"It's in my blood."
The chances are that unless you're involved in the beer industry or close to the scene in South Australia you won't know of Stephen Nelsen. Yet, when it comes to beer and brewing in SA, as well as further afield, he's one of those characters who crops up far more than most: a name that's woven into so many brewery's tales.
He grew up around beer: his dad worked at the Southwark brewery in Thebarton, meaning Stephen was familiar with the workings of a brewery long before starting his chemistry degree. He was also someone who had a fascination with beer beyond the industrially-brewed varieties, even when there was little else on offer: he was fan of Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter and travelled to Europe where he experienced a diversity of beers and, at one point, studied a short course in brewing in Bavaria.
Back home, the options in craft brewing were limited, but Stephen ended up brewing extract beers at the Port Dock Brewery around the turn of the Millennium before moving to Melbourne and taking up the brewer's role at the Middle Park Hotel, a CUB-owner brewpub that was one of the earlier microbreweries operating in the city at the time where he created Gunn Island beers. From there, he helped get the original Mildura Brewery up and running for founder Don Carrazza before returning to SA as the state's small brewery scene started to take shape.
While working with fledgling breweries there and interstate – the likes of Lobethal Bierhaus, Barossa Brewing Company and Red Duck – he was brought in to design and commission a brewery at Tafe SA. While it was intended for training and education, it also created the opportunity for Stephen and mate Simon Sellick to launch the Brewboys brand, responsible for some iconic early Australian craft beers, such as Seeing Double Scotch ale and Ace Of Spades stout; "That was totally hedonistic of me – I wanted a beautiful, dark, roasty stout," he says of the latter.
An order from on high to stop brewing beer to be sold commercially at the Tafe site ultimately led to creation of the Brewboys venue and brewery next to both Tafe SA and Coopers. All the while, as that was taking shape, he'd be consulting to other startup breweries while developing a brewing short course.
That course is now a Certificate III in Food Processing (Brewing) and Stephen reckons he's had around a hundred people through the doors over the years, including the likes of Jason Harris and Craig Basford at Big Shed. Students get to design and brew beers that are sold through the college and enter them into the Royal Adelaide Beer Show; one – the 10/10 imperial stout – claimed Champion Exhibit, Champion South Australian Exhibit, Champion Small Brewery Exhibit and Champion Stout at the awards in 2013.
Add in beer judging here and overseas and you have someone who, without grabbing headlines, has contributed plenty to the rise of craft beer in Australia – particularly in the South Australian scene. So, what does he make of it all 20 years on from his extract brewing days at Port Dock?
What's been your highlight of the past decade?
I’ve had two kids, and nothing comes before that; in fact they’ve been visiting quite a few breweries with me this decade!
But, beer wise, in 2013 we scooped the pool on the competitions with our 10/10 stout. I wish I had some left!
What's surprised you the most about the Aussie beer scene?
Broad, welcoming acceptance of gypsy and contract brew brands. Early on, you had to have skin in the game to be considered a legitimate brewer. Craft beer is popping up in surprising places.
What are your thoughts on the health of the beer industry as we approach the end of a remarkable decade?
A scary position. It’s grown so vibrantly, but a bit rapid and I fear without some controls, which will mean a shake out might not sort out the best quality beers and sound brewers.
I’m worried we’re not prepared for future pressures from regulators, the global beer market, political interference, and even concerned that with so many new players, someone could slip up on food safety, compliance issues, or a dreadful accident, and we might be found wanting as an industry, which the media would generalise.
But, hey! It’s a helluva exciting time, I wouldn’t miss it for quids!
What's your number one goal for the coming decade?
Delivering the first Australian Brewing Traineeship, judging the World Beer Cup, earning an IBD Master of Brewing, saving the Murray, and getting some exercise!
And, if you had one Christmas wish for beer in Australia, what would it be?
Keep it Aussie! Oi!
We're opening a door on Crafty's Advent Calendar every morning up until Christmas Day and you'll be able to find them all here.