At the 2019 Australian International Beer Awards (AIBAs), it was 4 Pines Brewing’s Keller Door Schwarzbier Draught that received the coveted award of Champion Australian Beer. Beer & Brewer caught up with Chris Willcock, chief brewer at 4 Pines, to talk about it.
Q: HOW DID IT FEEL TO WIN THIS AWARD?
Incredible, it’s an amazing feeling. One of the proudest moments I’ve had in my 12-year brewing career.
We knew we were onto a good thing when Whitney, our chief of finance and usually one of our most honest critics of our beers, told us before we went down to Melbourne that it was one her favourite beers that she’d ever tasted so… that was a good sign of things to come.
Q: TELL US ABOUT THE SCHWARZBIER?
The Schwarzbier is a beer that we’ve done this time of year for about four or five years running. It’s one that we’ve always loved. It’s a favourite style of mine and our brewpub. It’s a really delicate style. It’s a dark German lager, it’s supposed to have real subtle, dark malt notes and a little bit of coffee chocolate, but mainly it’s supposed to be smooth and delicate, and leave your palate wanting a little bit more at the end.
And because it’s a lager there’s not a lot in terms of big, bold, over-the-top flavours to hide ferment defects. You really want to focus on the yeast happy and healthy and in harmony with each other. And that’s something that we’ve really perfected over the years. We love lagers here. We don’t brew enough of them in our day-to-day for our liking. This particular yeast we’ve used for years and years – we know what it likes, how it forms and all its flavour. We know how it performs in the fermenter.
We’ve focused on the quality of the malt (and) the balance of the flavour to get the right level of the aromas balanced with the delicate palate. But it’s a focus on the beer itself primarily. It hasn’t changed a lot, but every time we’ve brewed it we’ve learned something about how to brew it better.
Q: HOW HAS THE BREWING INDUSTRY CHANGED SINCE YOU STARTED?
I’ve been judging at the AIBAs for probably eight or nine years now. The most notable thing was the absolutely acceleration in the quality of craft beer over the last three or four years in particular. We had the early days where we had a plethora of breweries coming into the game, brewers from a whole bunch of backgrounds, sharing a common passion, but with different skills and different things they brought to the table.
The industry has been so collaborative and the customers so supportive and understanding and wanting to learn about the product and beer in general. It’s just been a real perfect storm for developing beers of extremely high quality which is really noticeable when you judge at the beer awards over that time.
I think the amount of gold medals handed out this year anecdotally was more than there’s ever been and I don’t think that’s the judges being any more lenient. I think it’s due to the incredible drive in the industry to put the best beers in front of their customers.
Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR APPROACH TO BREWING.
I have a real passion for the technical side of brewing. My background is a genetic scientist and I bring a scientific approach into our products, trying to understand the microbiology, the biochemistry aspect.
But my personal approach is more around continuous improvement and continuous learning around beer. It’s such a diverse product and it’s got so many small components that go into making a single bottle that it’s been a learning experience that I’ve loved every step of.
It used to be that I was a homebrewer and I wanted to learn more and I thought I could master it just through arrogance and cockiness and thinking I could be the smartest guy in the brewery. These days it’s so much more than that. It’s the experience and the reverence and the occasion, creating all of that to a perfect – not perfect, it’s never perfection is ethereal – creating all of that.
Part of making the perfect beer is having a great bunch of people who enjoy the company culture and work together as a family and invest not only their time, but their energy and their individual skills, creativity, passion into the beers.
It’s a hard thing to say but my personal philosophy is that beer is born out of love more than anything. If you’ve got that then all the other stuff can be learned as you go.