One of the standout moments – and arguably the cutest – of May's Australian International Beer Awards came when King Road Brewing Co were announced as winners of the Best International-Style Pale Ale trophy. Owners Bev and Dave McKee brought some real down-to-earth delight to the stage, in a manner similar to the Champion Australian Beer winners Dollar Bill later in the night.
While the trophy for the brewery's IPA won't have come as a surprise to many of WA's keener beer drinkers – or indeed readers of this publication – it will have turned a few heads in the room that night. The venue south of Perth had been selling beers bearing the King Road name for a few years, yet it was only when they put their own 15 hectolitre brewery in and brought Steve Wearing on as head brewer in 2019 that things got serious on that front.
These days, the family-run (by Bev, Dave, their kids Chad and Selena and their partners Maria and Dale) and family-friendly venue around half an hour south of Perth is busier than ever, and by the end of the year expansions and upgrades should see brewing capacity increase by 60 percent as they look to push a little more into the WA market; at the minute, pretty much every drop of Steve's beer and Dave's cider disappears on-site.
It's a situation that's seen Steve advertise for two new brewers to join the team this month, and one we figured warranted a feature on the man who seems to be making a rather decent fist of his first opportunity as a head brewer invited to oversee the development of a brewery pretty much from the ground up.
He didn't come to King Road Brewing wet behind the ears, of course. After studying brewing at Edith Cowan University (ECU), he ended up with WA brewing legend John Stallwood of Nail as he was working on the first iteration of BrewCorp, the brewery built in partnership with Feral Brewing in Bassendean. From there, he secured a role at Homestead in the Swan Valley before joining Blasta in their early days.
But prior to that, as with many in the craft beer world, you'd have found him in IT. And not happy with his lot.
"I'd been in IT for close to ten years, and I'd wake up each morning dreading going into work," he says. "Why do something that you really don't like?
"I searched around to think what I might really enjoy doing otherwise and craft brewing was just starting to become a thing. We had Feral and Little Creatures [around Perth] and places like Cowaramup down south, with Colonial just coming along, so I thought, 'Let's give it a crack.'."
Clearly, he did find something he enjoyed and, three brewing roles on from gaining his qualifications at ECU, he started sniffing around at King Road: the venue was close to where he lived and he knew they were planning to install a brewery.
"They got in touch with me and said they were looking for a brewer," Steve says. "I went in and it was super-casual. They didn't have a great deal of guidance [in terms of beer styles]; we had a chat about the beers I liked to make and what would work there.
"I'm not about the big, crazy, six, eight, ten percent beers, and said I'd make the bulk of their list really sessionable and that sat really with them as a very family-focused venue.
"They've been very open and very trusting all along. I've put suggestions forward, and they've said, 'It's your baby, you roll with it.'."
It's an approach that's paid off for both parties. When he joined, there were a couple of King Road beers on tap they had contract brewed, with the remainder dedicated to other locals, such as Beerfarm, Otherside, Three Rivers and Nowhereman; now it's all King Road beer and cider, they're selling more than ever, and have just secured permits for a new shed to allow for expansion.
And Steve is clearly enjoying himself too, as is apparent when asked about his passion for the sour beers of Belgian and whether it's something we're likely to see at King Road. Describing it as a dream, he adds: "If we go down that path, I'd want to do it properly.
"But it's probably quite a realistic dream as we've got the space. It might not be in the next three or four years, but it we look at the next ten years..."
While he's not surprised at the success of the venue, Steve admits he's "pretty happy" with the way his beers are being received as they start gaining traction in WA craft beer venues.
"I thought that might be a bit of a challenge because we're not brewing hype beers," he says, "but I feel there's a bit of a shift back towards well-made, sessionable beers."
As for the star in his lineup, the IPA, he suspected he was onto a winner from the first batch with this particular recipe.
"I first tasted it just after chilling it in the fermenter," he recalls. "It was still very green, but I thought it was incredible and just the sort of beer I'd been trying to make for a long time – it really suited my palate. I wasn't sure if it had enough 'Wow!' factor the market seems to demand, but it's got attention and awards and is doing really well."
As is the WA beer scene as a whole. The state has escaped most of the tribulations still experienced by much of Australia, with the local and independent brewing industry as strong as ever.
"We've got lots of really good venues opening up everywhere," Steve says. "The quality of the beers is excellent and a lot of that is down to the camaraderie between brewers over here.
"We're all competitors trying to take each others' market share, but if you're short of malt or want some advice you can ask any brewer in the state. It's just so generous and giving."
And on that delightful note, here's Steve with more on his personal journey in beer as part of our long-running Brew & A series.
STEVE WEARING – KING ROAD BREWING CO
Why are you a brewer?
After being unhappy in a career in IT for quite a while, I came to the conclusion that work is such a big part of your life so you should be doing something you enjoy. I wasn’t really sure what to do – I was just discovering craft beer, and really enjoying homebrewing, so I thought why not quit my stable job in IT and study brewing at ECU.
It seemed like a bit of a reckless life choice at the time, but I’m glad I took the risk at because I’m a much happier person for it.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
Most likely working in IT – so glad I found brewing!
What was your epiphany beer?
There were two for me, both from Feral. First was Feral White – this was the first beer that I ever really enjoyed. Up until then, beer was just a cheaper alternative to buying spirits when at the pub.
Then, probably a year or two later I tried Hop Hog; the bitterness was so confronting at the time yet after the first mouthful that all settled and there was so much citrus and pine flavour I couldn’t stop drinking it. That was the beer that sent me down the rabbit hole…
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
Luckily, when I decided I needed a career change, ECU had a one-year postgrad for microbrewing running. Hugh Dunn and Jon Luff are the guys that taught me most of what I know about brewing. John Stallwood was also brewing out of ECU at the time, so that connection was also how I got my first job in the brewing world, working for Nail.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
King Road IPA – I’ve been playing with many different IPA recipes for a long time, and the batch I did about a year ago with a hefty amount of Strata was exactly what I had been trying to achieve for a long time: assertive bitterness that isn’t too harsh; good mix of New World and old school American hop characteristics; and some light malt sweetness that enhances the hop profile.
I was really happy with that beer, and the fact that it has been popular with customers too is a huge bonus – it means I have been able to add my favourite beer to the core range and have it available year round.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
I’m going to say hops. I don’t like to put too much focus on any one ingredient because the balance of all the ingredients is ultimately what makes a great beer, but I am always blown away by the spectrum of flavours that can be drawn from hops – whether it’s from using different varieties, or using the same variety in a different way.
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
Yes, heaps. Luckily, they have been on the pilot kit so there was only 20 litres of beer to pour down the drain. But from every bad beer you make, you learn something from it – well, that’s what I tell myself anyway!
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery(s) in the world, which would it be and why?
I don’t have any one particular brewery in mind – but it would be a Belgian brewery with a focus on sours. There is so much to learn about wild fermentation, barrel-ageing and blending, and the Belgians have mastered it.
Which local breweries inspire you?
Too many to list – we are spoilt in Australia with so many great breweries, and I definitely draw inspiration from a lot of them. But to pick a couple of the more influential for me:
Feral – simply because they were the standout brewery when I was starting my craft beer journey, and they continued to consistently push out quality, innovative beers.
Also Stone & Wood. I was lucky enough to spend a week with them as part of my education, and I really took a lot from their ethos around making beer and running the business.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
Mountain biking – this is my escape, and also balances out the unhealthy beer consumption.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
Hop Hog – still a cracking beer, and one that I don’t think I would ever got bored of.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
Karnivool, The Butterfly Effect and Gyroscope would all be on high rotation.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
No beer? Damn! I’m all for a nice shiraz in the middle of winter, but 99 percent of the time it’s beer for me.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
To pay more attention in chemistry and biology in school. Having a good chemistry and biology grounding would really have helped everything else fall into place quicker.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
Study! It’s a tough industry to crack into, but if you are keen look at doing some formal qualifications. This will give you a huge advantage over other applicants, it will give you a much better idea for what you are in for when you do get that first job, and most importantly you will be a much better brewer for it.