Yarraville’s Grain & Grape has long been an essential site of pilgrimage for Victorians looking to brew their own beer. Whether it’s a newcomer looking to buy their first wort kit, a well-seasoned all grain homebrewer, or a professional with years in the industry, the homebrew supply store is often the first point of call for anyone looking to become a better brewer.
Behind Grain & Grape is its longtime owner and Australian brewing industry stalwart John Preston. Back in 1990, well before most of Australia’s current crop of craft breweries existed, John started Southern Home Brewing in Melbourne’s southeast with his friend Laurie Cahir.
Over the subsequent 27 years, John and his team have spent their time teaching newcomers how to homebrew, while John has quietly played a number of other significant roles in raising the profile and quality of homebrewing in Australia, while putting Grain & Grape's support behind many industry causes.
Some of his employees, like Dan Dainton and 3 Ravens' head brewer Brendan O'Sullivan, have gone on to make their own mark on the craft beer world. John also counts among some of his earlier customers the likes of Mountain Goat’s Dave Bonighton, Paul Holgate, Red Hill Brewery’s Dave Golding and Hargreaves Hill’s Simon Walkenhorst.
Having spent decades influencing Australia’s craft beer industry, here’s the ever jubilant John Preston’s story, in his own words.
How do you fit into the wonderful world that is craft beer in Australia?
I run the homebrew supply store Grain & Grape.
What drew you to work in beer?
Should I start right at the beginning? I walked into Loaded Dog in 1987 and I was a VB drinker until that point. They were a pub brewery in North Fitzroy and they had a lot of international beers on tap. I tried Hacker-Pschorr wheat beer and had never tasted anything like it – I thought it was amazing.
My friend [Laurie Cahir] and I were both working for the public service and there were redundancies around at the time so we decided to take the money and start a brewery. We came to our senses a little while later and decided to start a homebrew supply shop but I still have the [brewery] business plan around, which I did sometime around 1988 I think.
How long have you been promoting beer in your own particular way?
Since 1990 in Edithvale, which was our first shop. Then we opened in Maidstone three years after that. Laurie and I split the business in 2001 and Laurie eventually sold Maidstone while I stayed on in Edithvale. Then a few years after that was when I shifted to Yarraville and it’s been growing ever since.
What was the first ever job you had in the beer world?
I got started running the first shop in 1990. We had no retail experience and I don’t think we were particularly good from a retail point of view; that might remain to this day.
But you just do your best and it’s a hobby-based industry so you don’t want to always be doing a big sales pitch. You just try to help people and that’s always been a big part of what we do.
As Wayne Coyne, of The Flaming Lips, once pondered: “Why does it matter?”
I love the flavour of the beer and I love the people. It’s a very relaxed world we inhabit. I’m not just talking about in Melbourne but when I go over to homebrew conferences in the US there’s definitely a great feeling going around.
People get on, share ideas and work still together – that’s not to say there isn’t a little bit of competition – but it is still a great industry.
What's been your proudest / happiest moment as a craft beer advocate?
Getting the Australian National Homebrew Conference started up with half a dozen friends was definitely something. It will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next year and I’m on the national committee.
Describe your craft beer utopia.
The first time I thought I saw craft beer utopia was when I went to Denver in America ten years ago to the National Homebrew Conference. I did a pub crawl in Lodo, which is a suburb about where North Melbourne is in relation to the city, there were six breweries within walking distance of each other. You can do that sought of thing in Melbourne now but this was ten years ago.
Water, malt, hops or yeast?
Can I say bugs? I’m going to say bugs for sour beers.
If you had one minute in which to convert someone to craft beer, how would you spend it?
Getting them to go through all the flavours of different beers. Starting with something low in alcohol and malty through sours and hoppy beers. A lot of talking the whole time helps too.
And if you had three beers with which to convert someone, what would they be?
Cantillon Gueuze. It is probably my favourite beer out there.
Surly Brewing Co’s Todd the Axeman. It does all the right things with the right hops: tropical, added late and not too bitter.
Hop Nation’s The Sturm. A fantastically complex and subtle beer.