Melbourne has rightly been developing a claim to the title of Australia’s beer capital with the rapid growth of its small-scale brewing industry and beer-focused pubs and bars. But for the visitor or the Melbournite alike, a trek outside of the metropolitan area can be every bit as rewarding.
The region, with its concentration of microbreweries on an already established tourist route, was one of the first to market itself for the beer tourist. It has become an example of how regional microbreweries aren’t necessarily in competition with each other, by working together they create a bigger market for all to share.
Starting in historic Beechworth, three hours north of Melbourne, you are at the centre of either Kelly Country or the High Country Brewery Trail, depending on where your interests lie. For me, feeding my interests in history and beer are the ideal way to spend a few days touring and so I was interested in both and, happily, both trails follow a fairly similar path.
Beechworth is a perfect base for a tour of the region. It is a classic 19th century gold mining town that has been sympathetically preserved and makes the most of its history without descending into tacky tourism and plastering the words “Ye Olde” on every business sign. Instead it retains its charm, while being a modern and progressive regional centre.
Beechworth is also the home to Bridge Road Brewers, one of the most exciting of Australia’s craft breweries. Sitting behind the Tanswells Hotel, the brewery sits in what appears to be an old stable. The brewery itself is exactly what you imagine when you think “craft brewery”; small, crowded and very hands-on for owner and brewer Ben Kraus.
Speaking with Ben as you try his beers is an enjoyable experience, with Ben being a brewer for whom consistency isn’t the ultimate goal or final measure of quality. While sampling his hefewiezen, Ben discusses how he has played with the fermentation temperatures to try to obtain the desired clove note, while saying that the latest batch of his unique Chestnut Lager is more bitter than the first batch due to a different hopping regime. This is what artisanal brewing is all about: often different, always good. Ben’s Australian Ale is great little sessional, with a fruity apricot aroma and satisfying bitterness, but plan on staying for the afternoon to try the complete range before settling in for dinner in the Pizzeria.
Ben’s partner Maria hails from the Tyrolean Alps in central Austria and Ben justly claims that her Brewery kitchen makes the best Pretzels this side of Munich and some of the best pizza you are likely to experience. In fact, for a small regional town, Beechworth isn’t short of dining options. Tanswells Hotel offers a broad menu of fairly-priced, good quality bistro-style food (and Bridge Road beers) and right next store at the Ox & Hound Andrew Doyle and his partner Kathryn Sullivan offer excellent food and their own wines.
Beechworth plays a big part in the Kelly legend, with a jail (now closed) that held Ned and the courthouse that was the backdrop to some of the key acts of the saga. It is well worth exploring.
Before our next beery destination we head to another Kelly landmark, Glenrowan, famous for being the site of Kelly’s last stand. Unfortunately, if Beechworth is the Elegant Dame of the region’s family of towns, Glenrowan is just tacky. Visiting Glenrowan is a must – but only for a visit to the site of the ‘Last Stand’ and the Glenrowan Blacksmith Shop nearby. It is a fascinating experience walking this largely undeveloped site and trying on a replica helmet (or suit of armour for the game) at the smithy. The rest of the town is an odd assortment of dodgy and cheap Kelly cash-ins that, due to its over-the-top tackiness, comes close to being a national disgrace for a site featuring so prominently in our national history.
Back on the beer trail, head onto Boorhaman, about 30 kilometres away and the Boorhaman Hotel, home to the Buffalo Brewery. Having read that the Buffalo Brewery was the oldest continually operating brewery in Australia we were keen to take a look at a place of Australian brewing history. It turns out the existing brewery is unrelated to the original, except for the took its name which was taken from a former brewery that operated in nearby Wangaratta for the first half of last century before burning down and the business name lapsed. It’s a twisted piece of bush logic that enables the claim, “Buffalo Brewery began in 1902 and is recognised as the oldest operating brewery in Australia” but tourism writers accept it unquestioningly and, like the bunyip, it seems to have entered Australian folklore.
While its heritage wasn’t what we’d expected, it may still be, as is claimed, the smallest commercially operating brewery in Australia with a batch size under 100 litres and is worth the stop on the way. The brewery produces a lager, stout, dark ale and wheat beer as well as a ginger beer.
Another 30 kilometres and you get to the town of Rutherglen and Bintara Brewery on the Vintara Estate. Owner Michael Murtagh’s great grandfather settled nearby calling his property, like many Irishmen, Tara. When Michael bought his own block and planted grapes he named it Vintara, so when he created the brewery arm of the business Bintara seemed logical. Michael brews four beers; a pale ale, pilsener, filtered wheat and his Black, an export stout, with the Black perhaps being the pick of the litter, with a strongly chocolate nose and lingering liquorice on the palate. He has also followed a recent trend in creating a beer/wine hybrid, blending his pilsener with his merlot for another piece of local interest.
Heading back east we detour through the burgeoning gourmet township of Milawa, home to a gourmet food makers such as Milawa Cheese Company and the Brown Brothers Epicurean Centre. Joining the Great Alpine Road we really start to hit the high country as we make our way to Bright, nestled in the valley below Mount Buffalo. Home to an eponymous brewery, Bright is a picturesque little township that offers plenty all year round.
Bright Brewery is set on the banks of the Ovens River, perhaps one of the most scenic breweries in Australia. Regardless of the beer, it would be a great spot to while away a few hours in summer or to recharge after a session on the now a little further up the mountains. Fortunately the beer is worth stopping for. Home brewers turned pro, David Cocks and Scott Brandon, offer a solid range that includes an amber ale, pale ale, witbier, porter and a dubbel, all named after geographic features on the surrounding mountains. The beers are all very solid, with the Fainters Dubbel a dangerous favourite at 8.5%.
If you have time, take a trip over the Tawonga Gap just through Bright and head for Mt Beauty, home to the recently-opened Sweetwater Brewing Company. Owner/brewer Peter Hull has two beers available in local bottle shops, a pale ale and English bitter.
The region is getting even better with the Jamieson Brewery a short detour off the main drag from Melbourne and Phil Sexton’s White Rabbit now in Healesville.
The High Country Brewery Trail is well worth a visit…especially if you don’t have to be the one driving.
Download the High Country Brewery Trail brochure.
Bridge Road Brewers
Brewers Lane, Beechworth
Boorhaman Road, Boorhaman
Fraser Road, Rutherglen
121 Great Alpine Road, Bright
Sweetwater Brewing Company
Annapurna Estate Winery
7 Simmonds Creek Road, Tawonga South