For a state that wholly upended the Australian beer landscape, by 2013 WA’s brewing industry was on virtual life support. Home to prototypical Fremantle icons like Sail & Anchor, Matilda Bay and Little Creatures, the closure of the iconic Swan Brewery that year saw an already depleted stream dwindle to a trickle.
A series of big-beer buy-ups of local brands had augured brewery closures as production was consolidated to the eastern seaboard.
Whereas local production once accounted for around 95% of consumption as late as the 1990s, it had by then dropped below 10% – and endemic drops such as Emu Export were now brewed, shipped and railed in from Tasmania, some 4,000km away.
Following in the footsteps of its fellow Fremantle breweries, Gage Roads (
gageroads.com.au) – founded by ex-Sail & Anchor comrades Peter Nolin and Bill Hoedemaker, with Bill’s brother John – received early acclaim with its pilsner and IPA after launching in 2002. However, following an ASX listing in 2006, soon found itself distracted by lucrative contract brewing commitments to Woolworths, which had purchased a 25% stake in the business in 2009.
While Gage remained an enduring presence in the Australian market – sold exclusively through Woolworths’ retail chains – it was lagging far behind the crest of craft beer in Australia: where ‘independence’ was a bloodied badge of honour and big retail was viewed with increasing suspicion.
In 2016, after a successful capital raise, Gage Roads bought back Woolworths’ stake and began an almost overnight transformation, driven by a reformist breed of new world ales that propelled Gage Roads into craft beer infamy: none more than the Little Dove pale ale, arguably the best example of that particular style in the country and crowned Champion Beer at the 2016 Australian International Beer Awards.
With Little Dove and its stable-mates Single Fin summer ale and Side Track mid-strength XPA, Gage has managed to navigate a unique groove into the hands and hearts of Australian drinkers – with its distinctly coastal aesthetic endearing patrons both old and young, traditional and progressive. Ever so patiently Gage has been reversing the downward trend of WA consumers drinking local.
This has most recently been complemented with the release of the Pipe Dreams coastal lager: a nod to the brewery’s origins with a clean, malt-driven classic that screams of an Indian (Ocean) summer.
But, always careful to contemporaneously nurture the pointy end of its customer base, The Bay XPA is a luscious new limited release, piqued with Citra and Sabro hops, the latter adding a hint of summery coconut.
Gage Roads’ broad appeal amongst mainstream drinkers has, no doubt, been fortified by its exclusive contract to supply Optus Stadium in WA. This is a feat many believed unlikely in the long shadow of both Lion and CUB, which collectively account for around half of the Australian beer market – and between them now own totemic WA brands Matilda Bay, Swan and Little Creatures.
“From the inception, the intent of Gage Roads was to be a national brand, not a brewpub,” says the company’s chief strategy and operating officer, Aaron Heary, adding that the brewery today represents around 0.5% of Australian beer sales.
“We have size and scale, but we’re also independent and genuinely part of a local community.”
While the brewery’s community presence has increased in recent years – thanks to high-profile sponsorship deals across sport and the culture industries – it has long lacked a ‘spiritual home’.
But that’s a crevasse that will finally be bridged in 2021 with a multi-million dollar fit-out of Fremantle harbour’s historic A Shed Warehouse (just down the dock from Little Creatures).
In a tangy twist of fate, the warehouse gazes out to the very maritime navigational channel from which Gage Roads takes its name, between Fremantle and Rottnest Island.
The brewery’s national growth strategy will also see brick-and-mortar venues emerge around the country in coming years – starting in Sydney – and functioning both as localised visitational brewpubs and production facilities to satiate the company’s ever-expanding keg and packaged customer base as the WA brewery nears capacity.
“It’s been a pretty dramatic few years for Gage,” Heary concludes. “But now we’re back to the basics of being a brewery and making great beer – back to the very core of what Gage always was.”