Eagle Bay have built a reputation as one of WA’s most consistent breweries, racking up accolades and praise for a lineup of beers that lean heavily into "classically styled" territory. That said, over recent years, they've not been afraid to spread their wings; sure, classics like their iconic Kolsch remain well-crafted and ever-popular, but they haven't shied away from more experimental small batches.
The fast-changing times in which we live, and equally fast-changing tastes, are a likely motivator for brewers to keep evolving, but some personnel changes may well also be responsible for this steady but noticeable shift in gears at the brewery atop Cape Naturaliste.
Of note is Keegan Steinbacher's arrival as head brewer in 2019, bringing his own style of brewing while retaining the brewery's focus on drinkability. And on the marketing side of things, Bronte O’Donoghue has flourished since joining from Feral a couple of years ago.
For drinkers on the hunt for new experiences, however, the arrival of something entirely different from the Eagle Bay team will be of greatest interest: years in the making, the wild ferment Hoops series has debuted this autumn, and it's very much a passion project for Keegan.
"I’d wanted to do something in this space ever since first trying beers that were intentionally soured or funky," he told The Crafty Pint. "For me, they have always been a favourite of mine. I’ve always found yeast and bacteria to do things flavour-wise that malt and hops just couldn’t.
"My brewing journey has always led me to want to understand how other brewers achieve certain flavour profiles, and entering the world of mixed ferment was something that felt inevitable to me."
The Hoops series is one of not only wild ferments but also plenty of time. Utilising spent wine barrels – tucked away in a small corner of the brewery’s expansive storage shed – and a regular tasting regime, the project has evolved from experimental trials back in 2018 to where the beers sit now: packaged and ready to drink, with plenty more in the works.
It's not just the liquid that has been evolving either; it's been a learning process for the man behind them too.
"I started out with the intention of building a culture from scratch so I could understand what every element was bringing to the table," Keegan says. "The intention was to add a Brett strain, then maybe another, and another, then some lactobacillus strains, and finally some pediococcus strains.
"I quickly realised this was going to be a very long journey, so I started planning what to add to the first beer to try and get to where I wanted, knowing full well I may need to start again if it all went pear-shaped.
"Fortunately, an opportunity arose to collaborate with a good friend of mine, and of the Eagle Bay family, Brendan O’Sullivan from 3 Ravens. I’d known Brendan from the beginning of my brewing career at Mash Brewing. He managed – somehow – to get a 15 litre drum of the Wild Ravens house culture on a plane across from Thornbury, in Victoria, to the southwest of WA.
"We knocked up a saison, dry-hopped it with some aged Tardif de Bourgogne and Aramis before putting it away into barrels with the Wild Ravens house culture. I have since shifted this culture around into a few other beers and adopted it as our own.
"The brewing scene has always been an immensely open, and collaborative space and this was yet another example of that."
The first two Hoops beers, released on March 20, are the first in what will be an ongoing series, with multiple pegged to drop each year. Batch 001 has been soured with lactobacillus plantarum and aged lengthily with Brettanomyces Claussenii; for this beer, no oak was used, a ploy from the Eagle Bay brewers to demonstrate the changing state of the beers to come while remaining on theme. This stainless-aged version of a Brett Saison will be a unique addition to the WA beer scene.
"Currently, the barrel-aged versions of Blend 001 are split between four red and white wine barrels," Keegan says. "One version shows chardonnay characteristics and will be bottled as is, while another will feature fig and yuzu zest.
"The two red wine barrels are conditioning on nebbiolo skins from Frankland River that were present in a wine ferment for 100 days. The barrel-aged versions are inoculated with Brett Bruxellensis and, due to the nature of barrel-ageing, present with a higher degree of Brett characteristics, while the oak and remnant wine provide structure and tannin.
"It will be a fun experiment to see each version evolve from the same base beer with red or white barrels and fruit additions being the differentiating factor."
As an all-encapsulating concept, packaging and design is very much an integral part of the project too. Not the sorts to do anything by half measures, they created a new design for the labels, while still retaining Eagle Bay’s iconic aesthetic. A slick logo has been developed alongside artwork from Perth (Whadjuk Boodja) artist Rachel Unwin Hatton. It’s simple, minimalist, the details concise but informative.
"Rach had previously painted some simple and beautiful deconstructed native flowers," Bronte says. "They were obviously native flowers, but she presented them in a unique and interesting way that allowed the viewer to piece it together like a puzzle, and the thought immediately hit me that we should get her to take this same approach to Hoops Project, but with the inspiration being bacteria.
"After all, bacteria is what makes these beers so interesting."
With the series off to a fine start [Batch 001 is an early highlight of 2023 for me – Editor] Hoops is likely to see Eagle Bay's reputation as a brewery that "does the classics well" broaden courtesy of the creativity and progressive thinking that infuses these beers. After all, there’s much to love about an ongoing project that combines modern-thinking with old school ideals celebrating slowly-evolving, barrel-aged and wild-fermented beer.
"At a time when I think people are shifting to a more experiential way of drinking, a range of beers like Hoops Project can only be a good thing," Keegan says.
"Large format bottles are made for sharing with good friends. The beer should be a conversation starter, but then take a back seat to proceedings.
"Whilst the clean side of the brewery has gone from strength to strength, nearly doubling its output in the last four years, it’s been satisfying knowing that something is ticking away in a barrel in the back shed without a care about production schedules or supply and demand. It will dictate when it's ready.’