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July 15, 2024

Stone & Wood celebrates Pops’ 70th birthday

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Neil Whitton has been brewing beer for more than 45 years, and was celebrated recently when the crew dropped tools and closed laptops to celebrate what they called ‘a legend who inspires, coaches, makes us laugh and…reminds us to have a beer at 3pm each afternoon’.

They raised glasses of ‘Saison du Pops’, a Pilot Batch beer brewed exclusively for Neils’s 70th birthday. Known to many as ‘Pops’ he epitomises the spirit of a village brewer, is a true advocate of good beer and proof that age really is just a number.

‘Behind many of Australia’s greatest beers, Neil’s dedication, his passion and countless hours on the brew tower have contributed to this country’s craft beer revolution!’, they said.

The Echo thought he sounded like an interesting character and Vivienne Pearson asked ‘Pops’ for a few reflections on an industry that’s changed a lot in 45 years…

On the 70th birthday celebration:

‘I walked into a surprise birthday celebration. I wasn’t expecting it; they caught me on the hop. I opened the door and there were about 60–70 people there and I knew I’d been got. I got the surprise of my life! I felt a bit embarrassed and humbled and pleased at the same time’, said Pops

On the specially brewed birthday beer:

‘A couple of months back, the head brewer, Caolan, very sneakily asked me about my favourite beer. I like a lot of beer – I may even change my mind now and again – but at the time I said a Saison. Saison is a beer from France-Belgium that goes back a few centuries (when I was a little kid!) when the water wasn’t fit to drink so beer was a safe way of consuming liquid. The famer would brew it up with whatever he had in his larder at the time – herbs and spices, whatever hops were available.

‘Lo and behold, it was a Saison that was in the glasses at the birthday celebration. It tasted delicious! The first one didn’t even touch the sides.

‘It is designed to be very refreshing. I enjoyed another one on the weekend watching the footy.

‘It was made at seven per cent alcohol – a reasonably high alcohol content for a beer – in honour of my being 70.

‘This gives me the incentive to last another 10 years so I go up to eight per cent for my 80th!’

On working at Stone & Wood:

‘I’ve been with Stone & Wood for two and a half years. I’ve had a long association with the owners – Ross and Jamie – I knew them in Melbourne at Matilda Bay Brewing Company.

‘They made the journey up to start Stone & Wood without me, but the offer was there.

‘I was 67 when I moved up – it was a decent thing of them to take me on at that age.

‘I work in safety as well as mentoring the young brewers. We have 23 brewers, mostly youngsters; some have experience, a lot haven’t. They’re all fantastic.

‘Stone & Wood is a great place to work. The philosophy they have in terms of sustainability and how they look after their employees is great; everything about them is very special.

‘This is an industry of young people – I’m the only ancient person – but I still have good physical fitness.

‘Occasionally, when they are short staffed, I’ll go up and man the brew tower.

‘I will probably end my working life at Stone & Wood but I have no plans at this stage. It’s a lot of fun working there.

‘Being an ex-Melbourne boy, I’m very much enjoying the northern rivers – it’s a little piece of paradise.

On his career in beer (over 45 years):

‘I’ve been everywhere, man. Most places I’ve worked have closed down – Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, Cairns, a few places in Melbourne.

‘When I started, there was a multitude of breweries – about 40 around Australia – but there was no craft beer, so breweries were owned mainly by the larger companies. Most of the places I’ve worked don’t still exist. The big companies closed down smaller, less efficient plants.

‘I got into craft beer around 2000. It was a struggle for the few companies that were there. The craft beer industry started gaining impetus from 2008 and it’s just gone gangbusters since then. Since then number of breweries has increased dramatically – I think there are around 240–250 around Australia.

‘I used to know everyone in the brewery scene; now it’s just about impossible.

‘The beer industry is a good thing to be in. Normal beer sales are staying static; they’re flat-lining. The craft industry is going upwards.

‘As a nation, we’re enjoying a revolution with food and wine, and now beer.

‘With food, as a kid it was all chops and three veg. There wasn’t the influence of overseas that there are now. Then it happened with wine – there were only very standard wines when I was younger, and now there is a huge variety.

‘The same thing has now happened with beer. A lot of places now match food with beer, which is a great experience.

‘People have got used to, and now demand something more interesting with better quality. And they are prepared to pay more for it.’

Thanks Pops.


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