Illawarra brewers enjoy breakout success

Being based in the Illawarra or South Coast isn't a problem for winemakers, with people regularly travelling to the region to sample their wares.

But it has been a different story for the region's two breweries - the Illawarra Brewing Company (IBC) in Wollongong and HopDog in Nowra.

While Tim Thomas from HopDog said he sold most of his beer out of the area, the IBC has had to overcome the hurdle of having "Illawarra" in their name.

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This is despite brewers Ashur Hall and Shaun Blissett winning gold medals for their beers at the Australian International Beer Awards and Royal Easter Show.

"I got a bit frustrated with it about a year ago, reading blogs and the idea that we were from the Illawarra," Mr Hall said.

"There was one quote from a guy who said, 'I wouldn't bother drinking Illawarra beers, because I know they're bad'.

"This was after we won two gold medals at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. I thought, 'Hang on, mate, we beat beers that you like. so what's going on there?' It was just because of the name.

"But I think we're getting beyond that. In Sydney we've got a pretty good following."

Mr Blissett said that when they started they were lucky to be sending four or five kegs to anywhere other than the Illawarra Brewery. These days, there are at least 20 kegs a week leaving their North Wollongong brewery.

Mr Hall said the local market was growing but there was the need to educate people on a new approach to beer. The Good Beer Dinners that the pair organise - the most recent was at Diggies on Saturday - are part of that.

"There are plenty of people here who want to drink good beer," he said.

"But I think, like the Good Beer Dinners, it's dealing with the misconception of what beer is and what it's associated with - guzzling and not really enjoying it. What we try to do is produce beers that are enjoyed, not made for mass guzzling."

Journalist and beer lover James Smith, who runs the influential Crafty Pint website, said: "Wine's had 20 years to get to where it is now whereas craft beer's very much in its infancy."

But that said, the Melbourne-based Smith definitely knows all about the South Coast's two breweries.

"In their two very different ways they're making a name for themselves in the beer world," he said.

"HopDog, considering how tiny his brewery is, he's done a fantastic job of getting his beer into a number of top beer bars.

"He's always messing about - with barrels and crazy names - and I guess that caught people's attention.

"Illawarra, since the new brew team came in about two years ago, they clearly know what they're doing. They've hit their straps and made some fantastic beers. And I guess picking up trophies certainly helps."

Smith doesn't see the Illawarra name as a problem, claiming that "if you care about beer you want to see it everywhere".

"What is difficult, and Illawarra is helped by having their own bar - is trying to find local venues that are willing to take a chance on you," he said.

"Fighting to get a tap in local venues seems to be tough."

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