HALL OF FAME
Tim Baker meets the man who healped launch the careers of some of the brewers we,ve come to know and respect.
Back in the day:
The Beer Hunter Michael Jackson (front centre), Paul Mercurio (front left), Dave Edney (2nd row, 3rd from left), Willie Simpson (2nd row, far right), Rob Freshwater (3rd row centre), David ‘The Hop Devil’ (3rd row left), Mel Robson (4th row, far right), Doug Donelan (top right), Geoff Scharer (top centre)
Aussie sport has the MCG, Aussie Motor Racing has Bathurst, Aussie Rock has Albert Productions and Aussie homebrew has ESB Home Brewing Supplies.
Big call? Not at all!
Back in 1984 it would have been hard to imagine how important ESB Home Brewing Supplies would become. But like the MCG, Bathurst or Alberts, its significance has grown in stature through the decades having played a large part in launching the careers of some of our most successful and respected craft brewers.
That’s why it is our pleasure to introduce the man behind the shop, Mel Robson as our 12th inductee into the Beer & Brewer Hall of Fame.
In April 1984 Mel recognised a need for a retail outlet catering for serious brewers. Those who either made their own brew from malt extract, fresh hops, did their own mashing or all of the above.
Before long the word had spread with Mel and Eastern Suburbs Brewmaker providing up and coming brewers a place to interact, collaborate, test and share their experiences.
A “scene” soon developed that would send such notables as Willie Simpson (Beer & Brewer, Seven Sheds Brewery), Doug Donelan (ex-Malt Shovel Brewery, current CEO of NZ Hops), Matt Donelan (St Peters Brewery), Rob Freshwater (Malt Shovel), Dave Edney (James Squire Brewhouse Melbourne), Geoff Scharer (Ex owner of George IV Inn and Scharer’s Brewery) and most recently Damon Nott (Head Brewer Lord Nelson) onto the path of professional and/or craft brewing.
“You could fill a book about those early years in the Sydney homebrew scene”, says Doug Donelan.
“Mel was organising competitions and encouraging the formation of a club which developed several of the brewers you see in the industry today. The competitions were probably the leading light, I was home brewer turned Pro Brewer and Brewing for the Hahn Brewing Company in Sydney” (as was his brother Matt).
Thursday night tastings complete with Chuck Hahn providing the beer and Mel providing snacks became regular events and are among some of Mel’s favourite memories. These forums were instrumental in passing on brewing knowledge to budding home brewers, pioneering a lot of ideas and in turn seeing those who attended, challenging the diversity of flavour in beer.
“They turned out to be very big gatherings, with brewers spilling out onto the street and elsewhere,” continues Doug. “The shop didn’t even have a toilet.”
“I first met Mel Robson in the late 80s when he was operating ESB from a tiny shop in Clovelly not much bigger than a wardrobe,” adds Willie Simpson. “
“At some point he started up regular Thursday evening sessions where people brought along a few bottles of their home-brew and Mel tapped a 10-litre blue plastic keg of his own stuff later in proceedings.”
“It was a brilliant marketing idea because guys like me – who was an extract brewer, at the time – tasted these great full-mash brews made by blokes like Dave Edney and Rob Freshwater.”
“Most of us embarked on the Road to Mashville and the ESB shop really was a magnet for mash brewers who came from all over Sydney.”
“I ended up managing Mel’s shop for a couple of years, during which time I read every book and tried out every toy in the shop and look where it’s led to!”
Willie was working for the local newspaper when the Beer Hunter Michael Jackson was in town in the very early 90s and set up the photo appearing above.
“It’s amazing to see how many of us have gone on to become craft brewers and it’s a credit to Mel who created that melting pot of brewing enthusiasm,” says Willie.
By the late 80s Mel had expanded into wholesaling, producing his own line of home brew cans in 1.7kg and the 3kg beer packs. This created a need for more space with another outlet opening in Peakhurst, southern Sydney, while Eastern Suburbs Brewmaker continued to operate as a branch of ESB.
Growing rapidly in the 90s, and becoming a distributor for Coopers, it wasn’t long before ESB had distributors in each state as the ESB brands grew in popularity.
Unfortunately, due to ill health, Mel has retired but he leaves a lasting brewing legacy in Australia. Something of a reference point in the history of craft brewing not just in Sydney, but nationally.
“He’s a fabulous bloke, and his wife, they are a fabulous couple,” adds Geoff Scharer. “He’s been terrific in the industry, been very innovative. A light in the tunnel. I couldn’t say enough, he’s an absolute top bloke.”
“They (ESB) have been fantastic for the industry, especially home brewers, but I can remember days gone by they used to help us (small brewers) sourcing stuff for us, helping us and giving us ideas. He’s been terrific.”
And so say all of us.
This article was reproduced with the kind consent of David Lipman owner of the Beer & Brewer Magazine
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