Like many people, Sam Mealing got into home brewing through the classic Coopers kit from Kmart. Studying at university in Newcastle, it seemed like a cheap alternative and something cool to do.
This is a bumper interview, so there is a list of contents below.
Click the link to jump between sections.
- About Sam Mealing
- The Hop & Grain Brew Store
- Events and Classes
- Information Exchange
- Closing The Loop – Getting Feedback
- The Local Craft Beer Community
- Explaining The Growth of Home Brewing
- Why Are People Home Brewing?
- The Value in Community for Aspiring Brewers
- Trends in Home Brewing
- Home Brewers Develop an Appreciation of Flavours
- Appreciation the Agriculture Behind Beer
- The Geography of Beer Production
Now, Sam is the owner of The Hop & Grain Brew Store in Marrickville, along with his wife Leesa.
“I’d done a fair few all grain brews by the time we opened [the store] but I stuck to the kits for a while.”
Many home brewers have turned their passion into a profession by starting to brew commercially. Sam took a slightly different route.
“I was talking to a friend who had also moved to Sydney, to the Inner West, and I was like ‘how come there’s no home brew shop down here – that sucks!’.”
“He was like, ‘I don’t know, someone should start one’. And I said, ‘yeah, someone should’.”
“And then I thought about it a bit more and I thought if I don’t then someone else will. The timing seemed right so I put together a bit of a business plan.”
The Hop & Grain opened up in Enmore in February 2014 before moving to bigger premises in Marrickville in 2015.
On taking that first leap in 2014, Sam says, “It worked alright. We got busier and busier in Enmore but we just didn’t have the space for enough palate loads of grain. It was just a little shop and we thought we actually need a bit of a warehouse to store this stuff.”
“We were there for over a year in the end. It took us that long to find somewhere we were happy with.”
It was certainly worth holding out for the right place. Those who have seen the Marrickville “warehouse” will have been impressed. It’s open, bright and airy.
Importantly, there’s room to drive a forklift right in the front door, and plenty of room out the back for storing large equipment, sacks of grain and for hosting some of the events Sam has started running.
Sam runs educational classes where groups can see and take part in the brewing process.
“I noticed that that’s something that no other home brew shop was doing. No one was doing classes.”
In business terms, the classes are a good way of diversifying The Hop & Grain’s revenue stream, and, of course, they’re a platform from which Sam can sell kits and products.
But at the core, they’re a way of educating and informing people about home brewing, and to introduce people to the different techniques and processes involved.
Sam says, “As to how it all works together, I just try to match up the kits that we sell with the classes that we offer.”
“I tell people that there are three sort of approaches to brewing. Kit or concentrate brewing, extract brewing and then all grain brewing.”
“There’s stuff in between like partial mash but dividing it down to those three is nice and simple and then we run a beginner, an intermediate and an all grain class that kind of correspond with those three levels of technicality.”
The classes demonstrate how Sam values what he calls “information exchange”, something that wasn’t available to him when he started.
“When I got started I didn’t have any information to go off. I got my Coopers kit, followed the instructions, watched the DVD that came with it, that featured Paul Mercurio. It was pretty 90s.”
Apart from Paul Mercurio, Sam didn’t really have many places to turn for solid home brewing advice.
“There was not that much information available to me. Without naming names, the brew shop that I went to doesn’t exist any more.”
“I started going to try and get some advice and a little bit of info. The dude there was a total grouch, he didn’t want to have a conversation with you, or help you, or steer you in the right direction.”
“He just wanted you to come in, pick up something from the shelf, take it to the counter, pay for it and go away. Maybe he’d been doing it too long and had lost the love for it but there was no exchange of information which I try to foster here.”
Those with experience of The Hop & Grain can testify to this. The advice on offer is as valuable to home brewers as the hops, grain and yeast on sale.
“You can come to any of us and tell us about what you’re planning on brewing and we’ll give you a little bit of advice if we can, if we’ve brewed something similar, a similar style or similar technique.”
Sam understands the concerns of home brewers and is savvy enough to recognise the need to close the loop.
Once the recipe, ingredients and process are taken care of, a brewer needs feedback on their beer to understand what’s good about it and what can be improved.
Beyond the process, getting feedback can be the hardest part for a novice home brewer.
This is not for a lack of people willing to drink free beer but because it takes guts to show off something you’ve created. That’s why a friendly and comfortable environment is needed for brewers to learn and develop.
This is an often forgotten part of the home brewing process that Sam Mealing has covered.
He says, “We’re just trying to foster that sort of information exchange and that fits right in with our ‘Bring a Brew’. If you’re a brewer, bring along a longneck of what you’ve brewed.”
“More or less we’re just having a good time drinking each others beer but it’s about more than that. You get some feedback, you get some ideas and you get to talk to other people about their set up, their techniques and how they created what you’re tasting. So getting that kind of information exchange is really helpful.”
Fostering a community of like-minded people fits right into the local craft ethos.
For Sam Mealing this willingness to help people who share his passion is a reflection of the wider craft beer scene.
“In terms of the local culture that’s going on in the Inner West and in Marrickville, we’ve got Batch Brewing just around the corner, Willie The Boatman in St. Peters, The Grifter is opening up, and Wayward opening up in Annandale. It’s becoming a bit more of ‘a thing’.”
“What do they say, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’? I think it’s got that sort of aspect to it. There doesn’t seem to be a huge sense of competition. It’s like, I’ll try your beer, you try mine.”
This sense of comradery and shared passion benefits all involved. Followers of the Sydney craft beer scene will have noticed this in the form of collaborations and cross-promotion between small breweries and venues.
Such is the spirit of the scene, Sam was quick to point to a recent example that typifies the interactions that play out across the local beer community.
“Batch, around the corner, wanted to do a little test brew so they picked up a bunch of different hops from us and I was like ‘don’t worry, you’ll get us back next time’.”
“I put in a big order of grain last week, I’ve got thirteen bags of pale malt and just realised yesterday I didn’t actually order any wheat and we just ran out.”
“So I called up Jonathan at Batch and said ‘would you happen to have a bag of wheat malt I can borrow?’ And he was like ‘yeah, no worries, do you want a whole bag, a half bag?’.”
“It’s all pretty friendly. Sometimes people come in and get their stuff and ask where they can go for a beer and I go ‘try Batch just around the corner, really nice guys, really nice beer’.”
Local connections and the excitement around craft beer is driving interest in home brewing.
Already Sam has seen growth in the home brewing scene and he puts it down to the growth of craft beer.
“The home brewing scene is growing with the craft beer scene.”
“The home brewing scene in Sydney is getting busier. Obviously, we’re getting busier, we’re getting more customers in through the door. I think part of it is based on craft beer.”
“There’s the old school reason for doing it, like it’s an old man thing, save some money. But the home brewing scene is growing with the craft beer scene.”
It’s clear to see why the increased availability of different and interesting beers should drive an interest in home brewing
“You go to Dan Murphy’s and all of a sudden there’s interesting beers, like saisons and varieties that you couldn’t find before. That level of interest is also driving an interest in brewing your own and going ‘I’m really enjoying it and I want to know more about it and actually have a crack at it myself’.”
As with all small niches that rebel against the mainstream, like indie or punk music, people gravitate towards the smallest scale, the most handmade, the most obscure options available.
In beer, there’s nothing more small scale and handmade than making your own.
“People seem to get more interested in smaller and smaller scale. Like I used to drink Tooheys New and then you get more switched on to stuff like Lord Nelson and Young Henrys, bigger craft breweries. Then you get more interested in what places like Batch and Willie The Boatman are producing. Then people sort of go ‘can we go smaller than that, what can I make in my kitchen?’.”
It’s these people who are inflating the number of home brewers who are not only walking through The Hop & Grain’s door but who are becoming an active part in the local home brewing and craft beer community.
It would be easy to play on the Inner West hipster stereotype but the fact is there is a growing number of people who are passionate about small local businesses, locally produced products and things that are creative, interesting and brought together by passionate people they can identify with.
“I think people are brewing their own beer around here more because of the scene and because it’s interesting and it’s for the actual enjoyment and pleasure of it. Being able to put something together and go ‘wow I made that and it tastes really nice’.”
Craft beer fits snugly into all of these categories. So it’s no surprise that people gravitate towards exciting, local beer. And of course they want to learn more and give it a go themselves.
Sam says, “I have heard of people saying they’ve gone to other shops and said, ‘I’d like to try all grain brewing’ and they’ve been discouraged from doing it. They’ve been told ‘no don’t bother, it’s a waste of your time, it’ll take too long, it’s too messy’. I’m not sure what the reasoning was. But we’re definitely the other way round.”
“I think that’s partly to do with the area that we’re in. I think people are brewing their own beer around here more because of the scene and because it’s interesting and it’s for the actual enjoyment and pleasure of it. Being able to put something together and go ‘wow I made that and it tastes really nice’.”
While the motivation for home brewing was once to save money, Sam believes that, in the Inner West at least, this is changing.
“The traditional thing has always been that it’s cheap, which is why I started and that’s not an invalid reason at all. [Now] it’s not the sole driving force which is why I think we have more all grain and extract customers than kit brewing customers.”
In this sense, home brewing has moved away from being a money-saving exercise and into an investment of time, money and passion. People are more and more interested in how the products they consume are made. They also want to have fun in the process.
When groups of people come together to do something for the sheer love of it, it’s bound to have serendipitous outcomes.
There’s incredible value in this sense of community for aspiring home brewers but while Sam promotes home brewing for the enjoyment and the satisfaction of it, he also sets realistic expectations as to what can be achieved.
“It’s good for people to get a feel for it before they jump in too high. People will come in and say they want to buy an all grain kit right from the get go. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to brew all grain but you might make a mistake somewhere in the process and you’ll have a beer at the end and you’ll go ‘this doesn’t taste right and I have no idea what I’ve done wrong’.”
Sam advises, “Try and do it progressively. I do have people one Coopers kit into it and say I’ve decided I’m going to open my own brewery. Take a deep breath, calm down. There is a lot of work involved in that sort of thing.”
From talking to Sam and from observing the home brewing and craft beer scene, there seems to be a development curve for home brewers.
- You start home brewing and you want to open a brewery.
- Then you get better and you realise there’s no way you could ever open a brewery.
- Then, in some cases, you get very, very good and you realise “hell, I should open a brewery”.
This last stage of the curve happens infrequently but when it does, beer drinkers are thankful of it. You don’t need to look much further than the likes of Doctor’s Orders, Shenanigans and Wayward in Sydney alone to see why.
“There’s some odd perceptions about brewing but for the most part everyone who’s into it is just into it for the enjoyment.”
It’s clear to Sam that gaining experience in brewing is necessary and that common sense should prevail. “I think when people are taking all grain brewing seriously and they’ve got ten or twenty all grain brews under their belt, they start to realise there’s actually a lot of planning, a lot of variables, a lot of cleaning that goes into. They don’t get discouraged but they approach it with a more sensible mindset with how brewing works and how commercial it is.”
Even with the uptake in home brewing there still seems to be an attitude that brewing and perhaps the hype around craft beer means there’s easy money to be made. This is clearly very far from the truth.
However, Sam reckons most of the people he encounters, particularly in the local scene are doing it for the love of it. “There’s some odd perceptions about brewing but for the most part everyone who’s into it is just into it for the enjoyment. Because they like drinking what they produce not because they think there’s some kind of scheme there.”
With a friendly and supportive community, a booming local craft beer scene, and home brewing knowledge freely attainable from the internet and places like The Hop & Grain, it’s a pretty good time to be a home brewer in Sydney, whether you hold aspirations to turn pro or just do it for the enjoyment.
Trends in craft beer tend to be somewhat cyclical, or at least they come and go and then sometimes come again.
Seasons affect not just the production and consumer habits of commercial beers but also what people want to brew for themselves.
“We’ve just been through winter and everyone’s been brewing dark beers. As it starts to heat up people want to make light beers, like pales with a touch of wheat that gives it a bit of crispness, a touch of tartness to it. Doing full on hefeweizens, saisons or whatever. More summery, more sessionable, more crisp and dry sorts of beers.”
In the craft beer world, brewers and drinkers are always after the “next big thing”. Whether it’s hop varietals or particular styles, people are always looking for the next craze.
Every so often though, a commercial beer makes such an impact that it resonates through the home brewing community.
Sam says, “There are beers that set the bench mark. The number of people that come in and say I want to make a clone of Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, it must be the number one beer request we get.”
“Stone & Wood probably put Galaxy hops on the map. So there’s trends that people follow, just with what beers they’re drinking commercially and try and brew similar stuff.”
Trends like these change and evolve and it takes a keen eye to see where the next big hitting hop variety, or beer style will come from.
This demand for particular ingredients or styles at a commercial level has a trickle down effect to home brewers and supply stores like The Hop & Grain.
Sam says, “There’s definitely trends in terms of ingredients. Because hops are seasonal, they’ll produce a certain amount in a year. A lot of hops get contracted out to breweries. When you’re a home brew supplier and you call up a merchant and say can I get a kilo of this and five kilos of that, they’ll sometimes say ‘no, we’ve contracted out all our Galaxy’, or ‘we’ve contracted out all our Mosaic’. So things definitely come in waves.”
Talking to Sam, he’s full of examples of these kind of trends and supply issues.
“So last year we couldn’t get Simcoe. We just couldn’t find it. But this year we’ve been able to keep it in stock very consistently. I guess what happened is a lot of breweries all wanted Simcoe. A lot of people wanted to brew Simcoe beers, that was the trend, so you couldn’t really get it.”
“Last year we had heaps of Citra in stock, no dramas. This year we’ve had trouble getting Citra. I’ll be able to beg and plead to get a kilo of it here and there but we haven’t been able to order a five kilo bag.”
After seeing this a few times, Sam is able to look at the commercial market and make predictions on how this will affect his store and his customers.
“I guarantee at the end of this year and beginning of next year, Mosaic is going to be hard to get.”
“I’ve noticed heaps of breweries this year doing Mosaic beers. Batch is doing a beer with Mosaic, I think Squire’s Hop Thief this year had Mosaic. I should probably try to buy fifty kilos and put it in a deep freezer but I guarantee at the end of this year and beginning of next year, Mosaic is going to be hard to get.”
“I reckon you’ll see more varieties harder to get hold of just because thats what’s in fashion.”
It can already be seen happening but as people become more exposed to a variety of hop flavours through commercial beer and home brewing, an increased appreciation of flavours should develop.
Not least because, through home brewing, craft beer enthusiasts get closer to understanding the process and the affect it has on flavour.
Away from the issues trends can cause for supply, they have a benefit in terms of educating people about the raw ingredient.
An unfamiliarity with certain flavours or the lack of experience of identifying them is sometimes what holds people back from drinking craft beer. If an increased awareness of ingredients and their characteristics can come through home brewing, that can only be a good thing for craft beer as a whole.
Sam says, “I think the culture around beer is rapidly catching up to the culture around wine.”
“They’re tasting it and they’re going ‘you can really taste that passionfruit flavour from the Galaxy hops’. People are getting as cluey and picky about beer as they are with wine.”
While there is still work to be done to change perceptions of what beer is, more and more people are developing an appreciation for it.
Sam has seen this perception change just in the last couple of years: “When I first started the brew shop here, my aunt said to me ‘you went to university, you got a good education, I never thought you’d do something with beer’.”
“To many people, beer is very working class. It’s what old men drink, hanging out at the pub after their day of hard labour. That’s her sort of mindset, that’s what beer drinkers are to her which is kind of funny because I’ve had a pilsner with her before.”
“But now it’s not like that. It’s more like wine. People are more interested in stuff that’s more artisanally produced, that has a bit more love in the process of it.”
And from an appreciation of the product and its various characteristics, the next step should be an increased appreciation of what goes into making it.
This is something that’s difficult to educate people on.
In response to whether home brewing helps develop an appreciation of the agriculture behind beer, Sam says: “I think I under appreciate it. You don’t realise how much effort goes into actually producing the raw components of beer.”
Sam illustrates this point with the latest trend in malt.
“The big thing at the moment is Gladfield Malt. We haven’t started ordering them in yet but we will. We order a lot of Joe White. It’s an Australian malt. It’s very cost effective because it’s not imported. It’s high quality and it’s what a lot of breweries use but I’m starting to see a little bit more demand for people wanting a specific brand of malt.”
According to Sam, a standard pale malt will cover most requirements but as people become more clued in to the ingredients behind the beer, customers are more often requesting specific brands like Gladfield.
“I generally say we try to cover all the bases in terms of variety. But Gladfield Malts are really craft maltsters.”
“I suppose they are to Joe White what Batch is to Tooheys. I don’t know how good an analogy that is, maybe the difference in scale there is a fair bit different but they’re a craft maltster. They’re meant to have really nice malts.”
Again, this trend is driven by the passion of individuals and, as in the wider craft world, it’s instilling a greater appreciation in consumers.
“I’ve talked to the rep from Gladfield and he’s really passionate about it, explaining why their chocolate malt is different to anyone else’s chocolate malt and why, rather than doing high heat for a short time, they do less heat for a longer period of time.”
“So I’m starting to appreciate more of that, or understand more of that, the actual production side of the raw ingredient and how people take a lot of pride in what they produce. There’s a lot of love in it.”
Foodies take great care over the ingredients they cook with. That’s why, in some places, you can see people turning to locally produced, or organic food. A similar thing is happening in the craft beer and home brewing worlds.
Traditionally not many people have cared about where the ingredients that go into their beer come from.
“There’s a lot which actually goes into the process of producing the raw ingredients, it’s probably a pretty under appreciated aspect of brewing.”
But Sam sees that changing.
“And it’s like I said, beer is just kind of catching up to wine in terms of people being connoisseurs and knowing what they want and appreciating different flavours and that sort of thing. I think the same thing is probably happening in terms of the actual ingredients.”
With an increased appreciation comes a greater understanding of where ingredients come from and how this affects them.
While people may be getting more familiar with the characteristics of different hops and malts, there’s still a great gap between producer and consumer.
Sam says, “You’ll have a wine and know where it’s been grown. It’s from the Hunter Valley and you can actually go and see the vineyard where they grow the grapes. The same doesn’t really apply to malt.”
“I think there is a little bit more awareness of who’s growing the barley, who’s malting it and how they’re doing it. It’s just sort of starting to enter into the craft beer collective consciousness now.”
“From what I understand, there’s Mandarina Bavaria which is a German grown Cascade, or a variant or descendent of Cascade.”
“Different conditions do different things to the hop as it grows, makes it produce different levels of different oils, so you get different flavours from them.”
For Sam, this understanding and appreciation comes in part from being close to the supply side but also in working with a variety of ingredients and being exposed to what other people are doing with ingredients.
As the community around craft beer and home brewing grows so will people’s appreciation of the agriculture behind malt and hops, as well as how geography affects them.
People are starting to talk about terroir in beer and as more and more people get hands on with making their own beer, a greater understanding is sure to develop of how geography and production processes affect the beer we enjoy.
Thanks to Sam Mealing for taking the time for this interview. Check out The Hop & Grain in Marrickville.