The growing number of excellent breweries found in Australia these days sets a high bar for any newcomer to the scene. So, how do you stand out? How do you have a truly fresh feel?
Having spent time with the new Brisbane brewery's founders, Mick Wust reckons the team at Range Brewing has set themselves apart in not one, but two ways: the way they integrate simplicity of design into everything they do, and their pathfinder approach to beer: "Forever exploring, Forever evolving."
Chuck on your clothes, head to the old pub and walk across the sticky floor to the sticky bar. Order your beer – quite possibly the same beer you order every time you come here, and the same one you’ve been drinking since you were a teenager. Sit at a table, and rest your beer on a soggy coaster. Drink a few more glasses of the same beer, while your ears are assaulted by beeps and pings and a footy commentator and a cacophony of other pub sounds.
For those who prefer to swill and sniff their way through taster sized glasses of all things hopped up, sour and imperial, it's a scenario that might not hold much appeal, one that's a million miles – or maybe a generation – away from their own experiences. Yet it's a scene that's been experienced hundreds of millions of times across Australia and will continue to be experienced millions of times more into the future, which suggests there's something to it, because we don’t just go to the pub for a beer, we go for the experience.
The above scene might be missing many of the elements beer geeks desire, yet it does include familiarity, stability, nostalgia and sense of community. And anyone looking for these things can generally find them in that sticky old pub.
But there’s one element of the beer experience that you’ll rarely, if ever, find in the above scene, and that historically hasn’t been part of the beer culture in Australia.
Beauty. Or, at least, beauty in beer. Yes, beer can be beautiful.
Or, if you’re not comfortable with that language, it’s OK for beer to look damn good. And Range Brewing gets that.
The three guys behind Range are convinced the beer experience doesn’t have to be boring, smelly, monotonous, stale or blokey. Breweries and bars (often the main influencers of beer culture) can be stylish, fresh, and cutting edge. They can take design and aesthetics seriously. They can take the best of tradition, while also trying things that others aren’t.
These convictions first awakened in founders Gerard Martin and Matt McIver (pictured above) during their time in Europe. First becoming friends in their school days in Toowoomba, the pair has lived and travelled in each other’s pockets for the better part of a decade, and they forged the ideas for Range Brewing when they were both living in London.
Matt was working for BrewDog, as well as being the brand ambassador for the London Craft Beer Festival. Gerard was doing design work for a furniture company that favoured "thoughtful, responsible and intelligent design" over trendiness or cheap shortcuts. The idea for Range Brewing grew out of the passion they’d cultivated working in their respective industries, and the leisure time they’d spent soaking up European beer culture.
“We came up with the idea in London,” says Matt, “planned as much as we could, and then went, ‘Well… we can’t do anything else from the other side of the world.’ So we came home to start looking for a home.”
They’d originally planned to open the brewery in their hometown, Toowoomba (which is where the name Range Brewing came from), but, in their planning, their minds kept drifting to Brisbane, where they’d both lived for a few years and where the beer scene is thriving.
“We’d both lived in a big city and that’s what we liked. This city is our style.”
So they changed the location, but kept the name.
“We always said if we came up with a better name than Range Brewing we’d change it, but… we never did. And we both like it for what it is,” goes the thinking.
The logo that sits along with the name is minimalistic at first glance, but is littered with symbolism: the letters R and B; the mountains alluding to Range’s origin; the three dots representing the founding crew; all tied together with Nordic geometry that points to their emphasis on simple design. The whole thing gives the impression of a 3D blueprint – Range Brewing’s brand is not an abstract concept, but something firmly anchored in a specific, physical place.
That place is Byres Street in Newstead, where the guys have set up shop in a warehouse space within easy walking distance of Newstead Brewing and Green Beacon.
“We want to create a cluster of inner city breweries within walking distance of each other. Initially, we attempted to find a location away from other established breweries, but could not resist the allure and the neighbourhood feel of the developing Newstead North.”
They’ve transformed the warehouse into a slick sanctuary among the grimy commercial buildings.
“Most recently it was a mechanic,” says Matt. “Before that, the owners of the building used to use it for warehousing for boxes. I think it’s had a few lives, this place.”
Its new life as a brewery comes with a distinctly Scandinavian-industrial vibe. The boxy exterior of black bricks first catches the eye with unobtrusive white lowercase lettering: range brewing. The inside opens up to expanses of stark white brick, interrupted on the right by wall-mounted steel standing tables. In front, a waist-high black brick wall surrounding dining booths. Above, natural timber beams. All around, vibrant hanging greenery balances out the angular features of the furniture.
Simple, sleek, and seriously aesthetically pleasing.
Even the design of the glasses reflects the same commitment to simplicity as the rest of the venue.
“It’s the same glass but in different sizes,” says Matt of the wide, straight-edged glasses. If it weren’t for the Range Brewing name or logo etched on them, you could easily mistake them for water tumblers.
“They’re not beer glasses. They look funny at first, but they sit in your hand really well. I borrowed the idea from Danish and Scandinavian breweries that use the same ones. They’re actually Italian glasses made in Spain, but for some reason the Scandi breweries use them. And I fell in love with them there.”
To be clear, what’s impressive about Range Brewing is not just that everything looks good (it really, really, does); it’s that design, aesthetics, and simplicity are always in mind. The way things look and feel and interact… we forget that all of this has a great impact on us, and on how we experience the world. But the Range Brewing guys haven’t forgotten.
The design of the place even more impressive when you understand just how much of it was designed and built by the guys themselves (well, let’s be honest – it was mostly Gerard doing the designing, and his father the boilermaker helped a lot with the building).
They designed the chairs and stools, cut out the pieces of wood, rounded the edges, sanded them back. They poured the concrete for the table tops. They cut out the tap list board and 3D printed the letters and numbers themselves. The sandblasted steel-top bar. The hanging pot plant racks. Even the box covering the electrical board. When they say, “Made by us for you,” they’re not just talking about the beer.
…but it’s time we talked about the beer. Because as important as design is, and as sexy as everything looks, Range Brewing isn’t trying to be a design studio. It is, first and foremost, a brewery.
The 12hL brewhouse lines the interior walls of the venue, the tanks standing watch over the taproom like shepherds over their sheep. Mitch Pickford, the head brewer, has known Matt since they worked together at Archive Beer Boutique. He has a surprising wealth of brewing experience, from volunteering at Green Beacon, putting in extra hours to learn brewing when he worked at Stone & Wood, becoming the brewer at Catchment Brewing, and even doing a few short stints at breweries in the UK and Norway to get a feel for different approaches to brewing.
Range will be pushing Mitch’s diverse experience and insight to the limits, as they don’t have a core range of beers, but are brewing new beers all the time.
Matt and Gerard decided right from the beginning that this was the direction they were going to take.
“We say, ‘Forever exploring. Forever evolving’,” explains Matt. “What really inspired us is these European breweries that don’t have core ranges. They might make IPAs all year round, but they’ll be different slightly. Cloudwater pretty much pledged to never make the same beer twice. We really like that.
"We’re not going to go so far as to say we won’t brew something again, but we want to change all the time. It’s not likely that you’ll see the Blueberry Sour Ale for another few months. There’ll still be a sour ale, but it’ll be a different flavour. Same with the session ale – we brewed the session ale yesterday, and it’s not Simcoe, it’s Mosaic Simcoe.
“The idea is that we want to drink new beer all the time… so why wouldn’t we make new beer all the time? I don’t think there are enough people that are changing it up. It’s not the most economical way to do things – it’s not the cheapest or most efficient way to brew – but it’s the way we wanted to do it. And we think that people will really get around it.”
The plan is to have a broad range of styles available at any given time, and to always have something dark, something sour and something hoppy. Their opening lineup included a Czech Pilsner Table Beer, a Simcoe Session Ale (“We used a fair bit of hops in this. In the tank, it was ridiculous. We would smell it, and be like, ‘Holy fuck have we overdone this? Is this going to be too juicy?’”), a Blueberry Sour Ale (“We almost didn’t put the blueberries in, because the original base recipe was tasting so good!”), a Double Dry Hopped Citra IPA (“It’s naturally hazy, and we like it like that.”), and a Choc Vanilla Oatmeal Stout; five very different beers, with very little overlap of flavours.
And when a beer runs out, it’s gone.
Perhaps it’ll resurface one day. Perhaps it’ll be replaced with another beer of a similar style. But don’t expect to keep coming back for the exact same beer, week after week.
There’s something beautiful about the transience of this approach – when you find a beer you love, don’t get caught up trying to hold onto it, or immortalise the moment. Enjoy it here and now, and drink it while you can, for tomorrow, it may be nothing but a memory. (Luckily, there will always be more beers to taste tomorrow.)
There is one tiny opportunity for you to enjoy a beer for a little longer – a limited amount of Range’s beers will be canned and sold on site. So again, if you find a favourite, get a four-pack straight away, because when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Some of the styles are represented by illustrated Norse characters, presumably members of some Viking family—a Viking father, leaning cheerily on his sword, represents the IPAs; a Viking mother, carrying an axe as big as she is, represents the stouts; and a Viking child, riding a goat(?) in the buff, represents the session ales. When you spot one of these characters on a can, you’ll know what style the beer will be. And if the character is a different colour to last time, you’ll know it’s a new beer. The fruited sours are also represented, each by pieces of fruit with puckered lips and watery eyes.
The guys have decided, though, that they’ll never can their table beers.
“Eventually we’re going to do 750ml sharing bottles, like traditional table beer,” says Matt. “We said to ourselves from the very start that we’re never canning the table beer, ‘cause that’s not what table beer is. We want to stick to the traditions of where the table beer came from – instead of taking a bottle of wine to dinner, you take a bottle or two of table beer and share it, put it on the table.”
This communal approach to beer is also reflected in their seating arrangements. The majority of the tables in the venue aren’t designed for two or four people, but for ten or twelve to share, meaning a visit to the pub will just as likely build new friendships as strengthen old ones.
And since the brewery is basically the only place to buy Range’s beer, you’ll get to know the staff as well.
“You can’t just buy it off the shelf and never have any contact with anyone who ever worked for the brewery,” says Matt. “I’d rather people come here and see where the beer is made, enjoy one off the tap. The best place to drink our beer is right here.”
In many ways, Range Brewing’s approach is fresh; their sharp Scandinavian design is modern and chic, and their constantly morphing beer lineup is a refreshing expression of their desire to try new beers.
But they also have something in common with the Vikings of old that have inched their way into Range’s branding. They’re constantly exploring uncharted territory, and discovering new lands… and yet they value the community, their identity, their idea of home.
While the sun’s up, they tread unfamiliar ground and draw maps, then when night falls, they sit around a big table with tales of their adventures and cups of ale to keep them laughing.
Range Brewing is found at 4 Byres Street, Newstead.