It was around midday on August 30, 2010. Man In A Van had dropped the last of our belongings in Alphington, I’d locked the front door of the house we’d been renting in Collingwood for the last time and was making my way along the path to where my wife, Tara, was waiting in our dented '97 Magna (complete with unique fake chrome wheel arches).
Halfway there, I paused, rested my crutches against the fence, pulled my laptop from my bag and put it on top of the recycling bin. I popped it open, checked I’d had the all clear from the web developers, and launched The Crafty Pint into the ether.
It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts (although if you’re into name-dropping, the late Chopper Read lived across the road and I’d spent many an evening over the preceding two years sharing beers with members of The Panics on their veranda next door). And, if you want to nitpick, I’d put out a handful of pieces under The Crafty Pint banner as a simple blog as we finalised the format of the site proper.
Then again, marking ten years in lockdown for a seventh straight week while filing for JobKeeper and working out how to bounce back to pre-COVID levels of income, rather than celebrating with mates and planning a year of parties, isn’t particularly auspicious either.
Still, racking up a decade of stories (a few months after fellow online beer site Brews News passed the milestone) feels worthy of celebration, especially during what's been a tumultuous time for the world of media and a remarkable period for beer in Australia. So that’s what we’re going to do over the next couple of weeks with a series of pieces looking back over the past ten years (and, on occasion, a little further).
Some of the coverage focuses on the site, the people that have helped get it to this point, and the role it’s played in the rise of craft beer in Australia over the past decade, but most of it focuses on the beer world we’ve been lucky enough to document, the people that have helped it get to this point, and the role craft beer has played over that decade.
First up, with great reluctance* and in the face of much persuasion from Crafty contributors, just like every Marvel film series: the origin story. AKA The Wobbly Boot…
“To paraphrase Martin Luther King, I have a dream – that one day I’ll be able to drink craft beer while watching footy at the MCG. Let’s make that dream a reality!”
Pitch to the Victorian Association of Microbreweries Inc (VAMI)
June 2, 2009, at Mountain Goat
It can be tricky to pinpoint exact moments in the development of a project, particularly when it’s something you were making up on the hoof while trying to make friends and a living in a new country. But, having rifled through the filing cabinet, it turns out I’d started meeting with web developers within twelve months of moving to Melbourne and that, a day short of fifteen months after landing at Tullamarine, I was paraphrasing MLK in front of a gathering of local brewery owners.
Well before then, however, sparked by a chance encounter between my wife and the then girlfriend (now wife) of Mountain Goat’s first beer rep (now main man at Fixation) Tom Delmont, this new life in Australia had beer coursing through its veins.
A first Friday night visit to Goat’s brewery had led to regular Friday nights spent there and across the road at The Royston, one of Melbourne’s early craft beer pubs. That in turn led to a spot in the Goat Army indoor cricket team, visits to every pub, bar and bottleshop with a reputation for having a decent beer selection, and road trips guided by The Beer Lovers’ Guide To Victoria’s Microbreweries: Third Edition.
And that publication, in its own way, sparked an interest to take things further.
On the one hand I was a print journalist desperate for work in a country where print media was dying as fast as anywhere else. To illustrate the point, early paid work included a feature on a 150-year-old wooden boatbuilder in Williamstown for Australian Heritage and copywriting for the architect behind some of the most innovative and expensive houses in Australia…
On the other hand, some of the breweries claiming to be breweries in that brochure didn’t have a brewery – at one, staff had no idea which of “their” beers was in the keg they were pouring – a discovery that sparked journalistic intrigue as much as the fact that here was a nascent, expanding industry on a mission to change entrenched Aussie beer culture.
Paul Holgate recalls a “youthful Crafty then simply known as James” visiting Holgate's pub in Woodend eager to talk about an idea for a website promoting good beer. (I recall the visit vividly as he sent us home with an entire carton of beer for free – just what was this wonderful madness I’d stumbled upon!)
“I think you wanted support – both financially and otherwise – from VAMI,” he recalls. “I met with you to go over and understand the concept so I could present and/or support the concept to VAMI [the Victorian Association of Microbreweries Inc, which was made up of members of the state's brewing industry].
“I seem to recall that the idea was received lukewarm in some quarters … I was a fan of the idea because a) it couldn’t hurt, so why not; b) it was great to promote venues so consumers knew where to buy; and c) you were a good bloke, with no income, trying to make ends meet. I was always a supporter of startups and small family businesses because that’s us!”
There was one pretty solid reason for a lukewarm reception, however: the site's working title.
Early sketches include one concept for the homepage with “FOR THE LOVE OF BEER” across the top, but somehow I landed – with some confidence at the time – upon The Wobbly Boot.
I’d been looking for a phrase that was both Aussie and beer related when I came across the Slim Dusty song of the same name, sample lyric:
“Sorry I'm late, I had a couple with me mates and we started to sing a few songs.
And the next thing you know, it was time to go and I had the wobbly boot on.”
Steve Jeffares, founder of The Local Taphouse, GABS and Stomping Ground, was another of the industry figureheads I sought out as a sounding board. Our first meeting, with his business partner Guy Greenstone upstairs at the St Kilda pub, was my first experience of his incredible ability to fire off ideas and questions at a phenomenal rate. I left inspired, if not a little intimidated, and unaware our lives would later intertwine through Good Beer Week and GABS.
He recalls “baulking when you mentioned your website could be called The Wobbly Boot and saying that I didn't think the 'wobbly' bit was the ideal name when we were trying to convey quality beer or quantity!”
Steve wasn’t alone and, by the time of the June presentation to VAMI, the sheets I handed out to members had just “CRAFT BEER ONLINE” at the top. In the background I was bouncing other possible names off people; Artisans & Ales had some support, but in the end The Crafty Pint was the winner.
It turned out to be a lucky escape as well as a wise move. Slim Dusty didn’t perform the song alone: he dueted on the original with Rolf Harris, not someone you want your business connected with these days.
Among the breweries visited most often in those early months was Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula. Brewery co-founder Karen Golding even managed to pull some strings to assist with an early cover feature I was writing for Epicure in The Age. It was on beer and food pairing and she arranged for Matt Wilkinson, then at Circa in St Kilda, to create a six or seven course feast for four – Karen and husband Dave, Tara and I – in a restaurant that was closed for renovations.
“I remember meeting you well, and setting up an intro to hear your big idea,” Karen says. “I think VAMI was always being asked to hear various ideas; I, personally, was impressed with your enthusiasm, and the fact that you were an actual journalist! Like, could actually write and stuff. But it's always unknown until it happens, right?”
As she points out, there was “no shortage of beer blogs starting to make their way into the worldwide webs around then, so I guess it was hard to see the difference at the outset” but a combination of “real passion for the beer”, seeing “the potential of the industry” and “craft beer and online exploding over the same decade” helped keep things moving forward.
Not that it didn’t take time. As Paul mentioned, a newly-arrived freelance journalist’s lot in a freshly post-GFC economy wasn’t the healthiest and trying to justify diverting a few thousand from Tara’s teacher’s salary to develop a spurious idea was an uphill struggle. So it ended up being another fifteen months after that meeting before the site came to full fruition.
Along the way, I was informed there was a Regional Development Victoria grants program that offered match-funding for projects such as this. It just needed the support of an industry body like VAMI, so I asked if they’d stump up some cash and support the application in order to unlock government assistance. Three months of groundwork and discussions later and it was Paul, I believe, who passed on news of the decision: they’d support the idea but there was no money in the pot.
The following day, I took a call from Hargreaves Hill founder Simon Walkenhorst as I was walking past The Gem in Collingwood.
“Don’t wait for us,” he suggested. “Approach individual breweries and venues and get it started that way.”
I remember feeling deflated, figuring it had suddenly got much harder. What’s more, it wasn't just brewers who didn’t have overly high hopes in my ability to make the concept financially viable.
As Guy Greenstone puts it: “I remember being a little concerned and perhaps even skeptical that you could actually make a living out of it and therefore make it sustainable. I remember asking you what your revenue model was and you saying that you hadn't quite figured that out yet but felt that, with enough great content, there were enough possibilities to make something of it.”
Looking back, Mountain Goat co-founder Cam Hines says his “impression was that you must really like good beer a lot because, frankly, the few of us in the industry at that time – and it was just a small handful – were not setting the world on fire and were certainly not profitable. It wasn’t that our beers weren’t good, more that the market really wasn’t there yet.
“I think I recall cautioning you that, although I thought your idea was great, it would be super hard to get dollars out of any of the independent brewers at that stage. This didn’t seem to deter you though – and I remember being surprised that you kept showing up and banging on about your idea!”
Bang on I did and, in the end, being forced to find a way to fund the project alone was a blessing in disguise. The intention had always been to launch in Victoria then expand coverage into other states – the first trips to visit breweries and bars interstate had already taken place – and this removed any potential future conflicts.
In the meantime, I’d landed a weekly column with the Sunday Age** so finances were starting to look a little rosier, and I’d been put in touch with a team of designers going by the name The Golden Grouse in Fitzroy who loved craft beer and were willing to help build the site for half their usual fee.
From there, the path became a little clearer. There were other bumps (literally) along the way but, for the most part, it was a case of getting out to as many places as possible, meeting owners and brewers, taking photos, hearing stories, drinking beers and learning about beer and brewing.
When I landed in Australia in March 2008 I drank good beer, having gravitated to real ales before legal drinking age then spending a few months working in Munich drinking helles, dunkels and hefeweizen. But I couldn’t have told you the four key ingredients and had only visited a couple of breweries before, in Germany, and only for a drink, not because I’d any interest in how the beer was made.
Once I'd started chasing the Crafty dream, however, I’ve no idea how many brewery tours I went on but it never ceased to amaze me how little seemed to sink in each time. So I started studying for the BJCP exam in a warehouse in Boronia with a group of homebrewers, later joining a couple of them to brew at their houses; one of them, Brendan Guild, went on to be the first head brewer at The Public Brewery in Croydon and is now at Brick Lane. Also in the sessions was Fiona Lane, now the GM at KAIJU!, who was, like me, in the early days of a career in beer.
By the first half of 2010, things were taking shape and I had the beginnings of a website to pitch once more to VAMI – this time with the hope that individual breweries and venues would sign up for paid directory listings. It meant another trip back to Mountain Goat on a Wednesday evening. And if my fear of public speaking wasn't bad enough, the temperature had hit 38C and this young man of Scottish-Irish descent proceeded to sweat like a burst fire hydrant.
Among those present was Cryer Malt founder David Cryer.
“I noticed someone I did not recognise. At that stage I knew everyone in the industry so someone new was worthy of note,” he recalls, likening it to his own nervous debut years prior. “I detected a faint glistening of sweat and a tremulous note to his voice as we welcomed him up to the front to introduce himself.
“He began with, ‘Hello, I’m James Smith and I’m going to…’ Little did I realise this was the debut of Crafty who would go on to grow beer media and beer events to new and much needed heights in Victoria and Australia.”
Some brewery and venue owners must have shown an interest by this stage as I was aiming for a July 1 launch. A few blog style posts went up from April – including one on braggots, an interview with Pete "Prof Pilsner" Mitcham, one on "beershakes" and another on a freeze-distilled "super dubbel" from Bright – as a kind of trailer for the plans (I’d love to see how many people they reached…).
When microbrewing.com.au – which had been launched by Nail founder John Stallwood before going on hiatus – became active again, I got in touch with John to explain my intentions. I'd heard he was a legend of the local beer scene and wanted to make clear I had no desire to step on his toes and instead was taking a different approach; “I support anyone doing anything to promote craft beer in Australia,” was his typically straightforward and encouraging reply.
At one point, I took a stall at a Microbreweries Showcase at Fed Square to chat to punters. In a sign of the professionalism I planned to bring to beer writing, I forgot to bring a screen on which to show off the site so spent setup frantically trying to hire one from the Mac store across the road.
On the topic of roads, attempting to cross another one proved the final obstacle before finally putting the site live.
On the evening of June 1, 2010, I was waiting for Tara to collect me so we could view a rental in Northcote with enough rooms for a home office and a baby that was 27 weeks away. As I attempted to cross the road (where I later learned there's an underpass) I was hit by a car, went through the windscreen and was thrown a few metres off the bonnet back into the road. My right leg ended up like a teepee, I was still pulling glass out of my head more than 100 days later, the impact snapped four ribs and it was a few hours before I was declared out of the woods.
When I initially came around lying in the road, I remember looking at my leg, then the car, then the sky and thinking: “That’s it. I’m going to die.”
When I didn’t, another rather odd thought followed: “This is going to be one of those life-changing moments when you commit to never wasting another second of your time on Earth.” But that never transpired either.
What did transpire was the need to delay the launch of the site; on the plus side, the accident happened five days before I was due to sit the BJCP exam for which I was worried I was woefully unprepared. Now I had a great excuse not to sit it and thus remain, to this day, without a single beer-related qualification…
“To promote independent craft beers, brewers and people selling craft beer in Australia…
“There is a vibrant, growing craft beer industry in Australia with many brewers and hotels promoting great beer independently, but nowhere bringing that industry together in one place. By filling this gap, drinkers will gain easy access to every craft beer being made and all the information they need to find them wherever they are in Australia.”
Returning to the pitch from June 2009 and there’s a fair amount to unpack even in just those few lines, and not just the innate arrogance (or, perhaps, self belief combined with desperation).
“Independent” is in the first line a full eight years before the Craft Beer Industry Association became the Independent Brewers Association; that said, we've long featured many of the acquired brands on the site with their parent companies indicated in brackets so readers can make informed choices. Quite why I chose to use the word “hotels”, other than being relatively new to Australia, I’m not sure. Certainly, the speed of growth of the industry has made documenting “every craft beer” a fool’s errand. And, while it was a pretty slow process getting the mission launched, once it did it grew in many unexpected ways very quickly.
Four months on from opening my laptop on the recycling bin, our first child (AKA Crafty Pot Sr) arrived. Two months after that, and in the same week, the first conversations about what would become Good Beer Week took place and we filmed attendees at the first GABS at The Local Taphouse. In 2013, I was asked to write the first of two books on Aussie beer and the following year created the first Craft Beer Rising, a national day of events designed to encourage people to support their local brewers in the face of a wave of imports flooding taps and shelves; a bit like Indie Beer Day without the toast.
Yet, bizarrely, ten years on and thanks to COVID-19, it's a little like being back at the start, needing to build (or rebuild) again, only this time with two fast-growing Crafty Pots and staff to feed.
For the main, that means a continued focus on a core mission that’s changed very little since those early sketches; sure, we run job ads and classifieds now, are working to make our app a comprehensive tool for anyone wanting to find good local beer wherever they are, and the newsletter goes out weekly rather than monthly, but the essence of Wobbly lives on.
Indeed, if we have a “pivot” – there, I said it – a way in which we hope to repair the damage caused by the pandemic, it's actually something that was supposed to be part of the plan from the off.
Given we didn’t launch our beer club, The Crafty Cabal, until we were well over half a decade in, it surprised me when I saw just how front and centre plans for a reader membership scheme were back in those early days. Before being encouraged to drop The Wobbly Boot name, the club even had its own title: The Boot Camp***.
Looking ahead to the first part of decade two, The Crafty Cabal is where we’re going to be focusing plenty of attention, building the offering so resistance is futile (or daft) and readers and beer lovers alike evolve into supporters and ensure the mission continues unhindered.
After all, we've got plenty left to do and, while there’s a Pirate Life-branded beer in the members, we’re still a fair way from drinking craft beer while watching footy at the MCG****. What's more, as I put in 2009, who doesn't want to give bad beer the boot?
Over the next two weeks, we're running a series of features looking back over the past decade. Tomorrow, we're featuring some photos from across the year and will be running more on Crafty socials. We'd love to see your favourite memories from the last decade too; if you use the hashtag #tenyearsofcrafty when posting we hope to run a selection on the site at the end of this series.
On Wednesday, we'll be looking at ownership then and now as well as the growth of the industry, and beyond that, well, you can wait and see.
* I still recall the words of Jeremy Lewis, then features editor at the Nottingham Evening Post, where I started out in journalism, on the first day of a week-long series looking at life as a Muslim in the UK in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London. It was my biggest and most serious endeavour at the paper and the news desk had suggested writing a short first person piece for the opinion pages on the six month process through which it came about. He advised that it was never a good idea to tell the story of how a story was put together and, once the first person piece ran, I could see where he was coming from. Yet here we are: a 3,500 word piece on how The Crafty Pint came to be. Imagine if I hadn't been reluctant...
** The column was Tech Know, which came about from a conversation with then M Magazine deputy editor Miranda Tay along the lines of: “How old are you?” “Thirty-two.” “Great. We want someone around that age to write about tech in a non-techy way and we like your writing style.” You gotta love how journalism works some times!
*** As senior writer Will Ziebell points out, The Boot Camp would be a highly appropriate name for a members club today given all the iso pounds we’ve piled on.
**** Yes, we can’t watch anything there at the moment, but you get the point…
Photo at top: The first, pre-Crafty "blind" tasting featuring 49 different bottles of Victorian craft beer amassed on our travels. Left to right: Glenn Harrison (now Ellerslie Hops, previously Detour, Temple, Hargreaves Hill and Prickly Moses); James Smith; Tom Delmont (Fixation, previously Mountain Goat); Mickey D (standup comic in Crows guernsey); Andy Carr (Bunnings). Bridge Road's first Harvest Ale came first.