Which is the central pillar of society: Steel? Or beer? For Port Adelaide craft brewery Pirate Life, there’s no debate: you can’t have one without the other. Which is why a broad expanse of gleaming metal takes pride of place in the front bar of its Port Adelaide premises. It’s the whole brewing process – laid bare. And, like the suds on tap, it’s all about adding some refinement and flavour to millennia-old strengths.
To head of brewing operations Lewis Maschmedt, it’s about fermenting the idea that beer is the result of a robust, clean – precisely engineered – process. Stainless steel rises to the challenge. “We sprung for the polished version. It has that space-age feel that makes people go ‘Wow’,” he says.
Now the brewing kit is as much a star of the show as the beers it produces. Almost everything in sight is stainless steel. The kettle. The centrifuge. The piping. The vats. “It has a glow. When it’s dark, it reflects all the lights nicely. And all the while it’s humming away nicely, doing its real job.”
Beer is the more senior of the two. The oldest evidence of brewing comes out of Mesopotamia some 7000 years ago. Steel is a relative youngster. The alloy of carbon and iron has been traced back some 4000 years.
Like beer, steel is immensely popular and in great demand. Which is why the South Australian State Government is seeking $10 billion of investment to become a major global supplier of magnetite for high-grade steel by 2030.
SA beer isn’t doing too badly either. Pirate Life is now the state’s second-largest craft beer producer. With a strong following in WA, it’s eyes are shifting east. And, according to Maschmedt, no beer-goggles were involved in the match between brewing and steel.
“Traditional breweries used copper, wood and ceramics. But that’s antiquated technology now and copper is far too expensive these days,” he says. “Stainless steel is so much more efficient.”
Not to mention it’s easier to keep shiny. But it’s all about the ale. Beer is sensitive. It doesn’t like oxygen. It doesn’t like heat or light. Isolating these things are vital in keeping the amber fluid from spoiling.
Steel is tough. Its surface is easy to keep smooth and clean. Contents are kept fresh and completely dark. Carbonation can’t escape. And, most importantly, steel is inert. It doesn’t leech out any flavours of its own.
A modern, responsive craft brewery is a far cry from the moonshine stills of yore. It has to be precise. It has to be adaptable. It has to be able to shift production runs as quickly and cleanly as possible. “We have to get it right,” Maschmedt says. “It’s a competitive business. We have to make sure our beer is consistent, as well as distinctive.”
But the process is a challenging one. Different steps in turning barley and malt into beer require contrasting extremes. As Maschmedt says, there’s a lot of energy involved in brewing. “That’s all part and parcel of managing a brewery. We deal with high-pressure steam. We have hot fluids. We have some pretty harsh stuff to keep under control ...
“Any energy scares me. I’m an engineer by trade. I don’t like electricity. I don’t like heat. I don’t like high-pressure air. Which is another reason to have nice, well-made stainless-steel equipment – peace of mind.”
The gleaming metal reflects the pride Pirate Life puts into its product. But it also keeps it safe. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is we don’t pasteurise any of our beer,” Maschmedt says. “We don’t heat it in any way before it goes to market. We want to maintain the flavour.”
On an industrial scale, high standards of cleanliness result in some pretty harsh treatment. Equipment must be able to shrug off sanitising steam. Cleaning agents mustn’t scour its surface.
Then there’s the fact beer is itself corrosive. And so is the electro-chemical brewing process. This is because the beverage is slightly acidic and the microorganisms that make it what it is can eat away at their surrounds.
Stainless steel is stronger than both. Rust isn’t an option. Not only would it shorten the life of critical pieces of equipment, the resulting leaks, dirty surfaces and residue would taint the brew. So stainless steel’s resistance to oxidation takes on particular significance.
Pirate Life’s original steel brewing kit is still with them. Though dwarfed by the modern set-up, it sits gleaming in one corner in its ongoing role as a testbed for new ideas. And as a star attraction.
“The charm of our original location was the connection between where the beer was drunk and where it was made, customers felt like they were a part of the process. So we took that idea and scaled it up here,” Maschmedt says. “At the end of the day, we need our brewing kit to perform. And it needs the strength, flexibility – and shine – to do that on every stage.”
Being a good neighbour is not always easy. It takes hard work, good communication and a little give and take.
As the manufacturer of biological fertilisers – mostly made from chicken poo – Neutrog, at Kanmantoo, knows how it feels to be branded a “bad neighbour” as well as experiencing difficult behaviour from over the fence.
“We had some significant issues in the early 1990s including the smell associated with large-scale composting,” says Neutrog managing director Angus Irwin.
“We used to take dead chooks on to this site and you could smell them up to 15km away, so we were not very well liked.”
Then came mining company Hillgrove Resources to begin exploration right next door on what had been a copper mine in the 1970s. Neutrog had set up on 20ha of the former BHP site in 1988. Hillgrove was given permission to explore and assess the surrounding area in the early 2000s, and in 2011 began mining copper and gold.
“When Hillgrove came on, they were blowing things up fairly regularly and closing roads during the blasts as part of their safety exclusion zone,” Irwin says.
“(They) said we needed to build some bomb shelters and climb into them each day – true story.”
Tensions in the neighbourhood might have escalated if not for changes at Hillgrove, leading to an inclusive approach to community relations and forming the basis for coexistence often held up as an exemplar in the industry.
“It’s terrific, now,” Irwin says. “They’ve been unbelievable. They ended up leasing some land of ours and then, in the last few years they invited us to join the Kanmantoo-Callington Community Consultative Committee (K4C) which was set up when mining was first considered.
“(It’s) just a terrific initiative to enable the community to come along and vent – whether it’s about us or them – there’s great communication and it’s helped us establish a better relationship with them, as well.”
The co-operation has led to Hillgrove loaning Neutrog heavy equipment and even excavating part of the Neutrog site for a new composting area. The bottom line at Neutrog is also looking healthy; the company has grown about 15 per cent, month on month, in recent years.
At Hillgrove Resources, CEO and managing director Lachlan Wallace takes consultation and forward planning seriously, above and beyond basic regulations.
“All mining companies have a requirement to establish a consultation process with their near neighbours and stakeholders,” Wallace says. “Back in 2008, we established a consultative committee which provided a forum for us to provide updates about the site activities, and take on board concerns and questions people may have. Over the years this consultation has expanded to not only focus on the mine, but the broader concerns of the community, including other industrial activities in the area, including Neutrog. Irwin commends the process. “To be able to front up to the community like that was remarkable.”
Wallace says that the broadened scope of the K4C empowered the committee to address regional scale issues impacting the community and has resulted in numerous examples of local businesses working together to collectively improve local amenity, as well as a forward looking plan that considers how the existence of mining in the region could leave a positive legacy long after mining ceases.
Wallace says the K4C Master Plan, launched in 2019, is a deliberate effort of words and deeds to reverse the often poor public understanding of mining.
“I think the image of the mining industry is probably a bit outdated in the community – some of the work being done by companies in Australia is fantastic,” he says. “We have actively sought to flip the script on it, in regards to consultation, because our future lies in further exploration and development in and around Kanmantoo and the broader South East.”
“Delivering on our promises to rehabilitate the site at the end was one of the things that really demonstrated we were serious about the promises we had made.” Hillgrove is not bankrolling these projects but it is helping facilitate the work.