High Country brewers on a winner
It’s pleasing to see that tourism bodies are increasingly recognising beer’s role in luring holidaymakers to a region. South Australia recently ran a campaign profiling its brewing riches to an interstate audience, while in WA, Margaret River is spruiking its ‘ale trail’. And the Tasmanian Government last year launched the Tasmanian Brewery Trail.
Victoria and its High Country breweries were way ahead of the curve, first launching the High Country Brewery Trail in 2008. Its current composition is quite different to that traversed by my colleague Matt Kirkegaard six years ago, however. The intervening years saw one of the original six breweries shut its doors, others decide to go it alone and another fail to make good on its stated plan of opening its own brewery.
Four likeminded breweries, including some new faces, relaunched the trail in 2012. It’s proven to be a stable format with the advantage that all four members can feasibly be visited in the course of a single weekend, with each offering a genuine brewery tourism experience to the region’s visitors. It will be interesting to see whether any new breweries join the trail, with severalbreweries recently opened or in planning elsewhere in the region.
The trail haslong been on my to-do list and I was finally able to check it off last year. The expedition confirmed there is plenty to like about a weekend spent sampling beers and other local produce in beautiful alpine surrounds.
I knew very little about the four member breweries, save for the region’s most famous export, Beechworth’s Bridge Road Brewers, the first stop on my adventure. A tour revealed the bustling downtown operation to be much more substantial than in my mind’s eye, so it was impressive to see firsthand the evolution of a business that began life in a backyard shed ten years ago. While other brewers have succeeded with simplicity as their mantra, Bridge Road founder Ben Kraus has always given it short shrift. The result is a delightfully expansive portfolio of beers that you simply won’t be able to experience in full without visiting the brewery in Beechworth.
If the choice offered by a range of 24-plus beers is a beer lover’s dream, it is arguably the stuff of nightmares for anyone with an FMCG background, such as Bridge Road’s new CEO, Donald Mace, who joined last year. Focusing energies on fewer products would have been his natural instinct at any other business, Mace saidthat evening, over a paddle of ten of Bridge Road’s finest. But he quickly realised that this eccentricity is just as much a part of the brewery’s story as its founder’s hardened resolve to brew and bottle everything in Beechworth, which alsomay not withstand hard-nosed financial scrutiny.
We can thank this uncompromisingly ‘craft’ approach for heady beers such as the delectable 1000 Imperial Stout, a standout on my visit alongside the Bling family of IPAs, as well as Kraus’s reliable interpretations of European beer styles. The pizza menu, too, is comprised of classics and freeform options. Mace and I hedged our bets with the apple & blue cheese and hot pepperoni – both supremely well executed. You’d be lucky to do better in Carlton. Or Rome, for that matter.
A 60 km drive west the next morning took me into some very different terrain, the vineyards and scrub of Taminick, home of Black Dog Brewery. The brewing venture of James Booth, fourth generation winemaker at Taminick Cellars, Black Dog has its brewery bar at the winery cellar door. Not having tried any of his beers previously, Booth won me over with his fresh and innovative beers, such as the Estate Hop Saison, which features Australian Cascade hops grown on the property. The Hell Hound meanwhile is one of the Australia’s finest, most complex examples of the India Black Ale genre, with its dark, roasty backbone finding equilibrium with nine different Aussie and US hop varieties.
Booth has been emboldened by the explosion of punters’ tastes for flavoursome beers, which he likens to the similar journey wine has taken over the last few decades. “People were drinking sweet white wines and fortifieds, then they started drinking clarets. Durif, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, all those varieties people wouldn’t go near because the name scared them off a bit – they’d always go to something they know,” he says. “Now people are just branching out – they like something that’s a bit different. I see the beer game going down that same path.”
It was a solid drive from Black Dog over to the south eastern extremity of the brewery trail, but that was no chore, for two different reasons. Firstly, because I had a hot tip on where to eat lunch en route. I can now vouch for Coffee Chakra in Myrtleford, which in addition to serving a delightful long black (no mean feat even at home in Sydney) also does a righteous curry: Pork and black pepper with cucumber raita, fluffy basmati rice and spicy lime pickle.
Secondly, the drive from Myrtleford over to Mount Beauty covers some of the trail’s most picturesque territory. I took my time driving through Happy Valley arriving suitably relaxed at Sweetwater Brewery, where I received a warm welcome from founder and brewer, Peter Hull.
The smallest and most locally-focused of the trail’s four breweries, Sweetwater eschews what Hull terms “statement beers” in favour of traditional, eminently drinkable styles. “My target market isn’t the urban beer geek, we’re a holiday experience,” he says. Here it was the Weissbier that starred as I enjoyed a sundowner paddle and some glorious mountain views, prior to setting off for my overnight stay in Bright, at Ovens Valley Motor Inn.
Bright Brewery was a hive of activity when I arrived the next day for my lunch date with founder Scott Brandon, who says the town has come a long way in the decade or so since he set up shop. “It’s got great restaurants, it’s got good coffee. It’s got the good experiences. It’s not just another country town that’s still stuck in the 20th century,” he says. This had been in evidence the previous evening at the excellent Thirteen Steps bistro, and so it was again at the brewery, where my Staircase Porter Pie was just as impressive as the lineup of beers that accompanied it.
The Fainters Dubbel and Staircase Porter were favourites while the 2015 Stubborn Russian, a 16 per cent collaboration local outfits Bright Chocolate and Sixpence Coffee, was one heck of a digestif. Brandon reports that his patrons’ openness to try such beer styles has increased considerably in recent years. “When we started I would say 90 per cent of the people who walked in our front door had never had a craft beer before – they were asking for Carlton Draught,” he says. “Now, I’d say it’s the other way around. That makes a massive difference to the style of beers we can produce. We still need ‘crossover’ beers, but they allow us to play with the other styles that we make.”
All four breweries report that the High Country Brewery Trail is bringing more visitors through their doors, thanks to the united front they present at events such as GABS, where they share a High Country stand and happily pour and discuss each each other’s beers with consumers. It’s another example of the collaboration that makes this industry great, was my warming thought as I began the journey back to Sydney. I’ll be back.
- On March 19th, Bridge Road Brewers will host the second annual High Country Hops festival: A celebration of Victoria’s High Country Brewers and the 2016 Hop Harvest. All four members plus neighbouring Rutherglen Brewery will be showcasing their wares. Further information is available here.
- North East Coachlines recently began offering small group tours of the trail on Saturdays, with pick up in Melbourne and drop off at accommodation in Wangaratta or Beechworth. The tour includes tastings at all four breweries, pizza lunch at Bridge Road Brewers and a private tour at Bright Brewery. Further information is available here.
Breweries opening off-piste in High Country