Local Hero: Westside Ale Works (Casey Wagner)
Tucked away on Albert Street in South Melbourne, Westside Ale Works is a hidden gem when it comes to craft beer in Melbourne. Showcasing the hop-forward styles from the west coast of the United States, Casey Wagner’s wide variety of beers have proved quite a hit with the local community.
We chatted to Wagner about opening Westside in South Melbourne, and how he’s involved in the City of Port Phillip community.
From west coast USA to South Melbourne
Growing up in Seattle, Wagner relocated to Southern California for university and then moved around the United States for a while. But it was time for a bigger move when Wagner’s partner accepted a job in Melbourne and they loved the feel of their new country straightaway.
After previously working for the Hilton hotel group in the US, Wagner was ready to try something new in Melbourne. Having home brewed for a really long time, Wagner said he “noticed that craft beer in Australia was really starting to take off, so I came up with a business plan for how I could open a small craft brewery that would just service the immediate area.”
Named in reference to the west coast of the United States, Wagner sought to share hop-forward beers with the South Melbourne community through Westside Ale Works – an idea that’s been a resounding success.
Wagner opened Westside in 2016 and just over two years later, moved the brewery down the street to allow for more brewing equipment. His philosophy has always focused on creating a warm and welcoming experience for customers.
The recent addition of mouth-watering American-style pizzas to the menu provides the perfect accompaniment to Wagner’s rotating Westside 20 taps. With those taps, Wagner balances both more easy-going approachable styles like the Electric Socks Pale, with more adventurous brews like A Sour For Spuds, which incorporates mango and guava.
On our visit, some of our favourites included a malty and rich Red Roo IPA, a Thai Spiced Pale with coriander, lemongrass and kaffir lime, and the What Morals, a Kveik New England IPA (NEIPA). 111 Westside brews have already hit the taps in the Albert Street brewhouse, showcasing Wagner’s creativity and work ethic.
He also has 10 guest taps at Westside, sharing cracking brews from the US, such as Offshoot Brewing Co, New Zealand’s Behemoth or other Australian breweries like Beer Farm.
Transitioning beer tastes of the community
While craft beer fanatics can’t get enough of the latest and greatest IPA variants, it took Wagner some time to convince non-craft drinkers to try hop-heavy beers.
“We’ve seen a journey in people’s tastes since we’ve been open. When we first opened, our higher alcohol beers were around the seven per cent range, people weren’t quite ready for those. Now, we’ve seen a switch and more people are asking for those type of beers.”
While there are still more approachable beers with lower alcohol content, Wagner takes pride in explaining to newcomers what extra hop and malt flavours can do.
“Usually a light goes on and they go, ‘Oh I really like that’, and they try something a little bit further out there.”
“It’s been really cool watching people’s reactions to the beers, experiencing new flavours and tastes, and finding out what they like or don’t like.”
With 20 taps, there’s space to try out test batches of new brews, with ‘What Morals?’ freshly kegged on the day of our visit. That way, Wagner’s able to try out new styles and flavours, see if the customers like it, and then Westside can scale the production of their beer to meet growing demand.
A brewery for South Melbourne
Not only focusing on the hops, Wagner has taken to his South Melbourne location with gusto. Highlighting that the area “didn’t have much access to free beer”, Wagner loves giving “locals an experience they remember”.
With pizzas on show, plenty of beers flowing and an NBA game on the huge projector screen, it’s a welcoming atmosphere that immediately makes you feel at home.
Wagner has also loved giving back to the South Melbourne community where he lives with his family, and where his daughter attends primary school.
“The community seems to embrace us and like what we’re doing. Whether it’s been donations to primary schools or hosting a bushfire relief, I also want to be able to support this community.”
When asked what’s on the horizon for Westside Ale Works, expansion is definitely important to Wagner, but still keeping the brewery within the South Melbourne community.
“We have larger fermentation tanks coming in, allowing us to be more wholesale and get our beers into pubs, bars and bottle shops around here. Maybe down the road we’ll open up a second branch, but we want to keep focusing on this place and staying here long term, growing the community and seeing what we can do to support them.”
See more of Westside Ale Works at BeerFest
Another way you can see Wagner and drink a selection of Westside brews is at BeerFest, with the beer festival hitting St Kilda’s Catani Gardens on Saturday 29 February.
“This will be our third year at BeerFest in St Kilda, with a lot of people finding us there and then coming into the taproom. It’s one of my favourite festivals, with everyone really into beer and a beautiful spot close to the beach.”
What’s on the menu for the 2020 festival? Wagner says Westside’s bringing an IPA to show off their hop-forward abilities, a sour, an easy-drinking brew and a speciality one-off choice just for BeerFest.
Releasing the first Westside NEIPA, Weekend Juice, at a previous BeerFest, Wagner said 2020’s BeerFest wildcard would be a similar NEIPA with a different variety of hops.
To try Westside’s brews alongside beers from a wide array of brewers, get your tickets to BeerFest now.
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