It was while sitting around a table with competition winners at GABS Sydney earlier this year that Richard Watkins pointed out that, of all the brewers who’ve been around as long as he has, he’s the only one still regularly working the tools.
The co-founder of BentSpoke in Canberra has been making beer commercially in the nation’s capital for more than two decades. For most of that time, it was at the late Wig & Pen where, on a tiny kit, he helped it become a must-visit destination for beer cognoscenti long before the term “craft beer” had even started to gain traction in Australia.
Over the years, he put out barrel-aged imperial stouts, blended gueuze, hoppy IPAs, real ales galore, and much more besides, barely any of which went beyond the pub’s taps and hand pumps. Yet, while the work he was doing there was groundbreaking – work that led to a pair of Champion Small Brewery titles at the Australian International Beer Awards – it’s been at BentSpoke that he’s been able to reach more people.
In tandem with partner Tracy Margrain – a partner in the brewhouse as well as in life – and their growing team, they’ve helped put the capital on the map for great beer, initially through their marvellous brewpub in Braddon, subsequently via reliably excellent beers sent further afield in some of the best-looking cans in the business.
When BentSpoke launched, I have to admit that I, like many, assumed it would become a platform for Rich to take his more esoteric ideas to new levels and a wider audience; the word “bent” was in the title, ferchrissakes. However, seeing where tastes were headed, they instead set out to make the best hop forward beers they could (and, of course, nailed the brief).
Sure, you could find saisons made with freekeh and other oddities (including lamb’s brains on the menu at one point) at the brewpub or popping up at festivals (Joe Carb from a past GABS remains the only beer to fart in my mouth and leave its deposit there for half an hour, resistant even to the cleansing power of double IPAs), but everything that left the brewery tended to be more “sensible”.
Now established as one of the best-loved and fastest-growing breweries in Australia, that’s changing too. The outrageously good Descent 18 imperial stout got a run in cans this year while the Muthur Funker gueuze debuted at Good Beer Week 2012 has made a reappearance too.
In an industry in which experimentation has become such a central cog in the machine, it’s exciting to know a new era of drinkers will get to experience such beers from the hands of a man who was making them while some of them were still learning to walk.
What's been your highlight of the past decade?
Seeing the craft beer industry go through so much growth in Australia. It’s great to see so many brewers tasting success all around Australia.
When I started brewing there were six small breweries in Australia: Lord Nelson, Scharer's, Masthead, Geebung Polo Club, Bootleg and Wig & Pen.
Making the commitment to set up our own brewery, BentSpoke, and seeing so many people become instantly supportive of us would have to be a highlight also.
What's surprised you the most about the Aussie beer scene?
The beer fan that continues to go above and beyond to seek, taste and support new beers, new breweries or just the industry in general.
What are your thoughts on the health of the beer industry as we approach the end of a remarkable decade?
I think Australian craft beer is in relatively good shape. I think the challenges will always be consistent quality, distribution and choosing the right brewing model.
To me, there are only two brewing models that work. You are either really small and have a brewpub where you sell retail or you have a big production brewery that allows you to make beer cheap enough to sell wholesale with a margin.
Of course, once you have one of these models then you can do the other!
What's your number one goal for the decade ahead?
Stay in business, enjoy life, love beer!
And, if you had one Christmas wish for beer in Australia, what would it be?
It's time to use a nice big imperial stout or IIIPA on the Christmas pudding instead of brandy!
We're opening a door on Crafty's Advent Calendar every morning up until Christmas Day and you'll be able to find them all here.