After just one sip of bitter in Fremantle during the back end of 1986, Chris Cramer came up with the concept for a brewery that would change the course of southern California beer.
The San Diegan was backpacking around the world after completing college and just happened to be in WA to watch his local yacht club cruise towards America’s Cup success in Gage Roads – the stretch of water off Fremantle, not the brewery – with Stars and Stripes.
Cramer was convinced his home town was ready for an operation similar to the Matilda Bay Brewery he had enjoyed at the Sail and Anchor Hotel. Within a few years he created Karl Strauss Brewing Company and it quickly emerged as a US west coast craft beer favourite.
Ironically, the vanquished vessel in that America’s Cup series, Kookaburra III, resided 550m from that groundbreaking pub at a dry dock that 12 years later would be turned into a brewery called Little Creatures. It, too, has also gone on to be an international beer revolutionary.
And the constant flow of customers through the brewhouse and dining hall at the former boat shed (and crocodile farm) over almost two decades has enabled Little Creatures Pale Ale to become Australia’s flagship global beer brand.
Forget Fosters. The flying cherub holding a pint glass, still coming down to earth after its 18th birthday late last year, has the respect of locals and international drinkers alike, unlike the old F-branded lager which lost its affinity with this country a generation ago.
Little Creatures has grown from a raw and unpretentious home that produced a game-changing hop-forward beer to having a presence in 35 major cities across the seas. That growth will continue in 2019 with bigger plans afoot.
You can find a Little Creatures Pale Ale in Helsinki, at a Qantas lounge in Tokyo, bars in San Francisco, brewpubs in Singapore and Hong Kong and even, if you’re lucky to be a guest of Ambassador Joe Hockey, at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC where there is a regular tap of the brew on offer.
While Matt Tapper’s team has worked diligently to sell the label overseas, the Managing Director of Global Markets for Little Creatures’ parent, Lion, believes it has been foot traffic through the Fremantle venue that has been the key to the success of the beer’s worldwide reach.
Around one million people annually pass through the brewery’s spiritual base in a strong tourism district and most visitors have taken a taste of the brand back home in their mental baggage.
“Because the Little Creatures brewery in Fremantle has for many years been hosting so many people there have been lots of Australians locally and from the east coast, a lot of people travelling from Asia, travelling from North America, the UK and Europe who have had a taste of the beer,” Tapper told Brews News.
“Unwittingly that brewery in Freo, and the hospitality experience, has introduced that brand to a huge amount of people, especially people in their 20s who are backpacking and who are adventurous in mindset.
“They have gone back to their parts of the world with incredibly fond memories of the experience of Australia and the experience of Little Creatures in Fremantle. That grew the awareness of Little Creatures globally, well before we went about trying to capitalise on that introduction.
“As we have taken Little Creatures to many cities in different parts of the world there has already been a group of craft beer drinkers, ex-pat Aussies, locals that were possibly educated in Australia or who had just travelled here who know about the brand.
“There has been an overseas audience ready to re-engage with Little Creatures.”
Not only is the Pale Ale in a plethora of capitals but there are branded brewpubs in Hong Kong and Singapore with two more to come in London and in San Francisco (near AT&T baseball stadium) this year.
Indeed, the next 12 months will shift the brewery’s international charge into top gear.
Targeting Asia has required a specific strategy based on five countries – China, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea and India, which has recently been the focus of a concentrated trade push from the WA Government.
Within those countries particular cities have been put in the spotlight. For instance in China it is the major localities of Beijing, Shanghai, which has a pop-up Little Creatures bar, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenzhen.
To put it into perspective Shanghai has a population of 24 million and Beijing has close to 20 million, although accurate figures are tough to pin down. The total population of Australia is 25 million according to the latest report from our official bureau of statistics.
So even if artisanal beer makes up a very small percentage of the drinking market in those Chinese cities there are rich pickings. The country’s craft beer market is estimated at $500 million a year – and rapidly growing.
And the emerging middle class is developing a taste for the finer aspects of food and beverage.
“In Asia the conversation is very much about eating and drinking and the role beer plays in a dining occasion. In Australia it is more about a drinking occasion,” Tapper said.
“We think about how we can bring the Little Creatures experience to life in each market. In China you would appreciate the enormous contrast across food and beverage.
“On one side of the street you can pay a very small amount of money for food and beverage and on the other side of the street you can pay for food and beverages what you pay in Sydney and Perth.
“There are people in Beijing and Shanghai who are going to pay $8-10 for a pint of Little Creatures Pale Ale while on the other side of the road they could pay 50 cents for a beer.
“If you can wrap the right experience about the product and push it is coming from Australia which is highly trusted, especially in beer and food processing, there are increasingly a lot of people willing to pay for that experience.”
So does the team at Little Creatures now consider it is flying the flag for Australian beer around the world? And can West Australians be proud that the small brewery from their port is now doing big things on the international stage?
A quiet and humble “yes” and a “very much so” are the answers from Tapper without those words being uttered.
And he believes the work of creators Howard Cearns, Nic Trimboli and Phil Sexton in making a well-balanced, hoppy, yet accessible, beer was the key to the growth.
“I don’t think it is something we would shout, promote or ride on the coattails of, but 18 years on we should be really proud of the fact that now, amongst another generation of beer drinkers, we are the most trusted brand, the most well-known, the most readily available and in some respects the most loved (Australian craft beer),” Tapper said.
“It goes back to being a real product. A reason the beer has travelled as well is the flavour, and the balance of the Pale Ale is phenomenal.
“Whether we are or not (the flagship) we should be incredibly proud of the way it has travelled. In many people’s minds in many markets overseas it has redefined what beer from Australia is like and what it is about.
“That is a credit to the creators. I just hope it continues to retain that youthful spirit.”