If you'd been asked to predict who'd take to the stage at last week's Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA) to collect the prestigious Champion Australian Beer trophy for 2018, the chances are slim your answer would have been: "The guy whose likeness is on cans of Emu Bitter."
Yet, on a golden night for Beerland Brewing, the WA operation that brought in Ken Arrowsmith to design beers for its brewpubs, there he was.
Within a white goateed whisker of clocking up 40 years of brewing, Ken knows a thing or two about brewing beer. The qualified chemist whose career includes brewing for Tooheys, the South Australian Brewing Co and Swan, where he was head brewer for many years, was inducted as a Fellow of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in 2004 and now has another accolade worth celebrating.
Before we get to our interview with Ken, however, a little background... Beerland Brewing is the entity that produces beers at two brewpubs, Northbridge Brewing Co and Whitfords Brewing Co. Both produce five core offerings on similar 12 hectolitre breweries at their respective sites and these, along with some limited release beers from each operation, were entered into the AIBA competition, hence why there were medals and trophies for Beerland from both Northbridge and Whitfords.
As Beerland's business has grown, so has the brewing team. It now numbers three brewers across two sites, responsible for a growing lineup of monthly limited releases as well as the tight and approachable core range that includes the trophy winning Wheat, with the experience of their head brewer something the younger members can tap into. Speaking of that experienced head brewer...
With a brewing career spanning nearly 40 years, last week’s AIBA Champion Australian Beer award could be considered something of a cherry on the cake. How does it feel and is this your highest accolade?
Ken Arrowsmith: I was delighted to receive the award on behalf of our small team. I was particularly pleased to see the breadth of our portfolio recognised with five gold medals.
In a previous life, I was privileged to receive the Champion Large Brewery Trophy on behalf of the Swan Brewery team, although I think the satisfaction from being personally involved in the creation of these Beerland breweries and products makes this year very special for me.
What was the reception on the night like – winning not only Champion Australian Beer but also 11 other medals?
KA: Unfortunately, I was a “lone ranger” from Beerland Brewing at the awards ceremony but there was an enthusiastic sprinkling of WA brewers in the crowd making some noise.
You were quick to note the accolade is equally the efforts of the other brewers.
KA: I have never subscribed to the notion of “rock star” brewers. Brewing is the ultimate team game and, in the end, you are only as strong as the weakest link.
Andrew Dean has been with me since we opened the first brewery three-and-a-half years ago; he has a great passion for making beer and thirst for knowledge of brewing and beer; in fact, Andrew recently qualified as Certified Cicerone.
Tom Fleay joined us for the second brewery start up, bringing a wealth of brewing experience to the team that was evident from the start.
As a very experienced brewer, does it warm your heart just a little to see a wheat beer celebrated as waves of new styles roll in each year?
KA: I am a little old school I suppose inasmuch as I value drinkability in a beer. I also like to see and taste authenticity in a product – I guess a well made South German style Kristal Weizen ticks those boxes!
I am amazed at some of the innovation in beer styles over the past few years and in awe of the imagination involved. Personally, I admire more what can be achieved with malt, hops, yeast and water as opposed to what exotic ingredient one might add to a beer.
Is the Wheat Beer one of the better sellers at the venues?
KA: Wheat Beer is a steady seller but not the top volume line. I find people with wheat beer in their repertoire of choices will drink it quite regularly but they are in the minority. I find it to be the perfect beer for the proverbial “hot day” with or without a slice of citrus fruit.
Why you think the Beerland Brewing Wheat was so well regarded by the judges?
KA: Haha, the $64,000 question… I have no idea!
Obviously, the way judging is done it is important to meet the authentic style guidelines, beyond that you will often find a trophy beer having a degree of balance, integration of flavours and, dare I say, drinkability that will just set it apart.
With a career spanning large and small volume breweries, how much influence would you attribute to your brewing intuition?
KA: I am not sure about intuition... To me, brewing is a science and a practical art. I suppose what might appear to be intuition may be the practical application of lessons learned over many years.
In a large brewery, one has a lot of sophisticated laboratory data to aid decision making but a sound fundamental understanding of the science is also required to make the correct decision. In a small brewing environment, the data is far less comprehensive but is augmented by sight, sound, smell, feel, taste… and it still helps a lot if you know the science!
What advice would you give to younger brewers entering the industry?
KA: Get a haircut, work hard and be nice to your mother.
Or… For a young brewer these days I think the world can be your oyster! The growth of craft beer provides the opportunity for many more to enjoy a sustainable career.
Study – remember brewing is a science!
Get involved in industry associations and so on, meet other brewers, see for yourself that there are many different ways of skinning a cat.
What’s next for the Beerland team?
KA: In the short term, we will continue to produce our core range for the venues and maintain our commitment to regular limited edition releases. Our first barrel aged release is imminent.
Following on from this, with two venues firing on all cylinders, are there further expansion plans?
KA: We intend to make our beer more widely available, initially on tap and then into package. We are currently working on a scale up plan as fast as we can...
More venues both here and in the East are by no means out of the question, it really depends upon unearthing the right opportunities.