After more than a decade writing, podcasting, and commenting on, as well as working in the Australian beer world, Luke Robertson is set to experience a different side to the industry in another country. Along with partner Emma Bremrose, he's leaving Melbourne next month for his hometown – Westport on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island – to put what they've learned about beer to the test as brewery owners.
The pair, along with Luke's family, are taking the lease of what was previously the West Coast Brewery and will relaunch under the name Shortjaw Brewing. Luke says they'd talked about going into business for some time, and when the brewery went on the market last year, they felt the time was right.
“We were all keen to do something for a while and thought beer would be a good fit for that," he told The Crafty Pint. "With the hometown brewery coming up, it just made a lot more sense.
“Our parents are still there and, also during COVID, the idea of moving home to be close to your family was something in my mind. And Emma has been keen to move to New Zealand too.”
Luke started the Ale of a Time blog in 2010, since when he's co-hosted a podcast of the same name with Dave Ellis, written for this publication and others, authored Keg Bottle Can – a book about Australian beer - and been awarded the Best Media trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2015. He’s also played a key role in some of the country’s beer festivals as a writer and educator, regularly hosted educational classes, and today works as the Independent Brewers Association (IBA) and Good Beer Week content producer.
It's been more than 15 years since Luke left Westport and the town's population of around 5,000 people makes it a pretty serious change of pace for Luke and Emma. Yet while it might be a lifestyle change – not to mention a little daunting to be taking the keys of a brewery he’s invested in without having a chance to examine properly – he says the excitement from old friends and locals has pushed any concerns to the side.
Traditionally, the town has relied heavily on mining, logging and its fishing industry, but more recently the focus has been shifting towards tourism.
“The enthusiasm for [the new brewery] around town has made me really excited for it,” he says. “People I know and grew up with are excited someone’s coming back to do it.
“There are some really cool things happening in that part of the world and it feels like there’s this really good opportunity to get back and do something there.”
The brewery itself is the only one in Westport and was established close to 30 years ago, although its name and ownership has changed since. Initially, Luke and his family made an offer to the previous owner but had been unable to come to an agreement but after the business went into receivership, they snapped it up earlier this year. Aside from spending the last few months making plans from the other side of the Tasman, Luke says they've experienced further headaches due to burnt bridges left by the previous owner.
“There is a lot of ill will out there towards this brewery, so one of our challenges has been getting electricians or boilermakers in because they’re owed a lot of money,” he says.
The focus for West Coast Brewery had been on the export and premium market – organic lager in green stubbies – rather than the local beer industry or building community relations. However, Shortjaw Brewing’s focus will be on working with other local businesses; although Westport is small, Luke says one thing it isn’t lacking is venues: there's around a dozen pubs and bars locally and more in the immediate surrounds.
“Our focus is on the town,” he says. “We know a lot of pubs in town really want to have a local beer on tap and they want a beer they’re proud of and is part of the community.”
When it comes to the taproom, Luke says he wants to lean on his many years spent educating people about craft beer, whether through public tastings or writing, and help inspire passion not just in drinkers but other businesses too.
“I love talking about beer and running tastings, so we’ll be asking pubs to do brew days with us and look at doing collaboration beers with us if they want.”
Other than those brewery and taproom updates and getting Shortjaw beers into local watering holes, Luke says one of his and Emma’s main hopes for brewery is training and educating locals to better support the growing tourism industry.
“It’s a small town with a lot of tourism but where traditional industries have been dying away, so we want to do a lot of brewing and hospitality training and grow the family,” he says.
Luke’s official position in the business will be as director but he and Emma are keen to be hands-on, learning practical brewing skills. After securing the brewery, they also managed to hire its previous brewer, Marc Gardiner, after Luke called him for a chat about the brewery.
“[Marc] knows that brewery really well, he’s been brewing there for six years and is really enthusiastic about beer," he says, "and he also knows all the things that need to be fixed and how to run it.
“I’ve never brewed on a commercial kit. So having a brewer that knows that kit really well and has been brewing there to a really good standard, well, I’m really excited to learn off him."
With a 25 hectolitre brewhouse to play with, they’ll be starting with a substantial amount of Shortjaw beer too; although Luke says they’re keen to upgrade the brewhouse and change the taproom, he believes there are plenty of benefits with the brewhouse they’ve inherited. It’s located in the centre of town for one, and as an established operation they don’t have to contend with the kind of delays faced by new builds, which can take away from early cash flow into a business.
“The great thing is we can walk in and brew,” Luke says. “While there are certainly things we’d love to change about it, the basics are there and we can just start making and selling beer – everything else can come after that.”
The core range, which will bypass the ageing bottling line onsite and instead be packaged in cans, will include a lager, hazy pale and stout, with Luke saying the last of those in particular is something local pubs have been calling for.
As for the decision to create a new name and launch as Shortjaw Brewing, Luke says they were keen to avoid West Coast aspects of its history and that term’s close association with beer styles. They also wanted a local option that didn't feel like they were disingenuously connecting themselves to one of the area's major industries, ultimately landing on a species of endangered fish native to the region.
“We didn’t really want to trade off the brand of the town or the region, we wanted to create something that was just part of the town and region.”
While he and Emma are leaving Australia in a matter of weeks, the acquisition doesn’t mean the end of Luke’s involvement in the local beer industry, not least as he'll continue to work with the IBA and Good Beer Week while continuing on with the Ale of a Time podcast.
When it comes to the local beer industry he’s spent a decade documenting – and often holding to account – Luke says one of the biggest surprises is just how much it's grown.
“I don’t think anyone realised we’d get to where we are now with this many breweries and still be growing and still feel like there was room to grow.”
He adds – and this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him well – that Australia has developed its own unique beer scene, one in which producers of wild beers have come on in leaps and bounds.
“Right now, it’s competing with some of the best in the world and I don’t think people quite realise that.”
Although it’s a rare path to follow from writing about beer to owning a brewery – one walked by fellow Kiwi Willie Simpson, who swapped the Sydney Morning Herald for Seven Sheds in Tasmania – Luke is excited for the challenge that lies ahead, even though, as he admits, he’s talked a “lot of smack about Australian breweries”, meaning he'll have to live up to expectations set out in his own writing and criticism.
He's confident the venture is off to a good start on that front, however.
“I always wanted something genuine and always gravitated towards brands that were genuine within what they were doing," he says. "Moving to my hometown to take over the hometown brewery and create something that’s genuine for locals – which is absolutely our plan and all we want to be – I would be OK with that.”