Brewery celebrates five years as ‘Brunswick’s best kept secret’
Inner North Brewing Company goes from strength to strength
TUCKED away in a semi-industrial backstreet on the “wrong side” of the Upfield line, Inner North Brewing Company isn’t the easiest place to find, but that’s kind of how owner and head brewer Zack Skerritt likes it.
Despite its obscure location in Russell Street — a dead end road off Leslie Street that runs parallel to Victoria and Albert streets — Inner North Brewing has developed a devoted and loyal following and this month will celebrate five years of operation as one of Brunswick’s burgeoning microbreweries.
“Some people describe us as Brunswick’s best kept secret and I like the sound of that but at the same time I wish we were the worst kept secret, so there’s pros and cons to it,” Mr Skerritt says.
The brewery and bar opened at the end of summer in 2018 in what was originally an ice and ice cream manufacturing plant that was built in the 1960s.
Mr Skerritt, who grew up on the Micronesian island of Guam, began home brewing as a hobby soon after moving to Australia in 2009.
In the mid-2010s, after travelling across the US and through Latin America on a bike during which he visited numerous craft breweries, he quit his job as a structural engineer, throwing his lot in with a friend to open a forerunner of Inner North Brewing Company in Kensington.
After about a year together, Mr Skerritt, who is now in his mid-30s, decided he wanted to run a brewery and venue on his own, and a long search for a suitable location eventually led him to Russell Street.
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It took close to six months to convert “this dingy old Brunswick warehouse” into the light-filled space it is now, with room for about 130 people inside and a few dozen more on picnic tables out the front.
“Being tucked away was really appealing in terms of having a bar and having people leaving here late at night, not having residential [nearby] is helpful.
“And also it’s Melbourne and people like a place that is a little bit hard to find, a little bit challenging.
“On the downside we really don’t get any foot traffic going past because we’re on a side street, so that’s definitely held us back over the years because there’s still a lot of people in Brunswick who don’t know we exist.
“But then again, it’s also helped because we’ve been a work in progress from day one so it’s allowed us to grow a little more slowly and sustainably as people have discovered us.”
Inner North began with just two fermenters but now has five times that capacity and is able to brew six different styles of beer at a time.
This allows the bar to have up to 12 styles of beer on tap so that at any one time, customers can enjoy beers as varied as a classic Czech pilsener, a hoppy American-style IPA, a Belgian pale ale with a hint of strawberry, or a lemongrass and ginger flavoured rice ale.
“We like our signature range to be something that sounds a little left field but is actually quite accessible for people to enjoy,” Mr Skerritt says.
The brewery also has a growing wholesale business and produces cans and longnecks for retail sale. Mr Skerritt is planning to ramp up the wholesale side of the business over the next 12 months and to supply local pubs and restaurants with his beers.
The bottling of beer in longnecks began during the COVID lockdowns in 2020 when it was not possible to bring a mobile canning line onto the site.
Instead, Inner North began home delivering longnecks within a five kilometre radius from the brewery, and the practice continues on a weekly basis every Friday.
“We set up a kind of milk man system during COVID,” Mr Skerritt explained.
“You can order online bottles to be delivered to home and leave out your empty bottles and each bottle has a $2 deposit on it, so when you collect your empty bottles, you basically get returned $2 in beer credit.
“I think it would have been difficult to make it catch on if COVID had never happened, but because we had COVID and people got into the habit, we have a fair number of customers who still come with their dozen bottles that they’ve collected over the month or so and sometimes they just return the 12 bottles and cash it in for a couple of pints, or sometimes they just walk away with half a dozen bottles.”
When Inner North opened in 2018, Brunswick’s microbrewing scene was still tiny with only two other businesses operating. There are now at least eight.
Mr Skerritt credits other small breweries in Brunswick and other parts of inner Melbourne for sharing their knowledge and expertise when he was starting out, and says he wants to repay the favour by being generous with his own time to other new entrants to the industry.
One such beneficiary of his experience has been Dave Williamson, who opened Gales Brewery in Brunswick East last year.
“Dave started popping in years ago before COVID and I got a bit of help from other brewers before I started so I see it as important that I take the time and pay it forward to others.
“There still is a community. It’s changing a little bit as the market gets a bit more saturated, but it’s still very much a friendly, collaborative industry.
“We’re super friendly with the Foreigner [Brewing Company in Henkel Street] guys, it’s really handy when you need to borrow a cup of sugar, so to speak, from your neighbour and you can ring them up and borrow something off them.”
Mr Skerritt says this collaborative environment is one reason why Brunswick is thriving as a centre for craft and micro breweries. Other factors are the availability of vacant warehouses and other large buildings, council zoning, and the area being bike and foot friendly.
But there is also something distinctive about Brunswick that is difficult to replicate.
“Brunswick’s grown a lot in the last five years and a lot of those people that are moving into those new places have good beer knowledge and want to have interesting, fresh, local beers.”
Regardless of the plans to increase the wholesale and retail beer in cans parts of the business, it is the venue in Russell Street that remains Mr Skerritt’s number one focus and passion. The increasing number of members of the brewery’s 100 pint club is testament to its high standing among beer aficionados.
Over the five years, the business has grown to four full-time employees – including a second brewer – and a number of part-timers and casuals.
“In my head, we’re still the new kid on the block, a new business, but the truth is we’re not any more,” Mr Skerritt admits.
To celebrate its fifth birthday, Inner North Brewing Company will be throwing a traditional Kölsch party from midday next Saturday, March 4.
A Kölsch party is a lively celebration that is a staple of the cultural heritage of the German city of Cologne, where guests gather to drink Kölsch beer, eat food and dance. Tickets are $27.78, which entitles the holder to six pots of beer.