Brew & A: Caolan Vaughan

Think Stone & Wood and the first thing that will come to mind is Pacific Ale. The brewing company launched in Byron Bay a decade and a bit ago is much more than that, of course.

Among its many parts is the Counter Culture series of beers, launched in 2019 with the ridiculously good Killer Kween and a place where the brewing team embarks on flights of fancy and the marketing and design team get to have plenty of fun too.

While the brewery's founders are well known in the beer community, not least Brad Rogers for his role in creating Pacific Ale, for the past few years the guy overseeing brewing across their two sites is Caolan Vaughan. 

Originally from Melbourne, he travelled the world seeking inspiration and education as a brewer before returning to Australia and joining the Stone & Wood team around a half decade ago. With another Counter Culture beer leaving the brewery as I type these words – a hazy DIPA called G3 – we figured it was as good a time as any to chat to him about how he got into beer and where it's taken him since then.

"When I was 16, I spent some time in the UK and fell in love with pub culture and cask beer," he says. "I was taken to a pub in Kent for my 16th birthday and soon afterwards started homebrewing with a Coopers kit – not with much success.

"I finished high school and was wondering what to do when I found the course in brewing at Ballarat. And the rest is history."

It's a pretty impressive slice of history too, one that started out with the occasional shift at Mountain Goat while studying – "Cam and Dave were quite inspirational to me," he says – before six months learning the trade at Red Hill Brewery in 2006/7 led to a job at Little Creatures in Freo.

"WA was the epicentre for craft beer then and Little Creatures Pale Ale was a lot of people's epiphany beer," he says.

It was a period when he learned the "fine art of repetition and perfection" and also experienced brewery expansions, with Little Creatures "going gangbusters" and the White Rabbit project taking shape across the country in Healesville. But, in what's something of a theme in his career to date (at least until he landed in Byron), he soon had itchy feet.

"After a few years, I decided I wanted to learn quicker," he says, "and decided to go to the UK.

 

Caolan (right) taking The Crafty Pint family on a tour of Thornbridge Hall back in 2011.

 

"I went to work at Thornbridge and that was just an amazing opportunity and really opened my eyes. Alex [Troncoso, head brewer at Little Creatures at the time] had judged with [then Thornbridge brewer] Kelly Ryan and mentioned he had a brewer coming over, so it worked out perfectly.

"In terms of craft brewing in the UK at the time they were one of only a few to take an interest in proper brewing equipment and were very focused on innovation and new product development. It was such an amazing opportunity to work with great brewers and an amazing company in a beautiful part of the world.

"It broadened my horizons – European brewing and traditions and different philosophies. It was a lot of fun."

At the time, Thornbridge were among the leaders in the nascent craft beer scene in the UK, sweeping awards for beers such as their Jaipur IPA, available in both cask and keg format, while pushing the boundaries with barrel-ageing too. Their main production brewery was in the quaint Derbyshire town of Bakewell, while the original setup was located in sheds at the rear of the mightily impressive Thornbridge Hall, a 14th century stately home acquired by the brewery's founders complete with roaming boar (which you can eat in sausage form at their nearby pubs), a vast flower garden and an underground nightclub where they'd host CAMRA events and brewing guests such as Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery.

While there, he was involved in the creation of many new beers, with the Chiron American pale ale and a barrel-aged beer featuring heather honey two that stand out in his memory. It also gave him the chance to be part of Australia's first international collaboration (while on crutches) as he joined Cam and Dave at Mountain Goat to create The Thorny Goat, a black IPA, at a time when collabs were still a genuine rarity.

 

Caolan (right) on crutches with Dave Bonighton at Mountain Goat for the Thorny Goat collab brew almost a decade ago.

 

From there, the next stop was Vancouver, where he helped Steamworks step up from a brewpub to larger production brewery, while getting in as much snowboarding as he could.

"I thought I was travelling but looking back I realise I was just working," he says. "I did more work and sacrificed travel, but I love making beer and loved living in Vancouver: an amazing culture and food and alcohol and mountains."

Stone & Wood entered the picture when the time came for him and his partner to return to Australia. He'd first met recently retired co-founder Jamie Cook when he'd visited Thornbridge, stayed in touch, and met fellow founder Brad while judging in the States. They caught up in Melbourne during Good Beer Week five years ago, Caolan was invited to Byron to take a look around and was instantly hooked.

"I fell in love with the environment, the people, the place, the beer," he says. "I came for the beer but it's become so much more."

Which brings us to Counter Culture, the series that's included a Berocca-aping beer and French toast in a glass and was launched as much as anything as a space for the team to have some fun.

"The beers come from our Pilot program in Byron," he explains. "We thought we should scale things up.

"We know some people will hate [some of the beers] and some will love it but it starts a conversation; we want some people to not like them. You can't make something that's perfect for everyone, but it gets people talking about beer. I've preferred some more than others and making them on the pilot brewery is far easier than trying to scale them up to the size that we are but it's an exciting range of beers and shows we're not just Pacific Ale."

G3 gets its name from being the third generation of Pacific Ale's evolution. It takes their flagship as a starting point but scales it up significantly, well beyond The Prequel that was itself Pacific Ale in IPA form. As such, it's a celebration of the hop that's been integral to their rise.

"It's hopped ludicrously with an absurd amount of Galaxy," is how Caolan puts it.

So, as G3 makes its way across the country, ready to offer a distraction from the current madness, here's his entry in our Brew & A series...


Caolan Vaughan

Caolan with Stone & Wood co-founder Brad Rogers.

 

Why are you a brewer?

Simply, I love what I do and what it allows me to do. It’s all I wanted to do/be ever since I first drank cask beer in the UK at the age of approximately 15 or 16.


What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?

Working in engineering, politics or the renewable energy sector.


What was your epiphany beer?

Mountain Goat Hightail.


How did you first get involved in the beer world?

Homebrewing at approximately 16 years of age. I studied brewing at Ballarat Uni straight after high school and did the odd shift at Mountain Goat while studying.


What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?

That’s a tough question as there have been lots of beers brewed in different countries including the UK, Australia and Canada. So, I’d have to say the next one…


What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?

This has changed over the years. It used to be hops and still is to a high extent but now I’d say yeast. Without yeast we wouldn’t have alcohol.


Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?

I’d only say one beer comes to mind. It was a play on the local Byron health food culture – a hemp seed and berry smoothie inspired beer – and it was a brewed with oat milk, hemp flour and seeds, açai, raspberries and blueberries. 

It tasted awful and got destroyed! Ninety-nine percent of them have been pretty solid and this was not. I still feel it would work but just needed some finesse.

 

The first (and still my favourite) Counter Culture beer, Killer Kween.

If you could do a guest stint at any brewery in the world, which would it be and why?

I have been very lucky to collaborate with many wonderful breweries around the world but these breweries would be special.

Marston Brewery in the UK – I’d love to brew on the Burton Union System. I love the history of brewing from this great traditional beer city, Burton-upon-Trent.

Brouwerij Rodenbach in Belgium – I’d love to learn barrel/ foeder-ageing and blending from the masters.

Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Germany – I believe this brewery makes the best Pils in the world and learning a few tips on making one of my favourite styles would be amazing. They sell about 50,000hl in about a 50km radius from the brewery. Amazing locally-focused brewery!  

Sierra Nevada Brewing in the USA – true pioneers in the industry and have achieved what most would dream of. 


Which local (Aussie or Kiwi) breweries inspire you?

We are both very lucky in Australia and NZ to have an incredible depth of talent of brewers. I can’t list them all but here are some crackers from both countries…

NZ – Fork & Brewer, ParrotDog, Garage Project, Liberty and 8 Wired.

Aus – Wildflower, Modus Operandi, BentSpoke, Van Dieman, Balter, Moo, Bridge Road, Stomping Ground, Two Birds, Balter.


What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?

Only one beer is tough! However, I’d have to say Schönram Pils or Birrificio Italiano Tipopils .


And what would be the soundtrack to those days? 

90s hip hop or 90s trip hop, Bowie, Prince to name a few.


If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?

Whisky or wine or both.


What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?

How popular brewing would become – very few people knew the industry in early/mid 2000s. I just might have built my own brewery instead of travelling and working in others. Well, maybe I would have, as I do love travelling!


And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?

Brewing is an industry that has been built on passion, sharing, camaraderie and without it it would not be what it is today. 

However, it has become the great industry it is today through further study in brewing and brewing related sciences. The thirst for knowledge about our craft is essential to the never-ending pursuit for perfection.


You can find other entries in the long-running Brew & A series here

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