“We just felt the motorhome was the perfect way to see customers that need help.”
When I joined Dan McCulloch, Lallemand Brewing's technical manager and IBA Young Gun Of The Year aboard his RV for a trip up the NSW coastline, we must have looked a little odd. For a start, we’re a good few decades younger (and hopefully have a few less grey hairs) than pretty much anyone else we see in similar vehicles on the road. Yet the idea – touring breweries in a motorhome – does seem a little less bizarre the more you think about it.
In a country as large and as sparsely populated as Australia, getting to breweries located outside of the capital cities has its challenges. The fact so many small breweries are setting up in town after regional town is only making it harder too.
So that’s what brings me here: riding along on the RV Beer Roadshow with Dan – or VB, as he's known to most of the beer world. He's been technical manager at Lallemand for the Asia Pacific region since the start of the year, following close to five years brewing beer and running the lab at Young Henrys. He's also been heavily involved with the brewing course run through NSW TAFE since it launched in 2016.
Dan's role at Lallemand sees him spending much of his time on the road working with breweries on their quality programs (which you can read about here) and, with so much of that job involving troubleshooting problems that arise at unpredictable times, he started trying to work out the best way to work with breweries nowhere near an airport.
“We always spend time in the main cities, so the bigger breweries have access to more,” Dan says.
The first leg of the roadshow saw Dan head from Perth to Albany in September, before taking off from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast at the start of October. And it's part of the latter journey during which we become travelling buddies, from Newcastle to Port Macquarie.
The RV in which Dan picks me up from a corner in Newcastle is basically a hotel room on wheels (actually, it’s a fair bit nicer than my hotel from the night before): three beds, a fridge, shower, toilet, towels and pretty much anything you could need to cook with, excluding a coffee percolator, much to our disappointment. Dan’s also brought along some rather hefty suitcases: his portable lab used to diagnose any issues brewers have along the way.
“A lot of the time it’s just talking and support,” he says. “Some people just want to have a chat, try a few beers or give me a few and then it’s off we go.”
But there have been moments on the roadtrip that have involved way more hours and the RV means that, rather than worrying about accommodation, you really only need a place to park and somewhere to plug it in. Occasionally, that’s at the actual breweries, for example when a brewer’s frustration with a fermentation issue led to Dan spending the whole day there.
“It’s given me the flexibility of not needing to worry about finding a motel, check out times or getting to an airport,” he says.
It’s not just a lab Dan’s been taking with him; he's packing a few GoPros and mics too: if he's going to visit all these breweries, he figures he might as well get some of the brewers to ride along with him. The Meet The Brewer series (which can be found on Facebook and YouTube) involves Dan inviting someone to join him in the RV and ask them about what they love about brewing, how they've messed up on the job and the challenges they see facing the industry.
“I really liked chatting to some of the assistant brewers or someone who isn’t the owner of the company,” he says.
“When you’re at trade expos, you’re always talking to a head brewer or senior brewer, so it’s been really fun to hear what up and coming brewers need; what resources do they need access to, what level of education they want?”
Dan says he’s using the experience on the road to plan better for next year, both in terms of the masterclasses he’ll be running and his role on the IBA’s Quality Committee.
I don’t know when it hits me, but after the first few brewery visits I realise how distinct the conversations I always have with brewers are from Dan’s. I deal almost exclusively in firing off open-ended ideas while Dan’s constantly having specific questions fired at him. The why versus the how.
What also impressive me is how, when people are concerned with how their beer is going, they’re not concerned with pointing out any problem they might be having, even when there's a journalist along for the ride.
“I thought with you being there people might have been a bit reserved,” Dan says. “But the collaborative nature of the industry means that, if there’s an issue, we all want to resolve it together; we all want to make better beer.
“People can be pretty exhausted in the brewing role, working really long hours, and if there’s a particular problem that’s derailing them, they want to move on to the next thing. So. if someone can help them, that’s why I find people being so receptive.”
The issues that come up while brewing are diverse and, while Dan says he doesn’t have all the answers, he's part of a global network. Optus might not have served me so well travelling between breweries, but Dan’s constantly connecting to those around him through WhatsApp.
“If can’t work it out, we have 40 technical managers working worldwide,” he says. “So, it just takes a couple of seconds for me to get on our group chat and say, ‘This is a problem I’ve not experienced, does anyone have any experience with this?’.
“One of us has run into one of these issues before.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who started homebrewing at 14, was pouring his own beer on tap at 16, talked his way into a full-time role at Young Henrys by hanging out there enough, and then helped build the lab at the Newtown brewery, fixing issues for breweries is what Dan truly loves.
“For me my favourite part of brewing was the problem solving: the what and the why,” he says.
“We’ve still got a lot more of this booked in and it’s certainly something I’d do again. It’s just the best way to try and give solutions and help, because at some of those places I was there for hours or a day.”
In the first half of 2020, he’ll spend three weeks taking another van across New Zealand. Although it’s not all plain sailing.
“Well my foot’s sore from being on the pedal so much," he says. "I never thought that was going to be a thing.”
You can read our Big Issue feature on Beer Quality here.