Craft pioneer returns to helm of Matilda Bay

Phil Sexton returns to Matilda Bay

Brewer Phil Sexton at the Giant Steps in Healesville.

Nearly 30 years after leaving the brewery he founded, Phil Sexton is returning to take control of the Matilda Bay brand.

Sexton, who founded Matilda Bay Brewing in 1983 before seeing it purchased by what is now CUB in 1990, has announced plans to open a Matilda Bay brewpub in Healesville, an hour east of Melbourne, in partnership with CUB.

The brewery, which will have a 3,000hL annual capacity, is set to be up and brewing before Christmas, and will be home to such famous beers as Redback, Dogbolter and Alpha Pale Ale.

Sexton said the plans came about when he looked to move the location of his Giant Steps winery, and was looking at putting a brewery into the existing premises.

“Once a brewer, always a brewer,” Sexton told Brews News.

“One thing led to another in my head and I said maybe I can have a chat with CUB and see what they would like to do with Matilda Bay going forward. That conversation started a year and a half ago.”

“What surprised me was how quickly they became interested in it.

“A lot of the discussion was around if I’m going to do this, I’m going to drive it,” Sexton explained.

He said the decision to take on the brand was driven by a feeling that it was an unresolved project.

“Restoring Matilda Bay to its rightful place as Australia’s leading craft beer is unfinished business for me,” he said.

“I want to grow craft beer by showing people how special good small batch beer can be.

“I founded Matilda Bay in 1983 to give drinkers beautiful craft beer. And as the original craft brewery, it still has a special spot in the consciousness of Aussie beer lovers.

“It’s the right label to finish what I started and re-affirm what artisanal brewing should stand for: sessionable, flavourful beers that stand the test of time.”

Sexton has a rare pedigree in craft beer, co-founding Matilda Bay and Little Creatures and being heavily involved in the development of now-closed Portland-based brewery, Bridgeport Brewing. He also launched Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander wineries.

His plans involve building a new small-batch brewery that he and his team will run, that will exclusively develop and brew a new Matilda Bay range and some Matilda Bay classics such as Redback and Dogbolter. The Healesville site will include a hospitality venue.

The Matilda Bay brand has struggled since the its owners at the time, Fosters, moved it from its home in Western Australia in 2007. The beers were brewed for some time in Dandenong before a ‘consumer-facing’ brewery pub was opened in Port Melbourne in 2012, closing in 2014. The brand was brewed out of Tasmania’s Cascade brewery, but has been increasingly hard to find in the market.

While the brewery’s classic beers including Redback, Dogbolter and Alpha have declined, Fat Yak – which was launched as a Matilda Bay beer in 2008 – was spun off into its own line. CUB recently changed Yak Ales to Yak Brewing.

Sexton said his new venture will not be brewing Yak Ales or the Frothy brand, the latter which was also recently launched under the Matilda Bay masthead.

Sexton said that despite the hiccups that the Matilda Bay brand had experienced since his departure, he felt proud of the brand.

“When they [CUB] were operating it in WA they did a fantastic job, but I think it drifted a little more once they felt they were going to bring it into the company fold.

“That’s a natural thing to do. What it a mistake? Probably, but it’s a natural thing to do and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

As Matilda Bay returns to its roots, drinkers shouldn’t expect too much departure from its classic beers.

Listen to Phil Sexton discuss his return to Matilda Bay

“I’ve watched craft get into ice-cream flavoured beer, bubble-gum flavoured beer, pineapple beer and all of those things and I’m a traditional brewer,” he said.

“I go, ‘that’s great, that’s good fun’, but to me that’s alcoholic beverage and to me beer is still derived as the German’s taught me. That’s derived from barley malt or wheat malt…hops, water and yeast. The true craft of beer is to make beautiful beer out of those ingredients,” he said.

CUB CEO Peter Filipovic said Sexton will will oversee everything from brewery construction to brewing and marketing.

“He is a craft beer visionary who revolutionised Australia’s beer landscape. There is no one in the world more suited to delivering this venture than him,” Filipovic said.

“We’re meeting the changing needs of consumers by creating beautiful new beers in pristine surroundings that live up to Matilda Bay and Phil’s original vision. We couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity and we know beer drinkers will love it.”

The Matilda Bay brewery and pub will be built on the site currently occupied by Giant Steps winery and restaurant, which is owned by Sexton. It will have a major focus on sustainability. Construction is expected to start in coming weeks and the brewery is expected to be operational by the end of the year. More than 20 new jobs will be created.

The current Giant Steps site will close Sunday. Tasting will re-open immediately at a new site in Healesville and the winery will re-open soon, with more details to be announced in coming months.


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