by Mike Bennie
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICK BOWERS
OSCAR MCMAHON HAS ALWAYS been a bit of a beer connoisseur. “Beer became important for me really slowly and subtly,” he says. “When I was just 18, me and my mates used to drink Coopers Red. It was the best tasting beer available. You could get it from Forest Way bottle shop, and the Parkway Hotel, where it was $5 for a pint. We’d skate two suburbs across to drink at this shit pub and I officially became a Coopers drinker. We didn’t refer to that as craft beer — the term didn’t exist in my world. But it was stronger, had more flavour than most. It was different, special in a way”.
Oscar is disarmingly charming. There’s understatement in his achievements, despite his meteoric rise in Australia’s competitive jungle of craft beer and local brewing. He and his pirate crew of brewers, distillers, roadies and rock ‘n’ rollers make up Young Henrys. Since launching in 2012, the inner-west Sydney brewery has become the beating heart of suds culture, a neighbourhood drop-in for all and sundry seeking interesting but sessionable beers.
Oscar’s own beer journey accompanied a 13-year career as a hard rock guitarist. “I was on tour with my band, recording our first record in Melbourne,” he says. “After we finished up we went to this local pub, and there was a new beer with a cherub on the decal. My best mate, Robbie, the drummer, and I tasted it, and we were blown away. We were like, ‘What the fuck is this stuff?’
At that point being in a band was the focus. But Oscar was augmenting the band income by working in a couple of bars. “From 18 to 25 I started drinking a lot of different beers. Eventually I asked the pub I was working at, the Roxbury in Glebe, to let me have a tap so I could order in new products, try some different things. I started chatting to a customer — he eventually became my partner at Young Henrys. I pitched the idea of making a beer for my band, having a beer launch instead of an album launch… the idea took on a life of its own.”
Young Henrys feels part brewery, part green room, part experiment, part madhouse. The morphing complex of sheds, gardens, wonky bar tables, trucks, chopped motorbikes, graffiti and art, band t-shirts, dogs and cats, flotsam and jetsam, makes for a quixotic take on brewing.
The tasting room fleshes out the offering; a drop-in centre for tasting and drinking. It feels more community centre or local council than brew house, with Oscar the understated mayor at the core. His approach remains refreshingly simple. “I didn’t really have a good understanding of the craft market when we started Young Henrys. Even now I don’t think about the craft market; I think about what we do, what we like”.
Oscar’s story isn’t solely anchored in beer and there’s an inkling in his beard, Jesus-locks, denim, tattoos, hats and jewellery. What he likes is diverse, but there’s a firm anchoring in the world of rock ‘n’ roll music, to which he gave over a decade of his life while touring with his band, Hell City Glamours.
“My biggest influences in life, brewing, music, and otherwise, were the Stones, Aerosmith, New York Dolls, Hanoi Rocks, but also AC/DC. We were really into the glam thing but also into being a hard-working band. We rehearsed once or twice a week and there were simple rules: Don’t be late. When you turn up and load in, offer to buy the sound guy a beer. Stick around when the band following you plays and don’t load out before. Be grateful.”
There were some big moments for Oscar and the band. “We got to play with the New York Dolls in Austin, Texas at South by Southwest. That was a bit of a hero moment,” he shares. But a life in music is never all that it’s cracked up to be, something that Oscar found out firsthand. “When we came back from the States it was really underwhelming,” he remembers. “We had a record across the US and Europe that had done pretty well, but downloads were becoming a thing and we saw that it was way more popular online via that means. Then the US didn’t quite come through. I had the post-tour blues for a few months. The idea came about for a brewery that was in touch with people. All of a sudden our rider became slightly different — craft beer started hitting the ice.”
Playing in bands was formative to where Oscar is now. He always loved hanging out in pubs and bars and the playing of music itself is a form of stress relief. Even now as a founding member of his new band, The Persian Drugs, music is there for fun and escape.“Music is inspiration,” Oscar believes. “It gets the brain and synapses firing”.
Music has also influenced Oscar’s personal style. Where plenty of brewers come from a nerdy fraternity, he broke the archetype with his look. While there’s palpable emotion and intelligence, a sense of empathy for those around him, and altruism too, Oscar has set an aesthetic tone for inner-city brewing. “I think I still dress like I’m in a band,” he reckons. “I basically only wear black and blue and denim. If I’m wearing sneakers they’re usually Cons, but I’m typically found in Red Wing boots.”
Oscar suggests his tastes might have evolved, but there’s a hangover from his Hell City Glamour days when he dabbled in modelling and the posse was sponsored by Lee Jeans and DC Shoes. However, the idea that his style would be curated by someone else always stuck in his craw. “I don’t cut my hair and my beard, I don’t draw influence from anywhere,” he says. “I wear a mix of vintage stuff and new stuff, a lot of Young Henrys t-shirts. I don’t mind wearing stuff two days in a row.”
Gradually, Wranglers and Levi’s have replaced that earlier feel, and Oscar’s authenticity grew outside of the band image — sparked by passions outside of beer and bands. For example, motorbikes — visit Young Henrys and you’ll stumble over motorbikes parked skewed in the nooks and crannies of the driveway.
“I have a Yamaha XS650 from 1981, a hardtail bobber,” Oscar shares. “From the wheels to the pegs, handlebars and seat, myself and friends have done most of it. I wanted the bike to look like a ratty chopper. It gives you a bit of a sore back, but it’s great. A lot of skateboarders end up riding bikes,” he points out, suggesting the reason is that “You can’t answer your phone, you’re in your own head, thinking about how nice it is to be in the ride. It allows you to enjoy the journey. A big part of it for busy people is how you lose sense of time. It’s amazing.”
Between rock bands, working on motorbike aesthetics, lifestyle accoutrements and brewing, there seem to be some neat parallels. Collaboration is inherent in Oscar’s open-weave approach to life, friendships and personal culture. “It’s kind of cool when you have someone else’s idea to interpret into something to sell,” he says. “It’s even better when you’re working towards an end product with a bunch of people who are pretty varied, but who all come from authentic feelings.”
Young Henry’s catalogue of beers produced hand-in-glove with rockers, artists and various cultural icons has been a strong part of the interplay of the business. Oscar credits early knock-backs for his ideas in collaborating with breweries as a driving force for the inclusionist principles laid out in Young Henry’s agenda.
While Oscar’s life swerves through varying ports of culture and influence, beer is now the bedrock. It’s a litmus test and leveller that knits itself into his life mantra. END