While the current owners were busily preparing a coming-of-age birthday, the creators of Little Creatures recently held a dinner to celebrate their own milestone.
And as they sat around the table with most of the brewery’s original directorship, Nic Trimboli and Howard Cearns caught each other smiling like proud parents on their progeny’s graduation day.
For Trimboli and Cearns, the theme of the gathering was to acknowledge 20 years since they started a business that would herald a new generation of craft beer in Australia. The brewery itself marks the 18th anniversary of its official opening with a series of events across the country this month.
Technically, the old crew’s function was closer to a 21st party since the source company, Little World Beverages, was registered a couple of days before Christmas 1997.
With master brewer Phil Sexton, Trimboli and Cearns built Little Creatures from an idea seeded on a trip to the US west coast into a widely recognised beer brand.
But it could easily have been a Starbucks label.
“Nic and I were chatting for about a year, concocting various thoughts about creating our own brewery,” Cearns recalled for Brews News.
“Then came the Starbucks concept that almost interrupted the whole plan. It came through as an opportunity to bring it to Australia. But we then went back to the beer concept because we didn’t like the Starbucks idea in the end.”
In 1997 Cearns, who was director of innovation at Lion Nathan, and Trimboli, a restaurateur who had recently departed Carlton United Breweries, wanted to start a brewery of their own, then a rare business move as the market was completely dominated by Big Beer.
Sexton, with help from winemaker Janice McDonald, had launched Australian craft beer with Matilda Bay Brewing, which, interestingly, had originated in Fremantle at the Sail and Anchor Hotel, 550m from Little Creatures’ future home, in the mid-1980s.
All had worked together at Matilda Bay Brewing.
After the sale of Matilda Bay to Foster’s Group, now AB InBev-owned CUB, in 1990 Sexton worked on a variety of projects, including developing a ground-breaking India Pale Ale for BridgePort Brewing in Oregon.
And it was Sexton’s knowledge and McDonald’s extraordinary palate that would enable Little Creatures to produce a style of beer largely foreign to Australian taste buds – a hopped-up Pale Ale.
“We knew we wanted to make ales and we went on a trip to the US with Phil and Janice and did a bit of a tour of the breweries over there to determine what our thing was going to look like and what beers we would make,” Cearns said.
“We looked at Sierra Nevada, predominately with the Pale Ale; New Belgium with their Fat Tire (Amber Ale). The Widmer Brothers in Portland were doing a derivation on the IPA and we drank an Anchor Steam Ale in San Francisco.
“But it was the Sierra Nevada that was the one. While we weren’t directly copying it, we wanted to create our own version of a hoppy ale. I don’t know if we thought it would work. We just wanted to do it.”
That was the easy part. Cearns, Trimboli and Sexton then had to build a brewery capable of producing the desired style of beer.
That required capital from some silent partners, including property developer Adrian Fini, to fund the supply of equipment such as the now famous hopback that would ensure the essential hop oils and aroma would feature in the flagship Pale Ale.
The trio was convinced it could only make a suitable Pale Ale by using Cascade from the US Pacific northwest. There was an advantage being based in Fremantle. Little Creatures could comfortably navigate quarantine laws as the whole hops could be sailed into the port and delivered to the brewery down the road instead of traversing Australia.
The Little Creatures premises, built on a former crocodile farm at the edge of Fremantle’s fishing boat harbour, was to be “raw and real, in a big shed with no glass, had to be all open so you could smell, you could hear, and you could feel that it was a real brewery”.
The trio had the distinct style of beer and the new type of brewhouse but needed a brand.
If the beer was going to be something different to the Australian consumer, marketing was critical. It eventually emerged from an unlikely source.
“We were really struggling for a name. I was tasked with coming up with it and was playing around with names that were around small, tiny and little,” Cearns said.
“I was reading The Hobbit and I can’t remember if those words, little creatures, were together but obviously the Hobbit and the elves were wandering through the alehouses and they were beer drinkers. Somewhere in there I must have picked up those two words.
“I ran it by Phil and Nic shortly after and they liked it. So off we went. In 1999 we became Little Creatures.
“Nic and I said the other night who would have thought that Little Creatures with this naughty cherub could work in a number of places.
“Early on we did some promotional work in Singapore and Shanghai and we were surprised people were attracted to the label, story and the name. We sent some beer to a pub in San Diego and it worked there, too.”
With the package of sight, taste and feel, the task was to educate traditional beer drinkers about such a fruity brew that tickled the nasal hairs.
Into its third year Little Creatures reached a tipping point by which time the creators knew they were changing drinking habits. Awards followed. Kudos came from as far as the United Kingdom. Australians showed a liking of beer with flavour.
The second wave of craft beer had crashed on to the country’s shores
“That is the way Phil would describe it as well,” Cearns said. “Matilda Bay was the first wave. It was ahead of its time and it was very much a Phil-driven vision. It ran hard and ran first, and it was battling the big brewer dominance.
“I don’t think consumers were quite ready for what was being thrown at them. Then there was the recession in 1991 that dried up funds. Hahn hadn’t really succeeded. It all went to bed.
“By 1996 Nic and I started talking and felt the consumer was ready for change without any particular research on that. It just felt right. Phil would say he drove the first wave, Nic and I drove the second, but we needed him to help us develop the beer and the brewery.
“Phil had the intellect to make it work.”
Sexton told this author in a previous interview the right relationships were also critical to Little Creatures’ success. By 2005 it was brewing 2.5 million litres of beer. Today, that mark is closer to 12 million litres at the Fremantle operation.
“It was good timing most of all as well as a willingness to take risks with styles, names and packaging as opposed to staying with the status quo,” Sexton said.
“I guess that comes down to good imaginations and there have been plenty involved along the way, including Garry Gosatti and John Tollis in the Matilda Bay days, Nic Trimboli and Howard Cearns in both Matilda Bay and Little Creatures days.
“We were lucky to arrive in the same space as each other.”
Within a decade, Little Creatures, on the back of the Pale Ale, Rogers (Amber Ale) and Bright Ale, had a second brewery in Geelong, there were a million people passing through the Fremantle venue each year and regular supplies were heading to Asia and the UK.
It enticed Lion, who had provided some initial backing of the project, to take over the entire operation in 2012 in a $256 million deal.
Along the way there were other investors who shared in the mammoth financial cake and Sexton had left a few years earlier.
Since leaving Little Creatures, Cearns and Trimboli have had fingers in other pies such as the Alex Hotel in Northbridge, Petition Bar in Perth, Gordon St Garage, Hippocampus and Boatrocker Brewery in Melbourne – even a slice of Stone and Wood – as a partnership or individuals.
Cearns also has an involvement in the Lost and Grounded Brewers in the UK, run by former Little Creatures head brewer Alex Troncoso. Sexton helped set up White Rabbit in Victoria.
But nothing has replicated the joy gained from Little Creatures.
So, when the old leadership got back together to reminisce a couple of months ago, what was the feeling amongst the group?
“There was a lot camaraderie in the room,” Cearns said.
“We spoke about when you start a project like Little Creatures you throw up a list of things you want the venture to become. Fun was one of them.
“And it certainly was.”