The day after Richard Watkins and the Wig & Pen brewpub triumphed at the Australian International Beer Awards – taking home the Cryer Malt trophy for Champion Small Australian Brewery – the Canberra Times reported that the landmark watering hole in our nation’s capital would be looking for a new home.
The mood quickly turned from jubilation to dislocation as it became public knowledge that the civic complex that houses the Wig & Pen could soon be redeveloped into a residential area.
Head brewer, Richard Watkins, says that while the move is not yet 100 per cent certain, the future certainly looks uncertain after 19 years as a Canberra landmark. As yet there is no set timeline, no possible future site, nor even certainty as to whether it will stay as a combined brewery and tavern.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” Watkins told me. “The owner is looking at his options, and while his preference is to move the brewpub as is, financial constraints may mean just the tavern moves without the brewery.”
In this worst-case scenario, Watkins confirms he would not be moving with the tavern. Regardless of what happens, moving the Wig & Pen is not something to be taken lightly.
Personally, having grown up as a beer lover in Sydney with Canberra just a three-hour drive down the highway, the Wig & Pen has always been a stalwart of the regional brewing scene, with a visit to its humble doors being an essential rite of passage when learning to appreciate better beer. As a move interstate is potentially on the cards, Canberra could be losing one of its most unique and entertaining tourist attractions (Blue Poles can only enthral for so long). Watkins hopes this won’t be the case.
“The Wig & Pen’s home is in Canberra,” he says. “I don’t think that you could move interstate and still call it the Wig & Pen. We have a good loyal following in Canberra and staying is the only option to me.”
The Wig & Pen offers a core range of 10 regular beers, as well as 6 one-off batches which are increasing in popularity. Watkins says that he was “elated and humbled” upon receiving the champion small Australian Brewery award at the AIBAs in May.
“Considering that all the beers are first judged against every other beer in their respective category, and also the high quality of beer being produced in Australia, it’s extremely rewarding.”
No doubt the win is going to see a big surge in the brewpub’s fame, as well as a rapid influx in demand for Watkins’ beers. As it stands though, the Wig & Pen is almost entirely focused on in-house sales, with only the occasional special release making the journey to other specialist beer pubs in other states. Could a change in venue bring about a change in the business plan as well? Watkins is happy to throw cold water on my excitement as he tells me he’s happy with the brewery as it is.
“To me there are only two brewing models that work,” he says.
“Either you are really small and concentrate on in-house sales, or you’re really big and wholesale your products. I like being the former!”
With the AIBA in his pocket, it’s clear the Wig & Pen works well now as a small brewery. If the relocation must happen, I’m sure wherever it ends up, the city will be only too happy to welcome Watkins and his repertoire of beers.
If the move happens to bring about big changes in the model or the location, one can only hope that the brewer and his beer don’t suffer as a result.