This week sees Bright Brewery launch their first Mystery Beer, an idea conceived by their rep Evin Craney and brought to life by head brewer Reid Stratton. The latter only joined the High Country brewery a few months ago, making the move from New England Brewing Co in Uralla after half a decade, and appears to be well placed for such a task, one that involves him brewing a beer where only he knows the style and ingredients and drinkers are challenged to deduce as much as they can about it, with prizes for the most accurate.
Why is Reid so well placed for such an unusual undertaking? Well, there's the cavalcade of off centre beers he's produced at both Australian breweries where he's held the head brewer role. At New England, as well as creating well received line of "normal" beers with their open fermenters, such as the Hop Cannon IPA, there was an ever-interesting limited release schedule taking in a range of farmhouse ales and fruit- and spice-enhanced beers.
Since landing at Bright, while maintaining and tweaking the core range of eight (and picking up a trophy at The Indies for the Razor Witbier), he's continued to fire his arrows in many directions: kveik beers, fruit sours, NEIPAs – and now the Mystery Beer.
It's perhaps no surprise his palette has proved so broad; prior to moving to Australia, the Kentucky born brewer worked at Jolly Pumpkin, the barrel-ageing farmhouse specialists in Michigan, after starting out with Grand Teton in the Rocky Mountains. And his first steps within the beer world were the result of another uncommon passion.
Reid studied music at uni and then attended a Conservatory, forming a group that moved to Brooklyn to embark on what proved to be a short-lived career. Their musical style?
"It was music that was all about art. Freeform, experimental squeaks and farts," is how he puts it. "A fairly niche market.
"The same people would come to our shows and we would go to theirs; the same twenty people taking turns in paying the cover charge..."
The move to NYC did, however, lead him to a bottleshop in Brooklyn that stocked more than a thousand craft beers from all over the world. Already fascinating by baking, cooking and making things from scratch, his colleague there enticed him into the world of homebrewing and began the long road to Bright.
"I'm drawn to food and food-related things," Reid says. "Tea or coffee, cooking or baking. It was a reaction against nearly everything we ate [growing up] coming out of a box or a tin – 'just add water' kind of thing.
"I found it interesting when I was working part-time in a kitchen that all these things that came in a jar – like mustard – or bread you could make yourself. That fascinated me."
While at Jolly Pumpkin, having realised he'd worked through the years people often used for travelling the world, he decided to do something to salve his itchy feet. But, having also realised he was getting quite good at this brewing lark, he decided any global travel should involve brewing so began scouring the world for opportunities, from Panama to Australia, and ended up in Uralla.
"I started looking for brewing jobs overseas and it was really interesting to see where craft brewing was starting to take hold around the world. I applied to all sorts of places and ended up getting an offer from New England, who were willing to sponsor my visa" he says.
"Next thing you know you've got two suitcases and you're being air-dropped into Regional New South Wales. I was expecting it to be like America but with a different accent, but the drinking culture and brewing culture and the whole scene was all really, really different. I was a little bit blindsided."
He struggled to find the sort of quality of beers he'd been enjoying in the States at first, particularly anything fresh reaching his new home. But, he says: "Every year, it gets better and better."
The move to Bright came about after he spent time in the High Country on holiday with his wife; while enjoying a few beers at the brewery on the banks of the Ovens, he remarked that if an opportunity was to come up there, he'd be sorely tempted to apply. Not long after, it did.
"The job came up on The Crafty Pint and I thought I'd be stupid not to have a go; it's an amazing area," he says. "New England was really great but everything was pretty much running the way I anticipated and I thought it was time to shake things up."
Now, with two different sized breweries to play with and a thirsty brewpub offering an outlet for small batch experiments, he's been charged with aiding Bright's attempts to boost their wider distribution as well as satisfying his more creative urges. And that includes the Mystery Beer project.
"You think you know what you're tasting until someone takes away the label," he says. "I've been fooled by my own beers in my own brewery! I'm realy, really excited."
So, with the first Mystery Beer set to hit fridges in the coming days, we felt it was as good a time as any to invite Reid to take part in our ongoing Brew & A series.
Why are you a brewer?
I fell in love with fermentation while working as a sourdough bread baker many years ago. I love watching raw materials that don’t have much value on their own combine and transform through fermentation into the most delicious and sought-after foods in the world. And I also like being a part of a tradition that goes back at least 7,000 years.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
I would still be in the bakery, getting my hands around some dough every morning, eating fresh baked pretzels for breakfast, scraping out flour from under my fingernails.
What was your epiphany beer?
I’ve had a lot of epiphany beers over the years! I don’t even know if I can remember the first but I reckon Three Floyds Gumballhead or Anchor Barleywine would be high on the list.
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
I had a job selling beer at a bottleshop in Brooklyn, NY, that stocked about 1,200 different beers. Talk about an education! I reckon I tasted 500 different beers of every possible style during the year I worked there, which was a great crash course when it came time to start writing recipes a few years later.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
Hopefully the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that…
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
Water. You don’t really appreciate having really good water until you have to use some not-so-good water. And it’s the one thing you can’t really substitute with an alternative. You can import special malts, hops, and yeast from around the globe, but we all must make do with our hometown water.
It may be underrated but when you’ve got the good stuff it just makes your job so much easier!
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
I’ve been fortunate to always work with people smarter than myself to slap me on the back of the head when I have a truly terrible idea for a brew, so nothing too disastrous has made it to market (yet).
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery in the world, which would it be and why?
Schneider & Sohn Weissebierbraurei in Bavaria. They have been knocking out the best traditional wheat beers in the world for about 150 years but are also innovating new styles and flavour combinations. They also continue to be independently-owned and operated.
Which local (Aussie or Kiwi) breweries inspire you?
Nomad, Wildflower, and Sailors Grave all come to mind for the same reason: they make creative, unique beers that express something distinctive about the people who brew them.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
Dogfish Head SeaQuench – I would volunteer to be stranded indefinitely if there was a bottomless esky of this beer on hand!
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
Some funky 70s Brazilian soul like Tim Maia, Banda Black Rio, and Jorge Ben.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
Probably Japanese Sake (which is kind of cheating since it’s basically rice beer…).
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
That it doesn’t really ever get any easier – you have to keep pushing and pushing to improve as your standards and expectations reach ever higher.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
Don’t cut corners. Start at the bottom, work your way up, be nice to everyone along the way, and always find at least one thing to improve the next time around.
Thanks, Reid! You can find the rest of our Brew & A features here.
Bright's Mystery Beer
The competition runs from October 18 to January 1, 2020, with the beer available in both pack and keg as well as multiple events and tastings over the month. There are two ways to win:
- Closest To The Pin – Guess the beer and as many of its intricacies as possible
- The Beer Review – Tell Bright about the beer in 50 words or less. As Evin puts it: "Don’t tell us just what it is; describe to us in the most poetic way you are capable of how it makes you feel – what memories does it bring back? Entertain us with a description so bold and vivid we can taste it on our tongues."
The winners will receive prizes ranging from slabs and merch to a year's supply of beer from Bright and the ability to claim supremacy over their fellow beer geeks. For more info or to enter, head here.