It might not have involved a trophy, but it was one of the most eye-catching moments of the 2021 Australian International Beer Awards. As the gold medalists in the Best Specialty Beer category were read out, up popped O'Brien for one of their gluten free beers. Then another of them. Then another, and another...
In total, six beers from the Ballarat-based brewery – Australia's first to specialise in gluten free beers – claimed golds in the one category. It's not as if O'Brien is a stranger to gold at the awards as they were the first to win a gold for a GF beer some years ago, but to see such acclaim across their range – their Premium Lager claimed golds in both draught and packaged form, with single golds for their Belgian Ale, Brown Ale, Pale Ale and Stout – was an achievement to top even that.
One had to assume they'd made some changes at the brewery, maybe tweaking recipes or changing processed. But not according to brewery founder John O'Brien.
“I was pretty blown away," he told The Crafty Pint. "I wouldn’t say I was shocked, but definitely surprised.
“There’s nothing I can really point to, other than the fact that we’re always trying to improve our beers. Every day, we try to get better at the brewing process, get better at developing recipes and get better at using our raw ingredients, but that’s nothing new – that’s been going on for 15 years.”
Today, O'Brien beers are one of a number of locally-brewed gluten free options on the market; relative newcomer TWØBAYS, who have been ploughing the craftiest of furrows in the GF space, claimed an AIBA gold for their No Doubt Stout on the same night, while you can also pick up offerings from the likes of ACT-based Wild Polly and Tribe Breweries-owned Wilde Beer. But, when the first O'Brien beers appeared more than a decade-and-a-half ago, John's first releases were the culmination of a singular mission.
He was diagnosed with coeliac disease in 1998 and, determined to find a beer he could drink and enjoy, started brewing at home with sorghum, developing recipes ready to launch as the country's first GF-only brewer.
Fast forward to May 2021, and he wasn't the only Ballarat brewer celebrating at the AIBAs either, with Dollar Bill claiming Champion Australian Beer for their Gold Teeth wild ale. And John hopes to continue bringing attention to a city his family has been associated with for generations.
“My great, great grandfather fought in the Eureka Stockade as a 14-year-old, so my ties with Ballarat run deep," he says.
“To see how Ballarat’s beer scene has grown over the past few years has been great… being a part of that feels very special. We want to collaborate with the breweries around us: Dollar Bill, Red Duck, Cubby Haus and Aunty Jacks. We can always help each other to grow.”
And growing is something that's very much on the mind of John and the team at O'Brien / Rebellion right now. They're close to the end of an equity crowdfunding campaign with Birchal – in which they find themselves in good company alongside the likes of Sydney retailer Beer Cartel and Melbourne brewing company Co-Conspirators.
“We want to be a serious player in the beer market, not just the gluten free beer market,” John says.
“We need capital to make things happen. We’ve got some high level plans and projects that we’re tremendously excited about.”
At the time of publication, they had already nudged past their initial target of $500,000 with four days to go, giving the team a sense of validation.
“I always thought we were on to a good thing,” John says, with a laugh. “We know that [gluten free beers] will continue to grow and getting this support is validation for that.
"It’s proof that people are willing to come on board and back us, and believe that we can take this business to higher levels. We can’t wait to repay all the people who have put faith in us.”