This week on the podcast, I play an extended interview with Janice McDonald, Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine’s 2018 Winemaker of the Year.
Janice is chief winemaker at Burch Family Wines in Western Australia, where she oversees the Howard Park and MadFish wine brands using grapes sourced from vineyards in the Margaret River, Mt Barker and Great Southern regions.
Prior to that, she ran her own Margaret River wine label Stella Bella to great acclaim, together with her partner Stuart Pym.
But we’re not just talking about wine today, because Janice has been making beer for just as long as she’s been making wine.
And she still brews today – if you’ve ever visited the Settlers Tavern in Margaret River Town and had one of the beers under the Margaret River Ale Company label, that’s Janice’s handiwork too.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Cameo Culture. You can listen to more from Cameo Culture at https://soundcloud.com/cameoculture.
Janice McDonald of Howard Park: Winemaker and craft beer pioneer – interview transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Well Janice McDonald thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
JANICE MCDONALD: I think it’s a pleasure James.
JAMES ATKINSON: We’ll soon find out.
JAMES ATKINSON: Look to start off with you studied winemaking at Riverina College in Wagga. But it wasn’t too long before you took up a job as a brewer. How did that all transpire?
JANICE MCDONALD: Well it probably all comes down to a chance meeting that I had with Philip Sexton at Riverina College in Wagga. So, Philip had come across as a wine student – the wine industry had sort of excited him, so he’d come to Wagga to study winemaking. He was a master brewer when he came to Wagga but was forced by the college to then go and do an entry level chemistry class. And I was earning a few more dollars as a student as the demonstrator in the chemistry class. So I actually met in Chem 1A in Wagga and he knew much more about chemistry than I did. So after that, we spent a bit of time together whilst he was over at residential schools and he said, ‘you know if you come to W.A. then come and see me – drop in and say hello’. At that time he was brewing at the Swan Brewery. So eventually I did go to Margaret River, or I did go to Western Australia, and it wasn’t to catch up with Phil, it really came down to the classes that you do for organoleptic assessment when you’re a student and you’re learning about wine. We came across cabernet and cabernet was one of those varieties that I struggled to get the, ‘this is what it’s meant to be like and this is what it tastes like’. I didn’t actually sort of get the two to connect until I tasted Margaret River cabernet. And then when I tasted Margaret River cabernet I thought wow, this is what they say cabernet is like, it actually really is like this. And so I basically got in my car and drove across the country.
JAMES ATKINSON: But you drove across the country and become a brewer, not a winemaker at the time.
JANICE MCDONALD: No, no, before I actually drove across the country I sent a lot of letters to wineries in Western Australia and particularly Margaret River to apply for jobs or see if there are any jobs and to that effort I had no response at all. So then I thought oh well I’ll just go over there and have a look and see what it’s like. So I went across there without any job, and I didn’t get a job, so then I returned to New South Wales and ended up doing some work for some friends that I had down near Geelong at Mount Duneed. And a few months passed and then ultimately a job came up at Vasse Felix and I applied for the job that was an assistant winemaking job and I got the job. So I knew what I was getting myself into as far as the Margaret River region, so I accepted the job and came back to Western Australia.
JAMES ATKINSON: So how long did you work at Vasse Felix for before you moved to Matilda Bay?
JANICE MCDONALD: I did the vintage in 85 at Vasse Felix, but prior to actually starting that job Phillip had contacted me and said, ‘you know I’ve got this job in brewing in Perth, do you think you’d want to come across and do it?’ And I did think about it for a while… I didn’t really know anything about brewing other than how to drink beer, but it sounded interesting because it was the start of what I would call the first wave of craft brewing in Australia. But I said no at the time and this was in the very early days of Matilda Bay just starting. Because I thought, I spent six years studying wine. I really should try and pursue that career. So I did go to Vasse Felix and I did the vintage so I was there for probably about eight months. So we’re getting close to the time of the America’s Cup, a little bit before that. And Philip asked me again and he said, ‘you sure you don’t want to come to Perth and brew beer?’ And the reason that I ran into Phil a little bit… so Phil had a group of friends in Perth and because he’s a very persuasive sort of character he would invite them down to his vineyard which was south of Margaret River and was ultimately to be called Devil’s Lair to help him pick rocks. I mean, what more would you want to do on your Saturday afternoon. And so I sort of had some connection with Phillip while I was in Margaret River, hence him asking me again I was interested in brewing. And him being persuasive and me being interested in beer I said ‘yes’. So I started to brew in Perth in 86 and that was sort of the lead up time to the America’s Cup which was 87. And it was, as I said, the first wave of craft brewing and it was an incredible time. We worked our butts off, we worked incredibly long hours but it was a time of sort of intense learning.
JAMES ATKINSON: And as you just touched on, 1986 was the very early days of the craft beer movement in Australia, to say the very least. I’ve heard Phil talk about those times and refer to them as ‘the very dark years of brewing in Australia’ – the early 80s and obviously before that. What was it like from your perspective at the time.
JANICE MCDONALD: Well I suppose if you look at it from Philip’s perspective he’d come from brewing in a large company, a large corporate brewer, making ultimately in reality fairly generic beers. And his study in the UK, in Birmingham obviously introduced him to a lot of different beer styles which were really unknown or unpopular in Australia. The campaign for real ale (CAMRA) was happening in the UK when he was studying there. So he was sort of seeing all this evolve and happen around him. So the entrepreneur at heart, and he’s certainly entrepreneurial, coming back to Australia and looking at the beer industry here, I think he probably saw that there was a niche to take that style of beer and create it here. From my perspective, I mean I was a beer drinker but I didn’t drink a lot of beer. And I guess my interest in beer was I guess heightened when I saw the different beer styles that you can make, and he was the one that introduced me to that. So when we finally put all the brewing equipment into Matilda Bay he sort of gave me a brewing manual the sizes of a couple of Bibles and said, ‘here read this, here’s the equipment. If you’ve got any questions I’m down at the Sail & Anchor. And, I mean obviously I was pretty young, pretty naive I suppose and I thought well that’s fine I’ll just open the book and start at page one and away we go.
JAMES ATKINSON: And you hadn’t heard any other exposure to the beer styles of the world by that point?
JANICE MCDONALD: No not really, I mean obviously I’d tasted a few beers but I didn’t have an acute interest in beer particularly. I’d gone down the path of wine and that was my real interest. But having seen what you could make and then sort of doing a lot of research into the different styles of beer and with Philip there saying ‘well you know, we can pretty much do whatever we want’. So we did – we read about beer, we looked at different recipes. We did a lot of trial brews, some worked some didn’t work. And so it was pretty much do whatever you can. And the great thing about Philip having spent the time than he spent in the UK was he had a lot of access to the knowledge about hops, malts, so a lot of different ideas and different ingredients that we could draw upon.
JAMES ATKINSON: So it was a steep learning curve, obviously, for you. But did you fall in love with the craft of actually making beer to the same extent that you had making wine?
JANICE MCDONALD: Yeah I love making beer. The thing that I discovered over my time of making beer is beer is exceedingly exact and you have to be very exact beer because ultimately, next to milk, it’s the next most perishable product. You can’t hide behind beer, you have to get it right. Whatever style you choose to make in the balance that you want, whereas with wine it is more robust. It’s a little bit more bulletproof. I mean if you want to make really high quality wine there’s not a lot to hide behind but beer is a very transparent product and you really do have to get it right from a flavour and balance point of view but also from a microbiological point of view.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve actually pre-empted a later question that I was going to ask. Brewing Professor Charlie Bamforth says wine is easier to make them beer because wine guys get to throw their hands up and say ‘oh it’s the vintage’. Brewers don’t get to do that.
JANICE MCDONALD: That is a very true statement.
JAMES ATKINSON: What was it like in those early years being a female brewer?
JANICE MCDONALD: In the early days of Matilda Bay you just you were just a person. I mean working for the likes of Philip and Garry Gosatti, who was a partner in the company, I didn’t feel any sort of prejudices. Also, having worked and done vintages in the wine industry before that… At that time I think as a woman in the industry you were determined to try harder to prove yourself. So you were incredibly determined, you’ll do whatever just to show that you can do it. And I think sometimes you even try maybe way too hard, but you are determined. And if you have that sort of attitude maybe that helps. So it wasn’t until the idea of the company being sold and us having a relationship with Carlton & United Breweries that I ever saw any sort of sexist behaviour.
JAMES ATKINSON: And not asking specifically about that, but what was that era like going through that ownership change at Matilda Bay?
JANICE MCDONALD: It was an enormous cultural change. At Matilda Bay in the early days it was very entrepreneurial, as I said earlier, if we wanted to make a different beer, we did. We had the venues that we could sell that beer through if it was a reasonable sort of sort of beer. I mean beers like Dogbolter, we didn’t always get the alcohol exactly right every time, sometimes it would be extremely high and sometimes it would be a bit lower. Sometimes our bitterness may have varied a bit, but you know the market seemed to be quite willing to try these new styles. When it came to the large company influence, then life got a bit more stringent. The specifications, the brewing to certain levels of alcohol, hops, it all became a whole lot tighter. And I can remember at one time in North Fremantle brewery we were brewing VB for the first time. And we had to make the beer and send a keg over to Abbotsford so they could just do the taste test to make sure that it was close enough to the VB coming out of Abbotsford. And I thought to myself, I didn’t get into this industry and I’ve had so much fun in this industry up to date to then start making beer to absolute specifications and numbers that almost took some of the personality away from it. For someone else it would have been perfect but to me it started to lose some of its creativity. And if you’re aware of what happened in the early days of Matilda Bay, also with the likes of Redback and so on, there was an enormous amount of creativity, energy and hard work.
JAMES ATKINSON: That consistency that you talk about though for any craft brewer that’s looking to scale up and expand is a necessity as well I would argue, if they’re putting package beer out in a national market.
JANICE MCDONALD: Oh absolutely it is, and you know, you’re asking me that question in a time and place. And you know in hindsight, I would be the first to say that the big company experience when it comes to more rigidity in a production process, is that you learn a lot from it. You learn how to be more specific you learn how to be much tighter in your specifications to brew better even to make wine better. So it’s that sort of corporate situation you learn an enormous amount from. So then if you can sort of have both parts of that, so you’ve had that sort of very free range sort of make anything and make it so tastes pretty good and not so much hang the specs but get it as close as you can, and then the rigidity of the large company to be able to combine those two ultimately. For me, I think it made me a more insightful brewer and a better brewer.
JAMES ATKINSON: So what was your next move after Matilda Bay?
JANICE MCDONALD: I mean I did stay for a while after the company had been purchased but as I said earlier, it really wasn’t for me. So Philip asked me was I interested in going down to Margaret River and helping him set up the winery at Devil’s Lair. But there was one small small thing I had to do in between time, and that was to run a cafe in Perth. So that cafe was associated with a company called Dome Coffees. So Dome was one of the early roasters of coffee in W.A. and had. sort of bought into a business with a guy by the name of Phil May who had a business called Western Roast. And Phil just roasted coffee and sold it around Perth. By him becoming involved in Dome and with people like Philip Sexton and Patria Jeffries, it put a shopfront to it. So I was involved in a café in Perth called King Street Cafe where we roasted coffee at the back and it was a cafe at the front. I did that for a year before the time came that I could actually go down to Devil’s Lair there and start building a winery and making the wines.
JAMES ATKINSON: So how many years was it between then and when you ended up at Little Creatures in the head brewer role, I understand.
JANICE MCDONALD: Well the Little Creatures role came along… I mean obviously I’d worked with Phil I’d worked with Howard Cearns, Nick Trimboli in Matilda Bay days so we knew one another. In 2000 I was at Devil’s Lair and again having gone through another corporatisation with Devil’s Lair being bought by Southcorp, and again back to that same story of the creativity of Devil’s Lair and the quick decision making, then you go to the corporate side of things which tightens it all up, becomes more sort of systems driven. You’re learning from both sides of the industry again. But I thought, yeah I don’t really want to do this corporate thing again. And I knew that the whole sort of Little Creatures thing was bubbling along and from a chance meeting with Philip and also with Howard, they said, you know, ‘would you be interested?’ And I thought, ‘yeah I’d be interested in that’.
JAMES ATKINSON: Was there not a part of you that said, you know, ‘haven’t you guys learnt from the experience of Matilda Bay’, which obviously didn’t pan out exactly how they would have hoped?
JANICE MCDONALD: Well we did go through the 1997 recession with the Matilda Bay days and I ultimately circumstances financially probably had an impact on where that business could end. But particularly I think that Howard and Nick were keen to be able to make great craft beer at a reasonable scale and it was very much driven by them. I believed in their dream as well. I thought it’s something that could be done.
JAMES ATKINSON: By that point had you experienced you know the beers of the world a bit more?
JANICE MCDONALD: Oh very much so. I mean I can’t remember the exact year but it must have been about 1988 I think. We had the opportunity… Let me go back one step. Very kindly in 1987, Philip asked me was I interested in doing a brewing course in Berlin. And you could actually do a month long brewing course at the technical university in Berlin. So I was sent to Berlin to do this course, and yes I was the only female in 24 brewers and it was a brewing course for English speaking brewers, so there were people from all over the world, there were Americans, there were Dutch, South Africans, all sorts of people were there. And so during that period, because if you know Berlin, the bars don’t close, there was a lot of exposure to sort of international and particularly European styles of beer. So that really sort of piqued my interest in beer particularly, and particularly the finer beer styles. I love pilsner styles, they are still my favourite beers, I love their exacting characters. And so I had that experience and then a little bit after that, through an arrangement with Stella Artois, we actually brewed Stella Artois in Australia for the first time at the Redback Hotel in North Melbourne and I was the brewer there, so we had a Belgian brewmaster who spent about a week with us, teaching us how to brew Stella Artois. So I had a reasonable exposure to a lot of beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: And you would have learned a lot about those European lager making techniques as well.
JANICE MCDONALD: Absolutely, yeah. And loved that beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: Having been involved in both Matilda and then Little Creatures, what was the vibe at Little Creatures when it launched and the sense of the market potential for craft beer at that time?
JANICE MCDONALD: So when I expressed interest the role at Little Creatures, I’m not exactly sure how it came about, but the end result was that Philip and Howard and I, we did a pub crawl of the US. And the reason we did that was just to see what was happening in that that American or North American market. And so we were in Los Angeles, we went up to Portland, we went over to Denver, we went to Chicago. It was just the funniest trip but we were just tasting beer and looking at different beer styles. And I think you know underneath it all was sort of probably discussions that were had about what style of beer would be Little Creatures’ first beer. And obviously it is that North American pale ale style. And you know Philip had had a lot of experience in that part of the world, after he sold Devil’s Lair, he then moved to North America and brewed beer in Oregon. So he was very familiar with that style and then ultimately that was the style that Little Creatures decided to go with, with their first beer. Again, you know I’d tasted… I was a big fan of Sierra Nevada, I was a big fan of, what’s the San Francisco beer called?
JAMES ATKINSON: Anchor.
JANICE MCDONALD: Anchor Beer. And we’d made a style a bit like Anchor at Matilda Bay, so it was sort of I guess an evolution of that style and taking it on as a sort of a more serious style for Little Creatures Pale Ale. So that was a hilarious trip. But in a sense it was kind of in keeping with those guys. I mean Howard’s a fantastic marketer, incredibly entrepreneurial, and Philip obviously is. So to me it was, ‘oh well, here we go again, we’re getting the old band back together, what fun! And you know we’re making it in an old crocodile park. What else?! I mean I knew that it would be a lot of work but that’s really not something that I’ve ever been afraid of and it was very exciting. It was sort of an opportunity to, yeah, I’d love to give it a go.
JANICE MCDONALD: You were more interested in that than you were bringing Starbucks to Australia, which I believe was the other option that they looked at at the time?
JANICE MCDONALD: Thank God! I think this one’s been way more successful.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah. So you were head brewer from day one?
JANICE MCDONALD: I mean well I was because I was basically the only one there other than Aaron who I’d convinced to come along with me, and so it was the early days of building the brewery, so I was working with Roger Bussell, who was a consultant brewer to us. He’d worked at the Swan Brewery. And Roger Bailey, who was a brewing engineer who’d also worked at the Swan Brewery and these were older guys but they’d been around the brewing industry for a long time and worked in different sites, different countries and so they were the big technical expertise that were engaged at Little Creatures to put all the equipment in. And then I was involved from the beginning but also then with all of the development of all the trial brews and getting the style right.
JAMES ATKINSON: And Aaron being an Aaron Heary of Gage Roads Brewing Company, who was working with you at Devil’s Lair at the time when you brought him across with you to Little Creatures.
JANICE MCDONALD: Yeah, Aaron might be able to tell the story better than I can but he was a keen surfer so he was hanging out in Margaret River surfing and what else do you do in Margaret River if you want to surf? Well you probably work in a vineyard or a winery and you know, you turn up to work when the surf’s not up basically. It’s changed a little bit from that today. Yeah and we discussed it and I said I was going to Perth and we were going to set up this brewery and he was interested and so he came along sort of with no experience at all.
JAMES ATKINSON: What was it that led you to leave Little Creatures? Was that to embark on your own venture of launching Stella Bella Wines?
JANICE MCDONALD: We started Stella Bella and the Suckfizzle wines, my partner Stuart Pym and I, in 1997. So that was sort of pre-Little Creatures days. Stuart was making those wines whilst he was at Voyager Estate and I was at Devil’s Lair and our first Stella Bella release was in 1999, but it was a fledgling, very small business and so really not able to sustain someone with a full income. So this opportunity for Little Creatures came along, so I pretty much signed up for the first year. And my intention was always to go back to wine and to develop the Stella Bella business further, which is what I did. And so from 2001 until 2010 it was really developing that business.
JAMES ATKINSON: What was it like going back from beer to wine again, but also focusing on your own business?
JANICE MCDONALD: I think when you are young and you start with something like that, there’s probably a level of naivety. We thought if could make great wine and we put it in an attractive catchy package, then it would probably sell. And ultimately really, at that time in the wine industry, it did. There was a lot less competition around. I mean Stuart and I had come from backgrounds of having quite strong reputations in wine. You know, Stuart was a winemaker for Voyager Estate and had been there for quite some time making lovely wines, I’d come from Devil’s Lair, so we had quite a quite strong reputation as good winemakers. So then putting wines out into the market, I guess we had a, pedigree might be stretching the word, but we certainly had a reputation and a history of making high quality wine. And we also, I guess we did things in a slightly more quirky fashion than what was around at the time. I mean you know, naming a wine Suckfizzle, who would do that in their right mind? Coming up with a brand called Stella Bella and then some of our wines were, we probably made probably after Brown Brothers the first Moscato in Australia. Our first red was a Sangiovese Cabernet blend. The Suckfizzle white was pretty much a sort of Graves white copy. So we were doing things which were probably a little, at the time, a little different.
JAMES ATKINSON: And I noticed that the brand name, the brand livery if you want to call it that, Howard was involved in that I believe at Braincells.
JANICE MCDONALD: Yeah Howard was. Steve Boros was the graphic designer working at Braincells and was there from the early days of Braincells and I had seen some of Steve’s work in other wine labels and I was very keen to have him involved. So he came up with the Stella Bella brand design based on our brief.
JAMES ATKINSON: So I guess fast forwarding probably the next next decade and by this stage Stella Bella’s had a lot of accolades for the quality of its wines. And you’ve ended up as chief winemaker at Howard Park. Maybe you can give us a potted history of how ended up making that transition.
JANICE MCDONALD: I’ll do that. So I guess the GFC comes along in sort of 2008 or 2009 and at that point Stuart had actually moved to Stella Bella and he was going to take over the sort of more day to day winemaking role and I was going to sort of move into sort of a winemaking but a bit more marketing, even though I was doing a lot of that anyway. And then the GFC came along and we discussed it between ourselves and thought you know, we’ve got a lot of eggs in one basket here. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in this industry so maybe it was time to make some changes. And we did that, so we decided to sell our interests in Stella Bella and Stuart stayed on there as the winemaker, but I thought well I’m probably the best person to make a move out of there. And so that’s what we decided to do.
JAMES ATKINSON: What was it that attracted you to work at Howard Park?
JANICE MCDONALD: I didn’t really know that much about Howard Park other than their wines. I mean I knew the wines. And I knew the history of Howard Park. I’d seen Jeff Burch at tastings around the place, he’s very much a sort of a larger than life figure and you know, renowned for having a fantastic cellar. But the thing that I liked was the wines, particularly. I thought that you know, the people that had made the wines there before me such as you know, John Wade, Michael Kerrigan, they’d made some fantastic wines. And you know, not only from Margaret River but from the Great Southern. And when John was making Rieslings out of the Great Southern in 1986. And some fantastic wines. So I was very attractive to the diversity of wines from Howard Park and the opportunity to make wines from the Great Southern because in the West Australian context I’d really only made wines from Margaret River. So it was a whole new chapter or a whole new venture to become involved in.
JAMES ATKINSON: I mean obviously Margaret River is still a pretty young wine region at the time and still is now. Great Southern, how did that compare at the time? It’s sort of like going back to the frontier even more.
JANICE MCDONALD: Yeah, I mean I think even to this day the Great Southern is a bit frontier. But it is because it’s a much more sort of isolated area, you know the population down there is obviously not as great as around Margaret River. You know the wine industry infrastructure in the Great Southern is almost non-existent by comparison to Margaret River. So winemakers down there do an amazing job because the challenge is even greater. The challenge is greater because of the lack of infrastructure. Also the climate, there’s a lot less rainfall. It’s kind of wetter, colder at the wrong times of the year. So there’s a much greater challenge and you have to be very good to make very high quality wines out of the Great Southern and there’s some fantastic winemakers in that region. Look at the rieslings coming out of there now, out of the Porongarups, out of Mount Barker. You know the Pinots, it’s the only place really in Western Australia that you can grow and make decent pinot noir. And we can do that, I mean we’ve proven that Robert Diletti has proven that at Castle Rock and I’m sure and I know that more pinot noir and more of the sort of interesting clones the French clones have been planted in the Great Southern, particularly Mount Barker and Porongarup, and we will see more. And the Rieslings, well yeah. They’re fantastic. I think you can get some very very good Cabernet, but quite specific sites. We see that from Larry Cherubino, we see that in the Abercrombie Cabernet, so there’s some very good old cabernet sites and they’re planted to the old clones of cabernet. Shiraz, again that speaks for itself. Shiraz out of Frankland River, but also shiraz out of Mount Barker. And Chardonnay the ubiquitous great variety that you can do a lot with in a lot of different climates, is fantastic. It’s a completely different sort of structured wine to what you see from Margaret River. And then there’s sparkling wine, which I think we do a reasonable job of as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are the wines that excite you most from Howard Park range, to make?
JANICE MCDONALD: I love making the sparkling wines because in a sense they’re the greatest challenge for market acceptance. Because if you’re making methode traditionelle sparkling wine, you’re up against champagne as the main contender, which has an enormous name and is the immediate ‘go to’ for anyone who’s drinking sparkling wine. So to be able to make a high quality sparkling wine, that doesn’t necessarily have to copy champagne, but you know, you draw on that inspiration of champagne. But you can express your site and your style and make very, very good wine. That’s to me the greatest challenge. And also, you know, champagne takes even longer for the result than table wine. So you’ve got to wait longer and longer to see the results of your efforts. Did it work? You know, was it the right blend? Was it the right sort of dosage. It all takes a long, long time, much longer than table wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve obviously been drinking Margaret River wines for 30 years or more and making them for almost as long. What are the main changes that you’ve seen in the region and in the wines in that time.
JANICE MCDONALD: There’s a lot more producers, to begin with. I think the quality of Margaret River wine has been elevated. The competition is great to be able to achieve high quality wines and the vineyards are older. The vineyards have been planted with different clones, that makes a big difference. We’ve learnt a lot more about our sites and what they can do. There’s so many things. And also, wine styles change over time and that’s another thing that I think has impacted on how we make our wines specifically from a wine style point of view.
JAMES ATKINSON: Is that about less oak treatment and all those kind of things?
JANICE MCDONALD: I think it does tend to be. We’ve seen that whole sort of chardonnay style being quite low oaked, no malo, quite lean and fine. Some people argue that it’s probably gone a bit extreme but it was I guess the complete sort of reaction and rejection to very big rich sort of over-oaked highly malolactic fermentation wines. I like to think there’s a balance somewhere in the middle. You still these wines to be sort of… You know you can appreciate very fine wines but you’ve also got to be able to drink them, so I think somewhere the balance lies in the middle, particularly with chardonnay.
JAMES ATKINSON: You are still making beer, which is at the Settlers Tavern in Margaret River.
JANICE MCDONALD: That’s right, in the industrial area we have a small brewery, which is owned by the tavern.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about that relationship and what it looks like today.
JANICE MCDONALD: Okay, well this little brewhouse, which is quite good equipment… It’s not particularly fancy but it’s serviceable and it works. It originally started its life as a brewery called Bug Ocean. I think the problem with Bug Ocean was that it really didn’t have a fantastic route to market. So you could make all this beer but where were you going to sell it? And a friend of a friend said to Rob and Karen who are the proprietors of the tavern, ‘well you should speak to Janice. She used to brew beer’. And of course I knew these guys and we basically got together in that way. Rob had some fairly specific ideas about what he wanted done, so he didn’t want the beer filtered, he wanted it naturally carbonated. So the beers are not filtered they’re conditioned in kegs. We Wanted to keep it very natural and have our own style and that’s what we’ve pursued. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles in the brewery so it is quite a challenge, but I love a challenge to make high quality beer with not a lot of invasive practices to get it exactly right. And it is a situation of, sometimes each of our beers can be a little bit different and it almost takes me back to where I started from with beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: When did that start at the Settlers?
JANICE MCDONALD: 2012.
JAMES ATKINSON: So you’ve got six years of moonlighting as a brewer, on top of being a winemaker?
JANICE MCDONALD: That’s correct. I still like… As I say, even our brewery is not particularly sophisticated, I rather like the challenge of being able to produce what I think is a pretty good product out of some fairly rudimentary equipment. That’s the challenge of it, that’s where your skills come through when you haven’t got all the bells and whistles but you can make something that’s really quite good.
JAMES ATKINSON: We’ve talked about how the Margaret River winemaking scene’s changed in the last 30 or so years. If we talk about how the brewing scene has changed, it’s probably even more dramatic. What’s your perception of that being someone who’s living in the region being a brewer and winemaker?
JANICE MCDONALD: Well when did this sort of second wave of craft brewing start. It started I can’t recall exactly when…
JAMES ATKINSON: Well probably people would say with Little Creatures in 2000.
JANICE MCDONALD: So you know, Matilda Bay was that first wave and there were a number of breweries around the country at that time. So then 2001 rolls around and sort of Little Creatures started and that probably did kick off the craft brewing industry in W.A. I think an important thing that happened too was probably the availability of less expensive stainless steel and purpose built small breweries. That was really important with the sort of proliferation of small breweries. So you can spend a not enormous amount of money and still put a small brewery together. You would probably know better than I James, how many small breweries there are in Margaret River. There’s quite a number. But what I see and what doesn’t actually appeal to me because I’m a bit old, is I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to beer styles. I like the traditional styles, so I like a fine well lagered pilsner. I consider that American-style pale ale a classic style, I like English ales, I like stouts but I don’t actually like the hybrids that come through, I’m a bit of a purist. But I think we do see a lot more experimentation in beer and in craft brewing and you do see quite a lot of that around Margaret River. But people seem to be very much enjoying it. I think it has opened up craft brewing and craft brewing beer styles to a greater audience than has ever happened before and that’s a good thing.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s next for you? I mean you’ve been at Howard Park for it must be the last seven years or something like that.
JANICE MCDONALD: This will be my eighth.
JAMES ATKINSON: We’ve looked back over your career, it’s been a bit ‘this is your life’. What’s the next chapter?
JANICE MCDONALD: I think I’ve got a few years of both brewing and winemaking left in me, but I’m keen to study horticulture. I’m keen to know more about other plants. You know the two things in my life if I could be anything I wanted to be and I was young, my choices would be an alpine downhill ski racer or a world renowned planter of vertical gardens. So I can probably still pursue the idea of the horticulture and vertical gardens. I think my career potentially a downhill ski racer is over.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you drink when you’re not drinking your own wines or local beers?
JANICE MCDONALD: Maybe I shouldn’t say. I love drinking champagne and/or more sparkling wine. So I love methode traditionelle wines, I love trying many different wines and trying to prise out of them, what’s happened there? What’s been used, how much dosage, what’s the acidity like, what sort of expedition’s been put into it. I love prising things apart in that way. My other absolute favourite, which is slightly clichéd is cabernet. Again, beautiful Cabernet. I love beautiful Cabernet.
JAMES ATKINSON: Does that mean, you know, French cabernet?
JANICE MCDONALD: Cabernet from anywhere in the world. But prising wines apart is something that I enjoy doing and I mean that a sort of mental or intellectual way, you know what has happened here. I probably taste more wine than I drink. You know if I’m at home and Stuart’s a winemaker and we might go and taste a particular variety, whatever it might be. It could be Nebbiolo, it could be anything and then sort of. ‘Well what if we then just have a look at this or that or something which is somehow related’. So another Barolo or let’s compare Barolo to Barbaresco. So you know sometimes on the weekends we might open four or five wines but we don’t get to the bottom of the bottle fortunately.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well just to wrap up, what’s Howard Park recently launched that people can go out and find and try for themselves?
JANICE MCDONALD: Well we’ve got a couple of new wines coming through. So today actually, well this month we’ve launched a one called Petit Jete. So it’s an additional sparkling wine to our Jete range, so we have the Grand Jete, which is our vintage wine, we have the non-vintage one, and then we have the Petit Jete which is a little bit more entry level. It has a little bit less time on lees and we just made it a little bit softer and richer. So that’s a new wine that we’ve put out. In addition, in 2016 we made a blend of cabernet and shiraz, and that wine is 80 per cent cabernet and 20 percent shiraz and that’s from Margaret River. And that wine is named after Amy Burch’s parents or in fact their initials which is ASW. Her parents coincidentally, her mother and father, both had the same initials. So that’s a very exciting wine, we’ve used a little bit of American oak in that wine, which normally we don’t. And maybe later this year or early next year we have a very high end cabernet which comes off a very special block on our Leston Vineyard that we’ll be releasing. So they’re all very exciting wines for us. In the vineyards though, which will be new ones that will come out in a few more years, we’ve planted some pinot gris on our Mount Barrow Vineyard, we’ve also planted a bit of Gewurztraminer. We’ve put in some new clones of riesling. And then we’ve got a couple of other little things up our sleeves, some different red varieties that we’re still propagating in the nursery.
JAMES ATKINSON: Sounds like plenty to keep you busy for a great many years.
JANICE MCDONALD: Yes certainly. But this is the nature of life at Howard Park, it’s always very exciting, there’s always something new happening. I think it’s just the nature of the beast.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well Janice it’s been a fantastic chat, thanks so much for joining me.
JANICE MCDONALD: Pleasure.
Click here to listen to our interview with Fairfax Hall of Sipsmith Gin on Episode Two of Drinks Adventures.