Craft Beer Heroes: Pete Meddings

Whether you’ve consumed just a handful or many hundreds of different beers, and whether your craft beer journey goes back a few months or many years, if you live in Australia you can pretty much guarantee Pete Meddings has played a role in your drinking pleasure.

At the same time, there's a good chance you’ll have little idea who he is and, unless you’re pretty closely involved with the beer and brewing industry, you might never heard of the company he launched a quarter century ago: Bintani Australia.

Yet, as Pete (pictured above with sons Dale and Phil) steps down from the family business at the age of 75 – a few weeks after celebrating Bintani’s 25th anniversary – he can look back on one of the most significant behind-the-scenes roles in the growth of craft beer in Australia. 

After becoming the first to supply brewer's yeast to what was then a tiny microbrewing – or "boutique beer" – industry (no one used "craft" then), he’s built a company that’s put hops, malt, yeast and other equipment into the hands of hundreds of Australia and Kiwi brewers and, as a result, aided them putting beer into yours.

But, while Bintani started out in 1995, you have to go back a lot further to find Pete's first brushes with the brewing world – all the way back to 1972, in fact, when he was working with a company selling five gallon carboys that could be used for fermenting homebrew.

“At the same time I was playing around with this company and these fermenters, Gough Whitlam was made PM," Pete recalls. "During his first hundred days in office, one of the big things he allowed was that you could brew homebrew beer to any strength you liked as long as you could drink it – you just couldn’t sell it.

"All of a sudden, it became something huge."

 

The Meddings family (minus daughter Karen) at Bintani's Mordialloc home: Dale, Phil, Margaret and Pete.

 

Pete had started homebrewing with his brother just before Whitlam made it legal and ended up working with Wander AG, the producers of Ovaltine. They made malt concentrate for a number of purposes and started selling liquid malt extract in cans for brewers under the Wander Extra Malt name. After carrying out development work for Wander to find a yeast strain that would work well to make beer, he took on a sales role for them in the 80s, where he stayed for around a decade while developing a close bond with those in the fledgling craft beer industry.

“There was the first wave of brewing in the early to mid-80s: the Geebung Polo Club; the Loaded Dog at the top of Punt Road," Pete says. "But they never had a lot of ingredients: one or two basic hops; one or two base malts and a bit of dark malt; yeast you got from a brewery or used dried bread yeast."

In 1994, Pete left Wander and went to work briefly with a guy looking to develop craft brewing in China, before deciding to strike out on his own the following year. By this time, things were starting to change. Not only were there a few more small breweries but David Cryer had launched Cryer Malt and John Ross, later to form Hopco, was bringing in a limited amount of hops – some out of the US and the UK plus some noble hops. Yet no one was supplying the nascent craft beer industry with yeast.

So Pete stepped in.

"It was dried brewing yeast [from the UK] and they really revolutionised things as they produced yeast specifically for the craft brewing industry," he says, adding: "We were in at the right time – there’s no doubt about that."

While money was tight, he says: "I got on with some very good people as far as sales go. Some of the suppliers we got in with were taking notice of the craft beer industry in a big way."

He says it was 1998, however, when things started to take off. Fermentis launched a range of new yeast varieties at the Institute of Brewing (now the IBD) and he brought them to the Australian market. By the early years of the new millennium, he had added malt and hops "and other bits and pieces" to the offering of a company that had rebranded from Pete Meddings to Bintani Australia.

“We always served the whole of Australia and became known as a one-stop shop," he says.

 

A Bintani open day during an early Good Beer Week. Dale and Phil Meddings were instrumental in the launch of the festival.

 

While Pete's pioneering role in the growth of craft beer is part of his story, you could argue the development of Bintani as a family business is just as impressive. For the first four years, he ran the business himself before wife Margaret joined, followed by one son, Dale, then the other, Phil, who had spent more than a decade working for KPMG. Daughter Karen also spent 12 months in the business at one stage.

“I was happy to have Margaret on board with admin while I was doing sales and everything else," Pete says. "When Dale came in, he had done a brewing course and became a technical adviser for us.

"I really do think we are unique that way. There's not many families that can work together, not for as long as we have. Honestly, I have to say if there's something that I will take away from the business, it's that we are still all very good friends after working together for the 25 years. 

"I've been really proud to work with my boys; to have my kids with me has been honestly one of the greatest things of my life."

He says the family aspect goes beyond the individuals involved: the Bintani office used to be a bedroom the boys had vacated, for example. And, in another respect, it goes beyond their work life too thanks to a shared love of country music.

"My old dad was into US country music," Pete says. "I don't know how he got into it, but he instilled it into us. Phil always loved Johnny Cash; for me and Dale it was Waylon Jennings."

It's a passion that has seen trips to the US to visit suppliers augmented by visits to Nashville and many honky tonks. At one point, they almost bought a house in Nashville.

"It was when the Aussie dollar was strong around the time of the US housing crash," Pete recalls. "On the lounge room wall there was this painting of a huge guitar painted and it looked magnificent."

 

The Meddings at Second Fiddle, one of their favourite Nashville Honky Tonks with the late Waylon Jennings in the background; Pete at Bintani earlier in 2020.

 

Given it's almost 50 years since he started homebrewing and a quarter century since he launched his supply operation, he's seen plenty of evolution.

"When craft brewing started they promoted it as something that was made with natural ingredients that change. The old punter is quite educated nowadays and wants some consistency in their product," he says.

"Everybody had their own dreams [in the 90s] but I don’t think anybody would have dreamed of there being so many breweries to the size it is now. There's some large breweries that aren’t as independent as they used to be but it’s hard work making beer and if somebody has had a good run and is making good beer and someone knocks on the door…"

It's a situation that came the Meddings' way too. With the business continuing to grow within an industry that's been growing ever faster, at least pre-COVID, in 2018 they were approached by the Rahr Corporation, who took partial ownership of the Mordialloc-based operation.

“People saw that we were having a pretty good time and wanted to share in it," is how Pete puts it in his down-to-earth fashion.

"Rahr offered good money for the business and they could also see that there was a need to invest in the business more. We could see this change coming through: we either had to get bigger and better at what we were doing or or there was a possbility that someone else could come and be bigger and better than we were. 

"Having the Brewers Supply Group on our side has been very, very good. They leave us alone in one way but help in other ways."

The Meddings family's involvement in the beer world goes beyond Bintani and the breweries they supply too. They're involved in both BentSpoke, the award-winning Canberra brewery, and Bay 13, a brewpub in Miami founded with one of Phil's former colleagues at KPMG. And it was a conversation between Dale, Phil and two Beer DeLuxe staff members, Miro Bellini and Barney Matthews, in early 2011 that sparked what would become Good Beer Week.

"When Lachie [McOmish] was selling the Wig & Pen [in Canberra] we we thought about buying it," Pete says. "Then Lachie never came through with selling it, but the flame had been ignited: we wanted a brewery and Rich [Watkins – formerly head brewer at the Wig & Pen] wanted a job. 

"There was no other brewery in Canberra at the time so we looked around for premises of our own."

That led them to BentSpoke's Braddon brewpub, with Pete, Rich and Rich's partner Tracy Margrain launching the brewery and Phil "taking over the financials". 

It means that as he steps down as CEO at Bintani into a part-time role, allowing his sons to take over, it's unlikely he'll be short of beer-related activities to occupy his time. Or, indeed, offers of a congratulatory and well-earned beer from the many a mate – a word that peppers any conversation with Pete – he's made throughout the beer world over the years.

And should you wish to buy him one, make it a pale or IPA laced with Amarillo; in his opinion – and he's got runs on the board when it comes to knowing ingredients – there’s no better hop.


You can check out our Craft Beer Heroes series here.

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