We urban dwellers can grow complacent. Spoiled by convenience, travel can become a chore when everything is so close. Within five minutes of my Melbourne home there is one of the best beer shops in Australia, a well respected microbrewery, and a wonderful pub that offers amazing craft beer, good grub and awesome ambience. It can therefore be a challenge to consider travelling hours away from the comforts of home to drink beer that I can acquire in five minutes. We city-folk sit back and expect the hard working breweries to bring the beer to us, but are we missing out on truly experiencing and appreciating the beer?
Beechworth probably seems like a long way to go for breakfast. It’s no ordinary breakfast though – it’s the annual Bridge Road Brewers breakfast. As it happens, breakfast is my favourite meal of the day and beer is my favourite beverage, so a few hours on the road is a small price to pay.
From Melbourne it’s only three hours of straight, easy roads to Beechworth. The town is picturesque in Autumn, the streets lined with trees displaying red, amber and gold foliage. Arriving on Friday afternoon, we head straight to Tanswells Hotel to check into our accommodation. Rooms are basic, as you would expect at a country pub, and share communal bathrooms that are clean and modern. This fine old building does have something that other, more luxurious, accommodation can’t offer – location. It’s right next to the Bridge Road Brewery, negating any need for a designated driver.
Once checked in, it’s straight to the Bridge Road Brewery for an hour or so before they close. We sample the brews as close to the source as you can get. They are fresh and vibrant, exactly as they are meant to be. This is just one of the reasons to head to the regional breweries. When you buy a beer off the shelf, or even on draught in a pub or bar, consider how far it has travelled to get there. How long has it been sitting on that shelf? How fresh is it?
Saturday morning arrives and several keen beer geeks turn up early to watch brewer Steven Matthews start a new batch of the Beechworth Pale Ale. Bridge Road has part of their working brewery in the bar area, so the public can see where the liquid in their glass originates. Brewers are often quite happy to explain the process, another good reason to make the journey. It can be educational.
Two long tables are set up before the brew kettles and the platform acts as a stage for owner Ben Kraus as he welcomes us all and explains the morning’s proceedings. Led from the cosy bar into slightly arctic conditions, we start with a tour of the brewery proper. Ben takes us through the workings of Bridge Road and allows for some Q&A with the breakfasters.
On return to the warmth of the bar, our first course is served. We are introduced to our first beer, and it’s a special one. For their 500th brew Ben decided to try his hand at making a breakfast beer. He started by using a smoked malt, to give the beer a bacon character. A multitude of breakfasty items were also added to the brew – muesli, coffee, tea, honey, maple syrup. The result is the 500 Smokey Breakfast Lager, which is so fresh the bottles haven’t even been labelled. It pours incredibly black and really does taste like breakfast. The smoke is well balanced and doesn’t overpower the subtle sweet flavours. It matches perfectly with the first course of pumpkin and goats cheese frittata, salty, smoky bacon and earthy wild mushrooms.
Once the plates are cleaned away, we take part in the next special treat – a pretzel making tutorial by Ben’s partner Maria. The brewery is famous for Maria’s Austrian-style pretzels. The dough has already been prepared and she takes us through the process of rolling, twisting and folding the renowned pretzel shape. Everyone get a chance to make their own pretzel, which are then taken away to be baked.
The next course is the brewery’s own Porter-misu, which makes a fantastic change from the usual breakfast sweets of pancakes or waffles, and is paired with the Bridge Road Robust Porter. While digesting this creamy delight, we watch a demonstration of weighing out the hops for the brew in process. Four varieties are used, and Steve explains what the different characteristics are and how they influence the final product.
It’s not too long before our pretzels are ready and they are bought into the bar, fresh and hot out of the oven. They invite us to choose any beer on tap to enjoy with the delicious bar-snack. The warm pretzels are beautifully soft, salty and satisfying. Even though everyone is fairly stuffed from the generous breakfast, they are so wonderfully moreish we manage to squeeze them in.
All that remains is for Ben to thank us for coming and suggests we head to the Beechworth Harvest Festival to see what other delights the region has to offer. He also invites us to assist in cleaning out the spent mash of the morning’s brew, which some keen folk try their hand at.
So, I could have stayed in Melbourne and bought myself some Bridge Road beers at the bottle shop or pub. I wouldn’t have been able to taste the green freshness of the Harvest brew while sitting in the shadow of the brew kettles though. At home I wouldn’t have the chance to discuss my first reactions to the newest release with the brewers. I could Google recipes for pretzels, but I wouldn’t have had a hands-on demonstration from an expert. I could sit on my couch and drink beer, or I could go to a Harvest Festival, eat fresh roasted chestnuts and sit in the sun with live music.
When you add it all up, three hours on the road really is a small price to pay.