Matt Ives' brewing career hasn't taken him to the bright lights of big cities but it has seen him spend plenty of time making beer alongside some of the pioneers of the local beer world.
His brewing journey kicked off more than a decade ago when Matt and his partner Lauren made the move from Melbourne to Wagga Wagga for Lauren's university degree. At the time, Thirsty Crow had just opened and the new locals wasted no time making it something of a home away from home.
“We became pretty regular fixtures,” Matt says. “I guess on the good side of the bar is how you’d describe it.”
Before long, Matt made a move to what must therefore be the "bad side" and started working behind the bar on weekends and weeknights, fitting shifts around his regular job. Then, when that regular job was gone, he started serving the people of Wagga with craft beer as a full-time pursuit.
“Reaching across the bar instead of just staying there drinking too many nights a week was a massive moment,” he says.
Brewery founder Craig Wealands and head brewer Braddon Archer were quick to encourage Matt to broaden his understanding of beer after recognising just how passionate he was about the liquids he was pouring.
“They took me under their wing a little bit because I showed a bit of interest that they weren’t used to around beer styles and everything like that.”
It meant he soon jumped at the chance to spend a few days on the tools with Braddon, which included making an Australian cult classic. As Matt puts it, the then-homebrewer "got to help brew a beer that even then was critically famous, their Vanilla Milk Stout.”
After Lauren finished her course in 2015, the pair moved to Ballarat, leaving the passionate beer fan unsure how he'd turn his dream of becoming a brewer into reality. Fortunately, Lauren had an idea up her sleeve when she took him for lunch at Holgate Brewhouse's pub.
“To my surprise,” Matt recalls, “she put me in a car, drove me over to Woodend, pointed out [future Molly Rose founder] Nic Sandery, and said, 'You need to go and talk to that fella. I think he’s looking for someone to work here.'
“That was when I went, 'This is it, this is what I want to do.'”
His time at the pioneering brewery – whose 25 Years Of Beers celebrations this year include brewing a collab with Matt – was during a period of significant growth.
“We went from being a regional brewpub with a bit of distribution to really working it and pushing the beer out on such a manual system,” Matt says. “Then all of a sudden we were brewing with a whizz-bang BrauKon.”
By then, Nic had left to travel the world ahead of opening Molly Rose leaving Matt and the brewery team – head brewer Chris Brady, Noodledoof co-founder Alex Carr and Wolf of the Willows head brewer Josh Kendal – to forge close bonds as they pushed the old brewery kit as much as they could while overseeing the new brewery install.
“It was hard work but the hardest part was also the most fun,” Matt says. “It was such a rewarding experience.”
After years of long, early morning drives between Ballarat and Woodend, Matt joined Aunty Jacks in Ballarat soon after they opened late in 2020. His role there involves working closely with longterm beer educator Peter Aldred, but Peter's sort-of-retirement means head brewer Matt has plenty of scope with what he does on the brewdeck each day.
“There were other people involved at Holgate, like sales reps reporting on what we could do next," Matt says. "Whereas now, I’m making less beer but making it in a different way while wearing more hats.”
He describes the Aunty Jacks approach as centred around designing beers to be quite accessible in order to guide drinkers towards new horizons. Having worked at Thirsty Crow at a time when regional breweries were few and far between, Matt still sees countless opportunities to broaden palates through beer quality and education – which is also a major focus for the Ballarat brewpub.
“I think we can still introduce people to new things and help them explore,” he says. “It’s always our take on classic styles or fairly modern styles that we can sell over the bar ourselves.
“Our goal is always for people who visit to go, ‘I love that you have 18 beers on tap. I’ve tried two of them and I’m going to stick to that pale ale; that’s for me.' And maybe the next time they’ll find another beer they just want to sit on.”
Fortunately, there's little doubt that Aunty Jacks are making classic styles well: the brewery won Best European Style Lager at the 2023 Australian International Beer Awards for their Mair St Märzen; later in their year, their Party Time topped our own blind tasting of best Mexican-style lagers last year, finishing ahead of Sol, Balter and Corona.
Matt says receiving the AIBA trophy in May was a particularly lovely moment, given the audience's reaction, as well as his fondness for brewing classic German lagers and that Märzen in particular.
“It was very surreal, I was really humbled when we got those cheers from the crowd,” he says.
“I love that beer and love being able to find a niche in making a Märzen beer for more than just the two months of a year when people normally care about it.”
On the back of a great year, we invited Matt to star in our first Brew & A of 2024, where we talk lagers, malt and music...
Why are you a brewer?
There’s no real one reason that sticks out, but I can’t find a reason to stop and do anything else either!
There is something very rewarding about knowing the work you put in can put a smile on someone’s face and bring people together in a way only beer can. The job is often a pursuit of perfection one day followed by innovation and risk another, and I like changing between the art vs science approach from time to time.
What would you be if you weren’t a brewer?
A barista. Similar to the reasons above, a good barista makes your day a better one, but ultimately they are simply trying to pull the perfect shot and will never be truly happy until they do.
I also would want to spend more time making latte swans.
What was your epiphany beer?
The standout from many years back would be Matilda Bay Alpha Pale. It was so tight and precise even though the flavour was bold, new and different to anything else I had experienced. Back when a hoppy pale ale was the "premium" beer within a range – not to mention sold in bottles!
How did you first get involved in the beer world?
My wife Lauren – she’s the best.
When we left NSW having spent the last few months bartending at Thirsty Crow watching Craig and crew ply their trade, I mentioned how I loved the idea of working in beer but didn’t think it was a real possibility. A few (unemployed…) months later, she drove me out to Woodend for lunch one Friday and pointed to the group of brewers having knock-offs and said: "Don’t come back until you have a job." And that somehow worked.
What's the best beer you’ve ever brewed?
It’s hard to isolate one beer, but also hard to pat myself on the back with a question like this! I would say the first bottle release of Wild Red Ale we made while I was working at Holgate would be the standout beer. Full of complex malty sweetness and that balsamic acid all working together, it was pretty special.
The Crafty Pint named Wild Red Ale the Best New Victorian Beer of that year too.
What's your single favourite ingredient to use in beer?
Malted barley, and more specifically a Munich malt. I love the versatility of using it sparingly to bolster some body and perceived sweetness, or seeking out the baked pretzel and rich toasty notes if you push it a little further in a different beer.
Are there any beers you’ve brewed that might have been better left on the drawing board?
A couple here and there that were maybe twice as bitter or not as clean as they should have been – but the lychee and jackfruit beer I made for a family wedding could easily have found the drain. It worked OK in a cocktail, but I still have vivid visions of the fleshy, grotesque jackfruit chunks bobbing up in the boiling wort…
If you could do a guest stint at any brewery in the world, which would it be and why?
Now, it’s not the most fashionable niche in the beer world but I would say Uerige Braueri in Düsseldorf, Germany. I had been fascinated for years about traditional Altbier and how well it read on paper, but almost no one locally was brewing or drinking it.
Drinking alt from the remaining traditional breweries in Düsseldorf was a highlight for me on a trip through Europe, and the bitter, malty, no-nonsense beer was better than I could have anticipated. Uerige – which translates to grouch or grumpy – operate out of a perfect, ornate corner pub in the Altstadt and continue the culture and theatre that help make this beer unique.
Which local breweries inspire you?
I couldn’t work at Holgate for a number of years and not be inspired by the energy that Paul and Natasha bring to their workplace and their business day in, day out. Also watching Nic prepare, build, then launch Molly Rose and take it to its current lofty heights felt like I was along for the journey too.
What inspires you outside the world of brewing beer?
Hearing people talk about their passion with the same intensity that we tend to talk about beer is an opportunity to learn and engage. Whether that’s graphic design, nursing, marshmallows or anything that started as nothing and leads to a deep dive of information.
What's your desert island beer – the one to keep you going if you were stranded for the rest of your days?
As much as I want to say Altbier, the beauty of alt is in how social the beer is as you don’t need to overanalyse it. If I were properly stranded I’d probably want something more engaging, so red IPA for its malts and hops working in tandem.
And what would be the soundtrack to those days?
If it’s not Johnny Cash: Live At Folsom Prison, it's storytellers like Paolo Nutini, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn. A band called Doves, which I discovered back when I started brewing, still makes it into rotation for mash-ins these days.
If you couldn’t have beer, what would be your tipple of choice?
Spanish-style reds like Tempranillo or Mencia that are crunchy and full-flavoured. Or an endless glass of local bubbles at a wedding is usually a weakness.
What's the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming a brewer?
There are no "rules" in brewing as every rule has a pretty broad grey area. Use these newly-termed guidelines and have fun exploring.
And the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering a career in craft beer?
If you have a shit day, sleep on it and go again. There are plenty of highlights, but these are matched with slow days and hard times and it is part of the equation. So, embrace it and enjoy the fun stuff when you get the chance.
You can find other entries in our Brew & A series here. Look out for details of Matt's collab with the Holgate team – one of many they're creating with former brewers in 2024 – as well as a chance to vote on one of the 25 anniversary beers later in the year.