It was more of a paradox than a lie. In any case, it’s now been corrected: after five years away from the city the Sydney Brewery is once again a Sydney brewery after opening a new home in Surry Hills.
It’s been a circuitous route for the brewer to end up, more or less, on the other side of the block from where it launched its first beers some thirteen years previous, but few journeys in the modern beer world take the most direct path.
As an entity, Sydney Brewery sits within the sprawling hospitality empire of the Schwartz Family Company (SFC), led by surgeon Dr Jerry Schwartz, which has accumulated a dozen or more prominent hotels in its portfolio. The brewing side of the business began back in 2005 with the eponymous Schwartz Brewery, an old 800 litre wood clad brewhouse brought out from the UK and inserted awkwardly into the subterranean warren of the ancient Macquarie Hotel on Wentworth Street.
Unless you stumbled upon or tumbled into that brewery – most likely having gotten lost walking around the pub in search of the loos – there’s a reasonable chance you wouldn’t have ever known it was there. It was easier to pick out on brew days though when the walls were sweating, the floor soaking and the vitalising smell of wort wafting up from the bowels of the building. The whole place had a grungy and unkempt feel and it was generally accepted that the beer quality could be up and down, but more often than not you’d come up trumps. Besides, at $3.50 a schooner no one much minded.
Change came in 2012 when the hotel and pub were sold and the brewery was rebranded from Schwartz to Sydney Brewery. That was when the beers began to take on a form familiar today, featuring names taken from nearby Sydney suburbs; Darlo (Darlinghurst) Dark, Potts Point Porter, Paddo (Paddington) Pale, et al. But by the following year the brewery had ceased production, meaning no Sydney Brewery beers were actually being made in Sydney. Yet they were brewing more than ever.
Following the sale of the hotel, SFC plumped up for a brand new production brewery adjacent to their Crowne Plaza hotel in Lovedale, a couple of hours north in the pleasant surrounds of the Hunter Valley. They’d left the city whose name they traded on and built a brewery in the heart of wine country.
With a clean slate and modern facilities, Sydney Brewery – initially under the tenure of longtime head brewer Michael Capaldo and, from 2017, Scott Hayward – began picking up medals at major beer and cider competitions at home and abroad. They got on a roll that turned into an avalanche until, by the middle of 2018, they’d claimed more than 100 medals in all competitions, including ten trophies and eleven golds. In a handful of years they’d gone from churning out cheap schooners in a grotty basement to brewing trophy winning beers from a luxury resort with laudable consistency. The brand and beers had undergone a total transformation.
In hindsight, it reads like a case of them moving away in order to grow up. And now they’ve come home.
“Our growing business forced us out of Surry Hills to a larger site that could handle the excess production requirements”, says head brewer Scott. “It’s great to now have the opportunity to bring the brewery back.”
True to form, the new Surry Hills brewery is in one of Schwartz’s hotels – the Rydges Sydney Central on Albion Street. It’s a small setup, just a five hectolitre system, tucked up in the corner of the hotel bar. It’s in no way a replacement for the Lovedale brewery. It is, for most intents and purposes, a brewpub from which they’ll be able to supplement the existing Sydney Brewery range with beers brewed on site.
Says Scott, “We’ll have around eight Sydney Brewery taps at the Surry Hills bar. Of these eight we’ll most likely have five of our core range beers and cider on, a namesake beer to match the personality and flavour of the venue with the remaining taps rotating through seasonal and specialty beers.”
The first beer – the namesake – that’s christened the system and is currently conditioning has been pencilled in as the Albion Ale, a beer Scott describes as an “approachable, easy drinking and fruity ale”. But beyond that he has total freedom to play around with the new toys.
“The most exciting thing for me is we can get creative and try new things and styles without affecting production of our core range. The small kit will be very flexible and we’ll be able to do small batches and see how they’re received.”
Whatever they come up with, Scott’s likely to discover a new level of busyness as his role has expanded so that he’s overseeing both the Hunter Valley and Surry Hills breweries. Considering they’re separated by a distance of more than 150 kilometres and who knows how many hours that translates to travelling on Sydney roads, there’s a bit of a wait-and-see attitude as to whether that will continue in the long term.
“Definitely in the short term I’ll continue to oversee both sites”, he says. “It’s most likely to remain this way but we’ll have to see how it all pans out as Sydney Brewery Surry Hills comes into full swing. It will most likely be a combination.
“There probably isn’t a full-time head required to run the brewery at the moment but we’ll have to see how it all goes. There’s also a great training opportunity for not only our production team but the sales and marketing teams and the Sydney Brewery Surry Hills bar staff.”
That latter is perhaps an understated but important perk. Sydney Brewery’s production facility has a nine person brewing team and works near enough to capacity in order to maintain supply of a core range of a dozen different lines, including several ciders. In that kind of setup, playtime is limited. But having a seperate small brewery to romp around in affords the opportunity for brewers to be creative, learn how to use new equipment, get stumped by new challenges and develop new skills. Let alone the educational value of having back office and bar staff being able to get more involved and develop more fundamental knowledge of brewing.
Small it may be, but in the grander scheme Sydney Brewery’s Surry Hills home seems set to deliver a lot of value for the business.
While the Sydney CBD isn’t known as an especially vibrant hub for brewpubs, the closure of the original Schwartz brewery meant there was a real dearth with only the The Lord Nelson and King Street Brewhouse left flying the flag. Since then, plenty has happened with the former officially becoming Australia’s oldest independent microbrewery and the latter closing for almost a year before reopening in splendid form as the All Hands Brewing House in Darling Harbour.
After a stuttering search the founders of the Endeavour Brewing Company finally got a home of their own in the Endeavour Tap Rooms in The Rocks, Lion unveiled The Squire’s Landing in that most Sydney of Sydney locations – perched over the water in between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge – and on the city fringe Staves has transformed from bar to bonafide brewpub and community hub.
With the Sydney Brewery back in the fold and the promise of more to come, inner city brewpubs are back in Sydney in a big way.
About the author: Nick Oscilowski lives on the South Coast of New South Wales and writes about beer. He has nothing to complain about.