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Ken Arrowsmith says the beer industry has changed enormously since the days when Swan ruled the roost in WA.

Crafting the perfect brew

Brewer Ken Arrowsmith remembers the days when Swan Brewery beers were the sole choice on tap and a trip to a bottle shop meant you’d be taking home one of five Swan or Emu options.

That was before eastern states rival Carlton United Breweries pushed into Swan territory, as Business News reported in 1993, and well before the growth in craft beers today.

Mr Arrowsmith, whose face is the iconic image on Emu Bitter cans, was once the head brewer at the Swan Brewery, having taken up the role in the early 1990s after joining the brewery in 1979 as a test tube washer.

Today he is head brewer at Perth-based brewing company Beerland, which operates brewpubs Whitfords Brewing Co and Northbridge Brewing Co.

“Swan was an independent public company on the stock market, right up until probably 1980,” Mr Arrowsmith told Business News.

“If you go through the history of it there was quite a cosy cross-owner relationship with Carlton United Breweries in Melbourne (and Swan), where they had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement not to invade each other’s territory.”

The shift in the status quo was triggered in 1981 when entrepreneur Alan Bond bought Swan Brewery, reportedly for $164 million, acquiring eastern states-based giant Castlemaine Tooheys two years later.

By the close of the decade, Bond Corporation had collapsed, leaving Swan and Castlemaine Tooheys ripe for the picking by New Zealand-based Lion Nathan.

Around this time, Carlton United Breweries made a determined push into Western Australia, upping its investments in the state.

“They accelerated that by buying the local upstart brewery Matilda Bay, which was a descendant of the first craft brewery in WA, the Sail and Anchor (in Fremantle),” Mr Arrowsmith said.

Mr Arrowsmith worked at the Sail and Anchor for several years, after the (then) Freemasons’ Hotel changed ownership in 1984.

“There were sort of two waves (of craft beer), really,” Mr Arrowsmith said.

“The first wave kicked-off after the Sail and Anchor opened.

“So through the late 1980s and early ’90s there was quite a boom across Australia in what they would have called boutique breweries or microbreweries in those days; a few survived to this day but a lot of them went broke.

“And then there was a renewed interest well into the 2000s when craft beer made a comeback when some of the contemporary players like Feral and Nail really got going, and the products were more around the trends led by the Americans.

“In the early days the exotic beers craft brewers would make would be largely English traditional style.”

As head brewer at Beerland, Mr Arrowsmith said he still focused on the drinkability of his beers.

“With the limited editions we’ll do some of the more outrageous styles,” he said.

Mr Arrowsmith said while there was very little product development during his time at Swan Brewery days, achieving a consistent beer for the masses on a day-to-day basis was equally as exciting.

Having focused on a consolidation strategy when its monopoly was first threatened by Carlton, and with the market rapidly diversifying through the 2000s, Swan Brewery closed its doors in WA in 2012.

Today there are 62 craft breweries in WA, according to the BNiQ Search Engine Breweries list.

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1st-Gage Roads Brewing Company1,400,000
2nd-Matso's Broome Brewery230,000
3rd↓Feral Brewing CompanyNFP
4th-Otherside Brewing CoNFP
5th-Elmar's in the ValleyNFP
70 breweries ranked by WA production per annum (in carton equivalents)

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