Maybe it’s thanks to the 1980s can design but it’s a little hard to believe Philter are only five years young.
As co-founder Mick Neil puts it: “Five years have come around very quickly.”
Maybe that feeling of longevity comes from the fact Philter's story ties in so many different parts of the industry, some of which they share with many other breweries and others which are really their own.
Like many new brewing companies, Philter started out with no stainless and grew their presence in bars and bottleshops thanks largely to one particularly well-loved beer before finding a home in Marrickville in 2019. But from the arrival of that first beer, their flagship XPA, Philter have always had their own look, one inspired by an Australia of years gone by captured in branding that's been brought to life at their brewery venue, complete with public bar, restaurant and kitschy rooftop oasis going by the name Marrickville Springs.
They've enjoyed a string of major awards too, with success stretching back to their earliest days industry: brewery co-founder Sam Füss' first recipe for Philter claimed a trophy at the Craft Beer Awards (the precursor for The Indies) within months of launch – and has never looked back. Philter's other two founders, Mick and Stef Constantoulas, might not be brewers but have fallen for the industry.
“I just can’t think of any other industry where you can pick up the phone to your competitor across the road and get some grain because your delivery didn’t arrive,” Stef says.
“We’re giving craft beer drinkers such a vastly different experience at every brewery they go to and that’s what this location is all about. It means you come here and you get five or six really different experiences that I think really challenges people and builds someone’s excitement for craft beer."
Before meeting up with Sam, who brought with her a lifetime's experience working for breweries across Australia, Mick and Stef were neighbours in Marrickville (a fact that ensured the brewery would never be based anywhere else) with different career backgrounds who'd long chatted about the idea of starting a brewery together over the back fence. Today, their team has grown far beyond the three founders and, while making beers people love matters, both Mick and Stef are quick to point out how important that team has been to their success.
“A big part of the business is creating a fun, safe and ambitious workplace for our staff,” Mick says. “Over the last few years, we’ve gone from seven or eight full-time staff to almost 23 and all the casuals, and there’s a lot of people who come to us every week within the business looking for how they can stay and build their career with us.
“So it’s our responsibility as owners and directors of the business to give them those opportunities as best as we can.”
Stef adds: “I hope when people talk about Philter they talk about the culture and the brand, not the people who founded it.”
But, for the purposes of this article, we are turning the focus onto the founders. While Sam has appeared regularly on this site, we haven't spent as long chatting to Mick and Stef, so as they celebrate their fifth anniversary they join us for a trip down Memory Lane in Five Years In Five Beers series.
If you're after a sixth, however, a bit like a band releasing a new single on a greatest hits album, they've just put out their fifth birthday beer, Cold IPA. In classic Philter fashion, the beer looks like it was inspired by a Winter Olympics held four decades ago, and you can read our thoughts on it here.
OK, no prizes for guessing what might take out top spot: it was always going to be the XPA that heralded the brewing company’s arrival in 2017. Before launching with it, Sam headed to Tasmania to make use of a mate's kit upon which she could tweak and refine the recipe with a desire to ensure the beer would hit the mark from the off. It certainly achieved that, with Mick calling it the backbone of their business.
“It’s also really satisfying to know the first beer we built and put so much effort behind has been received so well in the marketplace,” he says.
Both Mick and Stef describe it as a beer you can pick apart but don’t need to, making it something you can contemplate that's not too complicated.
“Between Stef, Sam and I, we all really loved that style of beer,” Mick says.
"In a lot of ways, it’s the epitome of what Philter is all about. We built our core values around that beer as a first release around sessionability, great quality ingredients, and being just a really compelling beer."
He believes the beer’s look has been essential to its success with the retro design seeming to tap into different types of nostalgia for many.
“The XPA is not just the product and the liquid but also the branding, and that’s the foundation for every other beer we’ve done,” Stef says. “Every bit of branding we do has to stand out on the shelf, be simple, recognisable and not take itself too seriously.
"For us, beer is the most enjoyable industry to work in – and Mick and I have worked in a few industries – so when you’re drinking a beer you should feel that.”
Caribbean Stout was initially intended to be a single-batch release for Philter’s first birthday but has a staying power that's ensured its return each year. Sam had long been keen to make something called a Caribbean stout and, on hearing the name, both Stef and Mick were expecting something filled with coconut or rum. Instead, it was inspired by the stouts you can enjoy in the Caribbean and parts of Africa – driven by fruit notes of raisin or dates and more in line with a foreign export stout.
When they got together to try the beer at one of the first pubs to tap it, they were so impressed with Sam's recipe they made an immediate call.
“We were sitting in the Sydney Park Hotel, which was the first ever pour of the XPA," Stef says. "We had [Caribbean Stout] on the tap for the first time and I think we were only about two sips in when we were on the phone trying to get another brew slot for it.
"That beer is just such an example of how well Sam can brew; she’d never brewed the style before but had always wanted to and it represented so much more than just another beer.”
Larger batches have followed each year, and are snapped up by venues and bottleshops faster than anything else they release.
“Brewing it once a year means there’s not only this demand but also a bit of mystique to the beer,” Mick says.
“It’s just so great to see this interesting and different beer have such a strong following. Whenever we release it the response is: ‘This should be a core range beer.’.”
While a tropical stout is a rarity in the modern beer landscape, brewing a hazy IPA saw Philter happily join a growing trend, and one they approached with the core principle of of ensuring you would quickly grab your second can after the first.
“When we spoke to Sam, she said she didn’t want to do this really big, juicy and milkshake thing, but something easy to drink and with that beautiful flavour profile of tropical fruit while remaining quite sessionable.”
Unlike Caribbean Stout, Haze is brewed more than once a year but they purposefully keep a lid on how much they produce to ensure pubs and bottleshops get through stock quickly. The beer saw them tweak their artwork slightly too, while subsequent IPAs following the same pattern.
“We want people to walk up and know it’s a Philter beer without really looking at it,” Mick says.
“There are always some really interesting references we put into our beers that are mostly nostalgic and tell a story with different elements to the design and through the colours.”
By and large, Philter beers tend to approachable, and while you'll find other breweries producing far boozier beers than this 7.7 percent ABV IIPA, for Phiter its release at the close of 2020 represented a new direction. At the time of its launch, our Mick Wust described it as "the friendly Rottweiler that bounds up to you for a pat and knocks you on your butt. It's the spicy burger that makes your eyes water but is so delicious you keep going back for more.”
“It was the first time we did a big IPA like that," Stef says, "and we had such an association with easy-drinking sessionable beers. But the reaction was very much, ‘About time!’.”
It’s a beer that’s become one of their most highly-rated but Mick adds that part of what they love about it is the fact it was driven by the trio's love of West Coast IPAs.
“The other thing I really liked about it," he says, "is we explored some new hops and grain with this, and when we were talking about it, everything at the time was about juicies and NEIPAs. And we were all talking about how good a classic West Coast style was, where it’s a bit clearer and has a nice balancing bitterness.”
Raspberry Pash Berliner Weisse
Raspberry Pash is a house favourite at Philter these days – and has claimed an Indies trophy too – but it wasn't that long ago that Mick and Stef were arguing against its release.
“I think for about a year before," Mick says, "Stef and I kept going, ‘Philter isn’t about sour beers’ but Sam really wanted to do one."
Fortunately, the brewer prevailed and the beer arrived in February 2021, its release coming at a point when the brewery had been up and running for some time. It meant Philter had more flexibility when it came to the range of beers they could put into the market, even if the Berliner weisse has proven to be something of a headache from a production point of view.
“It takes twice as long to brew and clean as any other beer but I think the results speak for themselves," Stef says. "I think it’s such an approachable sour, and we really wanted this beer that had all these beautiful flavours but wasn’t so tart that consumers would find it polarising.”
Tricky brew days aside, it has been the catalyst for other sours from Philter. As for the Indies triumph late last year, it was a particularly special moment for the whole team given it came little more than a month after Sydney emerged from its long lockdown and because the beer was up against breweries more focused on sours, such as Stomping Ground and Future Mountain.
“It's the little beer we didn’t want to brew that’s now an award-winner,” Stef says.
“We were all stuck in our little room as a team because we had a function upstairs, and of all the beers we entered in The Indies that would have been one of the last on the list we thought would win a trophy.
You can check out other Five Years In Five Beers features here.
Photo at the top of the feature is by Liz Ham.