MELBOURNE | The Melbourne beer scene is replete with Belgian beer bars and German beer bars, English pubs and Irish pubs. But, until recently, American beer seems to have lacked the same brand recognition.
Perhaps it was because Bud, Miller and Coors made American beer an international laughing stock. (“Q: What’s the similarity between American beer and making love in a canoe? A: They’re both fucking close to water.”) But as every beer geek knows, American brewing has come a long way since the dark days before Jimmy Carter legalised home-brewing, when 80 breweries accounted for the country’s entire beer production.
By 2017, the number of breweries in America had increased from 80 to over 6,000. And for the preceding decade, American craft brewers had been leading the world in style development and innovation. West Coast breweries were doing for hops what Dr Dre had done for P-Funk. The time was right for Aussies to rethink American beer.
Cue Brian Labadie, a Californian who’d come to Australia for the love of an Aussie girl, Anika (his now wife), in 2007. “I recognised that there was a lack of variety here in US beers. Especially the smaller ones.” It was 2013, and Brian had been living in Melbourne for six years. “I fell in love with the laneway culture. Bar hopping. It was dynamic, a special part of the world. “I was looking at a few ideas to get into. I contacted a few breweries, and then an opportunity came up with one of the breweries: Lost Coast. I established the business. Got a really good freight forwarder, Richard Dexter, who has been a great guidance throughout, and went from there.”
The name Redwood is a nod to the forests of Humboldt County, California, where Lost Coast Brewing is based, and which Brian remembers fondly from his days camping and hiking in the region. The Redwood Distribution portfolio grew slowly: one brewery, one retailer at a time. “It took a few years to get a pretty good-sized list of customers,” says Brian. Then, in 2015, it reached a point when “we recognised we were pretty crammed for space and needed a home base for the business. So we looked at a place where we could have not only have an office but maybe a storage area for some of the beers. Just to do tastings with staff as well as venue managers.”
The space, Redwood Tasting Room, opened in June 2017. It quickly grew from “storage area” to a fully-fledged bar, led by the design expertise of Anika, and help from family and friends. Redwood Tasting Room is small, understated and relaxed, with warm, muted tones, soft lights, wood panelling, and little touches like a small pair of antlers behind the bar, and barrels for table tops. There’s something a little fishing-lodge about it.
Facing the bar, you might think you were in Oregon – until you looked out the window over the St Georges Road, north North Fitzroy: the fish ‘n’ chips shop, the coffee roaster and the number 11 tram. It’s a little piece of the North-West Pacific Coast in southern Australia. Despite the popularity of the bar, Brian has no immediate plans to branch out beyond the core business: distribution for a dozen-odd North American and Australian craft breweries. “All of our suppliers rely on us to get their beer out there, and we know that’s how they put their food on the table.”
The tasting room exists to showcase the Redwood range. And craft beer aficionados of the inner north know a good thing when they see it. Not only is the range extensive, but the prices are very reasonable. Redwood puts promoting the product before profits, with canned and bottled beers going for bottle-shop prices.
Not that Redwood Tasting Room is a mere bottle shop. Far from it. “My father manages music festivals back in California, and I grew up helping him. The San Jose Jazz Festival is a big one. Basically you’re working for people to have fun, which in turn is a fun thing to do.” Crates of vinyl behind the bar attest to Redwood’s musical bona fides. “Each bartender is their own DJ.” Music is complemented by random, trippy YouTube videos projected onto the wall across from the bar, of which highlights have included Shaft in Africa and Koyaanisqatsi.
Redwood’s product range runs from pale ales (the Knee Deep N/E Auburn Pale Ale is highly recommended) to imperial stouts and porters. However Brian reports that the styles that have had most traction are their sours. Of those, arguably the pick of the breweries are, from Australia, La Sirène and, from the US, Almanac. The range is large, though, and there seems to be a Redwood beer for pretty much every taste. “I’m pretty happy with who we work with at the moment,” says Brian. “Wherever I go, here or in America, I’m coming back and saying, ‘Wow. The beers that I want to buy right now are the ones in our portfolio.’”