There were two questions he'd ask every day: "When are we going to have a coffee?" and "Is it beer o'clock?"
It was important to all have a coffee together to start the day, then to end the day together having a beer.
The local beer world is mourning the passing of one of its best-loved characters, after Neil Whittorn lost his battle with cancer at the weekend.
Neil – better known to many in the industry as Pops – enjoyed a long career in brewing, starting out at CUB in the early 70s and, more recently, acting as a mentor to young brewers at Stone & Wood in the Northern Rivers. Even in retirement, he could be found lending a hand at his local breweries; when Two Mates Brewing in Lismore was destroyed by the devastating floods last year, Neil helped them reclaim and rebuild their brewery.
Guaranteed to be found with a smile from ear to ear wherever you encountered him, he was an overwhelmingly positive force within the industry, with his contribution recognised when he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 Indies.
One of those who knew him best is Brad Rogers (pictured above left with Neil), one of the founders of Stone & Wood. Both he and Neil enjoyed stints at CUB's Fiji brewery – admittedly two decades apart – before working together at Matilda Bay in its Garage days in Dandenong then again at Stone & Wood.
"Neil and I worked very, very closely in the early Matilda Bay days [in Dandenong]," Brad recalls. "He was one of the first to brew beers like Beez Neez and Alpha Pale Ale. He always had a smile on his face, always a good word for everybody.
"I had a really good relationship with him, and he did with my family – the kids loved him. [After starting Stone & Wood], I kept asking him every year – every six months probably – surely you don't want to stay [at CUB]. Come and work with us in Byron!"
After years of turning down the offers through a deep loyalty to Matilda Bay (one manifested in a seemingly endless supply of pristine Rooftop Red t-shirts that remained pristine even years after the beer was no longer brewed), things changed when CUB decided to close the Port Melbourne site and made Neil and his colleagues redundant.
Soon afterwards, he rejoined Brad as part of the team in the Northern Rivers.
"It was fantastic," Brad says, "to have someone with that sort of experience coming into a brewery with a lot of young people. Even when he retired, he was in there. Whenever I did Forest For The Trees, he was right beside me while bottling or labelling or whatnot – all by hand.
"When Two Mates' brewery was turned pretty well upside-down, Stone & Wood started making their beer and Neil got into the brewery and was instrumental in bringing it back together for them.
"For me, he was one of the special men in the industry – a great man who's gone to the beer gods."
You could talk to any number of the younger brewers who worked alongside, and were mentored by, Pops and discover a litany of fond memories both inside and outside the brewery. One of those who became closest to him is Chloé Lovatt, who got her start in brewing courtesy of him, received her nickname (Moose – she hails from Canada) from him, has an Instagram handle inspired by him (Beer Mechanic was the name for brewers at Matilda Bay from their Garage days), and was due to fly from Victoria to see him again this week, as she had done with increasing frequency since his initial diagnosis.
While Neil’s brewing career stretched into a sixth decade, and he was part of teams that won many of the country’s most prestigious awards, Chloé says personal achievements never mattered to him.
“It was never about him, it was always about the team. He couldn’t give a fuck about being the best brewer; he didn’t want to be the best brewer, he wanted his brewers to be the best brewer," she says.
“It was never about money or fame or being a rockstar making the best beer, it was just about being a brewer and having a laugh and being part of a team.”
He was eager for others to share his passion for the beers they were making too; on one occasion, Chloé discovered two cases of Bohemian Pilsner in the boot of her car after work. It turned out Neil had “borrowed” her keys and put them there because “we needed to be drinking the beer we made – he was literally someone loving what they do and where they work.”
Another example of the way he’d look out for and encourage younger brewers can be found in Chloé’s first brew at Matilda Bay. She’d put down a double batch of Dogbolter and, as it was coming off the packaging line a few days later, Neil joined her.
“He pulled me over and handed me a bottle, and said,‘This is the first beer you made. You brewed this beer.’,” she recalls. “That was in January 2012 and I’ve still got that beer on my table. I’ve taken it from Melbourne to WA to Toronto to Vancouver and back to Geelong.
“He went to my soccer games, went to my citizenship ceremony and bought everyone VBs afterwards, came to my birthday parties – that man supported everything that you did. He wanted you to be the best in everything you did.”
He had a lasting impact in other ways too: Chloé says you can always tell when somebody has brewed alongside him. When she returned to Australia and started brewing at Geelong, she teamed up with Jeremy Halse, who’d been one of two Beer Mechanics at the Garage alongside Neil when Brad arrived.
Even though neither had brewed with Neil at the same time – or indeed brewed with him for many years – she says they shared common traits they knew came from the same source.
“He was so calm,” she says. “Never had a bad word to say about anything. He was the epitome of strength and resilience.”
Among those who came to know him later in his career is Stone & Wood brewer John Bogan, one of the brewers Neil took under his wing at Stone & Wood. John would visit Neil regularly at his home and in hospital, and describes him as: "Part class clown, part caring mentor, all passionate brewer."
John, who first met Neil on brew days for the Good Beer Week Abbey Collabby beers created by Mountain Goat, Moon Dog and Matilda Bay, told The Crafty Pint: "For Pops, that passion created action. He was a doer, and it better be done by 4pm, because that was his beer o’clock!"
Both had worked at a number of breweries before Stone & Wood and connected over a shared enthusiasm for beer, especially European styles, while John was part of the home brewing club led by Neil at the brewery.
"He was always encouraging others to get involved to share the passion, but then we would all get a little worried when home brew club emails always turned into stories about his horse Charlie and the adventures they had gone on," John recalls. "Yeah, Charlie wasn’t real – I think…"
While his mentor is regarded as a legend throughout the industry, John feels it was "the comedic, compassionate and considered aspects of his persona that made him the perfect all rounder in a brewery like Stone & Wood. It was growing, so a level-headed, safety-conscious, and cultural leader was needed to help the team develop through. His experience, easy manner and joking ways fitted the bill so well.
"But that’s what made Neil ‘Pops’: comic relief, immense positivity, eternal enthusiasm. I swear he was younger than me at heart, even if I’m not yet to hit a quarter of the time he had in the brewing industry. And I think that is what has made his passing the hardest: both he and the rest of us that knew him thought he still had many years of service to bring to the industry."
Even when cancer returned, impacting Neil to the point the always-active guy struggled to walk laps of his apartment, John says his positivity remained undimmed as he looked forward to upcoming experimental treatment.
"Up until his last few weeks, I gave him a bottle of a home brewed saison he was going to taste when he felt better, and he was still giving me tips on brewing styles and ingredients he had used over his career," John says. "This is the Neil I will remember: encouraging to the last, and looking forward to better times."
His positivity is something that is referenced often by Chloé. Indeed, when he received his first cancer diagnosis, she says it was the first time they talked about the possibility of him dying, of Pops not being there.
“We never talked about death,” she says. “He was about living. He wasn’t about dying.”
Even when the reality of his passing hit home this week, she says: “He would have told me, ‘Moose, you get up and you keep going!’.”
It was an approach to life she says helped Neil see off his first bout of cancer: he kept brewing and running – his two main loves aside from his families: both blood and beer, never complained, and remained positive. It was only once cancer returned for a second time and he stopped being able to brew and run that those closest to him started to fear that maybe he wouldn’t be around forever.
“For a lot of people, there’s shock in the sense that you never thought of him getting older because he was always so young.”
And, for those who knew him, that's how he will remain.
"This industry is certainly the better for his involvement in it," John says, "with a trail of people like myself to continue sharing the love of beer, as he showed us.
"It’s certainly beer o’clock for Pops now. Cheers, Neil!"
We featured Neil in our Craft Beer Heroes series back in 2016; you can read that article here.