By Andi Prewitt
Sometimes it takes a person who lives half-a- world away to notice the value of what can be found in your own backyard. Phil Sexton, ormer brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing Company, did just that after moving from Australia to Oregon. It was the mid-1990s, not long before the release of the brewery’s groundbreaking IPA. Sexton, who created BridgePort’s signature beer, noticed a lot of Northwest brewers were importing ingredients like English winter barley while not taking advantage of the ample supply of hops growing in the Willamette Valley. He noted that their final product was “a pretty average English ale not made in England by Englishmen.” But two decades later, that’s all changed. BridgePort IPA introduced the region to a bolder brew, helping ensure those hop farms would never again be overlooked by locals.
Sexton is currently back in Australia with his family, but returned to Portland in May as part of BridgePort’s 30th anniversary celebrations. Long before he was helping Oregonians become acquainted with a style of beer known as the IPA, Sexton was upending brewing culture on another continent. After studying science at the University of Western Australia, Sexton started working at Swan Brewery—a company he’d eventually go on to battle. In the 1970s and ‘80s, a handful of major brewers dominated segments of the market throughout the country.
Swan “had absolute control of every tap, every shelf spot in the state of Western Australia,” said Sexton.
But they only made one beer. If the company wanted to create a new brand, brewers would simply change the dilution or blend a few tanks of what they already had, recalled Sexton. Time actually spent making an entirely different beer would cut into Swan’s profits. Sexton, having studied beer making in England while working at breweries there, was well aware of companies producing other styles of beer. He wanted to return to that sense of craftsmanship.
The day Sexton left Swan marked the beginning of a shake-up to Australia’s brewing industry. Like many of Oregon’s early brewers, Sexton found that he’d have to piece together his own operation through repurposing and building parts. Drawings from old brewery texts led the way. Sexton ran into his first obstacle when suppliers wouldn’t sell him brewing equipment because he didn’t have a brewery. However, the setback was only temporary because he discovered that irrigation pumps worked just as well in a brewhouse as they did on a farm. When the appropriate substitute couldn’t be found for other equipment, Sexton quickly learned to become a welder out of necessity.
As uncertainties surrounding the brewing process started to resolve, Sexton and his colleagues realized they had another important question to answer: How were they going to sell this stuff? The team started visiting liquor and beer markets as well as independent restaurants and bars around Western Australia to pitch their product. But they couldn’t find a single one that would take their beer.
“What we found out was that my ex-employer was making sure that we weren’t even going to get one handle anywhere. We weren’t even going to get a bottle on the shelf,” said Sexton.
So what’s a brewer to do when no one will sell his beer? Hang up a shingle and see what happens. And what happened was a building in bankruptcy became the home base for craft beer in Western Australia thanks to a confluence of two unique groups of people. Weeks within actually getting beer out of the brewery, Sexton convinced his investor that they needed to buy a pub. The only site they could afford was down in the dock area of a town outside Perth. It turned out to be a perfect location. Out went the domestic beers and Sexton’s English- style ales took over the taps. First came support from the large population of English natives who migrated to the area for the sun. Turns out, the move left them parched.
“They’re all going, ‘Oh, thank God! We can actually get proper style beer!’” Sexton described.
Satisfying the cravings of English transplants was one route that got the brewery started. But the second group of backers was somewhat more surprising. The Rajneeshees, who are perhaps best known in Oregon for contaminating salad bars with salmonella bacteria in the 1980s, also had a large community near Sexton’s brewery. The group would congregate at his pub because it wasn’t a corporate producer, according to Sexton.
The craft brewery ultimately ended up welcoming another category of customer: women. Australia once had rules restricting women from entering bars. But Sexton’s crew wanted to change the male- dominated culture of beer drinking and pubs.
Sexton decided “We’re going to make this as female-friendly as we possibly can. And, of course, the girls started coming, so the guys started coming. It really changed the way pubs operate there completely.”
One pub eventually turned into 38 across Australia. That growth finally allowed the brewery to break out of its own distribution system. But Sexton’s story doesn’t end there. He was brought on as BridgePort’s brewmaster in 1995 at a time when fruit beers were quite popular in the area. It was a trend Sexton decided to ignore. Instead of playing it safe at a brewery he’d just started at, Sexton developed a recipe for a style he had no experience with. He’d read about IPAs that were produced in England during the 1800s for long journeys overseas to India and Australia. But could he make something he’d only seen in books? And would it even taste good?
“I think we were targeting somewhere around 60 bitterness units and everyone’s looking at me like that’s insane,” said Sexton.
Sexton, who also has a background in winemaking, relied on his experience with one beverage to perfect another.
“It’s all about balance. Therefore, if we can bring the non-fermentable residual sugars in the beer up enough, even a beer of that bitterness is balanced and doesn’t taste that bitter. It’s just got full flavors,” said Sexton.
After creating the brewery’s defining IPA, Sexton could choose to sit back and relax for the 30th anniversary. But it seems more appropriate that he would mark the occasion by crafting another beer. Trilogy 2 was a collaborative effort between Sexton and BridgePort’s current brewmaster Jeff Edgerton. Aussie Salute IPA features Galaxy and Ella hops grown in Sexton’s home country. BridgePort fans still have time to give an Aussie salute of their own by raising a glass of the special brew in honor of Sexton. Fans of the Trilogy Series can expect the third and final beer, Trilogy 3, this month. For more information, visit www.BridgePortTrilogy.com.
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