April 11, 2014 by 250 Beers
My heart skipped a beat when I received the invitation. I questioned it in my head. Me? Are they serious? Have they made a mistake?
I remember exactly what I was doing when Stone & Wood kindly invited me to join them for this year’s Stone Beer brew day. I was crossing Edward Street at that large intersection with Adelaide Street in Brisbane’s CBD. I remember it well because during that ritualistic three-part questionnaire where I’d convinced myself they’d made an error, I tripped up the kerb and only caught my stride again just a millisecond before my chin scraped the pavement. I cannot be certain what I tripped on but I’m convinced that it was the stupid grin on my face.
Once it had sunk in, I started to recall in my head all of the different pieces of literature that I’d read surrounding previous Stone Beer brew days. And there I was – a beer blogger from Brisbane – about to embark on the same journey that many respected people from the industry had done before me. Holy shit! I was a little nervous yet very excited. Nervous because I was about to throw myself into a group of unknown people. Excited because a) this opportunity could not be missed and b) a couple of those ‘unknowns’ were fellow beer bloggers; James Davidson from Beer Bar Band and Glen Humphries from Beer Is Your Friend.
I didn’t make it down to Byron Bay for the scheduled Friday afternoon meet and greet. Instead, I hit the road just after sunrise on the Saturday. Tip-toeing out of the house that day there was no time for breakfast so I grabbed a cardboard and egg McMuffin (ok, two) and a coffee from my local branch of golden arches. I then settled in for the cruisey two and a half hour, 200 kilometre drive south to Byron. It was a glorious morning with bright, warm sunshine and I was feeling gooood.
I was treating my jaunt as somewhat of a pilgrimage – mainly due to the ancient-like methods utilised in the Stone Beer brewing process; predominantly, the use of white-hot rocks in the kettle and fermenter. It also felt appropriate to deem my journey as a pilgrimage due to the stature of Stone & Wood Brewing Co. itself. The company, its ethics and its short history are held in high regard throughout Australia and beyond. So, taking a little swipe at The Beer Pilgrim in the process – and being the hilariously witty person that I am – I sported this signage on my rear windscreen…
…and it is still there to this day. I told you, I’m hilarious.
Arriving slightly early for a 10am rendezvous had its perks. I had enough time to dump my bag in the room that I was sharing with James who, incidentally, had opted for the larger of the two beds in our twin room. I can’t blame him as I would’ve done exactly the same thing. First in, best dressed and all that. The second perk was that I managed a quick one-on-one chat with über brewer, Brad Rogers, as we waited for everybody else to converge outside the front of our motel. Whilst chewing the fat, it transpired that Brad spent his childhood just down the road from 250 Beers HQ – 40 kilometres north of Brisbane. Small world! Gradually, as others arrived, it became very obvious that people were struggling after a night out on the town in Byron – some had only grabbed an hour of sleep. For once, I was the only person feeling 110% whilst everybody else was feeling shite – it’s usually the other way around.
A chartered mini bus arrived and whisked the twenty or so of us over to the current home of Stone & Wood at their Boronia Place address. Brad gave us a guided tour and it was mind-bogglingly smaller than I had imagined. There was literally zero space. If somebody had brought the proverbial cat along to swing it they would have come unstuck. There was no room at all. How on earth had they kept up with the nationwide demand for their beers? Well, they haven’t been able to hence this admirable open statement.
After an informative walk around the brewery, squeezing in between fermenting tanks here, banging my head there, we were back on board the bus for the drive out to the new brewery at Murwillumbah which is approximately 50 kilometres out of Byron.
We took the long and winding back roads avoiding the straightforward, non-scenic highway. Unfortunately, the longer the journey, the more winding the roads became. The more winding the roads became, the bumpier they got. The bumpier the roads got, the greener Glen turned. His body was paying him back for consuming one too many Pacific Ales the night before. This came after a baron spell of no booze during February. We’ve all been there but when you’re amongst a bunch of new people and you’re clasping a Stone & Wood Stone Beer brew day golden ticket, well, I felt for him.
The Murwillumbah brewery site is huge. I haven’t visited too many breweries – possibly six – however, this amazing building originally constructed as a Bunnings Trade facility that Brad, Ross and Jamie have acquired is by far the largest I’ve seen. It eclipses the Byron site by maybe ten times. Probably more.
Having listened intently to Brad as we toured the new brewery for an hour, we sat for a bite to eat and a couple of freshly bottled Pacific Ales in the doorway of the soon-to-be new loading bay. I’m absolutely certain that Stone & Wood beer tastes better when in the company of the guys and gals that run the show. It might just have been me but perhaps the beer was tainted with just a hint of lingering elation.
I kept turning around in my seat looking back at the vastness of the interior of the brewery. At the moment, the stainless steel of the brew house kit consumes approximately one-quarter of the floorspace. Absolutely plenty of room for future expansion which, in my opinion, will surely happen within the next few years.
Back on board the bus again and we were Byron-bound destined to ignite the fire that would heat those rocks up. We took another winding, hinterland route back. This time taking in glorious views of the ocean and two pub stops/pit stops; one at the Eltham Hotel in Eltham and the other at The Bangalow Hotel in, er, Bangalow. Pacific Ales all round everyone?
Once back at Boronia Place, I was asked nicely to remove the Newstead Brewing Co. tshirt that I’d been pimping all day. I was handed a Stone & Wood version in its place. Medium, obviously.
Then it was down to business with Brad lighting the fire in a large, circular iron drum halfway up the brewery’s driveway. The rocks were then carefully placed into the flames and guests were encouraged to get as involved in the brewing process as they wished.
I didn’t need to be asked twice…mill some grain? Sure. Measure this? Sure. Measure that? Sure. Stir this? Sure. Press this button? Sure. Turn this dial? Shit, yeah!
As the sun set behind us, we sat and enjoyed a superbly catered-for BBQ under the glow of a long string of zig-zagged fairy lights. Our thirst was kept quenched by Bonnie – the retro ex-caravan-now-mobile-mini-bar with four taps pouring Pacific Ale, Garden Ale, Lager and Jasper Ale. Bonnie was manned throughout proceedings by the Stone & Wood sales team who were excellent at keeping glasses full…even Glen’s.
It was at this point when I noticed friends, family and local people arriving. It was quite staggering how much community love was in the air. The community really does adore Stone & Wood and Stone & Wood really adores the community in return. It’s a feel-good kinda place.
After a bout of booming explosions that echoed all around us courtesy of the acoustics generated by a keg-lined wall the length of the premises – the concrete driveway was losing control as the fire above it intensified – it was time for those hot rocks to be transferred from the fire and into the kettle. Easier said than done!
This was the moment that we’d all been waiting for. The showpiece. One of the brewers then had the task of grabbing each individual rock from the glowing embers (with tongs of course), dunking them in water and placing them into a wire cage one by one. The cage was then carried to the base of the kettle and hoisted up into the air before being released gently down into the wort. Cue a bulging puff of steam and a cheer from the congregation. Sugars then went bonkers for those bad boys and caramelised on them like there was no tomorrow.
After an hour or so had passed, the caramelised hot rocks were transferred to a fermenter that already contained a batch of yet-to-be fermented Stone Beer. Again, the cage was lowered carefully. I swear that I heard the yeast scream for joy when they realised that they were about to latch onto some sugary, caramelised rocks to help produce the best Stone Beer yet. It goes without saying that this year’s version will be the best. Meddling beer bloggers have a knack for assisting in quality brews.
After some quality time chatting and mingling it was time to retire back to the motel. Glen hit the hay and James sat and watched some TV but I felt like I hadn’t seen much of Byron having missed the previous night and all of the escapades that went with it. I decided that I wanted a stout (I don’t know why) so I set off into town on a mission. I failed at the mission. There is no stout in Byron. There are, however, gazillions of drunk twenty-somethings. Jeez, I’m getting old.
Before hitting the road back to Brisbane with hitch-hiker/Scratch Bar co-owner, Kieran Ryan, there was just enough time to put away a handsome feast-of-a-breakfast at a beach-side cafe and then a morning stroll along the beach. I had to get my toes sandy and wet – I was in Byron Bay for goodness sake!
Look out for the sixth release of Stone & Wood’s Stone Beer (2014). It’s going to be a cracker. Maybe even join the team for the Festival of the Stone on May 10th? Check their website for details.
Here is a rather cool video shot during the late afternoon and evening of the brew day (keep a look-out for a bespectacled yours truly)…
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To Brad, Ross, Jamie, Jasmin and brewers Brian, Nick, Mick and Luke – as well as the sterling bunch of sales staff – I thank you sincerely for being so wonderfully generous and for a great weekend. I wish you all the very best for the future and beyond at Murwillumbah. Oh, and if there’s some free capacity at your Byron site soon, how about a small batch of stout?