The remarkable growth of the craft beer industry over the past decade or so has been a pleasure to watch, not least the way in which it's taken root then flourished in Queensland. But, with so many brewing companies around and only so many mouths chasing what they're releasing, it doesn't mean it's easy to break through.
You could be brewing some of the best beer in town, but if no one knows about it you're going to struggle. That was the situation Luke Ronalds and Pete "Smokey" Wheldon from Currumbin Valley Brewing found themselves in for the first few years after launching. They were popular characters in the South East Queensland beer community, their story, approach and beers stood apart from the crowd, and they enjoyed acclaim for some of their early releases too.
Yet, after launching with beers brewed at mates' breweries in late 2016 before building their own brewery in 2018 on Smokey's banana farm in the Currumbin Valley, with limited capacity and no taproom, finances were tight.
“We’re a very small volume brewery,” Smokey explains. “The fact that we don’t have a taproom makes our retail margins very difficult.
"We were struggling a lot when we started. We weren't on the brink, but we weren't doing that well. It was hard to see things continuing like they were for too much longer.”
Heading into the 2019 GABS Festival, the pair were simply happy to be a part of the action: they'd entered a Bubblegum Grape Sour as a Festival Beer. Inspired by the classic Hubba Bubba flavours they'd enjoyed as kids, the hope was to transport people back in time for a spot of childhood nostalgia.
“We wanted to create something that people wanted to seek out and try,” Luke says. “I think GABS, as an idea, you have to create something that captures a memory or experience.”
Prior to the festival, the plan was to brew just one batch of the purple-hued sour. How naïve they were... It was such a resounding success – buzz started early in the festival's multi-city tour and continued to build – it was voted People’s Choice winner, and everything changed.
“It sort of put us on the map," Luke says. "I wonder if we would even be in business without winning.
“There was just such a high demand for our beer after the win. It was all pretty exciting and overwhelming. It let people get to know us and really set the business on a strong financial path.”
Smokey says the win changed things for him as a brewer too.
“We weren’t really on anyone’s radar, it really gave me a kick up the bum,” he says, laughing. “It’s pushed me to keep making better beers and being more accountable with what we’re brewing.
"I don’t want to stop trying new things, I want to keep exploring all I can.”
When GABS returns this evening in Sydney, the duo will be heading back to a similar well for inspiration: a blackcurrant sour, inspired by the classic blackcurrant Lifesaver lollies. Luke says the batch has been in the works for some time – it was set to be their 2020 GABS beer before those events were cancelled.
“We wanted to really capture that moment of being a kid and enjoying the lollies you’d get from the milk bar,” he says. “I think we’ve really nailed the flavour... I hope it takes punters back to their childhoods.
"I know I have so many memories of getting these lollies camping with my cousin. I loved them, but my parents didn’t love the dentist bills associated."
Smokey's just as excited.
“We want it to taste authentic, while still checking all our boxes in terms of what sort of beer we want to put out there,” he says.
To find out a bit more about the people behind the last GABS People's Choice winner, we invited Smokey to feature in our Brew & A series.
Pete "Smokey" Wheldon
Why are you a brewer?
Mostly because I love drinking beer and exploring everything it can be. That led me to homebrewing and then I fell down the rabbit hole on a trip to England in 1998. I really got amongst the ales and lagers of the UK and the continent.
I came home to live in St Kilda in Melbourne around 2005 when Mountain Goat was going off and I have fond memories of sitting in a bar on Fitzroy Street listening to a dad and son Beatles cover band and drinking Hightail Ales on a Sunday arvo. Since then the journey of brewing kind of got well out of hand.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
More available to my family as a partner and parent! That thought has never really crossed my mind. Either a musician or a publican. If I could be anything, probably a pilot or a mad scientist.
What was your epiphany beer?
My first Kwak was a memorable experience. Having to leave a shoe behind the bar for the glassware and then tasting the beer was like nothing I’d exbeerienced before that point.
But it was really more the experience of walking into a little old English pub in Lancashire back in 2000 and having the publican ask me what I wanted. When I said I was from Australia and didn’t know the beers, she proceeded to quarter fill eight pints for me to try from each tap. By the time I was done necking them I was suitably inebriated and had tasted far more flavour than anything I’d had in Australia – which was mostly lagers at that point in Brisbane on tap – and I was just mesmerised by the selection of ales and lagers.
I ended up picking a beer I didn’t enjoy but that experience really was a defining moment for me. I was inspired to get back home and recreate these beers.
Cheers to David Kitchen from Ballistic for having a homebrew shop at Chapel Hill in Brisbane back in the day where I used to buy stuff off an old chap called Tony, who was a real character. That really helped make the dream a reality.
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
I worked for a distributor selling craft beer on the Gold Coast back in 2014. It was a tough slog then but helped me make some great friends and contacts in the industry.
Then I sold beer for Ballistic Beer and started Currumbin Valley Brewing with my good mate Luke.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
I made a beer once called “Tractor Undies” that was an imperial brown ale after I lost control of my tractor on a hill and steered/slid it into a tree to save myself. Basically, a really big American brown Ale – tasty, hoppy and bold.
Look Out! – our first release DIPA back in 2016, which is now our birthday beer – still holds a very special place in my heart.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
Lactobacillus bacteria; I am loving sour beers in all its various guises.
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
Plenty! Gotta mess up and make mistakes.
Most of them were just using up old ingredients en masse and hoping they’d turn out. Fresh is always best!
Mostly, just made some rank beers with too much bitterness from heavy-handed hopping in the wrong spots and oxygen ingress before knowing how to really mitigate it.
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery(s) in the world, which would it be and why?
Cantillon would have to be up there just for the really old school wort production, fermenting and learning about the cellaring. That is life bucket list stuff.
I’d love to collab with the guys at Garage Project at Aro St – that place is pretty similar to the farm, where we can’t swing a cat around, so I’d feel right at home. Plus I love New Zealand, so beautiful there.
I’d also be keen to suss out Weihenstephaner for the tradition and history. I’d love to see Jester King and Hill Farmstead breweries to be a fly on the wall or involved on a brewday.
Which local (Aussie or Kiwi) breweries inspire you?
Garage Project, Balter, Black Hops, Stone & Wood, Wildflower, 3 Ravens, Deeds, Moffat Beach Brewing and Hawkers. These guys I can always trust to find a beer I like and inspire me with their successes and flavours.
Rocky Ridge are doing some cool stuff, I wish they weren’t so far away.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
Jamming with other musicians first and foremost, then organic food production and cooking. That’s all I need.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
Weihenstephaner Vitus – absolutely legendary drop. Cheers to Hendo for showing me this one. Someone needs to import it back into the country again.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
Hendrix – Long Hot Summer Night.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
Gin & tonic or Irish whiskey on the rocks.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
How to become a billionaire.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
Work in the industry first before you go after the dream. It’s so important to understand how wonderful it really is in Australia and who the legends are that got us here, and continue to work hard to produce quality beer time and time again: the bar operators and bottleshop managers right through to the punters and brewery owners and operators. So many top people that are worth knowing and asking questions of before you delve into it.