In the scheme of things, five years isn’t a long time. But, in the life of a craft beer business, a lot can happen in five years. In November 2013, Brisbane saw the opening of three new beer businesses – Newstead Brewing, The Mill on Constance and Brewski – and, in the half decade since, those businesses have struggled, grown and matured as part of the texture of the Brisbane beer scene. And, as anyone who knows them would expect, they’re celebrating that five-year milestone in their own immature ways.
About a third of small businesses don’t reach the two year mark, and about half don’t make it to five years. So, while it may not be a big deal to many onlookers when a business keeps operating year after year, for the people within that business, just staying afloat is an achievement. To thrive, to expand, to gather loyal customers around you? That’s like winning the Hunger Games.
The progress these businesses have made hasn’t come about by accident. It’s a testament to the people driving them: the way they work tirelessly, struggle quietly, learn continuously and somehow manage to keep good beer at the centre of everything they do. Which, in the hospitality industry, is no easy task; as anyone who’s ever hosted a dinner party will know, the behind-the-scenes of hospitality includes planning and cleaning and preparing and sweating… but it’s all wasted if, at the end of it all, you don’t smile, invite people in and share the fruits of your labour.
Anyone who’s ever been to Newstead, The Mill or Brewski has been on the receiving end of this kind of hospitality. The laughs, the perfectly-executed events, the stupid jokes, the generosity, the well-crafted menus.
Then you’ve got the beer. For Newstead, it’s been about brewing and innovating and pushing boundaries and achieving balance. Five years of nurturing passion and cultivating technical skills. Five years of partnering with community groups and supporting charities. Five years of CEO Mark Howes giving his own beers a one-star rating on Untappd and spreading the rumour that Newstead’s owned by Coles (or will be soon; it changes).
For Brewski and The Mill, it’s been five years of connecting with punters, fostering a culture of acceptance and belonging, helping people along in their beer journeys, supporting local brewers and taking part in the beer community in ways above and beyond the call of duty. Not to mention squirrelling away kegs of their favourite beers for years before hosting the tap takeover of their fantasies.
While the beer industry in Brisbane is still young, the last couple of years have seen a shift from "young, undeveloped and fragile" to "young, healthy and strong". Newstead, The Mill and Brewski are some of the older brothers and sisters of the Brisbane beer scene, and their collaboration and collective voices have paved the way for many of the beer businesses that have popped up since – and for the ones that are still to come.
Now, these three businesses have joined in a concerted effort to celebrate their fifth birthdays together: they’ve brewed three beers together (one for each venue), and have organised three parties on three consecutive weekends through November.
So, we thought it was a perfect time to talk to them about their experiences over the last five years – to Mark Howes of Newstead Brewing, Gillian Letham of The Mill on Constance and Matt Emmerson of Brewski. Half a decade of close proximity in a small industry has drawn these three together, to the point where the running jokes and snipes can’t hide the affection evident in their words.
Read on for a mix of smartass comments and industry insight, self-deprecation and thoughtful reflection, along with worrying suggestions for how to plan a fifth birthday party. Not to mention Matt’s disturbing mention of “the loins of Brewski” and “dirty elbow to the groin”...
Five years! What’s on the cards for your birthday celebrations?
Mark Howes: Newstead has always focused on two things: quality and community. I could not think of a better way to celebrate our five years than brewing some collaborative beers with mates.
Doggett St (Newstead Brewing’s first venue) opened on exactly the same day as The Mill on Constance, about a month after Brewski. Not only do the Mill and Brewski promote good beer in general, they are owned and operated by champs, whom I'm privileged to call friends. These three beers are our 93rd to 95th collaborative brews in five years. So, they are a celebration of good beer in Brisbane, a celebration of making it to five years (no mean feat) and a celebration of friendship along the way.
On November 24, we will be running a bar crawl, starting with breakfast at Newstead Milton, first beers at Brewski, on to the Mill in the afternoon and then to Doggett St at night. It’ll be a pretty standard fifth Birthday party with sugar enhanced five-year olds and agitated parents.
Gillian Letham: It will be the first tapping of our Class of ‘13 Birthday Brew that we made with some of our favourite local legends and good mates, Newstead and Brewski.
The rest of our taps are being turned over to staff picks, both local and international, to drink our way through five years of good beers and awesome memories.
We’re gonna have a rad backyard BBQ, live music and lots of birthday present giveaways for you guys who have been supporting our us - it's a Mill House Party!
Matt Emmerson: Expect everything you’d get from a typical fifth birthday – a world class tap lineup, cake, fairy bread, party hats, wieners and a magician. Not to mention our collaboration beer with Newstead and the Mill.
What can you tell us about the collab series beers?
MH: Each venue was tasked with conceptualising their own product. We then brewed all three beers together, under the fastidious guidance of the team at Doggett St. As for the Newstead beer, we had a decent, month-long conversation with all the brewers. We wanted something that summed up Newstead and decided on a spiced Double Red.
As for our brewing ethos at Newstead, we want to achieve that fine balance between producing well made beers and pushing the envelope. A hoppy red, that has strong malt and strong hop presence, in balance with some spices we hadn’t used before, sounded like just the ticket.
As for the other beers, who knows what on earth goes through Gill and Matt's heads sometimes.
GL: It started with a conversation of: “Holy shit, has it really been five years?” It was crazy to think that five years ago we didn't know each other, or that what we were all doing individually would end up as part of what is a ridiculously awesome beer scene in Brisbane. We decided that was worth celebrating together.
Our beer, a Turkish Delight Dark Ale, is an attempt for an easy-drinking summer dark ale. We're all partial to the dark ales at The Mill – if you looked in our cold room, you'd understand. But, as the weather heats up, those 10 percent RISs don't quite hit the mark as a thirst quencher. We wanted to have something that, even through the summer, you'd still want to sink a few.
We're hoping for a subtle aromatic hint of rose water, followed by roasty bitterness. It should sit nicely in between Brewski’s juicy smasher and Newstead’s dose of hops and spice.
ME: We all thought it would be a great way of celebrating a milestone birthday. We’ve all created a brew that reflects the personality of our respective venues. Ours is a ruby grapefruit grisette – it’s a nice twist on a traditional style that we’re quite fond of.
How has the beer scene in Brisbane changed in the last five years?
MH: It is now five years older than it was. Like most five-year-olds, it can go to the toilet by itself, it understands the concept of cleaning up, but refuses to, it still hates veggies, and always has room for dessert.
GL: Well, it's multiplied at least ten times over, and is continuing to grow at an astounding rate of knots.
ME: Five years ago, we couldn’t find one local brewery who bottled or (gasp) canned. Our fridges are now spoilt for choice. Likewise, there were only three or four bottleshops in the whole of Brisbane to get your fix.
The bar scene is brilliant, quirky and friendly. The brewery scene is growing beyond our wildest dreams. And with it the quality. Five years ago, our beer scene was the Wild West; give it a few more years and I think we’ll challenge the rest of the country for the best.
What’s changed for your business in that time?
MH: We are five years older than we were when we started. Quite the achievement.
GL: Well, we've certainly changed a keg or two in that time (sorry, terrible dad joke – sounds like something Darren from Newstead would say!).
There have been some really obvious physical changes to The Mill. Originally, back in 2013, we only had the front bar space, four taps, one fridge and no staff – and, looking back, no real clue about beer! Now we have the back bar, the deck, 14 taps, six fridges, a cold room, a kitchen and we employ ten super rad people to make this all happen.
And I've had one hell of a beer education! It's no secret that when we opened The Mill I didn't drink beer. In fact, the plan wasn't really for me to be part of the bar at all. I had a job and no real intention of leaving or drinking beer at all.
ME: It’s been a helluva ride. Brewski started with a 50 percent Lion Nathan tap contract that we inherited; after 18 months, we shook hands and parted ways. Earlier this year, we doubled our capacity with the opening of Brewski 2.0, a lot more room, 99 bottles of beer on the wall and dedicated function spaces. Most recently, we’ve just opened My Beer Dealer, our onsite drink-in bottleshop nestled in the loins of Brewski.
What’s stayed the same?
MH: That relentless pursuit of a well made beer. Finding balance, describing it, quantitating it and contextualising it is an eternal journey. Anyone can throw anything at a beer, but what really makes a great brewery is the ones that look to find balance, reason, purpose.
GL: Our approach to what we serve in our bar. There's not many weeks of the year that we don't have a ridiculous RIS on tap, we have too many gins for a beer bar, and so many things from Tassie… but that's because we love RIS, gin and Tasmania.
Like anything you sell, if you’re passionate and genuine about your product, customers respond. That's something that's never changed and never will.
ME: The passion for seeking out the new and delivering great beery experiences.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself in 2013, what would it be?
MH: Just believe in yourself. I've been so caught up in listening to everyone, and trying to satisfy everyone with an opinion, that I've made some horrible mistakes along the way. When you own and operate a small business borne from passion, you must be very clear in your goals, very clear in your communication and very clear in your purpose. Don’t be afraid to tell people they are wrong (only when they are, mind) and believe in yourself.
GL: That’s a really hard question. As with all small business, there have definitely been times where I rued the day I thought opening a bar was a good idea, but there have also been many days where I leave the bar with a sense of pride and satisfaction. It's all a balance.
Also, you obviously don't know 2013 Gillian very well – like she's going to listen to anything I've got to say!
ME: You don’t have to buy every bloody keg that’s offered to you.
What does the future look like for your business?
MH: We are just waiting for a buy-out. Hopefully to Coles, but I don’t really mind.
GL: First of all… beery!
We've no real plans to change anything dramatic. That being said, the tenants upstairs just moved out and our gin collection is growing, so who knows! It's an exciting time for our little slice of the Valley, with awesome new neighbours Stone & Wood about to move in. We'll be happy just sitting back serving good beers and having good times.
ME: We’re very excited for the future… we still have one level to develop on our rooftop and just want to push ourselves to be better and expand our knowledge of this fantastic industry we’re a part of.
And lastly: if Mark Howes, Gill Letham, and Matt Emmerson got into a fight… who’d win?
MH: Well, it would be on a Tuesday so Gill just wouldn’t turn up, and Matt would be tapping $20K worth of 20 litres kegs in his eight taps, while drinking a Pliny and listening to Bon Jovi. I’d probably say I was going on Facebook but then end up playing Voltron with my kids. So Ben Nichols of The Scratch would win – that guy is always fighting with himself.
GL: Come along on November 24 at Newstead and you'll find out… pretty sure that's one of the events!
ME: Emmerson would be out first with a dirty elbow to the groin from Howes, and Letham would get Howes via tapout from a choke hold.
For more on all the anniversary events, check out the Crafty Events Diary.