Last weekend saw the occurrence of one of Australia’s most celebrated annual events. No, I’m not talking about the Australian Sonographers Association conference (although I’m told this year’s was one of the best ever), I’m talking about the annual brewday for Stone & Wood’s tribute to medieval brewing, the Stone beer.
Brad, Ross, Jamie and the other boys from Byron were kind enough to invite me along for the festivities, together with a handful of other folks from Australia’s east coast beer scene.
And festivities they were.
I must admit I had anticipated being roused from my slumber at 5AM to lope bleary-eyed into the brewhouse and shift heavy bags of grain. The only thing the reality had in common with my vision was the shifting heavy bags of grain; the truth was that Stone & Wood’s enactment of this one-off brew bears far more resemblance to a medieval beer festival than the Spartan work ethic of your typical brewday. The generous hosts at Stone & Wood put on a hell of a party for us, and it was a huge bundle of fun. But it still gave me a few lessons to take away from the weekend:
Beer Loves Community
A brewer recently told me that brewing works best when it integrates the community around it. Nowhere is this credo more apparent than with the Stone & Wood guys up in Byron Bay. Never having visited the town before, I felt like a bit of a rock star being taken out on the town on the Friday night. The Stone & Wood boys knew everybody and all the haunts; in turn everybody seemed to know them. Every pub bore that familiar S&W logo and the beer was pouring fresh, as good as if it came straight from the brew tanks.
More than this though, Byron Bay runs through the veins of Stone & Wood’s brewing philosophy. Their best-selling brew, the Pacific Ale, is designed as the beer you’d want to drink while sitting back and enjoying the vast expanse of blue water on a summer’s day in Byron. The latest addition to their regular line-up, the Jasper Ale, is designed to reflect the red earthy terrain of Byron’s hinterland, and was described by S&W director Jamie Cook as the beer to drink during winter in Byron Bay.
Somehow that connection of town and beer seems to augment them both, and listening to the brewery staff talk it up showed a heart and soul side to the brewery I’d never appreciated while enjoying the beer in pubs down in Sydney.
The Heart of the Beer
Okay, it’s confession time. In all the time I’ve been visiting breweries, sampling beer and homebrewing, it was only a few months ago that I actually took a proper guided tour around a brewhouse; and not until last weekend that I actually watched the brewing process happen on a commercial scale.
It really made an impression on me how much technology is involved in the modern brewing game. You’ve got pumps and switches and pipes and hoses running everywhere, so once you’ve tipped the grain in, you pretty much flick a button and the brewing process starts. The fact that the whole brew is performed by large machines operated by a sequence of button presses makes the commercial brewing process seem a little cold to this backward homebrewer. That is, until you start asking questions.
Of course there’s a huge amount of preparation and scheduling that goes into creating any kind of beer, but once you’re up on the brewing platform talking to the guys who make the beer, it becomes apparent the heart of the beer is in the people who make it. While a button push starts the machine, it takes a whole heap of vigilance and patience to make sure that machine is performing correctly, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that brewers give names to each of their lauter tun rakes. All the technology does is make brewing more efficient, but it takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people to make beer that’s good.
A good recipe can always do with a tweak
Stone & Wood have been brewing the Stone Beer for a few years now, ever since Brad Rogers took a trip to Fiji and returned with a small pile of igneous rocks from the region that were perfect for the purposes he needed – to heat up the wazoo and drop into a kettle of boiling wort. Each time it’s been brewed, it’s been met with greater fanfare as the excitement builds around the only regular seasonal from this acclaimed brewery. You’d think, then, that they’d have the recipe – if you’ll pardon the ridiculously obvious pun – set in stone, right?
This year’s batch takes the Stone beer to a whole new level, with an increased malt bill leading to an expected ABV of around 7%. Contrast that with last year’s batch at 5.3% ABV and you’re dealing with a big Stone monster coming out this year. The addition of the hot stones is designed to emphasise the maltiness of the brew, so add onto that a bigger malt base and you know that this year’s Stone Beer will be a very hearty brew for the colder months.
Having spent such a great time getting to know the people who make the beer happen, I am eagerly anticipating this year’s release. Partially so I can irritate everybody by saying, “Yep, I lifted one of eight grain bags up to the mill for that, it’s practically my beer”; but also just to taste the tweaks and appreciate the Stone & Wood culture in beer form again.