Does this sound familiar? An Englishman with the initials JS comes to Australia and helps transform a nation’s attitude to beer. It’s not James Squire we’re talking about, though, it’s James Smith – the man behind The Crafty Pint website and Melbourne’s Good Beer Week.
Like James Squire before him, James Smith hasn’t been afraid to take a risk. As far as we’re aware, it hasn’t involved the highway robbery, chicken thievery, transportation, hop stealing, brewery establishing and womanising that form such an intricate part of the James Squire legend. But it has entailed packing up a life in England and arriving in Australia with his wife, ‘a couple of rucksacks and eight nights’ accommodation booked in. No job, didn’t know anyone…’
Unpromising beginnings, to be sure, but then fate – and craft beer – took a hand: ‘I met some people who worked at Mountain Goat,’ James recalls. ‘I went out to the brewery and was just blown away that it was this brewery and bar inside a warehouse. By that stage I was starting to play for an indoor cricket team [Note to Australian readers – no early Ashes gloating, please…] and met some other guys who worked for a brewery.
‘So I realised there were all these breweries around, but I thought: Where’s the information? There was nothing online, no-one was writing about it in the media on a regular basis. So every trip we took away I found out where all the local breweries were. And I thought it was so interesting that there was all this [craft beer] out there.’
And so the idea for The Crafty Pint was born: ‘It just felt to me that there was something really exciting happening, but no one was telling the story. It seemed to me that that was a way to do it and also provide a resource.
‘I wanted it to be that if you’ve just had your first ever craft beer and you liked it, you could land on that website and wouldn’t be put off. You’d hopefully be interested, you could read a few things quite quickly and you’d click around and go, “Oh my God. There’s so much happening I haven’t heard about”.’
For the love of craft
As a newspaper journalist back in the UK, James had all the necessary writing experience – even though, as he puts it, ‘I reckon my coverage of beer was one story once about some guy who brewed in his shed and put some beers in the Nottingham beer festival.’
Perhaps more importantly, though, James also had a long-held and deep-seated passion for what the English call real ale: ‘My “go to” would be Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Generally, when I went to a pub in a new area I’d try a beer I’d never heard of. In Nottingham, my favourite was Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. It was 3.8 per cent, so really light but quite hoppy – a lovely beer. But I didn’t really know much about how the brewing process worked or anything like that.’
Nevertheless, like James Squire (again), James spotted a gap in the market – only his required information rather then beer to fill it as a way of spreading the word about craft beer and the work of the breweries producing it. And yet it’s fair to say that when he arrived in Australia, nothing could have been further from his mind.
‘I said to my wife before coming here: “I’m going to have to learn how to brew, because the beer in Australia is shit” – and then discovered it wasn’t so shit anymore”.’
The reason for James’ formerly low opinion of Aussie beer stemmed from his first trip down under, in 2000 for the Sydney Olympics. At least part of the problem was cultural, with James laying the blame squarely at the feet of his fellow countrymen:
‘I stayed in a share house with a lot of other British and Irish, and they were just into getting shit-faced, getting a job at some data entry company, wasting all their money and spending 11 months in Sydney, with maybe a brief trips to Cairns or somewhere like that. I couldn’t see the point of leaving the UK only to hang around with people from the UK.’
So James hit the road, but because he was travelling around regions like the Northern Territory, he was only exposed to a very limited range of beer – hence his dismissive attitude.
It was an attitude James quickly and happily changed on returning to Australia and settling in Melbourne (just across the road from Chopper Read) five and a half years ago: ‘In the intervening time there had been maybe 40 or 50 breweries that had started up, and since I’ve got here there’s been maybe another 100. Well, that’s a rough figure, but a lot!’
Spreading the craft beer gospel
With its combination of beer-related features, reviews, news and events, The Crafty Pint has become a must read for craft beer lovers. Equally, James’ personal reputation has grown. Now known across the craft beer industry as ‘Crafty’ (which presumably means he must be profoundly relieved he didn’t stick with his original name for the site: ‘The Wobbly Boot’), he was recently a judge at the Victorian leg of the James Squire You Brew Competition.
James describes the site as ‘like a cheerleader for the craft beer industry, especially the Australian craft beer industry’, but while he loves his job (even the massive amount of work that goes into being part of the team organising and running Melbourne’s Good Beer Week), it’s not without its issues:
‘I’ve been trying to give away a case of beer with my newsletter, but then I went away recently and there were another three cases waiting for me. I thought: I can’t drink all this beer. Which is very much a First World problem!’
First world problems aside, James thinks we are currently witnessing an incredibly exciting time for craft beer in Australia. He’s right – and it’s thanks in part to the efforts of this unlikely cheerleader.