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December 6, 2021

Phil Sexton – Australia’s Craft Beer Pioneer

Phil Sexton – Australia’s Craft Beer Pioneer Subheading

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW 

In 1990 Phil Sexton and his co-founders walked away from Matilda Bay to try some new things. They pondered bringing Starbucks to Australia but instead brought Little Creatures to the world. Everyone is happy they did the latter. 

Three decades on, Phil returned home to Matilda Bay. He has been working with his usual zest to restore the range to its former glory with a new brew and some revitalised classics – including Redback Summer, which is available as a WA exclusive to Barons. Chris O’Brien had a chat with Phil about his return, his intentions and Matilda Bay’s partnership with Liquor Barons. 

 

Q: Let’s start from the beginning – tell us a bit about where Matilda Bay began in 1983 – the Sail & Anchor? 

A: Some people seem to have forgotten that Freo in the ’80s was not a cool place to be. It was a working dock and definitely not the choice spot to buy a pub! Garry, John and I ducked a fair few brawls there back in the day… 

The Sail & Anchor came about because we needed a place to make and sell our beer, there weren’t any pubs that wanted to – or were allowed to – stock us back then. So we bought the place out of necessity, costing us all our savings. It was something like $320,000, which seems like a bargain today. 

We wanted to create a different drinking atmosphere from the male-heavy bars with TABs attached and topless bartenders – skimpies – on Thursdays. The Sail & Anchor really set the tone for the rest of the pubs we opened: more enjoyable for both men and women, offering our customers good music, good beer, and good times. 

 

Q: Winding forward to today, how did you choose which beers to bring back? Which others should we expect to see?

A: Some great brewers have graduated from the school of Matilda Bay, including after we left. My son Harry is now Matilda Bay’s Head Brewer and we had a range of classics to choose from. We wanted to be really selective and bring back the beers that we believe have stood the test of time.phil sexton factory beer

In the short term that means we’ve brewed a revitalised Redback, called Redback Summer, and refreshed and modernised one of my favourite beers of all time, Dogbolter. Alpha Pale Ale was created by a great friend of ours, Brad Rogers (who went on to co-found Stone & Wood), and we didn’t really have to do too much to that one. There are a couple of others that we’re talking about, but this is it for now…  

A few diehards have asked me “Why are you changing them?”. I guess if I’d been running Matilda Bay right through from 1990 to today, those original beers would have changed and evolved anyway. Experimenting, adapting, changing with the times was always core to Matilda Bay. Myself, Harry, and the rest of the crew knew we couldn’t just recreate these classic beers. Just like us, they’ve evolved enormously in the past 30 years.

We knew we couldn’t just roll out our old range as well, it’s important that Matilda Bay wasn’t just about the old days and that it had some new blood. I really wanted something new that we could get out to the world, so we created The Owl, our Original Ale.

 

Q: What’s the story behind Owl, and what’s an original ale? 

A: I’ve always loved the Northern European beers, the pales, lagers and pilsners. Back in 2019, I was looking around the Australian beer market and there wasn’t anything in that zone that I really wanted to drink. Owl came out of that and was inspired by a particularly good beer, my go-to whenever I land in the UK. matilda bay beer

My son and I have had a ton of practice on it, and we spent most of the past 18 months perfecting it. It’s a beer that’s bringing 30 years of trials and tribulations to the table in redefining how I see a quaffable, balanced and full-flavoured ale in what is for me the sweet spot for alcohol, being the “low 4s” (4.2% ABV to be accurate).

Original Ale? Well, quite simply we couldn’t work out what the style of Owl has ended up being. It’s part European Golden Ale, part British pale with a big Australian Pale element too. We wanted to give people something to have fun with and not force-feed people too much. Among the brewers, we just call it Owl, it’s easier. 

 

Q: How has Redback changed? What’s different this time around? 

A: Redback Summer is definitely a “riff on the original”. The original Redback was the first time that people drank beer and savoured it like wine, which was great, but nowadays there are lots of different beers you can do that with. We wanted to make Redback a little easier to drink than the original, which was very close to a traditional Hefeweizen. To be honest, that was always my intention with this beer even back in the late ’80s but I never got the time to make the Redback I intended… 

matilda bay redback beer

With the brew itself we were playing around with new yeasts, the blend and the acidity a lot this year, and we’ve finally found something we think does this iconic brand justice. It’s been a tricky journey to get the balance right – keeping the lovely Belgian characteristics while not overpowering the beer – but we’re happy with where we’ve got to and think it’s a really different drinking experience than other stuff on the market.

The Redback we’ve developed is perfectly suited to the Australian weather and warmth, it’s the one that always goes best made over the bar at our brewpub from late November to March (when we’ve been allowed to be open over the past two years, that is). 

 

Q: It’s an iconic brand now, but how did you come up with the name Redback? 

A: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell this story, but it came about around the time of the America’s Cup when Freo was being flooded with attention. Garry (Gosatti), Howard (Cearns) and some others were upstairs in the Oriental Hotel where there was a Japanese Spa. We’d had a couple of beers and were trying to work out what to call this thing. Because of the estery characteristics, I campaigned pretty hard to get it called Banana Beer, but that got shut down due to there being no banana in it… 

It was Garry who came up with Redback and we said no! Absolutely not, that’s a rubbish suggestion! We were a little bit worried that it would turn people off, but there was certainly an element of wanting to wind him up a bit. 

A few days later once it had settled a bit though, Howard said actually that’s a pretty cool name… and so we ran with it. People thought we were great marketers but really a lot of this stuff happened by accident.

The design was great fun. We talked to Roland Butcher, a friend working at a really cool design studio, and simply briefed him “don’t do something that looks like it came out of an advertising agency”. There was a thing in brewing where if a beer got to the end of the line and the fill height looked right it’d get a paint swoosh of approval. So he played with that device and got to the iconic design we have today. 

 

Q: Why did you want to partner with Barons on the launch of these beers? 

A: We love that you guys do your own thing and are fierce about that – it matches up with the way we think about doing business and brewing beer. The cooperative model is really cool and the growth of Barons in WA has been great to watch. Your passion is clear and we want passionate people to work with on bringing our great brand back to life. 

Redback Summer and Owl Original Ale will be available from 6 December on tap in selected venues across Perth and sold in all Liquor Barons stores.

 

Q: Should you serve it with a lemon, like back in the day? 

A: I can answer this one categorically – no! It doesn’t need it and actually messes with the head retention. We did it back in the day because it was cool (Corona was doing it) and helped balance the hefeweizen style, but the way we’ve brewed this one means you definitely don’t need it…  

 

Redback Summer and Owl Original Ale will be available from 6 December on tap in selected venues across Perth and sold in all Liquor Barons stores.

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