With distinguished titles like Chief Judge of the Australian International Beer Awards, Chairman of the Craft Beer Industry Association and Head Brewer at Stone & Wood, you might think Brad Rogers spends his days in a sun-drenched penthouse overlooking Byron Bay, reclining in a leather chair with a goblet of exotic beer, stroking a white cat and deciding, on a whim, the future of craft beer in Australia.
It may therefore surprise you to know that this is, in fact, not the case. Rather, you’re far more likely to find Brad Rogers within the bowels of the brewery set in an industrial estate well out of sight of the picturesque bay, with a slightly sweaty brow, shovel in hand, digging out spent grain.
To those outside the industry, it mightn’t be the perceived image of a man who holds such eminence within it, but it’s an image entirely in tune with the ethos at Stone & Wood. Like so many others across the country, this is a brewery run on hard work, heart and sense of community. And few things epitomise those qualities better here than the brewing of their annual Stone Beer.
Stone Beer,“ says Jamie Cook, Stone & Wood co-founder along with Rogers and Ross Jurisich, "is something we love doing because it really brings Stone & Wood to life, and it reinforces what really drives us as a brewery.”
The creation of the Stone Beer is a homage to bygone times, when beer was brewed in wooden vats rather than steel and the heat to boil the liquid came from the immersion of superheated rocks rather than direct flame. It’s a long, slow, manual exercise heating the stones on an open fire until they glow white-hot, but that’s entirely the point.
As Jamie suggests: "Brewing is a very elemental craft and heating stones up in a wood fire and adding them to a kettle full of ‘juice’ of the grain certainly helps you realise how grounded the essence of brewing actually is."
These days you might call the method primitive, but equally you could call it traditional. And with most definitions of "craft beer" in an apparent state of confusion, tradition is at least a strong pillar onto which craft beer can lean. By choosing to brew the Stone Beer as they do, Stone & Wood not only help keep this brewing tradition alive but also build one of their own; 2013 represents the fifth incarnation of their Stone Beer. And while the tradition remains very much the same, the beer itself evolves each year.
“This year we added some Chocolate Wheat to what was already an eclectic grain bill,” says Jamie. “Another tweak this year was the addition of a relatively new hop from Hop Products Australia called Enigma. The beer is looking good in the tank, with the Enigma giving a little boost of fruitiness to the malt character across the middle palate, and then the chocolate wheat kicks in with the hops to give it a long bitter chocolate finish. The beer is still very much in that big dark Germanic ale mould in a sort of Bock meets Porter union.â
Beyond the method and ingredients, this is a special beer by virtue of the fact it exists at all. Despite doubling in size twice in the last year or so, every inch of brewing capacity at Stone & Wood is needed to keep up with demand for their core beer range. Spurred on by the plaudit-grabbing Pacific Ale, time and space to brew limited releases is very precious indeed. As it is, the 2013 Stone Beer was brewed two months earlier than last year’s so as to minimise disruption to demands in general production. And even then, on Stone Brew Day itself the brewery opened in the wee small hours to get an extra batch of Pacific Ale through. By the time the Stone Beer made it to the fermenter some 19 hours later, Friday had become Saturday and the next shift in the brewery was only hours away.
Taking all of this into consideration, you appreciate that when the Stone & Wood team does get the rare chance to branch out – whether it’s through the Stone Beer or The Mash Collective – there’s a deliberate sense of occasion. As Jamie says: “The other thing we love about Stone Beer is the opportunity it provides to bring people together. We are great believers in the powerful link between brewing and community.
"We have to remember that the reason people stopped roaming around alone and actually started living together as community was because they had to stay in one place to grow grain for brewing beer. Beer had a huge role in humans developing communities, and at Stone & Wood we believe our reason for being is to help develop and add value to the local community – to help bring people together."
So it’s for that reason they choose to invite friends, family and industry all-sorts along to participate in the brew. And those fortunate enough to attend quickly understand that they mean what they say, with the brewery being more like a family; small, tight knit and exceptionally welcoming.
So what might happen to all of this if Stone & Wood gets even bigger, as trends suggest they must? Can you be a "big" brewery and maintain the same genuine sense of love and community? Can you install vast banks of steel tanks – potent symbols of industrialisation that they are – and still maintain a legitimate claim to label your beer âhandcrafted’? When you see Brad Rogers sweating with his shovel, digging grain; when you see half a tonne of malt being heaved into the mill by hand; when you see each and every bottle of beer being packaged by hand, you have to believe that if it’s possible for a brewery to grow while managing to stay the same, Stone & Wood will do it.
After all, they have managed to brew a stone beer that’s got real heart.
Stone Beer 2013 is launched at The Festival of the Stone on Saturday [May 4] at The Rails Hotel in Byron Bay. Entry is free.
The Stone & Wood team will be hosting The Gathering during Good Beer Week featuring Melbourne’s first kegs of the 2013 Stone Beer. Entry is free – as are hugs from the brewer.