There's no denying the events of the past few years on a global scale make a decent dictionary definition for roller-coaster. The situation has been even more acute for those in the Australian beer and hospitality industries, thanks to the extended lockdowns, staff shortages worsened by closed borders, the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain prices, and... well, you get the idea.
And if we continue along the narrative path of Tim Minchin's Not Perfect and drill down further still, you won't find many businesses within the local beer and hospo world whose roller-coaster has put them through more twists and turns than that of Alice Springs Brewing Co.
The brewpub first opened its doors to the public five years ago this week, since when founder Kyle Pearson and his team have had to deal with the challenges faced by their peers elsewhere in the country plus a drop in tourism through the Centralian town and well-publicised issues around crime.
Over those five years, I've had conversations with Kyle in which he's admitted to existential fears for the business. Yet, as he and the team prepare to kick off their multi-day birthday celebrations, he can look back upon five years of continual double-digit growth, look around at a vastly-expanded brewery and venue regularly filled with both locals, tourists and live bands, and look across state borders to see Alice Springs Brewing Co beers in the fridges of specialty retailers.
"It’s only at these milestones that you have a really good look at where you came from and what you’ve done," Kyle says. "It’s quite surreal to think where we started from and where we are now.
"It was a bit of a hobby at the start – very small. Now we‘ve got 30 staff. It’s a proper business."
It's also one that has been increasingly embraced by Alice locals. Thanks to the brewpub's location close to a number of holiday parks to the south of the town centre, the venue has always enjoyed good trade during peak tourism seasons, but having locals on board helps during those times when the flow of holidaymakers and those pulling their vans around the country slows.
“Even though tourism is down in NT as a whole, we’ve still had a really good year, with a rise in support from locals," Kyle says. "People are becoming proud of the brewery as their local brewery."
That's been helped by the completion of a major renovation this year. When I last visited in 2021, the brewing company occupied half of the building, with a restaurant and adjacent beer garden taking up the remainder. Both are now one under the Alice Springs Brewing Co banner, with a huge concrete bar running through the middle of the venue, while the expansion has allowed for bigger gigs – Regurgitator are playing a sold-out gig there this week – as well as making the brewery side available for functions.
Crime remains a significant challenge, both within the town and, on occasion, the business itself, and Kyle admits that, as with many similar operations around the country, their situation remains precarious, leaving them fearful of the impact of another unforeseen threat on the back of those they've already managed to see off.
Yet, despite having to deal with those threats and other ongoing challenges such as rising freight costs – around $10 per case to get beer to Brisbane, for example – and a skills shortage, it's not just the quality of the venue that's improved over time.
Aided by a couple of years in which they had former Little Creatures brewer Jum Ryan at the helm, the standard of beer has been on an upward trajectory. In the past year alone, they’ve picked up eight medals at the Australian International Beer Awards, eight more at the Indies, and picked up 14 – one for every beer entered – at the last Royal Queensland Beer Awards.
It’s made all the more impressive given how far the beer has to travel – and the issues they sometimes face, such as the time they discovered an awards delivery had been stuck – unrefrigerated in the sun – on a loading dock for several days.
“There should be a category for neglected freight!" Kyle says, laughing. "We were really lucky to get a new brewer in – Ben Monro [previously at Boston in WA]. He’s worked for Tribe and is just a really knowledgable guy."
So, given everything that's been achieved against the odds in the first half decade, what's next on the agenda? As little as possible, apparently...
“We’ve put a lot of effort into it," Kyle says of their journey to date. "We don’t have distractions with other venues we were involved in [he used to run Monte’s Lounge in the town centre] so I'm just looking forward to having a normal year.
"We’ve dealt with COVID and crime and the massive reno, which was very disruptive. I think next year is just a normal year. Hopefully, things do start normalising and it will allow us to focus on some of the other things that we’ve launched, like the longest brewery tour in Australia with Beaver and Purple Mango."
Before then, however, time for one more look over the shoulder as we invite Kyle to reflect on five years in five beers.
The year was 2018 and we had embarked on what to that point had seemed like a pretty easy journey. Our first kit arrived on time, our pilot batches had gone awesome, and people were beating the door down. Except we didn’t have a liquor licence...
I can’t even remember why now but we saw a six-month delay in our licence which brought us to a grinding halt. In serious danger of running out of money before we began, we set ourselves a first beer launch at local venue Jump Inn. We had a killer summer ale recipe and decided this should be our first beer.
From here, we faced our first set of challenges. Our first brew day on the new kit took 17 hours. It literally all came in crates and there were no firm instructions. We were making hoses and dashing to Bunnings what seemed every five minutes as we realised we needed something else as we went along.
We also didn’t realise we couldn’t get Galaxy in the quantities we needed so we made some adjustments to the recipe and found a good mix of Citra and Mosaic. It ended up being a very different beer to the original recipe.
On the day of the launch, we came up with the name Almost Summer because the beer was almost what was intended in the original recipe, we almost had our brewery ready to go, and the beer was almost finished! We ended up fast-carbing it in the coolroom at the Jump Inn and had it ready about five minutes before go time!
Great Iron Gold was name we first coined for this beer. Even though Alice was probably way ahead of the rest of the Territory five years ago when it came to craft beer, we still had some ways to go.
It still happens today where grey nomads will walk up to the bar and ask if we have [insert mainstream bland lager] and we generally just pour them a Centralian and they take a sip and smile. It’s a super easy-drinker and still represents a huge portion of our volume today.
Territory Mid was the brainchild of Chris Brown from Beaver Brewery and our OG Brewer Brian. It was born out of the same reasons as Centralian Ale; however, we needed it to be an easy-drinking mid-strength lager, with a crafty twist.
Currently brewed by Beaver Brewery, Purple Mango Brewery and ourselves, you can grab a Territory Mid in just about any corner of the NT and enjoy the same great beer.
Bit of a common theme here... Being in the middle of the desert we couldn’t really produce a massive stout. We made a single keg batch of our easy-drinking Stout for our opening day and thought we would be sitting on it for months. We sold it in 45 mins.
At 4.2 percent ABV, it’s not going to blow your socks off and drinks way too easy for a stout. We loved the beer and set about entering it in competitions only to be told it wasn’t a stout – probably true! – and often it would not even get judged.
Earlier this year, we sent it off to the Royal Queensland awards into the session beer category for a bit of a laugh and it got gold! It also got one of the highest scores in the whole competition. Now we call it “The Little Stout That Could”.
This is the beer I drink. I love Galaxy and as I get older *cough* I like beers that are lower in ABV.
When we finally did work out how to contract Galaxy, we set about making the summery / Pacific style beer we intended to make in the beginning. It's seen some variations over its lifetime, however where it sits now is banging and a great beer to drink.
At some point, I realised it was weird to name a beer after an ocean when you are in the middle of the desert. Hence the silly name. Did I mention we like silly names?
Silly names and still no room for the IPA / double IPA duo That's Not A Knife, This Is A Knife, the latter of which came fourth in our Pint of Origin Blind Tasting in 2023... Congrats on the first five years. See you for that brewery tour soon!