If you’ve spent time in the CBD of old Melbourne town then it’s very possible you’ve walked past the Portland Hotel and noticed its well-presented but small James Squire brewhouse in the front window. I’ve talked to people who have pretty much refused to believe that it’s a working brewery. It looks too small, too neat and too much like it is just for show.
After walking into the bar on a Tuesday afternoon, smelling freshly boiled wort and seeing a brewer toiling away, I can assure everyone that it is definitely a working brewery and it is producing some tasty beers which are served in-house at the hotel.
I know a lot of craft beer fans (who probably already knew that it was a working brewery) walk past not really giving the beers inside too much thought. The consensus tends to be; they aren’t bad beers by any stretch but for today’s craft-beer lover, they don’t have heaps to offer. In addition, craft drinkers tend to not stick to one beer over the course of an evening, so going into a pub with exclusively James Squire beers isn’t too appealing to a lot of us. Again, not a slight on their beers – it’s just how it goes.
However, a few weeks ago I attended an event at the Portland Hotel. Whilst there I had a couple of the beers brewed in-house and was impressed with what I tasted. The Highwayman (a red ale) was well rounded with a decent hop aroma and solid smooth malt profile and the presence of a Black Rye IPA on the menu was a nice surprise.
Current brewer, Dan Dainton, who took over from Dave Edney (now brewing some terrific beers at Mountain Goat), says in the nine months since he started, the plan has been to increase the hops in the beers.
“The emphasis has been for me to hop everything up a bit little bit more (and) bring it up to line with the current craft movement.”
Now the Speculator, an APA, and the aforementioned Highwayman are dry hopped with Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin respectively. The Blackmail (Black Rye IPA) is double dry-hopped, and the Portland Pale Ale is now closer to an American Pale Ale than a more traditional pale.
While he is increasing the hops in the brews, Dainton is aware that the market and customers of the hotel may not always be looking for a huge hopped-up IBU monster.
“(I’m) just trying to make the beers as fresh and as presentable as possible. It’s a bit of a gateway kind of area, not too crazy. There won’t be any 7 or 8 per cent IPAs coming out. It’s a very specific market.”
Dainton says that so far feedback has been positive and while the Blackmail and a recent rauchbier both drew mixed reviews from some drinkers in the bar; with some loving how different they were and others finding them a little confronting; the beers are being well received by his peers in the industry.
“A few people I respect as beer judges and as beer people have really liked it (Blackmail) which surprised me.”
Currently studying brewing at Ballarat University, Dainton is enjoying his first professional brewing job, and is already planning some interesting future brews, including an Oktoberfest and the brewery’s 250th beer coming out in about 6 months.
As a beer lover, it’s exciting to see a new brewer making interesting and sessionable beers that will get people talking. While I know there are mixed views from craft-beer lovers about the brand of, and beers from, James Squire, I think having more good beer on the market regardless of who actually owns the brand can only be a good thing for the future of craft-beer in Australia. Some readers may disagree with that so if anyone wants to discuss it further; I know a little brewery in the CBD where we can talk it over. My shout.