From Single Fin To Side Track And All Pints In Between - Stab Mag
Current world number two and four-time CT Winner Jack Robinson brought into Gage Roads at the beginning of this year. "I’m really excited to surf with Margo. That’s the best,” he told Stab.

From Single Fin To Side Track And All Pints In Between

Gage Roads is the surfer-owned West Australian brewery tapping into the nation’s love of the ocean.

Words by Chris Binns
Reading Time: 10 minutes

“When I was a kid I used to spend tons of time in Fremantle,” says Jack Robinson, “because I loved boats. I still do. I’d head down to the river and watch the sunset and see the ships come and go, and all these years later it felt like a full circle moment to walk into the brewery for the first time knowing that I’m now a part of it.”

Swan River out the front, Indian Ocean out the back, Rottnest on the horizon. Not a drop out of place at Gage Roads.

The brewery in question is Gage Roads Brew Co’s shiny new facility, glistening on the Swan River dockside in the beating heart of the Port of Fremantle in Perth, Western Australia. The redeveloped 100-year-old A Shed, next to the WA Maritime Musuem is now an oversized beach house full of bohemian staff bouncing around with paddles of beer and trays of tacos, rock and roll hanging heavy on the salt air, with space for 1500 men, women and children to eat, drink and watch ferries. Although beer is brewed on site it’s far from the only attraction; there are surfboards for sale alongside snappy merch, a decommissioned cray boat and old Landcruiser take pride of place in the playground, and a replica of Gnaraloo’s iconic King Waves sign lurches overhead. The place is a damn good time for young and old, and while it might seem like an overnight success it’s taken nearly 20 years of hard work to come to life.

Even the toddlers drive Landcruisers in the west.

The story of Gage Roads is an honest tale best told over a cold beer, so on a sunny Tuesday in late March that’s exactly what Aaron Heary sat me down to do. Aaron – six-foot, mid-forties, athletic build, goofyfoot – lists Executive Director as his current role, but he started out as Gage Roads’ first Head Brewer back in 2004 and has filled every job on the payroll in getting to where he is today. An engaged conversationalist, Aaron squeezed in our catchup moments before jetting off to Melbourne to attend “An Evening With President Barack Obama”, to hear the 44th American President open up on leadership, with a side of his historic career and incredible life journey.

He might be Gage Roads’ Executive Director but this is still Aaron Heary’s favourite kinda boardroom.

Aaron spent some early years of life running around on a cattle farm just south of Margaret River, before the family moved three hours north to Fremantle when his young father decided to chase a university education. “Dad and my uncles were diehard surfers,” says Aaron, “So it was in my blood from day one. I’ve got photos of me surfing from before I can remember, then most of my childhood was spent going back and forth between Perth, and family and friends in the south-west.”

After finishing school in 1995 Aaron went and worked at Rusty HQ in Perth. He was accepted into uni but figured a year off was called for, headed south again, and one year quickly became four. “I never ended up going to uni,” says Aaron, “but I studied some viticulture. I worked in the wine business at Devil’s Lair, surfed, played a bit of footy, then eventually decided it was time to go travelling and tried to resign. The head winemaker derailed that plan, she was originally a brewer and told me about this beer project they were working on in Fremantle. ‘You’re from Freo, how about you go back up to Perth and help us with that instead of travelling? You can do that anytime.’”

That project turned out to be Little Creatures, one of Australia’s first and most successful craft breweries. Aaron worked at the groundbreaking facility for a few years before the travel bug finally caught him, and he quit to be a surf guide. “A mate and I were in Samoa and it was amazing. It’s got great waves. Really shallow, pretty volcanic, can be fickle. You can get skunked, or you can get the best waves of your life.”

In between snowboarding in Canada, picking up awards in San Diego and running out of money in Costa Rica, Aaron Heary still found time to sample a few kegs in Mexico.

From the South Pacific, Aaron headed to Canada, where he snowboarded, worked as concreter, and made beer at Steamworks, a local brewery. He wanted to keep travelling so bought a Kombi with a few mates and drove down the west coast of the US, stopping at craft breweries along the way. “I was hanging out with the brewers and doing the odd brew. I’d only get paid in beer, but I was learning and meeting new people and getting to surf my way down the coast. It was great.” While in San Diego, and he mentions this ever-so-casually, Aaron “went along to a craft brewers conference, where I won an award for a beer I’d made back at Steamworks.” As you do. 

Moments after stepping off stage, a chance meeting with Bill and John Hoedemaker, two brothers from Perth, would change Aaron’s life forever. “They told me they were about to start a new brewery back home and asked if I’d be interested in getting involved. I couldn’t believe my luck; the timeline was perfect.” Naturally that timeline included more travel; epic waves in Mexico and Nicaragua, then home via Indonesia before lobbing back into his hometown a few months later. Here he became the first Head Brewer at Gage Roads Brew Co, operating out of an old butter factory that came preloaded with “all the unsexy stuff you need in a brewery”, all paid for with a $25,000 credit card. 

There are few success stories of beer brands from WA getting traction on the east coast. The sexy payoff – sponsoring the Burleigh Single Fin, and Margo! – came after more than almost two decades of less-than-sexy yakka.

“It was a really fun time,” says Aaron. “The Hoedemakers were fishermen, divers, boaties. We’d wake up first thing, get on the water, go diving and catch crays. Sometimes we’d go over to Rottnest and they’d drop me off to surf while they went diving. Then we’d get back to the brewery, throw the crays in the freezer and mash in and brew beer for the rest of the day. We were all connected through the ocean and that’s where the Gage Roads name came from.” 

Keen fans might remember Rottnest, a small island 20km off the coast of Perth, from when it hosted the Rip Curl Search Rottnest event, won by Gabriel Medina, in 2021, but 15-years earlier it also helped name the West’s favourite brewery. “Back then nobody really knew that the shipping lane between Perth and Rottnest was called Gage Roads. You’d take your boat and fish in the channel, or you’d cross it to go to Rotto. All the ships would come back into the harbour through it, and to us that name epitomised WA and the culture. We had our brewery and now, in Gage Roads, we had our name.”

The bars, cafes, restaurants and yacht clubs of Fremantle have got a shiny new dockside neighbour.

At the same time that primary school student Jack Robinson moved from the tame closeouts of Perth to the raw power of Margaret River’s reefs, Aaron finally made it to university. “We were managing so many people at that stage that I ended up doing an MBA at Curtin’s Graduate School of Business. I was implementing everything I was learning into the business, which basically became my live project.”

Little by little, Gage Roads started gaining traction in the market. “We were making great beer,” says Aaron, “but it takes a long time to get people to trust a local brand.” Single Fin, their biggest selling beer, was a turning point, and the first nod to surfing in their branding. “I don’t think it wasn’t anything conscious, it just kinda happened” says Aaron, “but it made sense.”

Their first product to fly.

The venue is a recent addition to the Fremantle scene, and it’s something the whole business are incredibly proud of. “The venue is huge,” says Jack, “and it’s so well done. It feels like you could be on a ship on the river, or even at the beach.”  These things don’t happen by accident, and the A Shed took a lot of planning and a healthy dose of good timing to get right. 

“Most craft beers these days start with a venue, which in turn defines their brand,” says Aaron, “whereas we did the reverse. We were going to be inviting people into our home, so we had to start thinking about what the ultimate Gage Roads beach house looks and feel like, and that’s this place. Every good beach house has a bar, a games room, some food and beer, a deck, a front yard, a back yard and something for the kids to do. The fact we’re sitting here now, on the water, out of the breeze, literally looking over Gage Roads towards Rottnest, it seems like it should have been such a no-brainer but at the time it was anything but.

Later in life Aaron Heary upgraded Kombi road trips to Cloudbreak hit and runs.

“When we found the site it was full of old boats from the Maritime Museum that were falling apart, and nobody ever came to this area, it was a bit out of the way. It was a leap of faith, but we had this one moment when we hadn’t settled on a venue and we were checking this place out. I had my kids with me, and I was looking at the curvature of the building when this huge, dark shape moved past, and I realised it was a big cargo ship getting pushed into the harbour by a couple of tugs, almost like a bull being pushed into a pen by a couple of dogs. My kids started tugging at my legs going, “Dad, Dad! Look at that!” And all these people came running over from the Maritime Museum and started taking photos, and in that instant I had this vision of people sitting on the dock, drinking great beer and eating pizza and soaking it all in. I knew straight away this was the spot, we could see the potential, the love for the beer, all the activity on the water, the ships coming in, we knew it would be a drawcard. I just had to track down the owners of the building and figure out how to turn it into a brewery.”

“As we’ve gone further down the surfing path lately we thought it’d be great to form a deeper connection. We started sponsoring a few events, the Whalebone Classic in Perth and the Burleigh Single Fin on the Gold Coast, and we even put together a surf team. (Take a bow Brenden “Margo” Margieson, Ellie Brooks and McKenzie Bowden.) At some point someone joked about trying to sign Jack Robinson, but I thought that was worth much more than a joke.”

Between the Gold Coast, Hawaii and a life spent chasing pits and points around the world Jack Robinson sees very little of his beloved Western Australia. For Robbo, Gage Roads is a taste of home.

“I remember paddling out at Gnaraloo a few years ago, and I’d always thought of Dave Macaulay as the guy everyone looked up to. I saw Jack swing so effortlessly into this big, thick set that it felt to me like the King of Gnaraloo had been re-crowned, and I always kept an eye on him after that, it seemed so obvious he was destined to be a world champ one day. When a chance opportunity to meet Jack finally did come along, we went out of our way to make it happen. Jack ended up coming to the brewery, and we sat on the deck for an afternoon and tried all the beers.” 

“Jack made it clear from the start he wasn’t going to sit and drink beer for too long because he was training, and he really impressed me with how polite and how switched on he was, especially for a 25-year-old. I’m sure at the same time he was sussing us out, but I was thinking we could be onto something. As we were walking off afterwards we got a photo out the front, and Jack pulled me aside and quietly said, “let’s just fucking make this happen!” Next thing I get a message from his manager saying he doesn’t want to be sponsored, he wants to buy in.”

Things have come a long way since the era of retired sportsman owning pubs, nowadays they own breweries while they’re still in their prime. “It’s funny when you put it like that,” says Jack. “I’ve talked to Josh Kerr a lot over the years in Hawaii at the Volcom House, ’cos his daughter Sierra is sponsored by them too. I’m always asking Kerrzy all kinds of questions about his experience with alcohol brands, trying to learn the ins and outs of how those guys went about it. Aaron’s one of the backbones of Gage Roads, he surfs and fishes and does all the stuff that I’m into, and it really seemed like a good fit from the moment we met. When the opportunity came up to get involved with the company I didn’t just want it to be a sponsorship, I wanted to be involved, to be a part of the business and see if we can’t grow together.”

What does that look like for Gage Roads, I ask Aaron? “We just want to keep growing as a brand that coastal communities embrace. Whether you’re in WA or Wollongong it all translates if you’ve got salty hair, wind around your ears and catch a few waves to freshen up in the morning. We’ve got a loyal following in WA, now we want to invest more on the east coast and keep growing.”

“We’re a listed company on the Australian stock exchange so you don’t have to be the world’s number one ranked surfer to buy in, though we’re pretty happy he has. We’re an independent business, owned by Australians, brewing beer in Australia, that hasn’t sold out to the majors, and we don’t have any plans to.” 

“As we were walking off afterwards we got a photo out the front, and Jack pulled me aside and quietly said, ‘let’s just fucking make this happen!’ Next thing I get a message from his manager saying he doesn’t want to be sponsored, he wants to buy in.” Aaron and Jack and the off-script moment that sealed the deal. 

“Twenty years ago, driving around Canada with plans to come home and work on a new brewery I don’t think I ever could have imagined things turning out this way, but I had big dreams. I studied really hard for it, and sometimes thing just evolve the way you least expect them to. There’s no way I could have seen us sitting here having this conversation, but I’m not complaining about it, it’s bloody awesome. One of our business mottos is to “have fun doing it”, and we definitely adhere to it. We have a lot of fun, I wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t.”

Jack, any last thoughts? “I need to come up and surf and fish at Rottnest more, now that I think about it. And I’m really excited to surf with Margo. That’s the best.”