Prior to making contact for this article, the last time I'd spoken to Phil O'Shea, of Wollongong brewery Five Barrel, was at the height of the summer's bushfire season. He'd volunteered his services to help design the Resilience Beer that would raise funds for communities in impacted regions.
Nine months on, it's fair to say that crisis – one that consumed attention for weeks on end – was merely a precursor for a full-on year for Phil and Five Barrel. It's one that's involved COVID-19, the closure of venues they'd long supplied, cans, quarantine and a Kiwi, all of which made it feel like as good a time to call in on one of those Aussie breweries you might call a quiet achiever: those producers of consistently top notch beer who do what they do a million miles from the hype and nonsense prevalent in the noisier realms of the modern beer world.
While 2020 has typically dealt in gut punches rather than nuance, it's actually something that might seem minor to most that's troubling Phil as the year draws to a close. On my first visit to the taproom, it was his Hoppy Amber that blew me away; the 6.5 percent ABV has become the Five Barrel flagship.
In transitioning his core range into cans, that beer has become the Navigator Red IPA and, while it's unchanged other than name and packaging, he's concerned this surface change might upset some longstanding fans of the beer. Which, in the grand scheme of things, feels like a wonderful thing to be worried about given all we've been going through.
As with the wider beer and hospitality industries, while Wollongong witnessed only a few cases of COVID-19, they were still hit by the nationwide lockdown.
"The uncertainty was very nerve-wracking," Phil says. "In small business, the emotional side is way harder than the financial side. You can always cut back on things, but letting staff go and things like that is way more challenging and hard to swallow."
To have added a new brewer to the team six months later – the most significant appointment in the family business' history to date – must then come as a relief, especially after watching some local hospo businesses go under during the three-month lockdown. That said, Phil described the signing of New Zealander Brent Edwards from Good George in New Zealand rather differently: "a case of falling into my lap"; "the kick up the butt we needed to change things".
As he explains: "I've been the brewer since day one; as we've got busier over the years I've really relied on family to pitch in way more than they should be. It starts out borrowing my brother for an hour here and an hour there and then all of a sudden he's doing 30 hours a week... It got to the point where it wasn't sustainable."
So, having been at capacity for two years, with new fermenters meaning more brewing would be required, a young family of his own, and the move into cans to manage, it "was on the wall that I needed to step away, so it was amazing timing."
Brent, a semi-regular at the bar since it opened on the regular trips he would make with his partner to stay with her family, was moving to Wollongong and in the market for a job if there was one going.
"He's always come in and say g'day and I'd see him whenever we were in New Zealand," Phil says. "We always got on well and our ethos towards beer and brewing is very much about quality and constant improvement."
Of course, being 2020, despite the fact here was an experienced brewer he knew well ready to slip seamlessly into Five Barrel's brewery, there were still hurdles to clear. Brent's partner and daughter had already moved to Wollongong, while he stayed on a little longer in New Zealand as his son settled into his first year in high school.
"Phil said in January / February there was a job available here, so I booked flights for May so I had time to spend with my son," Brent says. "By May, New Zealand was in total lockdown – I wasn't going anywhere."
He rebooked flights only to get bumped off them, then had to go through a "huge" border control process to be allowed to rejoin his family, followed by quarantine in Sydney.
"It was quite a rigmarole," he says.
Prior to making the move, he'd been brewing for Good George, now one of the largest independent beverage producers in New Zealand and an operation with multiple venues under different ownership and partnership agreements.
"I started as bar manager when they opened their first brewpub," Brent say. "I'd been a homebrewer; Kelly Ryan [now at Fork & Brewer in Wellington] was our head brewer and I learned a lot from the guy.
"I was really keen to get into the brewery, so I started washing and filling kegs, then delivering to venues around town. We had three 30 hectolitre fermenters and five conditioning tanks double as serving tanks for the bar and that was it. Then over time the beer garden got smaller and more fermenters went outside, and now they're a massive production brewery."
During New Zealand's strict lockdown, you could only buy beer from supermarkets; if your brewery didn't supply them, you had no route to market, but if you did you were deemed an essential service.
"We had to split into two teams working four days on, three days off," Brent says. "We would come in and the other team would be leaving out the other exit and we didn't see them. Then if anyone came down [with coronavirus] the brewery could continue running."
Since he started behind the bar, Good George haven't just grown significantly, but they've also moved into cider, spirits and seltzers. It means the move to Australia isn't just one that brings his fiancée closer to her family, but one that allows him to "get back to basics at somewhere solely focused on beer".
"It's just been refreshing working for a small, family-owned business," he says. "They've really made me feel welcome – it's been awesome. The beer is always why I used to come here for a drink."
And now he's making it too. As he settles in, we invited Brent to tell us more about his background in and outside beer for our long-running Brew & A series.
Why are you a brewer?
Because I love the creative outlet brewing allows and I love beer.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
Not sure, but I did work in hospitality for many years and I am a qualified teacher. Maybe I could teach beer education or brewing.
What was your epiphany beer?
Emerson’s Pilsner. When I was working in bars, a trip to Wellington and the now closed Matterhorn led me to buying an Emerson’s Organic Pilsner. The flavour, aroma and crispness blew my mind.
Also, after university, I travelled and worked overseas. I managed a bar in a hotel in Berkshire, in the UK, where I got into real ales. This taught me how to look after real ale and how both temperature and carbonation are vitally important when presenting beer at its optimum.
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
I started making homebrew with my brother-in-law, using the Coopers kits and putting the fermenter in the corner of my garage in summer and wondering why it tasted awful. I then had a couple of friends, one who was a commercial brewer, come and show me how to all grain brew.
From here I got a job in a craft beer bar and went on to be the bar manager at Good George Brewpub in Hamilton when it opened. I started helping do keg deliveries around town and washing and filling kegs. This led to getting a trainee brewer role in the brewery.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
When I was at Good George we entered in The Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge. The Malthouse is a craft beer bar in Wellington that, once a year, holds a competition and invites breweries to brew a beer especially for the comp. Around 30-odd breweries enter and we did a "The Castle" themed series of beers – I love that movie. Our Bonnie Doon IIPA and Jousting Sticks IIPA both got runner-up.
We also did a collaboration with Sawmill Brewery where a recipe I co-wrote with Scott Sharpe-Heward for a Weizenbock took the champion trophy for the Wheat and Other Grain category at the NZ Brewers Guild Awards.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
It has to be NZ hops. There is a reason New Zealand hops are sought after by brewers around the world; they are so unique and distinctive.
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
I once brewed a piña colada-themed beer with coconut and pineapple purée on a 50 litre pilot kit that tasted terrible.
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery(s) in the world, which would it be and why?
There are many around the world I would love to do a guest stint at but Russian River in Northern California. Their beer and approach has always inspired me.
Which local (Aussie or Kiwi) breweries inspire you?
If looking at both Kiwi and Aussie breweries, the early trailblazers need to get recognition for paving the way for what we have now. In NZ, Emerson's, Sprig & Fern, Tuatara, Epic, 8 Wired, Galbraiths, and in Australia breweries like Murray's, Stone & Wood, Feral, Nail Brewing and Bridge Road to name just a few.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
I love listening to music, and although I grew up listening to mainly rock music, I enjoy everything from reggae to folk to metal to classical to punk.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
Westvleteren 12 (XII). But if the monks don’t do island deliveries I would settle for Pliny The Elder.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
Being on an island, probably some reggae like Bob Marley.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
Gin is always my spirit of choice. There are so many great quality craft gins on the market these days.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
I wish I had paid more attention in science class at high school.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
It’s such a rewarding career and there are so many opportunities to learn from others. Make the most of those opportunities and ask plenty of questions.
It turns out we first met Brent when he was working at Good George. He showed Crafty writer Nick Oscilowski around as part of his Tiki Tour series of beer travel features. Funnily enough, Nick was living just up the road from Five Barrel in Thirroul but has now moved back to New Zealand to be closer to his wife's family. Strange how life works out, eh?