Billed as 'the home of Australian craft beer', The Crafty Pint has carved out a legacy as one of the premier publishers of beer stories in the country, with an endless stream of articles that we like to read.
In this, our latest in the Hits from the Trade series of industry interviews, Andrew Graham chats with Crafty Pint founder James Smith about what it's really like to be a beer journalist (and publisher/marketer/events organiser + the rest).
Lightly edited for flow, we caught James fresh off a family holiday a few weeks back...
James: We did ten nights away in the end with no power, no water. So we've just been working our way down a big bag of washing...
Kaddy Community: So besides that trip, you've been out and about quite a bit?
I've been trying to catch up on what's been the best part of three years of not getting interstate. I've been to Adelaide a couple of times, and then also we did a big trip, which was going to be six weeks in the NT, but because of the lockdowns in Melbourne, we didn't come back, so we ended up being away over 16 weeks. Aside from that, I hadn't been anywhere in three years.
So, I did Adelaide for Beer and Barbecue, then Perth & Freo for Froth Town and visits there. Then an event in Bendigo, the Gold Coast and Brisbane, and we went camping, and then I'm off to Sydney next. And then, when that's done, thankfully, I think I'm done for the year! Although I did get an invite from Stone & Wood for something earlier today, which I haven't yet run past my wife...
Ha! But getting out to breweries and doing those venue listings is a big part of The Crafty Pint story too?
Yeah. That's never really stopped in terms of new people approaching us about wanting to get listed venues. I think the breweries have been through a bit of a tough time, so that's been a bit slow, but we're actually in the process of redesigning the website. I'd love to have it launched in time for Christmas because we know what it needs to do - it's all about using what we've done better and then making it easy to find all the information. You know, not time-sensitive stories, but all the timeless stuff. So we've been working on that as well. It feels like this year has been a bit of a strange one in terms of getting out on the road and getting to people again and do events again. And at the same time, going "you know what? Let's pull the whole thing apart and make it better", (but) it's still just me, a designer and a developer.
Developing a new site is one of those things where you can just devote your life to it...
Yeah, well, I've not really been writing (as a result)! At the end of that big lockdown. I was like, "Okay, we're gonna bounce back. I know that we're going see our income jump straight away, and I'll take on another writer and a club and marketing person. That'll be great! That'll free me up to get back to the bigger picture stuff and more writing", and then it became very apparent when Omicron hit that our income wasn't going to bounce back. So I didn't take on the extra writer, and I didn't take on the events. So I've effectively been events, marketing, admin (person), and you know, just a dog's body! I've hardly written a thing. There are all these stories I've done and the interviews piling up, and then add (the website redesign) on top of it and all the travel! There's so much more I want to be doing, and I just had to go, "you know what, James? This is what it has to be for now". And then, hopefully, with the relaunch of the new site later in the year, then we'll hopefully have a good summer and autumn for the industry. And I'll get to where I wanted to be at the start of this year at the start of next year!
Just reset and roll on into 2023!
I enjoy writing, and I'm quite good at it, but it doesn't really happen because I'd have to be the one running the business, you know, and I don't want to hand over things to my team. I'd rather they were focused 100% on doing what they do, and I support them doing that the best they can. And for the time being, that means I have to be muggins here, general dogsbody, whatever it is, just to keep all that stuff from the team so that they can just keep doing what they're doing.
Okay, so I have a question - is it true that you got into the beer industry through the Mountain Goat cricket team?
Oh, that was definitely a factor in it. I apparently said to my wife before we first moved over here (from the UK) that I'd have to learn how to brew because the beer in Australia was terrible, and I'd drunk real ale growing up. I came to Australia twenty years ago as a backpacker and only had my first Coopers at the end of that trip. So I came here looking for work as a journalist, which is pretty tricky anywhere in the world of print journalism, especially here. And (when we first arrived), my wife was working with the then-girlfriend of Tom Delmont, who was the Mountain Goat rep and now the main guy at Fixation. So they took us to Mountain Goat on a Friday evening, and I was like, "oh my god, I can't believe this exists".
We became really good friends with them and their mates. And then I found out they had an indoor cricket team, and I used to play. So we went, and there was someone who was a sales guy for Prickly Moses and someone else who was brewing for Hargreaves Hill, and I was like, "Okay, there's something going on here". I started looking into it and realised the business was growing, and there was no up-to-date craft beer information. Apart from Willie Simpson's column in the Sydney Morning Herald, there wasn't much regular, up-to-date coverage online outside a few bloggers and stuff. So it kind of did grow from there - I had time on my hands and needed something to write about, and eventually, we put two and two together and fixed two problems!
So Crafty Pint has been around for 12 years now. Do you feel like the whole craft beer industry now has matured now?
I definitely think it's a mature or maturing industry. I think it happened very quickly, and a lot of the things have happened faster than they would in another industry, maybe because there was the example of America to look at and follow quicker. Maybe because of social media impacts, because there was nothing else other than lager and Coopers over here, and so this there was this shiny new thing for people to chase. Maybe there was a coming together of a lot of the right people. I mean, I do think Crafty Pint played a role coming in at a time when everything was starting to explode. But there was also, you know, the guys at the Taphouse starting GABS around the time that we started Good Beer Week. There was a whole bunch of things that came together ten or more years ago. And it just accelerated, really. There are still loads of new breweries opening now. You'd think that they might look at how challenging the industry has been over the last couple of years (and be put off), but if you've got the right model and you're in the right place, it's still valid (and growing).
I was telling someone the other day that for the first half of Crafty Pint's life was kind of the same story "there's this craft beer thing happening, here is another example and here's some cool innovation people do, and this exists, and you've got to get behind it. Oh, and no, it's not going to fade away like everyone has been saying". Then, over time, the story got a lot more complex and convoluted. And I think that's what it is now. Businesses have been sort of forced to grow up, or they get themselves into trouble in one way or another or just, yeah, just having to find a way.
In some ways, the industry is definitely more mature than what it was. There's now a lot of people coming in with money, believing there's money to be made and starting their own businesses without in a very different way to what the two or three mates would have done, or the husband and wife would have done, and at a time when things are challenging. So, you know, it's maturing but still a bit messily.
It definitely feels like there is a constant sense of innovation in craft beer too.
Yeah, and we try and tell as many stories as we can, but it would be impossible. We could have an army of writers, but that would be overwhelming. But that's also what appeals to a lot of people about craft beer - that it is constantly reinventing so much creativity. At the same time, there's been a rush for everyone to have a hazy pale or, you know, hazy IPA in their range. And, you know, there's only so many times I've had guys go, "I can't think of anything interesting to say about another 6.2% really fruity, sweet hazy IPA". It's almost like a relief when winter comes because then people start putting out dark beers! I mean, it does change a bit, but there is the herd mentality.
There is so much innovation and invention, though - I'm going to Sydney in 10 days, where we're gonna start at Slow Lane in the morning and do a German brewers breakfast kind of thing and talk about his real old world approach to brewing and barrel ageing and traditional stuff, look German and Belgian styles, and probably have some sausages and pretzels, and then we're going to walk two minutes around the corner to One Drop, and, you know, go flying into the future of beer and deconstructing some of their wild imperial pastry fruit beers. It's amazing that you have two breweries in Botany, of all places, two minutes apart that are doing such vastly different things, and both doing it brilliantly.
You can probably see on one level like it's just a swathe of Pacific ales, XPA and hazys, but actually, there's so much more going on which you know, which you guys will know just what's listed on Kaddy with so many new things being added every day.
Crafty Pint has been called Australia's #1 beer news site. What's the secret to success?
If you ask my wife, it's because I'm always working. I always had a bit of an issue with working hard for other people, maybe because I just sort of never found the right fit. So now I have become a workaholic - I think you probably do with your own business. But from my impact, it would be working hard, having ridiculous or trying to have ridiculously high standards when we can attain them. But also having a background as a journalist and I think a lot of the other sort of beer writing sites with longevity, like with Brews News, where you have Matt, who is a writer and editor, who has integrity. So again, it's the same idea. You've got someone at the heart of it who has a mission and has the skills to sort of do it the right way. And I think a lot of the other sites have fallen away it's because it's hard to make a dollar in doing it.
Also, writing isn't easy, and writing/presenting in a way that is engaging is tricky, and I think that's something that we have, where pretty much everything you read across the site you'll either learn something, or you'll be entertained, or ideally both. And if you're reading one of our longer articles, you'll sort of get to the end and not realise because the writing is good enough. But it's just happenstance as well, just launching when we did, and I got to know pretty much everybody in the beer industry because there wasn't actually that big beer industry to get around. And so, having Crafty Pint, it was referred to as a bit of a hub for the industry, certainly in those early days. So, and then as one of the people that launched Good Beer Week, which brought everyone together around the AIBAs, I got to know everyone in the industry very early, and that helped as well.
Timing is a lot - moving to Australia at the right time, yeah, my wife and my wife meeting Kate at the right time, going to Mountain Goat and getting on really well with the whole team there and being welcomed into their world. Even today - I went to Dave Cryer's leaving drinks the other day, and people have flown in from all over Australia and overseas to be there on a Tuesday night. He was really good for me, as he has been for loads of other people in the industry for support. Not a shoulder to cry on, but certainly, a wise head to lean on in the early days. And Brad Rogers, you know, the Stone & Wood founder, was just like that early on, and then I got to know Jamie Cook and his business partners really well after that. And he was always happy to take time to sort of give context about the wider industry. So there's been a lot of people out there who've cared enough to pass on information to newcomers like myself or younger brewers because they want to see things succeed.
On that topic, though, is there anything you wish you'd have done differently?
I wish I had a business brain! Yeah, I reckon I would like to put a finger on how many dollars would have escaped through my fingers over the years, but it would be a lot because it's not something that interests me enough. It's not my makeup, so I'm trying to get better. And part of the whole redesign of the site is thinking more about how to make this structurally better.
I guess with Good Beer Week, part of the reason we merged that with IBA is it just really hard to keep running as a not-for-profit and pulling something off on that scale. I wish we had done, and were doing more (at Crafty Pint), but that just comes down to resources again. I don't think my vision for where what I've wanted for Crafty Pint has changed or had to change, but we've introduced new things and tweaked things over the years because the world changes. And that's really annoying, like trying to keep on top of changes in social media. You get to the point where you say, "you know what, we'll do the best we can, and we'll just pick our battles". I think the vision is still a long way off being fully realised, if anything ever can be fully realised.
Why do you think the craft beer industry is quite collegial? Compared to some other drinks sectors (like wine)?
It's really bizarre, isn't it? Because you hear that all the time. Sure, people in the beer world are competitive, there are reps out there who are trying to take other people's taps, and you know, the size of the pie isn't that huge at the minute. And the big guys - especially the major retailers - are doing their best to keep the pie as small as they can for indies. So there is always that competition. But yeah, you're right, and those that aren't part of the community or don't have that community feel and play the game in a sort of collegiate manner? They stand out. Often they're very successful because they focus on their own business, but it must come back to the nature of beer itself in that it is that more every man and every woman, a social lubricant equaliser. I mean, there are some beers that you can spend $30, $40, $50 a bottle on because, you know, they've taken three or four years and how many barrels and blends and fruit to get there. But for the most part, it's an affordable luxury. People go out to have one while watching sports or at the beach. Beer is really sort of equalising drink, and it has been for 1000s of years. Pubs, inns and taverns over the years were where communities came together. They'd have been going there to drink ale, mead, or something like that. It's just always been that thing that's been at the heart of coming together, along with sitting around a fire which I'm slightly obsessed with as sitting around a fire is the other great equaliser.
But brewing isn't easy. It's not cheap to get into; if you want to go down the contract brewing route and get someone else to make you beer, it's really hard to make money, and therefore you've got to have your own kit. And you can either try and do it yourself, just throwing milk tanks together as people have done in the past but then you might have issues, and people know what a good and a bad beer is these days. Or you have to drop a quarter or half a million dollars to get off the ground. So it's not easy to get into. You hear it so often, though, people going, "oh, you know, I got into the game six months ago, and everyone I've met in the industry has helped out". You hear stories about when the floods came down the east coast and the guys at Balter going to help out and helping redesign breweries. I know one brewery getting back online in Brisbane now, and Balter did an entire batch of beer for, I think, nothing. So you've got this large brewery owned by Asahi, and the lead characters are going to help out. Yeah, and I think maybe the more people hear about that, they say, "Well, I don't want to be the person that isn't like that".
Okay. So crystal ball - what do you think is going to be big in craft beer for 2023?
Yeah. I think liquid-wise, it's easy to get sort of caught up in new emerging trends or new styles. But I think that generally Australians have shown that if they're not going to drink mainstream lager, then they're going to be drinking something fruity, approachable, balanced, not that bitter. So I think summer ales, hazy pales seem to still be the absolute go-to, and you see more and more breweries adding them to their core ranges.
I think it will be interesting to see how far the low and no (NOLO) alcohol thing keeps going. That sort of taken a bit of the wind out of the sails of mid-strength. There were people making really good mid-strengths a few years ago, and still are, but I think people are saying, "well, if I'm not going to mid-strength, then I may as well go with 0.5% alc" and there are some great beers out there. I have spoken to some who reckon the noise around it is louder than the actual results. But yeah, we've had a new release hazy from Hop Nation, and Molly Rose has done one, and there are new ones all the time. And that was something that two or three years ago when we first started doing articles on the craft versions, I was like, "I don't get it. If I'm not gonna have a beer, I'll just have water". But then some good ones started coming out. And then, you know, last summer camping trip, I took a mixed case of 2.5% beers and a mixed case of non-alcs with me to the beach because you could have them, you know, from midday, and then six at night, you're like "I've been drinking all day, and I'm absolutely fine". It's going to be really interesting to see because there's a feeling that with the seltzer side of things, that's probably going to have it a Rekorderlig flavoured cider boom to an extent, but I think the low and no alcohol thing that it feels like there's no reason why that can't reach a certain point and stay there - I don't think we know what that ceiling is.
Also, on the fringes, we're going to see more on provenance. Not necessarily fully organic brewing, but there's more farmers switching to regenerative and organic practices and producing organic wheat and barley or producing organic hops on a small scale. So I think that's going to be a really interesting story. In terms of playing into the sustainability, brewers have often been keen to try and talk it up because making beer is innately not sustainable. You have to use so much energy and water. People have been trying to find ways of making it better by going 100% solar or growing their own ingredients. I think that's going to be something we'll see a lot more or people talking a lot more about - the provenance of their beers or their ingredients. Yeah, it's a good story. If I think about the amount of beer in Australia made with wild ferments, barrels, blended and using fruits and stuff. The volume would be point zero something percent of the market, but we'd have written huge amounts on it because it's fascinating and romantic to use beer to tell farmers stories.
So final question, what are you excited about?
So many things to think about. I do think that moves towards provenance and try trying to celebrate local flavours and be better citizens. You know, I think craft beer is one of those 'good' industries where a lot of people go into it for good reasons, and are using it to tell good stories - like Sailors Grave celebrating everyone in East Gippsland or whatever.
But it's exciting to see some innovation in beer hospitality too. You know, it's still awesome to go to a warehouse where you've got your tanks along the back, and they're slinging pizzas, and there's some good music on, and it's all nice and rough and ready, but you go to places like Bodriggy in Melbourne for example, and it is incredible. I've not been to visit Hawke's yet, but I can't wait to visit the Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre. It is exciting to see the vision that people have to associate their brand that has the power to bring potentially bring new people in. And I think, you know, in some ways, it's been to the detriment of traditional pubs to the extent that people have started swapping pubs and bars to go into a brewery. Father's Day now is an easy cop out for mums and kids to take the dad to a brewery, and more and more suburbs are getting their own space. It's definitely exciting.