It’s been a long road – one of the longest taken by any Australian gypsy brewer – but seven years on from releasing their first beers Killer Sprocket are finally opening their own brewery in Melbourne’s east.
Sean and Andrea Ryan (pictured above), who launched with their Amber Ale in 2013, now have their 10 hectolitre brewhouse up and running in Bayswater North. And the pair have wasted no time brewing that debut beer and Bandit Peated Ale – the other beer with which they made their debut – on the Brewtique system.
Andrea says that, while they might have spent a long time without a space to call their own, those seven years spent brewing across Victoria gave them as broad an education in working on different brewhouses as you could hope for.
“We’ve had really good relationships with a lot of breweries,” she says. “And the other benefit is when we went to design our own we knew what we liked and didn’t like.”
Located in an industrial block alongside jetski and garden supply stores, the new site is primarily a production brewery, though it’s opening to the public on Saturdays between 1pm and 7pm. For now, they’re mobile canning but have plans to install their own canning line down the track too.
Sean says now their brewery is up and running Melburnians can expect to see Killer Sprocket beers with more regularity too: “I’m just keen to be getting out and seeing everyone again so we can have that local focus," he says.
After leaving Cavalier in 2016, Sean says the plan was to get their own brewery up and running a little sooner but delays with the local council and the brewhouse slowed things down.
While the intervening seven years gave them plenty of time to learn, it's also seen the beer industry become a whole lot bigger and more than a little noisier. There might be far more venues pouring craft beer and far more people drinking the stuff, but there’s also way more breweries.
“It was not easy and it got progressively harder,” Sean says.
“I think it’s still viable but it’s not easy. There’s a lot of people getting into the market and they think the way in is to just give kegs away for free or undercharge for kegs.”
With costs typically higher per batch of beer for contract brewers – and with that model a tough one to scale effectively – he says price wars can really hurt if you don’t have your own stainless.
“I think another year of contract or gypsy and we would have been out of business, it’s just so competitive out there now,” he says.
“There was a venue we had as a customer for years; the place sold and they still bought our beer. But then every week they started getting sales reps in trying to give them free kegs and it’s hard to pay for a keg when you’ve got people regularly trying to give it to you for free.”
If Killer Sprocket were to launch today, Sean says they’d look to open a physical home far quicker than they did and offers words of caution for those entering the industry.
“If anyone out there is looking to contract or gypsy brew I’d say have your plan to build your brewery first and gypsy brew as a way to get there,” he says.
Back when they started out, gypsy brewing seemed like a path you could follow over the long term but the demise of BrewCult – which won Champion Australian Gypsy Brewer in 2016 and folded less than 12 months later – made it clear just how challenging a business model it can be. Subsequent Champion Australian Gypsy Brewer Pact Beer, from ACT, also called it a day not long after picking up their trophy.
“It showed how difficult it is,” Sean says of BrewCult. “They had amazing beer, awards, their own bar and all this stuff but it went south so fast.”
Despite their own challenges gypsy brewing (or potentially because of them), Sean and Andrea are keen to welcome other brewers through their doors. Sean says during their time at Cavalier they saw brewers constantly sharing knowledge and working together.
“I would love to recreate that,” he says. “If we found brewers that were starting out with the same sort of passion we had then I’d love for them to collaborate. If people want to come in and make the beer, then I’m all for it but I want to have what we had: I want them to actually brew the beer.”
At Cavalier, both Sean and Andrea were incredibly hands-on in the brewery: they owned a tank and were able to brew to times that suited their lives and other jobs. And it was a freedom they soon missed when they moved to other breweries; “We couldn’t just go in at any time and taste the beer or check it which was something we were used to,” Sean says.
Considering some of the others who were brewing at Cavalier while Sean and Andrea were there, it’s not surprising they’d be keen to recreate that sort of community. Along with Killer Sprocket, at one time the Class of Cavalier also included the likes of Two Birds, KAIJU!, Exit, Dainton, BrewCult, Wolf of the Willows, Bad Shepherd and 3 Ravens’ head brewer Brendan O’Sullivan when he was working at Boneyard Brewing.
It meant the knowledge shared between each brewery had a marked effect on Melbourne’s craft beer at a time when there was far less of it. Sean says Killer Sprocket's Rye IPA owes a lot to Dan Dainton, who showed Sean how to best utilise the grain without clogging up a mash tun, while Sean also picked up techniques from KAIJU’s Nat Reeves on how to balance a beer that’s both hop and malt forward.
“You had all these insane people brewing together and sharing knowledge,” he says. “We’re really looking forward to [our own] collab beers so we can get that environment back.”
Killer Sprocket’s new home will also see them brew more collabs with other businesses, including recreating their 2016 GABS beer: a coffee IPA called Shiny named after the appearance of the beans roasted for the brew by Tin Man Coffee.
“It’s just really good to be able to invite people to your house and use your equipment,” Andrea says.
If you're reading this in time, Killer Sprocket opens officially on February 22, 2020. The brewery is located at 7/375 Bayswater Road, Bayswater North.