Canberra's beer scene: Why 2015 is one of the best years for craft brewing

Chris Shanahan
Wig & Pen relocated to the ANU School of Music in January.
Wig & Pen relocated to the ANU School of Music in January. Photo: Jamila Toderas

In 2015 Canberra consolidated its position as Australia's beer capital, despite seeing in the new year with one less brewery than in 2014. The Wig and Pen, the oldest of Canberra's three brewpubs, had vacated its city of home of over 20 years on October 30. But on January 12, 2015, it reopened a few blocks away at Llewellyn Hall, ANU.

As the Wig settled into its new home, other players planned for the year ahead. Canberra's Kevin Hingston, Australian champion amateur brewer, plotted the launch of Canberra's fourth beer brand, the Pact Beer Co.

Plonk's Anthony Young and others began work on Canberra's annual beer week and beer day out. And BentSpoke's Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain pondered next steps for their explosively successful venture.

Hingston, Canberra's newest brewer, arose from the vibrant, anarchic underworld of home brewing. His appetite whet by success at the 2014 Australian Amateur Brewing Championships, hosted in Canberra, he founded Pact Beer Co with Canberra mates Mark Grainger and Tim Osborne.

Maverick: Kevin Hingston paved the way for the Pact Beer Co.

Maverick: Kevin Hingston paved the way for the Pact Beer Co. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The pair launched draught beers at several outlets mid year, followed by bottled brews in September. Hingston currently brews and bottles in Melbourne, but hopes to build a Canberra facility in the future.

In November, Canberra Beer Week saw bars, restaurants and pubs across the city hosting tap takeovers, brewer talks, entertainment and beer and food matching. Local and international brewers and cider makers participated.

Part of the event, Beer Day Out at Kingston Bus Depot Markets, attracted about 30 brewers and cider makers, a range of local chefs and food producers and a moving feast of entertainers.

Just before beer week, BentSpoke of Braddon, announced plans to build a new brewery, packaging plant and family-friendly outlet at Mitchell. BentSpoke opened its two-storey Braddon brewpub in June 2014. It brewed 160,000 litres and 31 varieties of beer in its first year, says brewer Richard Watkins.

Tracy Margrain and Richard Watkins, owners of BentSpoke Brewery in Braddon, are opening a new venue and canning facility in Mitchell.

Tracy Margrain and Richard Watkins, owners of BentSpoke Brewery in Braddon, are opening a new venue and canning facility in Mitchell. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Watkins says the new operation had been part of a three-year plan, but encouraged by strong support for the Braddon business, the BentSpoke partners pulled it forward by 18 months.

He expects to release the first BentSpoke 355ml cans around March next year. The first products will be the two most popular brews, Crankshaft Orange IPA and Barley Griffin Canberra Pale Ale. BentSpoke is a joint venture between Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain, and the Meddings family, owners of Bintani Australia, a Melbourne-based supplier of ingredients, such as malted barley and hops, to the food and beverage industries.

Christoph Zierholz, continues making inroads into bars, including King O'Malley's, where he offers The King's Pale Ale and the airport, which sells Zierholz German Ale on tap. Zierholz this year lured well-known brewer Marcus Muller from Matso's of Broome to his Fyshwick operation.

Reflections: Christoph Zierholz at the Fyshwick brew-pub.

Reflections: Christoph Zierholz at the Fyshwick brew-pub. Photo: Rohan Thomson

After a promising early start at its Llewellyn Hall bar, the Wig and Pen struck gale-force headwinds. Owner Lachie McOmish​ says lengthy delays in obtaining university permission to open a planned courtyard, and a failure of ducting associated with the kitchen set the business back severely. "Try running a pub without a kitchen or courtyard," he says.

However, McOmish praised brewers Frazer Brown and Alan Ball for maintaining beer standards and he should have the kitchen running by the time this article is published.

As Australian per capita beer consumption continues its decline, Canberra looks like seizing opportunities in the rapidly growing craft beer segment. We'll sail into 2016 with four brewers, plans for our first canning line and a new brewery at Mitchell.