It’s time for the Session – also known as Beer Blogging Friday. That’s where bloggers unite, metaphorically speaking, and write about the same topic – which has been predetermined by that month’s host.
The host for May is Reuben Gray at the Tale of the Ale, who is interested in local brewing history.
‘‘In Session 87, I want you to give your readers a history lesson about a local brewery. That’s a physical brewery and not brewing company by the way. The brewery doesn’t need to still exist today, perhaps you had a local brewery that closed down before you were even born. Or you could pick one that has been producing beer on the same site for centuries.’’
Okay, let it be known that I’m going to break two of Reuben’s rules. The first one is that the brewery needs to have existed for at least 20 years. Well, in Wollongong, we don’t any breweries that old, so I’m going with the Five Islands Brewery, which started in 2001.
The second rule involves research. As I only realised this morning that it was Session time, I don’t have any time to do proper research so I’m going to write this post entirely from memory. So lets see how that goes.
Right, in 1982 Wollongong got their own footy team in the Sydney rugby league competition – the Illawarra Steelers. In that first year a mustachioed hooker (it’s the name of position on the field, not an occupation) by the name of Michael Bolt made his debut.
He would go onto play 210 games for the Steelers in all grades and quit in 1990. He was a part owner in a Wollongong nightclub, Cousins, while playing and he went further into the hospitality section after retiring.
He opened up a cool cafe called Pigdog’s (his footy-playing nickname) and then went to fancy night-time dining with The Metro in 1995. A couple of years later he sold up and opened a beachside cafe called Stingrays in 1999.
Then, in 2001 came the thing he is best known for – a brewery serving its own beer located on the beach-side of the Wollongong Entertainment Centre.
He named it the Five Islands Brewery and the accompanying brewing side of the business became the Five Islands Brewing Company. The name derived from the Five Islands that sit just off the coast of Wollongong and can be seen from the brewery’s verandah – such a lovely place to sit and drink a beer.
The beers inside also adopted a local flavour in the names – Dapto Draught, Bulli Black and Porter Kembla. Others were South Peach (a pun on the brewery’s location at South Beach) and Parkyn’s Shark Oil, an IPA named for the old family who used to live on one of the Five Islands and catch sharks.
My favourites were the Snowboard, which I now recognise was a hefeweizen, and that Parkyns Shark Oil.
Initially these beers were made on site in a small brewery that was visible to the patrons. But they eventually moved the brewing off site. The brewer for much of this time was Tim Thomas, better known to beer geeks these days as the guy behind HopDog BeerWorks.
Most of the beers were brewed for tap only, and the Five Islands Brewery was the only place to drink them. That was with one exception – the Pigdog Pilsner, which found its way into bottles during the back end of Bolt’s ownership.
That ownership ended when the brewery was sold in 2010, with father and son team of Garry and Dave McGrath taking over.
Among the changes some rebranding took place. Out went the Five Islands and the geographical beer names and in came The Illawarra Brewery and The Illawarra Brewing Company, which was understood to be an attempt to make it obvious to outsiders just where the beer was coming from.
In the early days of the Illawarra Brewing Company, Andrew Gow – who would go on to found Mornington Peninsula Brewery – was at the helm (I think Scott Morgan, now head brewer at The Rocks Brewing Company may have also done some time at Illawarra). Just before he left, he trained up two guys to take over. They were both brewery bar employees – casual barman Ashur Hall and DJ Shaun Blissett (Blissett apparently got called in after Hall wrecked his knee in his first AFL game and obviously couldn’t do much in the brewhouse).
From such inauspicious beginnings, the pair started cranking out a load of award-winning beers and established the brewery’s name in places like the craft beer mecca of Melbourne.
As well as the standard range like kolsch, pale ale and porter, they’ve also brewed double IPAs, coffee porters, barrel-aged sours, pumpkin beers and even the Brownish Bomber, a beer made in honour of the legendary Australian comedy character Milo Kerrigan.
When the McGraths took over you wouldn’t expect to see a beer brewed in Wollongong in bars around the country.
These days they’ll make frequent appearances in most of Australia’s craft beer bars, and beer geeks will get very excited when they show up.