When it comes to mixing traditional beers with the more experimental, could there be a brewer more suitable than a Melburnian who learned the craft in Germany?
The owners of Burnley Brewing, which opened its doors in November last year, clearly thought it was a great combination when they hired Michael Stanzel, who moved to Germany at 22 to study brewing, as their head brewer.
Well before then, Michael had started brewing before he was legally allowed to buy a beer. And it was after he turned to homebrewing to find a cheaper way to drink that others began to notice his ability.
“When I was 16, I won this homebrew competition,” Michael says. “I couldn’t accept the award, so I got my dad to.”
Michael took out that same award the following year and again at 18, when he could finally claim the prize for himself. Spurred on by those early wins and encouraged by both his parents and mates, Michael thought he might have discovered his new career.
“I was brewing beer for cheaper and better than a lot of what was available, so I thought it was something I could do professionally,” he says, before adding his German heritage helped guide his next move.
“I thought if I’m going to learn to be a brewer it might as well be in Germany.”
Michael’s parents had migrated to Australia some three decades earlier, meaning Michael spoke the language (if poorly) and, most importantly, he had a German passport. After backpacking through Europe and exploring the small breweries of America, Michael and girlfriend Chloe moved to Germany to see if he could cut it in one of the world’s most traditional brewing cultures.
Unlike the modern Australian beer industry, where people from countless backgrounds move into brewing, in Germany, becoming a brewer follows a rigid pathway. There you must have completed – or be working to complete – a brewer and maltster apprenticeship; it's not a path designed to be easy for people from the Antipodes to follow.
“In Germany, they are quite set in their ways," Michael says. "When I applied to be a brewer in all these really traditional small towns, they’d never had an Australian brewer in their team. So, they were really reluctant to take me on – that and my German wasn’t that great then either.”
After applying at more than 40 different breweries and getting only two interviews, Michael was taken in by BeSte Bräu, a small operation in Cochem, a town on the Moselle River. Though the application process was slow, Michael’s dedication to his course – and perhaps because his beer drinking experience was a little more developed than his 16-year-old peers – meant he soon impressed his teachers.
“As soon as I started working for this brewery and they saw that I’d literally moved 16,000 kilometres they realised how motivated I was to brew beer.”
Despite a positive start, within a year of starting at BeSte, Michael had to move on. The brewery closed, having never managed to gain a real foothold in the wine region. His next position was at Koblenzer Brauerei, but after finishing his apprenticeship, he and Chloe – having married in 2014 – made plans to launch their own brewery.
So, in 2016, Wild Animal Brewing (pictured above) was born. Working on a 200 litre system, Michael set about brewing the more contemporary styles of beers he loved, with some concession to what the locals liked to drink.
“We needed a beer to get the average German drinker who would only drink pilsner or wheat beer,” Michael says.
The first beer was just that, a traditional pilsner using Galaxy hops, with the second beer a “dialled back” IPA. When it came to making the third core beer, any concern about traditional tastes – or, indeed, the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law that only allows water, hops, malt and yeast in beer – was thrown out the window. It was a situation that led Michael and Chloe to look for a novel solution.
“What we had really small on our label – just under the barcode – in about five point print, it said ‘beer mixed drink’,” Michaels says, adding that once that started selling, he and Chloe wanted to take things further.
“Once we knew the flagships were doing well we could say, ‘Fuck the German purity law’ and show some drinkers what modern beer could be.
“We brewed an experimental beer every month that was where we’d do pretty wacky stuff that some Germans would frown upon.”
Among them was a session pale ale made with donut peaches; brewed at the time of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel's tense meeting, it was given the name You Donut Respect Women.
Yet, while the beers were selling, they were being brewed in small batches; to move on, they needed to invest in more capital, which led to the next big move.
“We were using a very small brewhouse, so we would have needed to get bigger," says Michael. "But if we were to find investors and stay in Germany then we would have had to stay there for another ten or more years, and it’s cold in Germany.
“That was pretty much what made us decide to go home and see what we could do in Australia.”
It was on a trip home in April 2017 that Michael was introduced to Renton Carlyle-Taylor, who ran Burnley’s Romulus & Remus restaurant. Renton and his business partners Neil Mills and Phil Gijsbers, who also came from hospitality backgrounds, were looking to turn their space into a new brewery. Upon learning Michael planned to return to Melbourne, they told him a head brewer job awaited him.
With that, Michael went from running a small brewery in one of the world’s most traditional beer cultures to brewing in Melbourne – a scene that had changed dramatically since Michael had left six years earlier.
“My mates would actually give a copy of the Good Beer Week guide to my parents to give to me for when they’d visit me,” he says. “So, I’d have this three-month-old program and get to see what was happening in Melbourne, but now that I’m back and actually living here it’s just so amazing.”
For now, he's brewing beers for the 14 taps at Burnley Brewing's brewpub in Richmond, with a much larger production brewery in the works in Dandenong, and thinks his new digs fit perfectly with a brewer who likes making pilsners just as much as he likes loading beers with fruit.
“I love producing beer that we’ll be able to package that people will buy for barbecues and have a Burnley beer at home," he says. "But, if you want to come into Burnley and have whatever weird shit you want from the brite tank, you’ll be able to do that too.”
Burnley Brewing is at 648 Bridge Road, Richmond.