Andrew Fineran and Chris Sidwa are two American expats who opened Batch Brewing Co. in Marrickville, Sydney in the dying days of 2013. They very kindly took the time to speak to me about the craft beer expansion in the Inner West of Sydney, the big brewers and global beer trends.
You’re both from the US but met in Sydney, brought together by lacrosse and homebrew, is that right?
Andrew: We were definitely both lacrosse players but I can’t claim to be a homebrewer. I just have a passion for beer.
Chris: I did once taste a homebrew that Andrew made that was a year or two old in a plastic bottle… but that’s enough about that. I was a homebrewer but I never took any notes, never really cared. I mean I never even used the hydrometer that came with my kit. I was just having fun but never really had any focus I guess you could say. After we met we bought some brewing equipment and started brewing in the backyard. More just to size each other up and see what it would be like to work together but also to prove to ourselves and everyone else that we could make a product that people would want to buy.
So you never had any professional brewing experience before you decided you wanted to open a brewery?
C: I’d never volunteered at a brewery or anything. The first time I saw a mash tun in action was when we installed one ourselves.
A: I used to work for breweries in the sales and marketing side of things. Also my brother ran a brewery in Baltimore and I worked there basically as the bitch boy. I cleaned kegs and scrubbed tiled floors and walls around the open top fermenters.
What made you want to open a brewery then? Was it purely a business decision where you could see a market for it, or was it more that you loved beer and didn’t really want to do anything else?
A: It’s all of that. I’d always worked in the beer industry and I’ve always been passionate about beer in general. I’m a sales and marketing guy at heart so I love the social aspect of it but we definitely saw a market opportunity going into this. We though that if we were ever going to do this, now is the time.
C: I’d always in the back of my mind wanted to start a brewery but I thought it would be something I could do when I’d finished a career and had a little bit of extra money. You know just something I could do to keep the lights on but I never thought it was something I could do as a career. So that took meeting Andrew and figuring out that there was a market there where we could do something profitable on a scale we could afford to start.
A: I thought I’d always be working in beer but yeah, I never thought I’d own a brewery. I distinctly remember the moment it hit me. I was in Melbourne for work sitting at the Mountain Goat tasting room on a Friday night and I thought to myself “Holy shit what have I been doing for the past 10 years since I moved?” “This is what I need to be doing!” I realised I wanted to be able to be more involved in the brewing process but still be able to go out and sell it. But I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do that until I went out on my own. So I got that itch that just wouldn’t go away. Chris and I just connected and then everything took off.
C: We’ve really got a complimentary set of skills. I’m focussed on efficiency, accuracy and operations but I didn’t know what a keg of beer sold for and I certainly didn’t want to have to go out there and sell it myself. Andrew is the complete contrast and there’s very little overlap. The only ways we do overlap are work ethic and goals. It’s really nice how things seem to work out.
Since Batch started operations there’s been a few more breweries open up in Sydney, particularly in the Inner West. Do you think there is still room for growth in the market or are you starting to see a lot more competition for space?
C: My theory is that as long as the breweries come to the market and grow in a mature way, then it is our responsibility to make sure the market is growing faster than we are. When people start installing way too much capacity and have to sell beer really cheap or cut corners just to stay afloat that’s when the industry will start to go off the rails. But if we as business owners and brewers are responsible and marry supply with demand then there’s no limit to how much we can grow. I mean look at the US – craft beer is like 15% of the market now and they want to be 20% by 2020 and 10 years ago they were talking about just making it to 10%. Shit man, that’s fucking doubling your market. Imagine if the Australian brewing scene doubled! That’s a lot of new breweries out there. And why couldn’t it?
A: I think the Australian market is at like 5% now but that’s including brands like Little Creatures and James Squire who form a massive part of that market and they’re owned by the big guys. I totally agree with what Chris is saying but I think it relies on brewers offering something unique. If everyone is doing the same thing or doing slightly different versions of the same thing then the market will slow.
C: So far I think a lot of the beer industry is people who are passionate like us and those are the businesses that are going to be responsible. It’s when you get people chasing a buck or corporate money or something like that are when things have the potential to go wrong.
Do you think consumers can see through that a lot of the time? So if some new big brewer came on the scene and started flogging cheap beer would consumers see that for what it is?
A: Probably not as much as you might think. In my opinion consumers will see that new beer on a shelf at a good price and they’ll probably buy that the first time around.
I suppose I’m alluding to the supermarket brands that Coles and Woolworths seem to keep churning out.
C: Oh yeah but a crafty looking label on it and people will buy it.
A: Exactly, people will buy it and drink it once or twice because it’s new and on special but the brand doesn’t generate any brand equity because you bought it at a discount. And when the quality is kind of eehhh people don’t go back to it. So I suppose people will subconsciously see through it, if that make any sense? On the surface they might not seem to realise but they aren’t going to buy it again because there’s no depth to the brand.
C: They don’t put any value in the brand because they only bought it because it was new and cheaper than everything else. You know I think there’s a clear difference between cheap beer and inexpensive beer. If you’re a true craft brewer at heart and you were able to build a big facility and therefore able to make and sell less expensive beer I mean that’s just the economy of scale. But if you’re cutting corners to make a product that’s cheaper than everyone else then the consumer will see through that eventually.
A: Ultimately it’s got to be about quality. Consumers will favour quality at the end of the day.
C: It’s also about the experience they have with the product. That’s why we do what we do, we interact with our customers constantly. They come in, see it, smell it and hopefully they’re ok paying an extra dollar because they can see what we’re doing. You don’t have to compete on price if you’re offering more than just price.
Do you have any plans at the moment to expand production?
C: We don’t have any plans at the moment. Nothing’s off the table but we’ve just finished maxing out what we can put into this building but there’s no conversation about where we go next. I think we’ll just enjoy what we have.
A: We’ve installed two extra lots of fermenters since we initially opened and we’ve built a warehouse to keep all our coolroom stock, extra grain, bottles and things like that. Expanding now would cost a lot of money and would be extremely stressful. We’ve got some excess capacity right now so we’re just going to grow into that and have some fun while we do it. We’d rather make sure our people are enjoying themselves.
C: Our strategy is to keep Batch in a relatively tight geographic area and to create lots of different experiences for our customers as opposed to just pumping out 3 or 4 core beers and getting them out nationally.
So you don’t plan on sending more beer interstate?
A: Sydney is like 95% of our market.
C: Well more than that really.
A: Yeah probably more like 99% of the market. It’s not like we’re going to keep saying no to Brisbane or Melbourne but once we get our new production schedules set up we want to say well “this how much we’re producing this week, this is how much American Pale Ale we’ve got, because that’s going to be our staple, so here’s a pallet for Brisbane, here’s a pallet for Melbourne.” So we can pre-sell it to some select venues. We’re not going to have sales reps or warehouses.
C: We tipped a batch of beer the other day because it had this massive Lactobacillus infection. We’ve tipped probably 3 batches previously but this was the first one because of poor hygiene. And the last thing I want to do is have two pallets of kegs floating around Melbourne that are infected.
Is that because you’re regularly making sour beers? Is the risk vastly increased because you’ve got Lactobacillus floating around all the time?
C: The sour beers that we do all get pasteurised in the kettle so that one was the first in like two and a half years. We’ve done 430 odd batches and that was the first that we were certain had an infection. There’s probably been others at low levels but it’s easier to manage when the beers only go out locally. Melbourne would only be something we would do regularly when we can be confident that the beers are going out clean. We’re looking at investing more in that space at the moment so we can do it right.
A: Yeah until then it’s just going to be a few allocated pallets here and there that can be cold shipped direct to select venues so it will be as fresh there as it is here.
Beer trends in Australia and I suppose globally are largely driven by the US, do you go back often to do research and keep an eye on what’s happening over there?
C: Well we don’t go back a lot. We try and get to the craftbrewers conference ever year and we’ve been successful the last few. It’s a really great opportunity to just detach from the day to day brewing operations and to see what other people are doing. It was in Philly this year and we went to a few breweries in the area and yeah there’s some exceptions but for the most part Sydney is holding its own pretty damn well. When we look around and see what Grifter’s doing and what Akasha is doing and it’s like, the US isn’t ahead of us at all you know?
A: We actually had a lot of bad beer experiences over there. Yes it’s great and the US has this incredible reputation but there’s still a lot of bad beer being made over there. You’ve got 2 new breweries opening up every day. Not all of them are going to be able to produce good stuff. In Sydney at least we’re really producing good quality beer.
Sours became a big thing in the US and Australia followed suit relatively quickly. Batch have definitely got sours covered but the other big thing recently has been barrel aging. Do you have plans to start barrel program or anything?
C: We started a little culture up the back in an old homebrewing carboy with lots of bottle dregs and stuff but I don’t think we’ll be doing barrels in this brewery. If we were going to do it, we’d want to do it right which would mean having 40 odd barrels. We don’t have the space and I’m not really willing to risk the contamination that comes with it. There’s very clearly a market for it and I think any brewery that does it will kill it. It’s just a whole different game. We’ve got two barrels hiding in the back there but I think the days of having two little barrels and thinking they’re going to create a great product are over.
Are there any particular beer styles in Australia that you feel are underrepresented or neglected? For example I love American Stouts but there’s only one or two available.
A: I think browns or really anything dark is underrepresented over here if you just look at it from a colour profile point of view. Right now we’ve just brewed a hazelnut brown and we have our coconut brown ale and we’re doing more dark beers because it’s cold but we really only have a month and a half of cold weather. Then as August hits and you get a bit of warmer weather, people start thinking about Spring and Summer and they just ditch anything that’s slightly dark even though those beers still have a sessionable aspect to them. Hopefully as the Australian market becomes more educated about beer we can create this demand where we can have all types of beers all year round. Obviously in summer the lighter styles will spike but you should be able to still produce a brown ale or a stout and sell it.
C: I think there were some less palatable stouts in this country for a long time and people just think that’s what black beers taste like and they won’t like any black beers as a result. Well no, you’ve just had a bad one.
A: There’s also the perception that they’re all just so heavy but really that’s not always the case. I think Elsie the milk stout is doing a really good job to break that down. It’s a permanent beer now but it wasn’t always. Last summer Chris and I thought we might brew just enough of it to make it through the warmer months because it keeps almost forever so we brewed a double batch of it and then a month later I realised that we needed more. It was great to have people drinking it in summer and saying that it was really nice regardless of the weather.
C: My wife’s surname is Somers and she loves a good stout and she’s always in my ear about creating a Somers Stout but we’ve got Elsie and we can’t move any more than one stout in the summer.
You’ve got a lot of smaller fermenters here, how many different batches can you brew in a week?
C: We’ve got a two week turn around for most of our beers and if we ran only the two week beers we could go 12 a week. But that’s not really what we’ve got this kind of set up for. We’ve got a Russian imperial stout in one of the fermenters that’s been there since February. There’s three lagers taking up another three tanks so while we could go 12 a week, it would be killing us to do it. This building would probably just crumble into a heap so we’re happy if we get half that.
What’s missing in the Australian beer industry at the moment?
C: We really need a yeast lab. Someone who can produce yeasts locally and fresh so that we can have that variety that White Labs offers to the US. We want the ability to just go “I want to try that tomorrow” and be able to call up and have it shipped overnight. Right now we place an order which has got to be a week in advance and the company we work with ships internationally on Mondays, we get it Thursday if the courier gets around to it and it’s just too unreliable. I think a local business like that would allow brewers to be more creative. Right now 95% of the beer in this country is on US-05 yeast. It’s a great yeast and it works very well but it limits what we can do.
Are there any brewers or breweries in particular that you look up to or use as inspiration for your own work?
C: Well I’ll answer this in a different way, but it links into your questions about underrepresented styles. Right now we’re working with the boys at Voyager malt in Griffith and a few other providers of supplies and trying to figure out ways to create things that aren’t the same as the beers we drank in the States or to recreate what other people are doing. I don’t spend a lot of time in bottle shops looking at what other people have done, I’m trying to think outside the box and talk to people from other industries, whether it’s food or wine or something else entirely, I’d just like to keep doing things that a creative and to try and push ourselves that way. The Marrickville Pork Roll that we made for GABS is a great example of that because we got other beers like the In a Pickle Sour out of that process. You know we’re really trying to push our guys to use our 40L system frequently so that they can keep trying to be innovative.
Do you put the pilot brews on at the bar here?
A: If they’re any good!
C: Yeah if they’re good we definitely will but there’s no guarantee that they will be. The good thing about pilot brews is that you can chuck a ridiculous amount of chilli into one and it’s only 40 litres so who cares if only one person out of 100 likes it. Not everything that works for a pilot brew can scaled up.
Is there anything you’ve been really wanting to do but you don’t have either the ingredients or equipment to be able to do it properly?
C: Well we fucked up that Porter with the English yeast and I was really looking forward to drinking that. So we’ll probably have another crack at that. The only other thing I can really think about off the top of my head are mixed culture ferments like an Australian Lambic but we’re just not going to do it here.
A: Yeah within those limitations there’s really nothing that we haven’t been able to do. We’ve been talking about trying to create some new styles so we’ve got one that we think is a new style coming up soon but we’ll have to do a bit more research on that. So we think we’ve come up with something that potentially no one has done.
It’s not a Black English IPA or something is it?
C: No…maybe, that’s a good idea though write that down.
A: Hopefully we can pull this new one off. I mean there’s nothing stopping us doing it, it’s just a matter of finding out whether we actually are creating something new or not. I talk about doing a peanut butter or pretzel stout every once and a while, there’s no reason why we can’t do it we just haven’t been motivated enough to figure out how to brew it. Well when I say we, I mean Chris. I wouldn’t know how to write a recipe.
C: Well pre-sell it and I’ll brew it.
So do you write all the recipes Chris?
C: Well I did early on but we’ve got a really good team who contribute a lot so I probably do fewer than they do at this point. I spot check things just to make sure so despite me not brewing a lot of beer personally this year, I’ve got a lot of experience, with how things perform on this system. So when one of the brewers brings a recipe to me I’m comparing different malt varieties and saying “is this going to attenuate to there” and “you might want to bring that back a little bit or round it up to the nearest bag” so I’m basically just spot checking everything to make sure it’s going to work. If I brewed every recipe, everything would just taste the same so as much as I’ll look at a recipe and cringe, I’ve just got to park that and wait to find out what it’s going to taste like.
I suppose that’s the luxury you have of brewing mostly smaller batches, it’s not as big a deal to ditch or sell a few hundred litres as opposed to 10000L.
C: There’s that and it’s just the way we run things. I won’t name names but there’s a brewer who we’re friendly with who brewed and tipped three batches of beer before he commercially released one. There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with them, they just weren’t what he wanted. Whereas with us, if we brew something that’s not what we want we’ll make it better next time but if it’s a good beer, we’ll sell it. We’re not that pedantic I guess. We never promised consistency, we just promise quality.