“It's like having the light turned on – like someone whacked me on the back of the head.”
So said one of the participants who'd just stepped off the bus after a seven hour journey with Dave's Brewery Tours. They're words that would undoubtedly have the Dave in question, Dave Phillips (pictured above) grinning from ear to ear. He's the man behind what is, somewhat surprisingly given the speed with which craft beer is permeating the city, Sydney's only dedicated beer tour operator and he comes across as someone who genuinely wants to change the way people look at beer.
“For me it's not some argument about micro versus macro. It's about understanding the provenance of what you consume and, where possible, supporting your local and getting an appreciation for these people following their dreams to create great beer for people to enjoy,” he explains.
It's a noble, slightly quaint, yet somewhat fitting idea for what, when viewed from the outside, is essentially a man with a van trying to make a difference. But Dave's Brewery Tours is more than that and has far grander plans. Dave has an extensive executive management background which has been invaluable in giving the business a strategic direction from the get-go, not to mention the wherewithal from which to build.
So what probably needs to be asked is: "Why would you trade a comfortable career for the promise of a bumpy ride in the front seat of a van?"
“I was a director of a specialist engineering company,” he says, “and after 13 years of working across Australia and Asia I was tired and wanted to 'live the dream'. If I think about it, I knew years ago when I first walked into Little Creatures in Freo that I should be doing something with beer.
“I didn't plan for my first involvement to be tours but after running a few mates tours [the first on Craft Beer Rising in 2014] and speaking with the breweries, it seemed obvious to create a tour company that provides more than the traditional 'cellar door' experience. Our approach is to get deep inside the breweries and the brewing process to educate and enlighten about what it takes to make good beer locally.”
Having launched quietly last year and tested the water with a few weekend excursions, they're now up and running full time with three regular tours. The Northern Exposure trip takes in Sydney's burgeoning northern suburbs brewing scene, including the likes of Modus Operandi, Nomad, 4 Pines and Flat Rock Brew Cafe. The aptly named Hipsters & Hops tour is a merry jaunt around the Inner West – Young Henrys, Batch, Rocks, Willie the Boatman and various crafty pubs – while the Inner City tour is a '3 in 3' concept, taking you to three city-based breweries in three hours and packaged as a weekday alternative for those unable to commit to the full tours.
Thus far tours have proven particularly popular with locals keen to discover their own brewing scene, whether or not they were aware of it before. Says Dave: “One thing that does amaze me is the number of locals who simply don't know about breweries, or knew of them but didn't know they could go and have a drink there.
"Our weekend tours are very much domestic travellers – locals who want to have a great beer experience. We've only just started marketing our weekday tours, however we're seeing a lot of interest from corporate customers and larger groups wanting a team event or day out.”
While domestic tourists have provided the kind of start the business wanted, inbound tourists are viewed as a growing market and very much part of future plans.
“We're working solidly with Destination NSW and Tourism Australia to increase awareness of our local breweries, the beer scene and, of course, our tours. This has some steep lead times and investments involved, but we see amazing potential. Overseas tourists really want to experience the local beer scene and want to be taken to places they ordinarily wouldn't get to on a short stay.”
The tours are opening beer up to wide range of demographics too. When The Crafty Pint hopped on a tour, it was amongst a mixture of young and old, male and female, those new to beer, expats trying to track down the best of Aussie-made and one person “sick of working with people who look down on beer”. And that, in Dave's experience, is fairly representative of the overall picture.
“We get a good mix. I don't expect to be attractive to the true beer geeks, although we do have some cool tour concepts coming I'm sure they'll like. I really enjoy the mix of guests we have and the challenge - for want of a better word - of bringing beer appreciation to those people not so fond of beer. So far we have a pretty high success rate, but that's because our job is made easier by the quality and range of beers our local breweries have on offer.”
But ultimately, like many things in life, much of it might come down to convenience. From Mona Vale to Sylvania, some of the Sydney's breweries are a good way out from the centre of the city which means, unless you've got a dedicated driver at home with a fuel tank full of patience, a tour is a sensible way to negotiate the associated perils of brewery-hopping. The more you consider it, the idea of having someone who will drop you at the door in a schmick looking van, have a beer placed in front of you within moments, introduce you to the brewer and generally be enthusiastic about beer, well, it all becomes rather compelling. And that probably goes some way to explaining why Dave's Brewery Tours is plotting expansion on all fronts.
In regards to tours, with the addition of a few new concepts, they plan to increase the number of breweries they visit from 11 to 20, made up of five Sydney region tours, including Western Sydney and the South Coast, and two full weekend regional tours. Beyond that, Dave has already gained support from breweries in other states keen to see the concept grow nationwide. Then there are homebrewer tours, beer shopping experiences and international beer discovery tours which are planned for release this year for travel in 2016.
On top of that, he adds: “I've been lucky enough to meet some great people and from that a few other projects have developed. One is soon to be released and has us teamed up with some strong beer intelligentsia to bring education and advisory services to market. That one is pretty cool. We'll be involved with GABS and Sydney Craft Beer Week and I feel the industry is realising that we're more than just a 'bloke in a van' and can offer some innovative thinking and approaches to how we can contribute to events.
“And then there's the constant question about starting our own brewery. Well maybe... but for now we're just a small business taking our first real strides. 'Watch this space', is all I can say!“
Nick travelled as a guest of Dave's Brewery Tours.