onstage accepting the award for Champion Australian Beer, an experience he describes as “completely humbling and very unexpected.”
But, for Aaron, the most important part of the award was the exposure it gave the brewery and reflected the hard work put in by the whole brewing team: “We’re really proud with what we have been able to achieve with that beer.”
The inclusion of Little Dove into the Gage Roads year round portfolio is something Aaron says was always on the cards for the beer regardless of awards. After all, you don’t spend so long planning a beer that will only be around for a few weeks. Little Dove completes the core range for now and, while the brewery plans on future limited releases, they’re focused for now on the continued roll out of Little Dove and broadening distribution of the the rest of the range nationwide.
With the bottle release of Little Dove, the buy back of Woolworths shares and the growing on-road sales team, it's clear that Gage Roads is setting a new path for the business and, as has been the case for years, with the eyes of the beer world upon them, albeit for different reasons.
Whether events of the past six months change the perceptions of those who link the brewery with the retail giant and see it as a step removed from many of its craft beer peers is not something that Aaron spends much time thinking about. Instead, he says he’ll continue to focus on what he’s always focused on: brewing good beer.