As gestation periods go, that of Grainfed Brewing would have to rank somewhere between a whale and an elephant.
It was more than a decade ago, during a Newcastle Craft Beer Week, that I stood in Lachlan MacBean's house in Newcastle sampling a homebrewed glass of what would become Sneaky One, the brewing company's debut release. And it wasn't until June 2023 that he finally welcomed the public into Grainfed's brewpub for the first time.
That's not to say Lachie's beers haven't been enjoyed in and around Newcastle and the Central Coast for most of the intervening period. Challenged by Richard Watkins (then of the Wig & Pen, now owner of BentSpoke) and myself to back his beers and release them on that day back in July 2012, he soon did – but the road from brewer, bartender and beer judge to brewpub owner has proven to be one that could be the dictionary definition of long and winding.
It's one that's reached its end at 1/52 Young Road in Lambton, joining what's become a rather busy brewing scene in Newcastle, especially when you consider that, prior to FogHorn opening in April 2015, you had to travel to the Hunter Valley or Bob's Farm in Port Stephens to find a local brewery.
Today, Grainfed is part of a community that includes the likes of Shout, Method, Rogue Scholar, Thirsty Messiah and Good Folk, as well as the Newcastle arms of breweries that first made their name in Sydney: Modus and their main production facility in Merewether, and Akasha since they took over The Edwards.
Reflecting on the years between those pilot batches of Sneaky One and the launch of the brewpub, Lachie sums it up simply: "You want to do these things right."
And that he would appear to have done, with feedback from early customers who'd never heard of Grainfed before but dropped into the new joint on the opening "really, really positive", according to Lachie. With the nearest hospo venues including a club with one of the largest number of pokies in the state, he's glad to be "giving them something they didn't have."
He's also glad he didn't move any quicker than he did, admitting: "COVID put the fear into me. I'd been looking to do a place with a chef but we ended up doing our own thing."
Instead, he continued operating Grainfed as he had from the start: brewing his beers at others' breweries, selling it all within a few hours of Newcastle, and hanging out with his sons – now 16, 19 and 21 – with wife Jeanette working as a nurse.
That changed when, in 2021, he laid eyes on the place that would allow him to take arguably his biggest step in brewing yet. The signs were good from the off too: the landlord had been an electrician at Bluetongue Brewery, where Lachie got his start in commercial brewing, and they used to chat regularly. By the end of that year, he'd signed the lease and work began in earnest to prepare for those first thirsty punters.
The brewery and accompanying venue have taken shape on a small industrial area in Lambton, a suburb eight kilometres from Newcastle's CBD, and within eyesight – from the verandah at least – of the stadium that's home to the Jets A-League team. And, as on the day I first sampled Sneaky One, it remains a family affair: "Me and my wife and the bank," he says.
"It's a big risk but I did a consulting job at a brewery in Dubbo in 2019 they head-hunted me for. They had nine business partners and I watched that dynamic and thought, 'No.'
"I've been in the industry long enough: 15/20 years with sales experience, as a commercial brewer, a beer judge. I walked away from there and thought, 'If I can't do this by myself then I should get out of the industry.'"
Prior to getting into the industry, he'd been a horticulturalist and arborist, working for a few years in his dad's business and enjoying his first brush with brewing at home as a uni student in Wagga. It was when he heard about the brewing course at Ballarat that things started getting serious: he enrolled on the course before, at a trade show the day after the Australian International Beer Awards, going around the stalls asking for work and ending up with an offer to join the team at the now-defunct Bluetongue.
Thus the MacBeans swapped Sydney for Newcastle – "more my lifestyle than Sydney – more laid-back" – and steadily Lachie became more involved in the city's fledgling craft beer scene. He went on to work at The Albion (pictured above at Newcastle Craft Beer Week in 2012), when it was under the stewardship of Corey Crooks before he took his vision to the Grain Store, all the while looking around and wondering: "Why is nobody making beer in Newcastle?"
It was a thought that led to Sneaky One. An initial 23 keg batch was produced at Illawarra Brewing back when Ashur Hall and Shaun Blissett, now head brewers at Stomping Ground and Wayward respectively, were running the brew deck.
It remains his best-seller to this day, now pouring from one of 12 taps at Grainfed, where there's a nitro pour in the mix too. Inspired by Richard Watkins and partner Tracy Margrain's first brew at BentSpoke – Dick Tracy – he and Jeanette created a beer together: First Date, a Belgian ale featuring, you guessed it, dates. There are plans for collabs with other brewers – including BentSpoke, of course – as well as local venues so he can invite staff in to see how it's done.
When they call in, they'll find the beers pouring from a bar that sits in front of the tanks – there's no escaping the fact you're in a brewery here – with a capacity of 120 spread across three spaces decorated with memorabilia drawn from brewing and the former tenants. And, while it has opened during a highly challenging year for the local beer industry, Lachie feels he's benefited from biding his time.
"I've seen every model [of brewing business] and I've seen people come and go," he says. "I've got a lot of good mates in the industry and I'm just getting started.
"For me, it's a lifestyle thing to retirement. If I can pass it onto my children or my staff, that's my everything. I would be happy not to sell beer south of the Hawkesbury River or north of Coffs Harbour. There's sustainability in a business that can sell eight to ten kegs over its own bar and do some wholesale.
"Small breweries are taking the place of the local community hall in the suburbs. We've got people with babies and older people coming in, and that's what I want. I don't know more than 15 percent of them and that's so good – these must have been the people drinking Sneaky One all these years!"
It's a humble approach in keeping with the one that has brought him this far: keeping things tight, doing everything he could do himself himself while raising his sons – "more involved than I thought!" – and putting any money he made back into more beer.
Looked at that way, the fact Lachie registered and had a license for Grainfed Brewing in October 2012 and sold his first beer in December 2012, a full 126 months before the first one was poured at the Lambton brewpub, makes sense.
What's more, as he puts it: "It took me nine years to marry my wife. You've got to be sure of these things!"
He adds: "I'm going to do this once. I'm going to do it right and make quality beer. It starts with the quality of the beer and everything flows from there. That and just being genuine."
And, as he approaches the 11th anniversary of Grainfed – which will land roughly on the six-month anniversary of the venue – what are his hopes for the future? As simple as what's come before, of course.
"Pay off the loan. And be the best small community brewery and taproom in Lambton and Newcastle."
Photo credit for image at top of article: NODA.