Tom Champion, head brewer, Felons Brewing Co.
The best part of the Brisbane scene is there are clearly more drinkers who are happy to roll the dice and try something new and challenge themselves ...
For us craft-beer novices, we often pay little thought to the hard work that goes into brewing our favourite drops. Those with more of an inkling of what it takes can attest that brewing beer is half science and half art form, with the skilled brewers overseeing the tanks akin to orchestra conductors or engineers. Tom Champion – the head brewer of Felons Brewing Co. – is one of these near-mythical artisans, who utilises his own experience in chemical engineering to concoct a heralded selection of beers. To glean a bit more insight into the craft, and to pick his brain about how he entered the industry, we tracked Tom down to ask him some questions …
We’d love to start by going back to the beginning! You jumped from a career in mining and chemical engineering to the world of brewing – what prompted the change?
After graduating from Uni, I jumped straight into a job designing an ammonium-nitrate plant – an explosive used to physically blast coal out of the ground. I studied engineering so I would be able to build and create, and it felt like I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. Brewing sang out as a beautiful marriage of science and creativity that was more aligned with my personal values.
What was it about the art of brewing that you found fulfilling enough to pursue full time?
There are two elements of brewing that have bound me to this trade for life – the diverse range of sciences you need to master (chemistry, microbiology, physics, engineering), and the wonderful humans you get to work and grow with. The craft brewing industry is well known as one of the most friendly and sociable pursuits to be involved in.
You cut your teeth working for Little Creatures – what was the biggest learning curve when it came to honing the craft?
Discipline. As your beer becomes more popular and you develop a following of loyal drinkers, a great brewer will be able to deliver a consistent and fresh product using seasonal ingredients that change from year to year. Constant analysis, data recording and all those menial, repetitive tasks are the key to staying in control of your process. I also developed a love affair with the beautiful ingredient that is hops!
Have you been able to incorporate any of your engineering experience in a brewing capacity over the years?
Absolutely! A brewery is fundamentally a chemical plant, however the compounds we are making are born from natural ingredients and come together to make vibrant and exciting beers. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in several brewery builds, and the engineering know-how has been crucial to deliver on those projects.
We’re big fans of the range at Felons Brewing Co. at Howard Smith Wharves! Can you tell us how opportunity to take on the head brewer role came about, and what sold you on the job?
At the time I leapt onto the Felons boat, I was working in Hong Kong in a Little Creatures brewpub making weird and wonderful beers. I have two young daughters, and we decided a childhood in Australia is second-to-none, so it was time to head home. I was looking through job vacancies and saw Ash Cranston’s name come up seeking a Head Brewer, being an old friend, I knew it would be absolute winner of a brewery to get involved with.
What are some of the key tenets behind the Felons brewing ethos?
We believe that there is a time and place for every beer, and there is a beer for everyone. Our guiding star right now is to make sure every customer that walks through the doors of Felons Brewing Co. will be offered a beer on tap that they thoroughly enjoy. We believe in dabbling in the weird and wonderful, however we always strive to be approachable and balanced. I personally have a passion for fresh, locally sourced ingredients, which we predominantly showcase in our Australian Pale Ale and range of fruited sour beers.
Since launching late last year, what has been some of the best feedback you’ve received from beer-loving punters?
The most consistent piece of feedback has been about the stellar view we have here under the Story Bridge! With regards to the beers – when I tell people I work for Felons, I consistently hear high praise for both our Crisp Lager and Natural Ale as beers that are perfect for sunny Brisbane days. Our IPA also receives great feedback from the flavour lovers – people are generally loving the complexity of the beer as opposed to a ‘hop-bomb’.
As a beer lover and someone that has seen the craft-beer industry explode nationally, what do you think is the best thing about Brisbane’s scene currently?
For my whole career I’ve been subjected to very loyal, traditionalist drinkers across the bar who “don’t want their beer to taste like fruit or flowers”, referencing beers that are too hoppy. The best part of the Brisbane scene is there are clearly more drinkers who are happy to roll the dice and try something new and challenge themselves. I believe that’s the kind of demographic that truly supports the craft-brewing industry, and it poises Brisbane to hit the accelerator as a leader of beer in Australia.
What are some brewing industry trends that you predict will become more prevalent over the next five years?
Sour beers, barrel-aged beers and mixed-fermentation beverages are all well and truly underway in the pointy end of the craft scene, and I’d like to see these bloom and take hold. There are some fantastic artisans out there in Australia who would thrive with the support of some open-minded drinkers. I’m personally developing a love of fruited, sour beers, which we have started brewing regularly here at Felons. It’s a great space to be able to source fresh Queensland produce to infuse in our brews.
Where do you see Felons Brewing Co. moving in the future?
If I let myself dream a little bit, our location and offering lends itself to Felons Brewing Co becoming an iconic brewery – the brewery that has something for everyone. I’d love for us to become known for our consistency and ability to deliver on every beer we make. My personal love for equipment and engineering means I’ll be holding out for growth and expansion projects. All this aside, we have one of the most fantastic teams I have worked with at Felons, and I know that regardless of where Felons moves next, it’s going to be an exhilarating adventure filled with passionate people.