The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is historical, iconic and pioneering all at once and, for the first time in more than three decades, the Sydney pub is up for sale.
The news might not send shockwaves through the industry in the manner of Stone & Wood's acquisition by Lion, but it represents a new chapter for one of the most storied venues in modern Australian beer history. And the reasons for its sale are quite simple: after 25 years at the helm, owner Blair Hayden says the time has come to move on.
Blair, who was one of a group of business partners who acquired the old pub in 1986, told The Crafty Pint he’s eager to spend more time with his kids – including his son Trystam who runs a brewery in Canada – and grandkids, as well as at his winery in the Barossa Valley.
“I’ve been putting my heart and soul into the Lord,” Blair says. “And the Lord has been absolutely fantastic to me. It’s been an amazing journey and we’re all very very proud of the Lord Nelson, its achievements and what great staff have been through here over the years.
“But I’ve spent 35 years working here and now it’s time for me.”
The pub was built in 1841 and, while its history extends back long before Blair moved in, it’s during his tenure that it has been most intricately connected with the local beer industry. Inspired by the UK's Campaign For Real Ales (CAMRA), Blair and his partners secured a secondhand brewery from Britain, with The Crafty Pint detailing Blair's vision on the 30th anniversary of his ownership back in 2016.
Although the past two years have been among the hardest for anyone involved in hospitality in living memory, Blair says COVID hasn’t played a role in his decision. Instead, he says he's keen to leave the place while it's flying high, and believes there's plenty to be achieved by new owners with new ideas and more energy to devote to the operation.
While he's unsure who the Lord's next custodian will be, he thinks there will be a range of buyers it would suit, perhaps an existing brewery team keen to take the packaging side of the Lord Nelson's beer operation further. The brewery that sits inside the venue is fine for servicing the bar, but the bottles and cans sold further afield have largely been brewed under license elsewhere.
“Somebody who already has a brewery who can take the packaging side and distribution forward seems like it would be an ideal fit for the brand,” Blair says.
“But you do hope they’ll maintain the nature of what the building is about, and its history.”
Certainly, the building is one dripping with stories, with a history that hits you as soon as you walk through the doors. If anything, it feels like an old boozer that's been been plucked straight out of an English town and dropped intact into the heart of Australia's biggest city.
Blair, who received the Service To Craft Beer Award at the 2017 Craft Beer Awards, says his team is incredibly proud of maintaining a pokie-free pub throughout the 35 years, instead focusing on offering locals and tourists from the world over a wide range of beer and food to enjoy.
“It’s about focusing on what the pub was intended to be, which is a place of accommodation, where one can eat, drink and catch up with friends and converse – that’s the most important thing,” he says.
He remains proudest of all, however, of the decision to start brewing at a time when most pubs offered the same generic, lager-heavy lineup wherever you went.
“Most people thought we were crazy but it was all about giving people a choice,” Blair says. “There are many many highlights, but being pioneers as the oldest craft brewery in Australia now – we were trendsetters and it’s great to see other people have picked it up and taken the brewing industry to where it is today.”
And, while the craft brewing industry in Australia took far longer to take off than he expected, he thinks it's here to stay.
“It’s a very strong industry, it employs many people and I don’t see any reason why it would ever go backward from here,” he says.
Over 35 years, myriad beers have poured through the Lord’s taps, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest for Blair: the Australian pale ale Three Sheets.
“I’ve always said that if you don’t feel like two beers," he says, "you aren’t drinking our beers.”