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More on the history of Matilda Bay Brewing Co.

October 3, 2012

With the resurgence in interest in craft brewing, there is also huge interest in brewery history. Yesterday’s article by James Davidson looking at the history of the Matilda Bay had a huge response, so I thought it might be of interest to republish a number of articles looking at the brewery’s history.

The first is an article first published in the September 1985 edition of Transair, the magazine of the now defunct Trans Australia Airlines, then republished in the February 1986 edition of Beer Matters, the official journal of the also defunct Australian Beer Society.

The most interesting aspect of this article is that it was a contemporary account of the origins of the Sail & Anchor and Matilda Bay Brewing Company. Apart from the brewery’s history, it is also fascinating to read Phil Sexton’s comments on the beer market 25 years ago. [Ed]

The article is republished with the generous permission of the author.

Brewing Boutique Beer

By Phil Jarratt, 1985

Phil Sexton didn’t invent the term “boutique brewing” but in just over a year he has successfully defined it for Perth’s legion of beer connoisseurs.

At Sexton’s beautifully restored Sail and Anchor Hotel opposite the Fremantle markets, no fewer than a dozen beers are served on tap, ranging from such universally appreciated European lagers as Heineken and Lowenbrau to the brewed-on-the-premises “Anchor” ale and stout. But it is the local brews which are best received, indicative perhaps of the fact that Phil Sexton’s is the first new blood in Australian brewing for a hundred years.

In 1885 the Foster brothers arrived from New York and revolutionised the marketing of beer by selling their light lager to Melbourne pubs complete with ice, so that it could be sold at the temperature at which the brothers believed it should be served.

In 1985 Phil Sexton is revolutionising the drinking habits of the West by showing that an appreciation of beer can be every bit as “upmarket” as an appreciation of wine. And Perth drinkers are falling over themselves to sample the amber fluids that flow from the Anchor’s highly polished brass taps, so much so that a second beer connoisseurs’ heaven – the Chelsea Tavern at Nedlands – was opened by Sexton and his partners in the second half of the year to accommodate the overflow.

Just down fhe road from this second public house, Sexton was putting the finishing touches on the sophisticated machinery of the Matilda Bay Brewing Company, the boutique brewery which will eventually supply the group’s two pubs, its own retail liquor stores and a few selected restaurants. Clearly, there is money in thinking small.

Phil Sexton, Melbourne born, raised in Busselton in the West’s wine country and a Perth resident for most of his adult life, had made up his mind to become a winemaker when he took a summer job at the Swan Brewery after completing a degree in biochemstry. The idea was to save some quick money and put himself through wine school, but almost immediately Sexton became immersed in the trickiest problem faced by brewers everywhere over the past decade – how to keep the flavour in light beer.

This challenge was so demanding and engrossing that Sexton gave away his wine-making ideas and became indentured as a brewer, ultimately becoming one of the four who developed Swan Special Light, regarded by many Australians as the finest light in the land.

Sexton then took a two-year break from Australian brewing and did a master’s degree in biochemistry in Britain, specialising in the fermentation of beer. Armed with this valuable theory and the practical knowledge that comes from breasting the bar of many a fine English tavern, he then returned home and set about finding backers who were interested in an entirely new approach to selling beer to Australians.

Sales of beer in Australia have actually declined in the past ten years, and when you look at that against the increase in population it’s quite frightening if you are a brewer. ~Phil Sexton, 1985

Says Sexton: “Sales of beer in Australia have actually declined in the past ten years, and when you look at that against the increase in population it’s quite frightening if you are a brewer. But I had the feeling that one of the reasons for this was that the macho, down-market image of the beer drinker had been used for a long time and that people were starting to get sick of it. The big companies were all pushing large quantities of beer out in cans and were pretending that only real men drank it.

“I thought there might be room for someone to try a different approach, based on the social use of beer in other countries, particularly in Western Europe”.

Shopping his idea around town, Sexton ran into Perth businessman Peter Briggs who had long held the dream of opening a brewery to rival Swan. Sexton and his friends quickly talked him out of that and into small-scale gourmet brewing. A man who drinks only the best himself, Briggs soon fell into line with their thinking and the Anchor Brewing Company was born, wedged between the ground-floor bars of what was once the Freemason’s Hotel.

Matilda Bay followed soon after once the partners had found a suitable site and purchased the right equipment to produce larger quantities of traditional ale and lager. But it is the glass-fronted brewing room in the Sail & Anchor which attracts all the attention in suddenly tourist-conscious Fremantle. Two-pot screamers and serious drinkers alike are drawn to the windows like metal to a magnet, there to watch the birth of the actual beer they are drinking.

And fine beer it is too. While Phil Sexton has trimmed the size of the Anchor down to almost nothing, he has sacrificed nothing in quality. The 4500 litres brewed there each week include some of the finest lager, best bitter, milk stout, mild and special ales brewed anywhere in the world.

Patrons in the packed bars of the huge hotel put away their pints or half pints accompanied by pork pies, pickles and steak and kid. The drinking is by and large scholarly rather than sporting, except on those special occasions when the specialty of the house – the infamous Dogbolter – is fitted to the taps.

At around ten percent alcohol, Dogbolter is an ale to be reckoned with. A recent batch came out at 12.5 percent in fact, rendering it the world’s strongest beer according to the Guinness Book of Records.

I don’t see inebriation as a side effect of the enjoyment of beer…

“The regulars love it,” says Sexton, “but they tend to forget it’s as strong as it is and, well, the tone of the place gets lowered a little I suppose. I don’t see inebriation as a side effect of the enjoyment of beer, so we tend to only serve Dogbolter on special occasions.”

Not that Sexton or any of his pub staff are wowsers. There seems to be an almost permanent air of celebration around the Sail & Anchor. And visitors can only wonder whether it is in anticipation of next summer’s yacht racing or in appreciation of the constant tinkle of the cash register.

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