…the more they stay the same. News this week that both versions of The Big House have made the decision to close breweries that produce craft beers came as something of a shock if not just for the coincidentally co-ordinated timing of the announcements.
On Wednesday Lion Co announced that they will pull the pin on their White Rabbit facility in Healesville and SAB – Miller announced yesterday that they will draw stumps on the Matilda Bay Garage brewery and bar in Port Melbourne.
White Rabbit, designed and commissioned under the skilled guidance of Dean McLeod, featured open fermenters and enough spare space to grow both the brewing and consumer areas of the operation. Opened in 2009, the brewery will find a new home in a purpose built, stand-alone building within the recently opened Geelong brewery.
Will anything change for the White Rabbit stable of Dark, White and the recently added Belgian Pale? No. The beers will find a safe home and plenty of fans at the under-utilised Geelong site and will probably grow and flourish. It remains to be seen if the open-fermenter system will be replicated but at least the brewery will not become homeless.
Not so, Matilda Bay. Born of the vision of an eclectic group of beer-loving businessmen in Fremantle in the mid-80s, the brand moved eastward after being sold to Carlton & United Breweries until relocating to Port Melbourne in 2012. For the first time since it left Fremantle, Matilda Bay had a brewery bar into which they could welcome drinkers who sat in the shadows of the stainless steel and drank real ‘brewery-fresh’ beers straight from the tanks. SAB – Miller will absorb brewing operations of the iconic Matilda Bay brands into the brewery at Cascade in Hobart, albeit on a specially designed and commissioned system.
So what happens now? In the case of Matilda Bay I would suggest – nothing. Or, at least, not very much. Spending as much time, as I am fortunate to do, with drinkers of a wide range of experience levels, the Matilda Bay brand is either lauded or ignored. This won’t change with the closure of a brewery that few of either camp visited. Those who love a Fat Yak or Helga, or any one of the seemingly endless range of same-same lagers that have come out of Cascade or Yatala in recent years will keep doing what they do, most likely oblivious to any change in operation.
Those who take offence to the fact the brand is a part of a multi-national enterprise deserted the beers long ago and will probably nod smugly and talk about how Karma is a bitch. Will sales of the ‘better respected’ beers like Dogbolter Dark Lager, Bohemian Pilsner and the recently crowned ‘Champion Ale’ Alpha Pale Ale suffer? Again, probably not.
So, if it can be argued that the punter will not have any great impact on sales as a result of the closure, what then for those making the decision? Can SAB – Miller, a brand itself built on clinical efficiency and rationalising operations of its various brands, give Matilda Bay a new lease on life? Will we see a downsizing of the range so that there are fewer mainstream style pale lagers with odd names and a genetic sameness and a stop to the apparently deliberate attempts to cannibalise their easy-drinking ales like IGP with other easy-drinking ales like The Duck’s?
It might be just the opportunity to put a little thought into giving the beers the marketing and sales support that they deserve rather than constantly behaving as if they are unaware that the company has a craft beer division. Fewer brands with a consistent roster of seasonals might be the soul-injection the punters think the brand needs. I hope the beers maintain their quality and consistency at their new home and that this iconic part of our brewing history does not wither on the unattended vine. That would be a real loss.
The greatest loss is, of course, the livelihoods of those who worked hard over the past three years to make the Garage a place that was abuzz with energy and enthusiasm whenever it hosted its full complement of guests. To sit and enjoy food that not only matched well with the beers but stood on their own as well-crafted dishes while the brew team ‘busied’ about the place and interacted with the punters was a rare treat and one that will be missed.
Let’s hope that this team is snapped up elsewhere and continues their beer journey. After all, they were the ones who flew the flag for Matilda Bay and carried on a tradition that began at a time when we could only dream about the variety and quality of beers we all enjoy today.