Let's be honest. There’s never really a good time to break your leg. But when you run a small business and COVID-19 is wreaking widespread damage through your industry, we can all agree it's most definitely not a good time to suffer such misfortune.
But for Pete Gerber, who runs Pioneer Brewing Co with wife Tamara on their farm south of Orange, the injury – technically damage to parts of his knee and posterior cruciate ligament that required a brace and a period in a wheelchair – came with a silver lining. It gave him the opportunity to invite Dan McCulloch, Lallemand Brewing's technical manager, to develop a quality control system they'd been discussing since the brewery launched at the end of 2017.
“This is something that’s been on the cards for quite a few years,” Pete says. “Getting a lab in place so we can do our own micro and not have to send anything out.”
For Dan – or VB as most in the industry know him – the coronavirus closures meant he had some spare time up his sleeve too. Had things gone as planned, right now he should be driving through New Zealand on the next leg of the quality roadshow we jumped aboard last year.
“I was meant to be in New Zealand doing the roadshow, which is postponed until all this craziness is over,” he explains.
So, while maintaining his regular duties at Lallemand, VB packed up his life in the Southern Highlands to help out on the brew floor while Pete was a leg down, and help advance Pioneer's quality program.
“He’s got a brewing team so it was more just me coming in for process optimisation and helping out where I can,” VB says. “He’s a really good brewer himself and is so open to discussing ideas.”
His hosts offered to put him up in a hotel but, as you might expect from someone who's spent weeks on end traversing the country in a motorhome with a beer lab on board and a fair amount of the rest of the year in hotels, VB was keen to take advantage of the farm.
“Pete set up his camping trailer and I brought my dogs with me and it was happy days,” he says, describing the opportunity to start each day watching the sun rise on one side of the farm and set on the other as "enchanting".
"This suits me and I’m happy to live off the grid,” he adds.
For the host, while he says it was great having an extra set of hands at the brewery, the opportunity to invite someone like VB – winner of the inaugural Indies Young Gun Of The Year title in 2019 – to brew on his system also gave him time to think.
“I got to see my brewhouse from a different perspective,” he says. “From day one, I’ve been the one brewing so it’s been good to step back and look at it and go, ‘OK, well, if we change this, is it going to improve the life of the person brewing, whether it’s me or anyone up there?’
“It’s allowed me to look at the brewery with a different set of eyes, so it has been a blessing in disguise the broken leg.”
For Pete and Tamara, as brewers and farmers who grow much of the ingredients for Pioneer's beer, they've been grateful for support from their neighbours, the beer community and the brewery's fans at this challenging time.
“We often tell people it takes a community to run a brewery and as soon as my neighbours found out what had happened we’ve had a lot of people put their hands up to put bums on seats in tractors.”
Then there's the efforts of the man setting up in a paddock for five weeks a few hours from home, whose actions speak to the camaraderie in the local beer community, something that's arguably been at an all time high as it faces up to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.
“It’s great having mates like that in the industry,” Pete says. “Where it’s not just someone putting boots in the brewhouse; it’s more having a mate helping you out and having a laugh with at the end of the day.”
For VB, aside from getting to spend the nationwide lockdown on a farm where he could watch the sun set over fields of barley, there was one thing that stood out above all.
“I’ve loved it, I’ve had so much fun,” he says.
“I’ve missed being in a brewery. The banter in breweries is so much fun and I miss it.”
As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we're running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in get in touch.