Crafty's Advent Calendar: Phil Sexton

How do you end a series like this? By collapsing in a heap and being thankful decades only end once every ten years? Or finding someone capable of wearing the mantle of craft beer's Father Christmas?

We're going to go with both and do so in the company of someone who is highly unlikely to have appeared in this Advent Calendar at all, were it not for what happened a few weeks ago. Up until that announcement, his involvement in the beer world for much of the 2010s – both here and overseas – would have been very different to that of any of the preceding 24: behind-the-scenes conversations with his brewing friends across the planet, making a beer with Stone & Wood acknowledging his role in the industry, giving a keynote speech at the 2014 Australian Craft Brewers Conference, pouring good beer at his winery's venue in the Yarra Valley, but little in the way of brewing beer.

But, given Phil Sexton is back in beer and that, almost four decades ago and in the company of his uni mates, he sowed the seeds of what has become – via a pretty circuitous route – craft beer in Australia today, who else could we have approached?

He stunned many in the beer world with the news he was returning to the iconic brand he launched in the early 80s in the hope of resurrecting Matilda Bay as a respected craft brewery following years in which it's drifted into insignificance within the CUB stable. Work is well advanced on converting his Giant Steps winery in Healesville into a brewery, with the first new Matilda Bay beers – well, at least one new release he has in mind that's being kept close to his chest for now – set to appear sometime in the first half of 2020.

But before we get to his story, some reflections on the series to date. Scan the 25 days and you'll note there's nobody in there best known for the sort of beers that are exciting many beer geeks most right now – no hardcore hazy DIPA brewers, no people specialising in working with wild yeasts, no farm brewers, for example. 

Indeed, if you've got into craft beer in the past two or three years, you might look at the Advent Calendar and ask: "Who the hell are these old bastards?" To which I'd respond: "Respect your elders!"

Only kidding (mostly) as it's a question with some validity. For one, it became apparent as things were progressing that this was as much about acknowledging both the huge strides the local beer industry has made over the past decade and more, but also doffing a cap to the people responsible for laying the foundations upon which today's remarkable beer scene is flourishing. Secondly, you can't help but feel the next decade is one that will belong more to those brewers working closely with the land, with barrels, bugs and blending, with outlandish hop processes that might not yet be fully understood, so we'll get to them in 2029. (At the same time, we might end the next decade drinking pilsners, such is the unpredictable nature of things right now...)

Compiling these 25 pieces has also offered a reminder of just how many incredible people exist within the Australian beer community. There are plenty more who could have featured and, as much as the beer, the venues, and the events, it's the people and the moments we share together that really make it what it is, with beer both lubricant and, often, talking point. Hence why we looked to feature a diverse selection from across the country and from backgrounds that included brewer, writer, retailer, supplier.

 

Phil (third from left) with the Stone & Wood brewing team (including Mr December 1, Brad Rogers, fourth from left) when they invited him to brew a beer in their Forefathers series.

 

But back to December 25 and Phil Sexton. I won't go into too much detail here, not least as you can sit back and enjoy his recent interview with Luke Robertson on the Good Beer Hunting podcast. However, at the risk of doing a disservice to a career of rare achievement, it's worth addressing just why his return to Matilda Bay caused such a stir for many.

Having started out as a young brewer at Swan, time spent furthering his career and education in Europe broadened the horizons of this student of beer's rich history as to the diversity and possibilities within beer and brewing. When his bosses back at Swan showed little interest in pursuing a new direction – essentially making the sort of beers that had been lost in Australia's conversion to a lager-swilling nation through the 20th century – he embarked on a mission to do something about it himself.

The first major milestone in terms of new beers was the opening of the Sail & Anchor in Fremantle, complete with a brewery they'd designed and built themselves, which led to more pubs and brewhouses in WA (and, later, interstate), the formation of Matilda Bay, then the building of a major brewery in WA designed to supply beers such as Redback to an increasingly eager nation.

You can listen to Phil discussing the background to Foster's acquisition of Matilda Bay in 1990 on the podcast but, crucially, it was against his wishes and led him to move to the US where he knew many of the key early players in that country's craft beer industry. He was enticed to join the brewery that would become BridgePort, pulling them from the English style ales they'd been brewing towards the hoppier beers utilising Pacific Northwest hops – such as Sierra Nevada Pale – that were winning over drinkers in the States at the time. It was a move that led to BridgePort IPA, one of the earliest examples of the modern American IPAs that have played such a role in revolutionising the beer world.

Towards the end of the 90s, he returned to Australia to launch Little Creatures with his former Matilda Bay colleagues, designing the beer that would become Little Creatures Pale with winemaker Janice McDonald (which you can read about here), and remaining involved in the Little World Beverages business, which also founded White Rabbit, through to its full acquisition by Lion.

Throughout this period, he's launched wineries in WA and Victoria (and is in the process of moving Giant Steps' cellar door to a property amid the Yarra Valley vines to make room for the new Matilda Bay), and has been involved in other artisanal produce too, not least coffee, but they're stories for another time and place.

Little wonder, then, that so many ears pricked up when he rekindled his partnership with CUB. His intention is to bring Matilda Bay back as a craft brewery, one removed from the Yak Ales and Frothy brands that will continue parallel to rather than entwined with his operation. He'll be looking to do so from a perspective well versed in beer's long history and brewing's grand traditions. We don't yet know what beer he's planning to make the brewery's new flagship in the Yarra Valley, but you can be certain it's not a milkshake IPA...

Given how far the beer world has come in the four decades since Phil – now 65 – started out at Swan, watching the new old Matilda Bay's progress is going to be one of the most fascinating stories of 2020 and beyond.


PHIL SEXTON

Phil Sexton as he announced his return to the iconic brand he co-founded in the 1980s.

 


What's been your highlight of the past decade?

Just happened. Getting the keys to take Matilda Bay on a new journey after all these years; with the benefit of hindsight.

Most of us wish things had happened differently with important things that have happened in our lives; I do too. So this is special for me.


What's surprised you the most about the Aussie beer scene?

Its rapid expansion: how beer has evolved from what I know as craft beer, into alcoholic beverage and the merging of categories. How it has become a business plan.


What are your thoughts on the health of the beer industry as we approach the end of a remarkable decade?

Worried. For large brewers the “pie” is constrained by the expansion of “other” alcoholic beverages and margins are diminishing as costs grow, while competitive tensions keep placing pressure on selling price. Acquisition of challengers for the “pie” may seem easy but, of course, it presents massive challenges in reality. So it's neither a quick fix for craft businesses seeking this outcome, nor big brewers replacing volume this way.

For craft brewers, the market seems saturated, shelves more competitive than ever, and the pressure seems to be ramping up to do new, “look at me” things at a dizzying pace. That makes margins harder to assure and financial pressures ever increasing. 

[It] seems to me that 90/10 is a very big barrier to break through and, as we approach that, things become increasingly competitive and consolidation more likely. All at a high price.


What's your number one goal for the coming decade?

To re-establish Matilda Bay as a leader and respected pillar of craft beer in Australia while reminding beer lovers that this incredible human tradition we are involved in needs to be cherished and continually reinvented whilst we are its custodians.


And, if you had one Christmas wish for beer in Australia, what would it be?

If you are asking what beer I would wish for at Christmas, easy: a chilled keg of fresh Sierra Nevada Pale to share with my son, by the BBQ, on Christmas Day.

Beer by one of my heroes.


Thanks to everyone who's agreed to feature in this series; you can now find all of them in this interactive PDF linked to all 25 articles.

And huge thanks to Jessie at Craft Instinct for putting the actual calendar side of the things together, particularly as we didn't have the last photos to her until December 19...

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