Just two years after bursting onto the Canberra beer scene, BentSpoke Brewing Company has reached a major milestone with the first release of cans from its new production facility in the city’s north.
And fans of beers from renowned longtime ACT brewer Richard Watkins (above left with partner Tracy Margrain) have been quick to jump on the release, with most of the initial 23,000 cans selling over the first weekend and 800 people through the gates at BentSpoke’s special “Canival” open day.
The open day also offered a teaser that will have those familiar with Richard's sour and barrel-aged beers from his days at the Wig & Pen giddy with excitement: on show were two Eden Road wine barrels – with room for plenty more.
"I've been hanging to get back into sour beers, but like all things I want to do it properly. We just ran out of space in Braddon," says Richard, who tapped the first BentSpoke sour beer at his brewpub during Canberra Beer Week: Puss In Boots, a 5.1 percent ABV ale soured with grain-derived lactobacillus*.
As for the new cans, the first releases include the brewery’s flagship West Coast-inspired IPA, Crankshaft, and the sessionable pale ale Barley Griffin, which picked up a gold medal at the Australian International Beer Awards. Crankshaft made it into last year's GABS Hottest 100, an impressive result considering it had previously only been available at the brewery.
Co-founder and head brewer Richard said getting the beers into bottleshops around Canberra was a welcome step in the brewery’s expansion. But fans outside of Canberra will have to be patient a little longer to get their hands on one of the new cans, as the first release went to just 11 outlets in the national capital.
The beer is currently still being brewed at BentSpoke’s Braddon brewpub in Canberra’s inner north while they finish commissioning their second brewery, before being transported to the new “Cannery” facility in Mitchell for fermentation and packaging.
Richard says the plan is eventually to broaden distribution, but he wanted to look after their loyal customers at home first.
“We want to learn a few lessons first," he says. "We want to support the [local] people who have supported us… make them feel really special; they’re among the few people that can get the beer.”
The final pieces of equipment have arrived at the Mitchell facility to bring the new 5,000 litre brewery online before the end of the month – a significant step up from the 1,500 litre brewery found at the brewpub. The Cannery already has two 10,000 litre fermentation tanks in place – with space for more as they expand. But Richard says quality control will come before quantity.
“When you’re sending beer outside your own four walls, you’ve got to make sure it’s handled correctly,” he says, “so we’re spending a bit of money on testing equipment to make sure our beer is up to scratch, and keep the consistency up.”
But, once they reach that stage, he’s looking forward to having BentSpoke reach a wider audience.
“It’s great, we’ve had so much interest in people wanting our beer, from all over Australia, and we’ve had to say it’s only available at the pub,” he says. “Now, hopefully they’re going to be able to go to a local bottleshop and take some away.”
Bound to catch on with drinkers are the cans’ “360 lids” (also seen on much of the Colonial Brewing can range). These open up the whole top of the can and make drinking out of the container much more like drinking out of a glass, offering convenience and freeing more of the beer's aromatics. Richard says he and BentSpoke co-owner Tracy Margrain first came across the cans while travelling in the US last year and were immediately sold on the concept.
A 20 year veteran of the Australian craft brewing scene who twice won Champion Brewery titles at the Australian International Beer Awards while at the Wig & Pen, he says he's seen many other small breweries head down the packaging route, but struggled to make the numbers work. Prior to the launch of the cans, the only way to take BentSpoke beers home was to fill a growler at the brewpub but now the larger facility, which will eventually include a 300-seat venue, has made this step up possible.
“Now we can do it on a larger scale and make sure we can pay the bills,” he says.
“To me, there’s always been only two models that work: you’re either really small and you’re a brewpub [with higher profit margins, or] really large and can make beer at a profitable price for wholesale.
“I’d add now there’s a third option – once you’ve got one of those models in place, you can step up to the other one!”
About the author: Patrick Baggoley is a passionate homebrewer and education officer for the Canberra Brewers.
* The article originally stated this was a kettle sour, but we'd been supplied this information in error.