Last week I had a beer. No surprise there. But this one was special. It was special in that it was not particularly ‘special’. Not barrel-aged, not palate-shredding not limited release or seasonal. Just a beer. But it was special nonetheless.
I raised it in honour of a bloke who has done so much for beer in his little patch of the world but whose name you would probably not recognise. For the past five years we have run beer dinners and tastings together in venues that are just beginning to get into the whole ‘good beer’ caper and whose patrons are, for the most part, unaware of the wide and varied range of beers available to them today.
The most recent was a Craft Beer/Sportsman’s Night combined with a beer-matched degustation prepared by a well-respected chef. I arrived at the hotel in Ballarat on a Friday night a few weeks back to learn that the ‘big fella’ had suffered a heart attack the day before and had passed away.
Our paths first crossed when I was asked to host a dinner at a little country pub for which he was the local sales rep. We sat and chatted, mostly about beer, and exchanged contacts with the view to doing some more work together. I was immediately struck by his no-nonsense approach to beer and the blokes and ladies who drink it.
A country lad born and bred he knew that the bars and golf clubs and old-fashioned pubs and restaurants in the western districts of Victoria would not suddenly cancel their Big Brewery orders and start pouring Imperial Stouts and Belgian IPAs but he also knew that the right approach would soften the edges and prepare the ground for a long-term change of mindset.
His plan was that, between the two of us, we could introduce and explain beer styles in a way that would engage and educate rather than confuse and alienate. By explaining how good a ‘varied beer diet’ could be rather than why blind loyalty was a bad thing, we could change the way in which regional folk looked at craft beer.
For fourteen years he was with Lion and he dedicated his time and energy into visiting almost every licensed outlet between Ballarat and the South Australian border. Loyal and dependable, he never aimed for a spot at the top of the corporate ladder – in fact, he expressed to me his annoyance at having his sales area divvied up and shared so that he could look after things at a more managerial level as it gave him less face time with all his many contacts.
His love of the amber nectar and his loyalty to Lion was exceeded only by his devotion to his four kids. Juggling life on the road with sales, helping the younger two with schoolwork and the elder two with driving lessons and acting as a sounding board and font of advice to everyone he knew must have taken a toll on his sanity, if not his health, yet he never complained.
His memorial service left everyone with the realisation that the time he spent gladly searching for the solution to your problem (over a beer or two) was the same time he spent with everyone else in the chapel. His concerns and troubles were second to those of anybody else. Sitting in the comfort of a quiet country bar after hours and chatting about everything from the essence of mateship, the joys and heartaches of raising kids in the 21st century to the detrimental effects of Australia’s grocery duopoly on competition and consumer behaviour will be enduring and fond memories for me.
He will be sadly and greatly missed by his mates, his work colleagues and his family. He’ll be missed by a hundred publicans, bottle shop owners and supermarket workers and by thousands more he touched along the way.
Next time you wander in to pub somewhere around the west of Victoria and you see the usual selection of taps apart from maybe a sole Little Creatures or Squire’s beer – don’t piss and moan that that’s all there is but be thankful that there is a choice. And thank Paul Mitchem for doing his bit to get it there.
Paul, thanks for your friendship along the way. For keeping my feet grounded in the beer world and for reminding me to appreciate the ‘mainstream’ as well as the ‘special’. God Bless and Good Beer. You’ll be missed.
* A trust has been established to help Paul’s four children. Any small donation can be made at any Commonwealth Bank.
BSB 063-556 A/C 10213479