Vale: Geoff Scharer

Sad news reached us today about the passing of brewer Geoff Scharer.

Geoff Scharer 2008

Hyperbole often abounds in newspapers with the passing of significant people and the word “pioneering” is overused. However, I can’t think of a more fitting word to describe Geoff Scharer.

Geoff was granted Australia’s first brewpub licence in 1981, a step taken before the words ‘microbrewery’ or ‘craft beer’ meant anything, let alone provoked arguments over definitions.

Geoff came from a pub background. Writing for the Pubs: Liquor, Larrikins and the Law exhibition at the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney, beer writer Willie Simpson described Geoff’s publican upbringing:
Geoffrey Scharer is a retired fourth-generation publican (and pioneer craft brewery owner) who was born in 1940 and remembers early teenage years spent in his father’s pub during the last days of the “six o’clock swill” (which lasted until 1954 in NSW):

“My Old Man [Bernie Scharer] ran an incredibly busy pub at Rushcutters Bay. The public bar had 12 different beer taps and they all poured the same beer – Resch’s Draught – and there were no seats or stools in the bar, at all. Everyone stood at the bar five and six deep and there was sawdust on the floor.

“As it got closer to six o’clock, guys would piss or chuck [vomit] where they stood, rather than lose their place in the queue. It was horrible! My brother and I had the job of sweeping up the sawdust after closing. Dad would ‘salt’ it with two-bob coins – which was our payment – and the sawdust was full of cigarettes and piss and vomit. We swept it up with two broad brooms and Dad came behind us with a hose and then squee-geed the water out until the bar was all nice and clean and ready for opening the next day.”

Goeff (third from left) with some of the leaders of the new crop of brewers (l-r) Richard Watkins, Brendan Varis, Dermot O’Donnel, Dave Bonighton and Brad Rogers on a tour of the US West Coast in 2008

When asked about his influence on the small brewing industry, Willie explains that for a long time Geoff was the small brewing industry. He recounts the story of when Geoff first went to NSW liquor licencing in the 1980s to get an application form to open a brewery.

“There wasn’t one, “ Willie laughs.

“The guy behind the counter asked whether Geoff was sure that he didn’t want to close a brewery, saying ‘we have plenty of those forms’.”

“He was a true pioneer who, once he started his brewery, took off the majors and only sold his lager.

“He was a country publican don’t forget, people said he was mad.

“He probably was, but he made it work because his beer was bloody good.”

“They broke the mould when they made Geoffrey,” Willie says.

He was also a mentor and inspiration to a generation of modern brewers. Brad Rogers recounts that Geoff’s Scharers Little Brewery at the George IV Inn at Picton near Sydney was the first brewery he set foot in wearing brewers boots, back in 1989.

When asked what Geoff was like, Brad pauses before exclaiming, “Holy dooley. He was a character.”

“He was one of those people who you either loved him or couldn’t stand him. He had an amazing presence,” Brad said.

It is impossible to sum up his career in a few words. I encourage brewers and those in the industry who knew Geoff and would like to share their reminiscences about him to do so in the comments below.

Below is also an article written by veteran beer writer, Charles Coll. Reproduced with permission.

Geoff Scharer by Charles Coll

If there’s ever a Legends List for Australian craft brewers, Geoff Scharer is easily in my Top 5 contenders. He not only defined a beer style to Australia with his glorious Burragorang Bock, but aggravated, annoyed and pestered every politician, councilman, or government official for craft brewery equity with big business. Cantankerous, controversial, and verbally abusive would best describe my first encounter with Mr Scharer over 15 years ago. It was in the hazy recovery period that I added passionate, generous, and visionary to his profile.

The new ‘young turks’ of craft brewing should take homage to one of the ‘elders of the tribe’.

Virtually everyone in the brewing industry has a ‘Scharer story’ each one better than the last. I asked Dave Edney, past brewer at the historic George IV Inn at Picton from May of 1996 to December 2000 for his thoughts.

“Eccentric, bloody minded, and a barrel of laughs at times. Bigger than life, an easy target, a dreamer where some ideas worked some didn’t but he at least had a go. Geoff’s passion for pure unfiltered lagers was matched with campaigns for poker free pubs ‘A scam for lazy publicans’ and local council objections against his proposal for an expansion to the brewery.”

Folklore has it that Geoff Scharer began brewing in the cellar of his father’s Sydney pub ‘manufacturing’ Resch’s draught for the upstairs taps at the tender age of 5 or 6. A street kid of the beer world had created a savvy arrogant attitude to complacency and lifelong ambition to brew pure unfiltered lagers from his newly acquired pub in Picton in 1968.

His hobby of rare collectables and a quest for the perfect pub-brewing system led Scharer to England in 1975 to attend a Commercial Brewing and Bottling Convention. It was there he met the respected brewing team of Pollack & Poole who recommended he consult with Otto Binding in Germany. Otto Binding, is considered the modern godfather of small-brewing in Germany for his visionary drive to renew the Bavarian custom of tavern-breweries in smaller towns and villages and pioneered brewing with organically grown barley and hops. Binding, who would become Scharers idol and mentor, advised him go observe the first brewpub he assembled for doctor of medicine and beer lover, Hans Nidecker, in the city of Basel, the German-speaking part of Switzerland. According to Scharer “I was blown away, it was the faultless mini- brewery, 400-500 litre capacity, all copper that produced excellent beer.”

His vision of a utopian pub-beer community hit the wall after being granted a brewing license in 1981 although he can lay claim to creating one of the oldest pub breweries in Australia. From 1982 til the first beer flowed from the tanks in 1987, Scharer had to struggled and fought with dithering bank managers incapable of reaching a decision for funding approval. “I bought the brewery in Germany and gave myself 2 to 3 years to have it up and running. I had to knock down walls, relocate all the utilities, meticulous work. A local bank manager (name withheld) walked in one day, looked around and said ’I’ll get you the money’. He only secured the loan after he’d become a member of the Board of Directors at the bank and by that time the price of everything had doubled.”

With limited space, I’d recommend viewing the ripper 10 part doco produced by The Lifestyle Channel called The Pub With One Beer that highlights some of the more colourful moments in the history of the GIV including emplyee dismissals, the pub catching fire, Geoff’s anti pokis campaign,etc. The documentary follows the progress of two young city boys who buy this old country pub and the departute of Geoff after 37 years in business.

Another part to the Scharer legacy was leasing the Australia Hotel in the Rocks to provide a venue to offer his, and only his, beers for the inner city beer drinking public over a decade ago. Paitings, the Scharers Lager mirror, and my favorite, a wall map for illiterate and non-english speaking drinkers identifying tram routes and access to streetcar stops.

And as for my disgraceful condition after a two day bender on my first meeting? Scharers reply was “That’s all right son, we had to pour Michael Jackson into his room on his first visit.”

I ask for all craft beer lovers to be upstanding, charge your glasses, and join me in last drinks to a true champion of the industry and make it a bloody good lager. I salute you Sir Geoffrey for all your passion and bloody-mindedness when if came to real beer, You will be remembered.

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