Newstead Brewing is deep into stage two of its development, building a large production brewery close to XXXX and launching a PhD project to study Brisbane's indigenous yeasts. Their story since opening a brewpub in Doggett Street in 2013 is one that involves many elements of contemporary craft brewing: rapid growth; experimentation; collaboration; gypsy brewing; contract brewing.
What's more, with a former microbiologist from Lion and CUB installed as head brewer alongside former head brewer, co-founder and fellow microbiologist Mark Howes, there's a fascination with the the science of brewing at the core of the business too. Indeed, they've funded a PhD student to spend three years at the University of Queensland researching the wild yeasts of Brisbane.
Here, Judd Owen speaks to Mark and new head brewer Dr Kerry Claydon (pictured above inside one of the new brewery vessels) in a broad-ranging interview that touches upon many of the hot topics in beer today, offering insights that go well beyond the walls of Newstead's breweries.
For 138 years, the suburb of Milton in Brisbane was home to a single brewery: the hulking brick behemoth that is (or, at least, was) the Castlemaine Brewery. In 2016, they were finally joined by newcomers Aether Brewing, less than 100m away on Railway Terrace. Now, in what is no doubt a sign of the times, it will be less than six months before they are joined by a third as the Newstead Brewing Co opens its second brewery.
Thanks in no small part to the talents of founder Mark Howes – a molecular bioscientist turned homebrewer turned head brewer turned “guy who just turns up and ruins things” – Newstead opened an inner-city brewpub in 2013 and quickly became one of the stalwarts of the Brisbane beer scene. Then, in a typically frank and rather tantalising blog post late last year, Mark announced he was stepping down from the role as head brewer and that the position would be filled by the former national microbiologist at CUB, Dr Kerry Claydon.
Leaving the comforts of corporate brewery life for the travails of life with a small craft brewery could be viewed as an unusual backwards step in a career in beer. But Kerry has never been bound to the usual path, moving from researching prawn viruses to microbiologist at Lion before joining CUB.
“I think I’ve hit the trifecta: Lion, CUB and now jumping across to the craft space,” says Kerry. “I’m not sure that there are many people who have done that.
“I started in the brewing industry four years ago and I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. Especially working as a microbiologist in the brewing sector, it felt like a positive application for microbiology where you’re not dealing with disease and illness, but working on making better beer which is a happy thing.
“The brewing industry is just so much fun so I loved being involved from the start. But, a couple of years down the track, I started to realise that there’s a lack of creativity and innovation in the space where the big brewers play. I definitely say that somewhere like that is more of a beer factory than a brewery and the thing that really killed it for me being a science geek is the lack of innovation. The only change that’s ever made is to increase the automation so you’d never really get to see beer being made as such, just the numbers in terms of volume being sent out the door."
Kerry met Mark in her early days in the beer industry and was drawn to the idea of locally produced and owned products, something that aligned with her personal values. She was was also impressed by its “friendly and collaborative” nature.
“So it sort of struck me and I wondered, 'Why can’t the big guys be involved in that?',” she says. “In that world everyone is a competitor and I couldn’t really understand why. At the end of the day, we’re all making beer and part of the big beer family so why does there have to be this competitive mindset?"
The new brewing facility at Milton will not only dramatically increase the scale and volume of Newstead beer going out into the market, but will also make room for the original brewery in Doggett Street to evolve.
“To start with, our output [at Milton] will be about ten times current volume,” says Mark. “And our capacity, if we run the whole system and get a couple of new tanks, which we’ve made provision for, can get up to 30 times more than what we’re doing currently.”
That said, as Kerry points out, even if they maximise capacity, total output will be equivalent to one percent of XXXX’s annual production. But, among that one percent will be even more diversity, with the original site freed up to be the “wild” one, home to barrel aged and experimental beers.
Says Mark: “One of our brewers [Gavin Croft, also of gypsy outfit Croft Brewing] has been saving the dregs of all the bottles of his favourite beers like Jester King, Boon, Orval – all that kind of thing – in a corny keg. He’s been lovingly feeding it and kept it growing and we’ve used it a few times already.
“We brewed an XPA and barrel fermented it purely with that culture and there’s a red ale that’s just come out as well that has a really unique and interesting profile. That’s the kind of thing we want to continue doing at Doggett Street. We’ll have more barrels there but they will be heavily Brett’d [cultured with Brettanomyces] and sour and all those kinds of things that Kerry just loves.”
With a couple of self-confessed science geeks at the wheel, one would expect more space set aside for a lab at the Milton site compared to the small bench and sink at Doggett Street. But, says Mark, commercial reality means they’ll build slowly over time and utilise the relationships they have with the University of Queensland (UQ), something that offers a chance to relive his microbiologist days.
“Part of me really misses bench work, which was a big part of my life for ten years,” he says. “The notions of discovery and experimentation are really fundamental and it’s probably the most exciting thing to me. Big, shiny tanks are great and all but you’ve got to clean them.”
Kerry agrees: “Playing in that science space and being innovative is what’s going to be the heart and soul of what we’re hoping to achieve. In a way, science will be our niche.”
One of the first steps in making Newstead a bastion of science and good beer is Mark and Kerry’s plan to sponsor a PhD student through UQ to research the wild yeasts of Brisbane in the hope of finding unique brewing strains.
“It’s a three year project and we’ve got some really wonderful people from UQ on board as supervisors and experts in the yeast world,” says Kerry. “It’s very hard to see what direction it’s going to go in at this stage and, as Mark and I know in doing research, you throw your hypothesis out the window ten times before it’s actually relevant. It’s so good to have local experts involved and being able to give back to a student who is really interested in making beer and, at the end of the day, doing a PhD in beer is so cool!
“We might be able to get the yeast from Lang Park or the Story Bridge or Boggo Road Jail, so you never know. We’ll be exploring Brisbane and trying to see what we can find.
“Not every yeast is capable of fermenting beer so there’s going to be a lot of trial and error. Some of them might be funky, some might be much more similar to a Saccharomyces species that we can look to culture and use to produce a beer that’ll be the same time and time again. We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
Before anyone gets too excited, however, Mark adds a caveat.
“I’d be a bit nervous trying to do anything spontaneous in Brisbane,” he says. “It’s too hot and humid so I think you’d just get some really bad bacteria going crazy in a spontaneous brew.
“I think Brendan Chan from Brisbane Brewing Co said to me once that there’s nothing really unique about the Zenne Valley in Belgium where Brettanomyces bruxellensis comes from [one of the defining yeasts in lambic style beers]. It was just a region where the farmers brewed beer.
"Those types of yeasts are everywhere around the world and I’m sure we’ll be able to find something in Brisbane that we can use. It may end up being the yeast that’s just hanging around Doggett Street, which is probably all US-05 by now. Even if we go poking around XXXX, I’m sure we’ll find some brewing strains.
“Beer has existed for, like, 8,000 years and, really, the main ingredients of beer have not changed dramatically, especially over the last few centuries. We haven’t been that innovative about making beer until the last 30 years or so.
“Craft beer has come along and stated doing all sorts of funky things. We’re making sour beers and using things that we used to try as hard as possible to keep out of beer to produce all sorts of different flavours.
"When we start playing around with the yeasts and manipulating that side of brewing a lot more, I think the sky’s the limit. It’s the next phase of innovation in brewing.”
Before Saccharomyces markhowesii is unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, first and foremost Newstead is striving to get its beer packaged in house then flung to the far corners of the continent.
“To justify what we’re trying to do, we’ll have to move ten times the amount of packaged beer that we do currently. It’s really just a natural progression and the only way to extend your reach,” says Mark.
“There’s only so many kegs of beer you can sell at your own bars or in venues around Brisbane. Packaged beer has a much broader reach and one of the reasons why we offered the position to Kerry is because of her experience in micro and control of packaged beer."
Although Newstead has been packaging its beers since September 2014, the decision to do so at Sydney contract brewery BrewPack, which produces beer for a large number of businesses, ranging from the small and crafty to the country’s major retail chains – and also produces its own Stockade Brew Co range – met with a mixed reception. While it allowed Newstead to test the waters and expand its reach beyond the craft beer hangouts of Brisbane, derision and rumours of selling out followed among some small but vocal parts of the beer community – something probably not helped by the fact that, in Mark’s own imitable way, he did nothing to dispel the rumours and may actually have started them…
“The reason we went with BrewPack in the first place was to see for ourselves if we could justify making that much beer and successfully sell it,” he says. “When we were satisfied that we could, we made the decision that we need to start making all our beer in house.
“We’ve done a couple of things that have hurt us, BrewPack is one of them, and part of our natural style is to be blatantly honest about what we’re doing and I know there are a lot of people brewing out of BrewPack trying as hard as they can to hide that.
“BrewPack isn’t a bad place. They make excellent beer, but probably the only problem is that it’s pasteurised to increase shelf life. There’s almost nothing different that we’re going to do at Milton compared to what they do in Smeaton Grange. It’s the same 50 hectolitre system, the same 100 hectolitre fermenters, they use the same alkaliser and all of that sort of stuff. They measure and control, use the same hops and grain from the same distributors, so it’s really intriguing that there’s been such a pushback and maybe a bit of that has been our lack of educating and telling the story.”
Now that Doggett Street (pictured above) will be freed from the pressures of brewing the core range, Mark and Kerry are keen to use it as a training ground for gypsy brewers and an educational tool for punters.
“Newstead is a really old and historic inner-city suburb of Brisbane with a great story so it feels like a fundamental part of the community,” says Mark. “So we want to get as many gypsy brewers as we can through Doggett Street just to show them how we do things and get them thinking about what they are doing themselves and that’s going to be good for everyone.”
One would think that inviting your direct competitors in to utilise your equipment could be bad for business. However, Mark sees it differently.
“I’ve always found it so interesting how craft breweries don’t really see each other as competitors,” he says. “I mean, sometimes you’ll have one brewery stealing a tap from another at the local bar or something, which is a sign of competition, but really, if we’re just fighting over taps then we’ve already lost. The bigger picture is to look at consumers and the way that they consume beer and we need to change that, which is all about education and diversity.
“People are interested in trying new and different stuff all the time so the more we can get those beers out in the marketplace the better we’ll be, but we can’t do it all ourselves. And you just never know what you’re going to get out of it.
"Having Tim [Goulding of Brewtal Brewers] and Gavin doing their gypsy brewing here already means that every time they come in for a brew day I’m learning something new. If you keep doing what you’re doing all the time then you just become insular and you’ll never grow.”
With a new brewery, a new skipper on board, fresh tinnies for the masses, opening up Doggett Street to gypsies and plans for a PhD on native yeasts, you could never accuse Newstead of not growing.
About the author: Judd Owen is a former zygote and Brisbanite who spends entirely too much time thinking about beer. He also runs the 14th best MS Paint based beer blog in the country: Brewed, Crude and Bitter.
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