Neil Richardson takes a look at Newcastle's craft beer scene

Corey Crooks of the Grain Store opens his spreadsheet which lists every brew his venue has ever poured, as we try to locate the Belgium beer that Foghorn Brewery’s Shawn Sherlock brewed in his time at Murray’s Craft Brewing Co as its Head Brewer. I ask him how many beers are on the spreadsheet and he pauses to check for a second.

“Hmmm, over ten thousand,” he replies.

Corey owns and runs the Grain Store, in the east end of Newcastle, which was voted the number one beer venue in Australia by Beer & Brewer Magazine in 2023. His venue boasts a 21-tap list, pouring independently-owned and 100 percent Australian-brewed beers and ciders. 

In 2009, Newcastle’s pub landscape changed when Corey turned the Albion Hotel into the region’s first craft beer pub. Novocastrian craft beer lovers flocked to his venue, with the bar constantly jam-packed on a Friday and Saturday night.
The Grain Store
Newcastle's iconic craft beer venue - The Grain Store

Many remember the first-ever keg of Troubadour Magma (a Belgian Tripel IPA with 9% ABV) being poured, imported by Jason and Anita Pugh’s International Beer Collector company. Behind the bar, serving these beers, was Grainfed’s own Lachlan MacBean, who was on the brink of starting his own brewing ventures; the Newcastle beer scene is deeply interconnected.

The Rogue Scholar’s Adam Hardy recalls being a patron at The Albion when Corey replaced the big beverage and brewing companies' mass-brewed beers with craft beer on the pub taps. 

The Rogue Scholar
L to R: Craig Bellamy and Adam Hardy

Challenging the big multinationals was unprecedented in Australia, and for Adam and his friends, it meant access to various independent beers from around the country and the world. This exposure also convinced Adam that there was a market for his dream of owning and running a brewpub.

“The Albion took off, and all Corey’s hard work showed that Newcastle was interested in craft beer,” Adam said.

Shawn Sherlock earned a reputation for brewing award-winning beers as Head Brewer at Murray’s Craft Brewing Co. and in 2012 was rewarded with the accolade of Australian Brewer of the Year. In 2015, he opened the doors to Foghorn Brewery where he continues to create some of Australia’s finest award-winning beers. 

Shawn reflects on the days when Corey was at The Albion.

“What Corey and [his partner] Christy did at The Albion was crucial. He proved that people would buy craft beer and pay an extra dollar if you presented a good product to them. 

“This is all theory until someone tests it and he was the guy that did. He pushed the envelope with The Albion, built the concept, and cemented it with the Grain Store. There's a reason the Grain Store wins national awards— it's a great venue and Corey is a good operator," Shawn said.

When Foghorn first opened, the brewery encountered significant licensing and regulation issues.

“We presented a model back in 2014 which was different, that didn’t exist. It was a large venue and a brewery, which they couldn’t get their head around.
Shawn Sherlock - Foghorn Brewery
Owner of Foghorn Brewery - Shawn Sherlock

“All they were really looking at was the size of the venue and the potential numbers they could get in there and alcohol and you throw those things together and all they could see were problems,” Shawn said.

Lachlan MacBean has been a significant figure in Newcastle's independent brewing scene for many years, and is the owner and head brewer of Grainfed Brewing Co, located just a stone’s throw from McDonald Jones Stadium in Lambton.

Owner of Grainfed Brewing Co. - Lachlan MacBean

Lachlan sees Grainfed as Newcastle’s oldest brand but the newest brewery, confident in its success within the city.

"People here are willing to try new things and are supportive of their own. 

“Newcastle people can see through the nonsense; if you’re not genuine, you’ll be found out," Lachlan said.

Jaz Wearin, of Modus Operandi in Merewether, explains how receptive people have been to craft beer in Newcastle and to Aussie brewers putting their livelihoods on the line. She says community buy-in is so important, while the collective spirit of the other Newcastle breweries has been amazing.

Modus Merewether
Owners of Modus - Grant and Jaz Wearin

“We all have similar stories, similar struggles and wins, and it would be really good for the community to see we can all work together. We share raw materials with other local brewers in Newcastle, and we are always chatting about new ideas and enjoying a few beers together,” Jaz said.

Sean Costigan, Head Brewer and co-owner at Islington’s Method Brewery has been part of the brewing scene for some time. Shawn Sherlock, then at Murray’s, mentored him.

Method Brewing
Method Brewing owners - Matt Blofield, Sean Costigan, and Gavin McKenzie

Sean recalls the early challenges his old boss faced during Foghorn’s establishment.

“If you look at the local government side of things, especially seeing what Shawn had to go through in town, just knowing this backstory made it easier for us. There were so many conditions he had to battle through to prove that a brewpub is a family and community-friendly affair,” Sean said.

Sean also acknowledges Corey Crooks' achievements at The Albion. 

“Corey was one of the first to put all craft beer on taps. Many publicans thought it would never work, but it became one of the busiest pubs in town,” Sean said.

Sean believes collaboration with other breweries is essential for Method's growth, emphasising that they all know each other and enjoy each other's beers. 

“We’ve all been in this industry for a very long time. There’s no competing against each other; we are all such a small portion of the beer that gets drunk in Newcastle,” Sean said.

At Shout Brewing Co. on Clyde Street, Islington, the team appreciates Newcastle's dedicated support for local businesses.

“We love seeing our hard-earned money circulate locally while witnessing the growth of our beautiful city. We are fortunate to live here and be part of this community,” said Jake Gardiner.

Shout Brewing regards Corey Crooks as the "Godfather of craft beer" in Newcastle, highlighting his commitment to supporting independent Australian breweries at his pub. 

“A man of principle, Corey has repeatedly removed popular beers from the Grain Store's rotation after they were sold to foreign entities,” said Jake.

Shout Brewing
L-R: Shout bar manager Gus Engler, and co owner Dylan Meade

Good Folk, located on Beaumont Street in Hamilton, is another recent brewpub for the city’s beer lovers. Owner, Phil Elsley, notes that local brewers frequently communicate, share beers together, and even visit each other’s venues. 

He views Corey Crooks and Shawn Sherlock as pioneers in Newcastle, recognising their vision and courage to champion independent craft beer. 

“They showed us there was a market and gave us confidence that Newcastle was ready for it,” Phil said.

Good Folk Brewing
L-R: Good Folk Brewing - Phil Elsley (owner), John Elsley (owner), and James Horne (head brewer)

Corey is impressed with those who have followed in his footsteps. 

“I think it’s fantastic. I hope the town supports them. It's great for the town and it’s about time, we should always have had about ten brewpubs in our city,” Corey said.
The Grain Store
Owner of The Grain Store - Corey Crooks

Shawn sees regional areas thriving in the craft beer sector, where a venue can significantly impact a smaller community. 

“Just as every good suburb has one or two great cafes, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a decent brewery,” Shawn said.

And talking of decent beers from decent breweries – the beer that Corey was searching for? It was Murray’s Grand Cru, the Belgium Tripel Shawn tweaked, ahead of its time in Australia all those years ago.