It's an achievement to keep anything going for 15 years, let alone a midweek event at a pub, so hats off to all involved in Ale Stars, the beer appreciation night at The Local Taphouse in St Kilda. This month's edition marks 15 years since the team at the craft beer venue offered beer lovers the chance to join them to enjoy the tales and ales of brewers.
Over that period, they've welcomed hundreds of guests – both local and international, consumed countless beers, taken road trips, and seen regular attendees forge lifelong friendships. Ahead of the 15th anniversary show, we invited some of the key players to take a trip down Memory Lane.
THE VENUE HOSTS
Before The Local Taphouse, there was The St Kilda Local, a bar opened by Steve Jeffares (above left) on the same site in 2001. It was a single-storey affair with far fewer taps – just one of them rotating through new beers at the time – that was transformed a few years later into a pioneering craft beer venue inspired by Steve's time living in LA and subsequent trips through the States.
It reopened in 2008 over two rebuilt floors with 20 taps and regular customer Guy Greenstone (above, second from right) as Steve's business partner. Their first manager was Justin "JJ" Joiner, and the trio are still together today as co-founders of Stomping Ground, and with side projects like the Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers, a second Local Taphouse in Sydney, and GABS conceived, created and later sold along the way.
Who were the first guests?
On June 17, 2008 the entry from The Local Taphouse blog reads:
Last night we held the pre inaugural meeting of The Local Taphouse 'Ale Stars'. About 15 mates and staff turned up to sample 5 great English Ales along with great food. It was great fun and we had a lot of ideas as to how we can improve on things moving forward. The first meeting is scheduled for July 22nd.
The first official session was about porters and cost $25. We invited our first guest, Dave Golding from Red Hill Brewery, to talk about stouts for our second session in August 2008. In October, Ben Kraus from Bridge Road Brewers was the guest for a session on saisons.
During the early days, and thanks to Chris Menichelli [who went on to launch Slowbeer and now works with us at The Crafty Pint], Cloudwine bottleshop in South Melbourne agreed to sponsor the Ale Stars with discounted or free beers to sample. We also enjoyed food dishes that were paired with the beers but, as the sessions became more popular, that became too hard to maintain.
Pete "Prof Pilsner" Mitcham would write wonderful reports for his Beer Blokes blog after each Ale Star session, which makes for fun reading all these years later. Shandy (see below) has been the host from the beginning but Pete has filled in occasionally.
Initially, Shandy [see below] hosted from a stool at the corner of the bar downstairs. In May 2009, Steve is quoted in Prof’s blog as saying: “When it gets to the stage where we need to use a microphone, it’s probably too big.” He was clearly wrong as attendance grew quickly and a few months later Shandy moved to the stage, with a microphone added later.
The Darlo Ale Stars started at The Local Taphouse in Sydney in April 2009 with Andrew "AG" Gow (now at Tar Barrel on the Mornington Peninsula) as the host. He was followed later by Darren "Doctor's Orders" Robinson.
Had you seen anything like it before in Australia or elsewhere?
Steve: When I travelled for research through Europe and the US before opening the Taphouse, I had seen a couple of mug club ideas, so we introduced a special mug cabinet for members. HOPS, the beer appreciation night at Hobart's New Sydney Hotel, was definitely a big inspiration when I heard about it from [beer writer turned brewer] Willie Simpson.
When Shandy told me about the beer club he had with a few friends, I thought it could help launch our own Local Taphouse beer club, with Shandy making an obvious host.
How many attendees (including repeats) do you reckon there's been over the years?
At least 9,000 have attended the 182 sessions.
Has the format changed over the years?
Not really, although it was heavier on the education/style-based sessions in the beginning and evolved to be more about guest brewers. The trivia has always been part of it too.
We’re always keen to try some fresh session ideas to keep it interesting, though.
Have you ever considered giving it up?
Not at all, we've only ever considered ways to improve it, attract more members etc.
What have been the most adventurous Ale Stars events?
While most guests join us in person, in the past we have had world-renowned international brewer guests appear via Skype while we tasted their beers together.
Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver memorably panned his webcam to reveal the Brooklyn dawn out his window while he cracked open a bottle of their Black Ops Imperial Stout. And a stoned Brendan Moylan from Moylan’s Brewery in California revealed his pantless lower half when he got up to grab a beer from his fridge!
We also sampled smoked beers from Schlenkerla – Germany's leading brewery of the famous rauchbier – while chatting to Brewmaster Matthias direct from the brewery in Germany via Skype.
During COVID, we went virtual which allowed us to have more interstate guests via Zoom. Ale Star members would either pick up, or have delivered, a mixed pack of beer that we would all taste together with our guest. COVID was a challenging time for everyone but these virtual Ale Star sessions were a lot of fun.
We have done some fun road trips in the past and we’re looking to do some more in the future. There’s so many more breweries to visit these days!
In July 2008, I [Steve] thought it would be fun – and funny! – to come up with a secret Ale Star member handshake. It didn’t catch on!
After we lost the late, and much-loved, Ale Star member Steve Roberts a few years ago, we've been making a special toast at the beginning of every session ever since.
If you've ever attended an Ale Stars, Andrew "Shandy" Gargan is the Ale Tsar – the host tasked with putting guests at ease and teasing our their best stories and insights. He's also a homebrewer who was the foundation brewer for Riders Brew Co when it was launched by Gus Kelly of Kelly Brothers Cider and Kellybrook Winery.
How did you start hosting?
I was living nearby and working in an agency on the corner of Carlisle and Chapel Streets when the Taphouse renovation was underway so I passed the building everyday. I was delighted when I saw posters in the window promising a craft beer venue opening soon as there were very few venues serving the new, craftier beers, which was one of the reasons I was already holding my own beer club meetings.
I think I was one of the first ten people through the door on the day it opened and met Steve at the bar. From then on I was a regular visitor and got to know Steve, Guy and JJ pretty quickly. In a conversation with Steve I mentioned my beer club, The League of Wellhopped Gentlemen, and you could hear the cogs in Steve's head turning.
Favourite and toughest guests?
It's probably not fair to name any individuals as favourite or hardest guests as that would be pretty mean, but I can say that the best guests are those that come with a story to tell, genuinely good beers, and a sense of humour. The best nights are always a combination of those elements.
Conversely, the less good guests are those who either don't have the quality of beers our guests expect or who don't settle into the environment for whatever reason – and that's not even to say they're bad guests. We do our best to make guests feel comfortable but some just aren't at ease on stage talking about themselves. They're not bad guests necessarily, but those nights don't flow as well.
I suppose one standout great guest would have to be Rudi Ghequire from Rodenbach. He was such a good laugh with encyclopaedic beer knowledge and a thirst for a few drinks with everyone after the event. Very down to earth and approachable.
One guest from the early years who managed to upset most of the staff and irritate the audience shall remain nameless.
Best question you've ever asked?
I've asked our guests so many questions over the past 15 years it's impossible to recall one as the best. The event is a very spontaneous conversation between myself and the guests and there's not a great deal of preparation to ensure that it remains that way.
I can say that one guest who always holds the attention of the crowd and provides fantastic insight is our old friend Brad Rogers (one of the founders of Stone & Wood). He's been a guest on a number of occasions and always delivered the goods.
How many pints have you consumed while hosting over the years?
I prefer not to count pints consumed, but it's safe to say the whole room has a good evening, myself included.
THE ALE STARS
While the team estimates more than 9,000 people have attended sessions over the 15 years to date, many of them are the members who rock up every month. Each has their own personalised shirt, hat and a numbered locker at the bar. Soon, they'll notch 200 full members.
Some have been around since the very early days: among them the aforementioned Prof Pilsner, the two below, and Marc Warshall, third from left in the front row above. Here are some of the longstanding members' favourite memories.
There's been so many great memories in the last 15 years: being blown away by Bacchus Lamington Ale; Prof Pilsner flinging flying monkeys around the room that he'd brought back as souvenirs from the US, which appealed enormously to the inner child to every one of us; The night we scored a cube of Murray's beers after winning trivia; the time Brendan Moylan was sipping whiskey at 5am on the big screen during a Skype session while we sipped his beers at the Taphouse...
How about when we brewed a Belgian IPA, BONZA, at Mornington Peninsula Brewery? Then there's all the amazing brewers we've had the good fortune to share a beer with while hearing takes about their brewery and learning about their beers. And, of course, finally getting my name plaque in the Taphouse main bar!
So many memories! But I think if I had to pick one, it would to be the High Country road trip, which not only served to cement Bridge Road Brewers and Bright Brewery as two of my favourite breweries, but where great friendships with fellow Ale Stars were formed that remain strong to this day.
Ale Stars: one of my favourite things in life. Here's to another 15 years!
In the early days, Ale Stars strongly appealed to me as an avenue to deepen my love for beer by learning and exploring different styles, techniques and breweries with like-minded people. While this is still true, it definitely feels more like a monthly social club of mates that just happens to have great beer!
I particularly love our "extra-curricular" road trips. Starting as a show of support to brewers in the Yarra Valley following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires, we now embark on semi-regular adventures far and wide. From hands-on brew days with industry leaders and group bookings at notable beer festivals, to the unforgettable three-bus convoy to Beechworth and Bright. Ale Stars "on tour" is definitely a highlight.
Ale Stars also attracts truly world-class guests – I genuinely doubt any beer club anywhere could boast a more impressive attendance list over the years. It's terrific value too – not just the Tuesday night events themselves but the ongoing perks. And it's created a community; it’s great being able to turn up at a random beer event, festival or even a different bar – including interstate or overseas! – and commonly run into Ale Star mates.
Photo to top of article (left to right): Steve, champion homebrewer Barry Cranston, Mountain Goat co-founder Dave Bonighton, Two Birds co-founder Jayne Lewis, Guy and Shandy at Ale Stars' second birthday.