A brewery can go through a lot of change in ten years. It’s enough time to get kegs into bars in every capital city, scale up the production site, and perhaps even sell to a multinational. Jon Shiner (pictured above in the early days of Badlands) has done none of those things, and that’s exactly the way he likes it.
“If it was about the money,” he says “I wouldn’t have quit my corporate job.”
Jon’s story is like many others; it starts with an avid homebrewer, working in IT and feeling dissatisfied with the pale lager dominated beer market of ten years ago. Where it starts to differ a bit is the part where he decides that, rather than set up shop in his neck of the woods – which ironically was the Inner West of Sydney, now home to the largest concentration of craft breweries in the country – he’d move 250 km directly westwards, to a town called Orange.
Inspired by stories of outlaws and bushrangers of the gold rush era, he’d call his brewery Badlands, and begin to brew the kinds of beers that he was nostalgic for: the pales and milds from back home in the UK.
Where Jon’s story differs the most, however, is that in the ten years since the brewery has remained as small, local and authentic as it ever was – entirely on purpose.
“My business card still says head brewer slash managing director,” Jon says, adding: “That’s the order I would prefer to do things."
That kind of dry British wit perfectly encapsulates the entire ethos of the brewery and is exactly what makes Jon, and Badlands as a whole, so endearing. It’s a brewery that doesn’t take itself too seriously, one that calls its NEIPA Acronym Abuse, one that’s never had a retail space of its own, and one that is perfectly happy to remain exactly where it is in the craft beer world.
“I love the brewer-owner model for microbreweries. I am inspired by guys like Paul Holgate, who I attended the brewery course [at the University of Ballarat] with, Ben Kraus [Bridge Road], and Matt Donelan [St Peter's]. That, to me, is right at the authentic end of the industry, when you can set the direction of the brewery and still have creative control over the beers.”
Over the ten years, that creativity has certainly been put to good use. Initially, the beers gravitated towards traditional British-style ales, the likes of dark London porters and malty Scottish ales. But, as the craft beer wave hit the shores of Australia, bringing with it the higher octane American styles, the range expanded to include the many varieties of hoppy pale ales, too.
Then there were the beers that were driven by no market trend whatsoever, brewed just because Jon, later joined by senior brewer Tim Roach, could.
“Now that you’ve asked, it’s nice to look back at the variety and crazy ingredients we’ve used,” Jon says. “We’ve added truffles, hazelnuts, cherries, finger limes, blueberries, figs and chillies – most of them local ingredients from likeminded people. We’ve even smoked our own malt.”
A lot of those ingredients have come from The Agrestic Grocer, the restaurant and shop that acts as the brewery’s cellar door. (Although the phrase cellar door may be a bit of a misnomer for craft beer, it’s perfectly acceptable in the wine region of Orange.) That store, along with a few select venues in Orange, Sydney, Newcastle and Canberra, are the only places to find Badlands beers on tap. And, given those handful of bars account for the majority of sales, that should be a good indicator for the size of the operation.
In fact, it was in The Agrestic Grocer that Jon first came up with the idea for one of the brewery’s most iconic beers, formerly known as Malekula Dark.
“Someone had asked us to brew a beer in time for Easter, about two weeks before Easter," he recalls. "With such short notice I wondered if it was possible to add anything to a beer already in the fermenter to make it more chocolatey. I searched the shop next door and found some cacao nibs from Spencer Cocoa in Mudgee, and got some vanilla from a shop in town.
“I was just going to buy some cheap vodka to sanitise the lot, but I thought that’d be a bit crap. Instead, I found some spiced rum in the shop – Dead Man’s Drop – made by Ian Glen of Stone Pine in Bathurst.”
The resulting beer is now known as Trinity Porter, named as a reference for the three producers that provided the cocoa, vanilla, and rum. Naturally, the next thing to do was to stick the beer in Dead Man’s Drop rum barrels and age it to make a quad-strength beer. But, as Jon realised late one Saturday afternoon early in the COVID-induced lockdown, if there was a three and four, where were one and two?
Thus, the idea for BADASS, or Badlands Announces “Decade Anniversary Stout Series,” was born.
“That Saturday afternoon thought was to show a beer through the entire process,” says Jon. “In fact, when I first thought about it, I didn’t think it would be possible – there were too many hurdles. But that night I dreamt about it. So, on Sunday morning, we were doing it.”
Starting with a single batch of stout, half was taken out and the remainder infused with the rum-soaked cocoa and vanilla. Half of what was removed made Singular, a strong stout, and the other half went into barrels for conditioning to make Duo. Then the cacao and vanilla-infused half went through the same splitting and barrel-conditioning process, creating Trinity and Quad.
“I’m careful to call them barrel-conditioned. We built a hot box out of cool room panels to heat the barrels during the day, then turned it off and let them cool overnight. That expansion and contraction sucks the beer in and out of the wood, accelerating the process.”
As far as Jon is aware, it’s the first time a brewery has released such a “drinkable history of beer in four steps.” But the release is more than just a first, it’s a unique celebration of ten years of Badlands.
“Looking back, I have no regrets,” Jon says. “It’s always been a bit tough, selling in a regional area. But, every year we’ve grown. Our local sales go up every year.
“That said, it was never about changing the world, never my intention to get really big. I’m not trying to claim I’ve done any great thing with Badlands, but it’s only ever been the brewing, that creativity, that’s interested me – and still does interest me – about the industry. It’s what I’ll always love about it.”
Keep an eye on Badlands' Facebook page for BADASS stockists.