Alex Troncoso got an email from home last month. "I'm drinking your Pilsner in the Welcome Hotel in Sydney, and it's right up there with the finest I've ever tasted – and, believe me, I've tasted a sh–tload of them," it read. "It's coming to the end of the keg and I don't know what I'm going to do when it's gone. Please send more!"
It's a sentiment many British drinkers will understand. Troncoso and partner Annie Clements are the team behind Lost and Grounded, a brewery that stands out in an increasingly crowded British craft-beer market. Not only are they Australian, but they focus on brewing lager in a land where good beer generally means either cask-conditioned real ale or American-style pale beer.
Their main product is Keller Pils, an unfiltered, unpasteurised pale lager. It's clean, crisp and hoppy in an old-fashioned way: bitter rather than extravagantly, aromatically floral. "When we started, people were saying, 'What no Pale Ale?'" says Clements, whose brewery is in Bristol, in the west of England. "I think people understand better now. There's been a real swing over the past few months."
Lager may be the coming thing in craft beer (in Australia and the USA as much as in Britain) but it's been central to this relationship right from the start. The pair met more than 20 years ago at a nightclub called Sheridan's in Burnie, Tasmania, Clements' hometown; the club was downstairs from the offices of the iron ore mine where Troncoso was working as an engineer.
A few days later, they had their first proper date. "I'd just got paid and so, on my way to his flat, I picked up a box of KFC and – this was the most important bit – a six-pack of [an Italian beer called] Peroni Nastro Azzurro," says Clements.
Not long after, they moved together to the western suburbs of Melbourne, where Troncoso enrolled on a brewing degree course at the University of Ballarat and they both joined Westgate Brewers, a homebrew club. Troncoso became a regular winner of homebrewing awards.
There needs to be more originals and less covers [in beer].
"He was the pale ale king," says Clements. "Sometimes it would be like: 'First Place, Alex Troncoso! Second place, Alex Troncoso – and you might as well stay up on stage because you've got third place too! It was really fun." Clements did beat him in one competition, though. "I brewed a honey wheat beer," she recalls. "I got second and he got third, and the house just erupted!"
All the time Troncoso, who grew up in the United States before high school in Brisbane, was applying for brewing jobs left, right and centre – but it wasn't until 2003 that he finally broke into the business with a job at a now defunct brewery in South Dandenong. That mostly involved making cream liqueur, though, which he found to be a soul-destroying task.
In April 2004, a job as a shift brewer at Little Creatures in Fremantle came up.
"I said to Annie, 'Shall we roll the dice?'" says Troncoso. "I spoke to a mate of mine who was a chef; he was on the bottom rung at a big restaurant, having previously run his own place. He said: 'You'll learn properly there. Don't worry about the pay, just do it.' So I did."
Troncoso arrived just as Little Creatures exploded in popularity, and he quickly rose through the ranks. The year before he joined, in 2003, Little Creatures made about 10,000 hectolitres of beer; by the time he left his job as head of brewing development in 2012, it was 120,000, on two sites, with another soon to arrive in Geelong.
What Troncoso took from Little Creatures was an attention to detail and, oddly given the brewery's flagship pale ale, a passion for lager. "We always had a Pils for people who came to the bar who didn't want to drink the Pale," he says.
"Russ Gosling [now head brewer at Little Creatures] and I got obsessed with it: 'How do we make it better?' Then eventually someone said, 'What are you two doing? We're making pale ale here.' They had a point!"
Nonetheless, it was lager that took him to Britain, to Camden Town Brewery in London, where he focused his efforts on Helles, the flagship pale lager. He also spent plenty of time in Germany and Belgium, soaking up knowledge.
"It made me see things from a different point of view," he says. "The thing I've learnt in the last couple of years is that the key ingredient is time. It's taking care over the temperature, the yeast count, how you pull that together. It's about how to make something simple and delicious."
It's that approach that drives Lost and Grounded, where more than 50 per cent of the 5000-hectolitres-a-year output is Keller Pils (there are six other beers in the core range). In an era when the American approach to brewing is dominant, it's made with German hops, malt and yeast on a German-built kit, and it's lagered in the traditional German style, for at least four weeks.
"There needs to be more originals and less covers [in beer]," says Troncoso, 43. "I'm not saying what we do is completely original because we're making a style of beer that has been made for many years – but not in the UK, not in Bristol."
Troncoso is a laid-back character, but his achievements tell the true story: he's driven to succeed. In his last three years at Little Creatures, for example, he spent his evenings completing a masters in business administration from the Curtin Graduate School of Business.
"Everything has to be perfect for him," says Clements. "There's a lot of determination there."
And now Troncoso has Clements alongside him for the first time. Clements, who worked helping people with disabilities in Australia and at a women's shelter in London, is in charge of the public-facing side of the brewery: everything from social media to the names of the beers.
"It's been 90 per cent really good [working together]," she says. "We're best mates, we have been forever. We have a lot of the same ideas – when we don't, we really clash, but we are like one person."
Building the business has clearly been a bumpy ride at times, but the pair appear confident as they look to the future. There have been plenty of highlights along the way, like that email from a grateful customer in Sydney and the knowledge that their beer was served at their favourite Melbourne pub, The Old Bar in Fitzroy, last month.
It was the first shipment of Lost and Grounded beer to Australia, but you suspect it won't be the last.
"It was great to send some beer home," says Clements. "We liked the romance of sending it back," adds Troncoso.
It looks like they'll follow one day, too. "I miss the freedom of Australia," says Clements. "It feels more cramped here [in the UK]. I'd like to be able to jump in the car and go to the beach."
There's a lot of craft-beer drinkers to convert to real lager before then, though, from Bristol to the shores of Botany Bay.