One of my favourite places of all I have visited in my travels around the country is the Adelaide Hills. This is not only because of the charming cluster of townships and wide range of artisanal produce, but that underneath the gastronomic and viticultural mores of the region lies a deep and abiding love for that most wonderful of products, beer.
The Hills has recently added a new addition to their many ‘reasons you should visit’, in the form of a new micro-brewery called the Prancing Pony.
Astute readers of both Australian Brews News and Lord of the Rings should easily pick up the origins of the name. Prancing Pony head brewer Frank Samson says the rustic look of his homebrewing shed gave him the inspiration for the Tolkien connection.
“The way my shed looked, the all-natural and very unfiltered beer,” he said.
“The Lord of the Rings ‘Prancing Pony Inn’ immediately shot into my head… the Hobbits drinking beer out of wooden mugs.”
Samson, like many others in the business, began his commercial beer journey in homebrewing. As per the usual path for turning a personal hobby into a full-time venture, the scale and ambition grew simultaneously, from a humble 20-litre kettle to 50-litres and then a 100-litre setup. It was Samson’s friend and now business-partner Ken Smith who sowed the seed of a commercial business.
“Ken said he thinks the beers would fly and he’s willing to put money into a brewery enterprise,” Samson says.
After also bringing on board Paul Smith (no relation) to look after brand management and marketing, the brewery opened its doors in a car-park open day in December last year. The brewery’s philosophy lies in keeping things small, and traditional.
The traditional underpinnings go further than just philosophy – their day-to-day operations are rooted in traditional techniques and ways. The Prancing Pony brewery utilises a brewing technology that wouldn’t be out of place in a medieval European monastery – or, for that matter, in the barrows of Middle Earth: the process of ‘fire-brewing’.
Fire-brewing, as its name implies, is the process of brewing beer using an open flame as a heat source. This process seems more adapted to a small home-brew setup, and diverges greatly from the steam-jacket heating sources employed almost universally among commercial-size brewers. Samson uses the fire-brew setup throughout the whole brewing process, from heating the mash to boiling the wort. Using the technique has involved a great deal of research and adaptation.
“Long ago…I simply had a gas burner under my pot,” he says. “Reading up a lot I learned about single infusion and the old traditional multi-step mash method as well as fire brews. I was intrigued and used my gas burner to do multi-step mashing as well as vigorous kettle boils over a large gas burner. I liked the results and refined the technique.”
He adds: “Everybody liked the beers and convinced me to start selling these fire brews.”
The last brewery to utilise fire-brewing at a commercial level – at least according to both Samson and Wikipedia – was the Stroh brewery in Detroit, Michigan, which effectively went out of business in the 1980s, although the brand name survives. The instinct is to think of fire-brewing as just a different, less-efficient means to the same end, namely heating up and brewing unfermented wort? Samson insists that the fire-brew system delivers a different product to what would be achieved through a more industrialised process, and while it may not be viable on a big scale, it suits the mission statement of the Prancing Pony in its present incarnation.
“If you want to do a large volume of beer and to a price, the fire brew is less efficient,” Samson says.
“However, we are a micro brewery dedicated to delivering unique flavours…People comment about our beers being very flavoursome but still light, yet have ‘mouth’. They do not fill you up like a meal. This is exactly what’s been reported in the old literature about fire brews and we are bringing that lost tradition back to life.”
At present, Prancing Pony is keeping things strictly on a micro scale, only selling within the Adelaide Hills and select spots around the greater Adelaide area. The ‘fire-brewing’ concept has thus become a point of market differentiation – the suffix of their vanity URL on Facebook is, in fact, ‘firebrewers’ – singling out the brewery not only as a business doing something small-scale and interesting, but also as a destination to visit and explore.
“People coming to our cellar door always ask ‘what about the fire brew’ and they are intrigued by it.” Samson says. “Our brewery looks very hands-on, because it is. You’ll see lots of levers and hand valves, no control panel whatsoever.”
The Prancing Pony is currently just at capacity pushing out four beer styles to the local area – a pale ale, blonde, amber ale and black, with some seasonal releases on the cards as well. Samson says the response from locals has been very positive, with business increasing as word of mouth spreads.
“We had a very good response from locals and now increasingly from day tourists coming up from the city on weekends… We are now represented in a number of restaurants and pubs in the city as well and people who have tried our beers tend to come up for a visit.”
With business sounding like it’s travelling along nicely, my questions move to the topic of growth: in particular whether beer lovers outside SA will get to try their fire-brews any time soon.
“We’re only in our sixth month of operation” Samson says. “We have increased our footprint and are in the process of installing more fermenters. If we can maintain current growth then by second quarter 2014 we will start embarking on introducing our brand interstate.”