It's fair to say Queensland has made quite an impact on the country's craft beer scene despite joining the party a little later than some. There are scores of breweries of all shapes and sizes across much of the state – well over 20 on the Sunshine Coast alone – and they've developed the handy habit of winning big at major beer awards.
Head back a decade, however, and the picture was rather different, especially in the state's capital. While a small number of excellent craft beer bars were starting to make their name, only one of the breweries found in and around the CBD today was in existence. Green Beacon and Newstead Brewing weren't to open their first breweries until the following year, yet Brisbane Brewing Co had already been operating for seven years, initially as a CBD brewpub before moving to an old pub in Woolloongabba and, temporarily, brewing offsite.
The past couple of years have featured a series of milestones for founders Grant and Michelle Clark – releasing their 500th brew at their West End venue in early 2020, rebranding their Woolloongabba venue, and putting their beers into cans for the first time among them. So Jakkii Musgrave decided to sit down with the couple – pictured above at their first venue and again more recently – to trace their pioneering tale.
A short walk from the famed Gabba cricket ground, you’ll find Brisbane’s "Brisbanest" beers pouring at Brisbane Brewing Co. Woolloongabba. The tagline might reference the beers with names like BPA (Brisbane Pale Ale) and Brissy Lager you’ll find on tap there, but it could just as well reference the people behind them who have been brewing and selling them for far longer than almost every small brewery in the city – and, for that matter, almost every small brewery in Queensland.
Brisbane Brewing Co started life as a twinkle in the eye of founders Grant and Michelle Clark while they were living and working in London. It was there, honing their hospitality skills, they locked onto the idea that they needed their own pub. Or, more specifically, a brewpub.
Both were already beer lovers, with Grant brewing at home, and the experiences they enjoyed in the UK proved to be life-changing, shaping their ideas of what beer, brewing and hospitality could be. In particular, they embraced the atmosphere on offer when you were immersed in a space in which you could enjoy beer where it was produced.
After four years in England and six months of European travel – fuelled by plenty of beer – they brought that idea home with them to Brisbane and, in 2005, the seeds of what would go on to become Brisbane Brewing Co were planted.
They took over what had previously been Aurora’s Microbrewery in the CBD and got to work.
“It was run down and it really needed a lot of work,” Michelle recalls, “but it gave us the opportunity we were looking for.”
The venue was ripe with history, offering them both the location and the personality of a brewery, as well as the luxury of producing their own beer to sell in their own venue. At the time, the only other place operating as a brewpub in the city was the International Hotel in Spring Hill, later to rebrand as the Hipwood Brewery before closing then becoming a first home for Archer Brewing.
The Clarks' knack for hospitality and a desire to create a welcoming customer experience helped the couple build a good reputation at a time when there were very few craft breweries – or, in the terminology of the day, microbreweries producing “boutique” beer – in Queensland, and only a fraction of today’s number across Australia. As such, the Brewhouse became a favoured CBD haunt for locals in the know.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, with the availability of ingredients, from hops to yeast, much more limited, and Australian consumers pretty much totally unaware that beer could be anything other than the XXXX brewed down the street – or its lager equivalent in other states. They also faced issues with their landlords until, eventually, the building was sold and they were left without a home.
“It took 18 months for us to find another venue,” Grant says, but they were determined to keep their dream alive and, in 2010, they found the perfect spot.
Their new home took shape inside the old Clarence Corner Hotel in Woolloongabba, an historic hotel dating from 1889 that, in the late 19th century, was seen as evidence of the urbanisation of the suburb. It was another venue that needed a lot of work to shape it in the manner the Clarks envisaged, but having proven their mettle with the original Albert Street brewpub, they felt they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take on a property of its size in such a prime location.
With the old hotel in Stanley Street reinvented as Brewhouse Brisbane – now Brisbane Brewing Co. Woolloongabba, they supplied its taps with beers brewed offsite in an old shed in Albion where they’d moved the brewery before leaving the CBD. But even with a new home in a new location, one key challenge remained the same: convincing a skeptical clientele to try locally made beer from a small operation – or, for that matter, any beer that wasn’t a well-known, big brand lager.
“People were offended by flavour,” Michelle says of those early days. “Every sale was a sales pitch.
“We spent a lot of time doing a lot of education, bringing people along a beer journey with us. But it’s worth it, because we just get so much joy out of serving our product.”
Gradually, their efforts started to pay off as the customer base for their beers, produced under the name Brisbane Brewing Co, began to grow. At the same time, the craft beer revolution was beginning to take hold across the nation, bringing with it an increasing awareness of beer beyond pale lager as well as more people seeking out independent breweries and new experiences.
In their hometown, bars dedicated to craft beer had started to pop up, Green Beacon in Teneriffe and Newstead Brewing’s original Doggett Street home around the corner were bringing the brewpub experience to more people, and in 2014 the nascent craft beer community launched Brewsvegas – a weeklong celebration of the city’s beer scene inspired by Melbourne’s Good Beer Week.
It meant that, for Grant and Michelle, the time was right for expansion, with their search leading them to a space in Boundary Road in Brisbane’s West End. It was in need of a lot of work – by now something of a tradition – but, after dismantling the Albion brewery and moving it piece by piece to West End, in 2015 the doors to Brisbane Brewing Co opened to the public, this time with brewing back on site on a kit sitting alongside the bar.
In the intervening years, they’ve been joined in the suburb by more breweries: you can practically stumble out of the alleyway leading to their brewpub and land in a seat outside Catchment Brewing Co, while Parched Brewery opened a short stroll away in December 2021. The pair have also seen the nature of the industry they helped pioneer in Brisbane evolve significantly.
“One of the big changes we’ve seen is that, back then, people really gravitated to what they recognised. Now, people are looking for what they haven’t had, what’s new for them to try,” Grant says.
“We promote freshness, which works for our business model. And that often leads to a good conversation with a customer, about hops and hop character and why freshness matters. Those conversations and connection make it worth coming in for people.”
There’s been an explosion of growth in Woolloongabba in recent years too, one that's tipped to continue as Brisbane marches towards the Olympics in 2032, and given the considerable number of new entrants to the world of brewing, these days there’s no shortage of competitors.
“We’re always looking at what we can do differently, and do well. It’s dead easy to retail someone else’s product. But it’s pretty sexy to make your own product and sell that,” Grant says, adding: “The market is changing. People want produce and products that are local, and that’s where we put our focus.”
Their love for local isn’t driven by the demands of the market, however. While their brewpub dream was inspired by experiences on the other side of the planet, spend time with Grant and Michelle and you can tell they have a genuine fondness for the local area, for being part of the community, and, of course, for Brisbane.
Having served Brisbane’s beer drinkers in one form or another for the past 17 years, their “Brisbanest beer” is more than just a tagline, it’s an ethos they live every day, and one that’s helped inform their recent rebrand.
“We love Brisbane,” Michelle says. “The city is having a bit of a day.
“We want to help show people how fun and modern and relaxed it is.”
That vibrant, modern, fresh and summery feel – inspired in part by the Brisbane sign at Southbank – is apparent across their newly-canned core range, inside their venues, and in the tap decals of their weekly beer release. Earlier in 2022, they also retired the Brewhouse name at the ‘Gabba venue in favour of Brisbane Brewing Co. Woolloongabba at the same time as they refreshed their brand.
Their longevity is a testament to the vision, hard work, and the people they’ve worked with over the past 17 years, many of whom have gone on to enjoy stellar careers elsewhere in the beer industry, as they quietly forged a path for craft beer and the independent breweries who have followed in their footsteps.
While their future vision might not stretch – at least currently – to a 17-year plan, their drive to keep on reinventing their offering and remain fresh for their customers means they have plenty on the horizon, including the development of a new distilling brand, making chilli sauces, or renovating the ‘Gabba venue.
“We still love what we do,” Grant says. “We haven’t tired of it yet.”