Bentspoke Brewing Co founder Richard Watkins’s interest in beer began in university when he took up homebrewing to help “pay the bills”. It was a hobby that transformed into a day job when he began working on the bottling and packaging lines at the Hahn Brewery in Camperdown, now known as the James Squire Malt Shovel Brewery.
Studying mining engineering at university and disillusioned with his planned career path, Watkins began to seriously consider a career in the beer industry. In 1994, he moved to Canberra where he got a job in the kitchen of the Wig & Pen Tavern, one of the capital’s first microbreweries. Watkins stayed with the business for 17 years, eventually becoming head brewer. In 2014, Watkins and his partner Tracy Margrain decided to start their own brewing outfit.
“We wanted to give people a really good beer experience,” says Watkins. “The craft beer market is still very small, so you need to do everything you can to convince people who may not normally drink beer, or only drink pretty commercial beer, to try something different.”
Canberra’s pristine water supply makes it an ideal place to brew beer, says Watkins. “We get our malt as locally as we can from Victoria and south-west New South Wales. We use a lot of Australian hops, but we also use a lot of hops from the US.”
Hops, explains Watkins, are like spices used in cooking; there are many varieties, each with its own distinct flavour. Watkins uses an “easy-going ale yeast” to help combine those malt and hop flavours, but not overpower them. “We really want the malt and the hop flavours to shine.”
Bentspoke’s brewpub in Braddon opened in 2014 with five beers and a hand-pressed cider on tap. Two of those beers – Barley Griffin, a pale ale, and Crankshaft, an IPA – turned out to be the most popular. The latter’s popularity came as a surprise to Watkins. “At that time, IPAs weren’t really a big thing,” he says. “Now, they obviously make up a big [portion] of the market.” Barley Griffin and Crankshaft were the first two beers to appear in Bentspoke cans when the Mitchell cannery opened in 2016.
The popularity of the “hoppy” IPA confirmed to Watkins something he’d always suspected: that Canberrans have a sophisticated palate. “Canberrans love flavour, and they support local. And that’s been really helpful for us starting up our own brewery,” he says.
For Watkins and the Bentspoke team, one of the most challenging aspects of the restrictions introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been the reduced contact with customers. “The brewpub is very important to us – it’s our customer touchpoint,” he says. Bentspoke’s long-term regulars, he says, are always “happy to give you their honest feedback whenever you put a new beer out there”. Fortunately, being added to First Choice Liquor Market’s roster of vendors has meant they’re now stocked across New South Wales and Queensland, reaching new customers every day.
The pandemic has meant a shift away from the brewpub aspect of the business to takeaway-only. But Bentspoke has always made its brews available to take home in the form of two-litre flasks of a different beer each week.
Watkins also has a passion for beer-and-food pairing. “I like to talk about the three Cs when I’m talking about food and beer, and that is: comparing flavours, contrasting flavours and cleansing,” Watkins says. A recent meal of French onion soup and truffle croutons paired with a Bentspoke brew called Silverback ticked all those boxes. Silverback, an English ale, flows through a hopinator filled with cumquats, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and truffle that infuse the beer with their flavour before it comes out of the tap. It turned out to be the perfect match for the rich soup.
“The truffle works really well with the beer and the spices,” says Watkins. “If you don’t have the truffle there, the beer flavours sit on one side, and the spice flavours sit over the other. The truffle has glutamate in it, which binds all the flavours together.”
A beer and food match that anyone can try at home is the Crankshaft IPA with hot wings. “The spiciness and rich chilli character from the wings balance well with the Crankshaft, which is slightly higher in alcohol at 5.8 [per cent]. But it’s got all that bitterness and fruitiness from the hops,” says Watkins. “That combination is a great palate cleanser.”
Keen to raise your glass to a local producer? Browse the range at First Choice Liquor Market and support your local industry today.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with First Choice Liquor Market.