There are few breweries in Australia that can boast as strong a reputation as Murray’s. From the fresh and clean Whale Ale all the way up to the impenetrable dark force of the Wild Thing imperial stout, Murray’s continually hits the mark, for casual drinkers and beer connoisseurs alike.
Whatever your favourite tipple from the Port Stephens-based company, it becomes clear whenever you talk to Murray’s head brewer Shawn Sherlock that the conversation – and his passion – keep going back to the age-old brewing traditions of Belgium. It was with great expectations, then, that I and fifty keen others sat down last Tuesday for an eight-course Belgian feast, at the newly-renovated Murray’s at Manly.
The menu had been posted earlier that day to whet our appetites, and a freshly-poured glass of Murray’s latest seasonal, the farmhouse-style Libertine, was handed to us as we found our seats. To my delight, I was sharing a table with none other than the guru himself, Shawn Sherlock, while the other three tables respectively boasted the company of brewer Ian Watson, national sales manager Adrian Leggett and the original Angry Man himself, Murray Howe.
Before the food was even brought out, it was an exciting prospect to spend the evening in the presence of some of the big wigs of the Australian beer scene. Shawn’s opening address reinstated the centrality of Belgian beer traditions in their brewing philosophy.
“The Belgian brewing philosophy is a lot more about the art and the craft, and not so much being restricted by the science,” he remarked to the crowd, while adding that possibly all eight beers set for tasting that night utilised eight different yeast strains. Yeasts, he explained, often get left behind hops and malt in discussions about beer ingredients.
“They’re like the uncool third brother,” he explained.
Five of the beers on show for the night were one-night-only offerings. Shawn had advised that the time and effort going into making many of the styles was too much to warrant an inclusion in a regular production line. While most of us were eagerly anticipating the unique offerings, the organisers – like any good reality TV show producer – had put these five enticing one-offs at the end of the menu, meaning we first had to sit through three of the ‘regular’ offerings.
The regular beers in question included the Punk Monk and the Grand Cru, paired with two of the standout dishes of the night – a Faux Foie Gras parfait served on pineapple ceviche, and a slow-cooked fillet of beetroot-cured ocean trout. The contrast between the thick maltiness of Murray’s Grand Cru with the tart flavour of the beetroot was a winner for me, and gave me some interesting flavour combinations that I didn’t expect.
A fourth course of Pork Belly was standard bistro fare, served with the first of the one-offs for the night – the Grand Cru as aged in French Chardonnay barrels. The oak notes were subtle, but the added mild fruit notes blended well with the bold Belgian sweetness. The following offering, however, threw subtlety out the window. This was the Imperious – an 11% ABV Belgian monster originally released at the Great Australian Beer Spectapular last year – but aged for a considerable number of months in American oak barrels. This was bursting full of woody, resiny oak aromas and flavours, and really packed a punch, even to someone who has tasted some of the best oak-aged beers America has to offer. Sweet, complex, exciting; not so much imperious as impetuous, this seemed a standout beer for many on the night.
Shawn put down the following beer – a Belgian-style Dubbel at 8.5% ABV – as a disappointment in scheduling. Following the huge oaky sweetness of the oaked Imperious, he rightly pointed out that the Dubbel tasted muted, and very dry, by comparison. The food pairing with a beautifully roasted duck breast perhaps deserved a more generous predecessor than the arrogance imparted by a strong American oak character. The Belgian Strong Dark Ale that followed was another monster, and paired sweet and rich with sweet and rich, complementing a thick and gooey chocolate mousse dessert.
However, I – among more than a few others – had been most keenly looking forward to the final beer of the night – a 12.5% Imperial Stout called “The Horror”. The beer was based on the Heart of Darkness, a Belgian-inspired Imperial Stout that reached #45 in the people’s choice hottest 100 beers of 2010. To shake things up though, this incarnation had been fermented entirely with a particular strain of Brettanomyces – a wild yeast strain that imparts a strong, funky acidity to everything it ferments.
Before serving, Shawn confided to our table: “I’ll tell you how it is. It’s f****** awesome.” What he also said – which was agreed upon by most of the guests – was that it was a beer that defied expectations. Indeed, while the smell was intense, funky, and reeked of wild fermentation, bringing to mind vegemite, sweaty gym socks and wet lucerne, the taste was surprisingly stouty, sweet and almost sessionable.
Shawn suggested that some of the accessibility could be put down to palate fatigue: that after that many big beers, another huge flavour monster just glides over the tastebuds without asking for directions.
Which brings me to my only criticism of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable evening. At an elaborately constructed dinner occasion, when the food is great, and the beer is great, the old maxim ‘less is more’ starts to ring true. The more you delve into the complexities of beer the more you will be clamouring for quality over quantity, and while the counter-argument runs that Murray’s delivered both with this feast, the effects were noticeable. Scarcely a straight line was walked out onto Manly’s North Steyne that evening. Admittedly, no unhappy faces or uninspired imaginations accompanied those crooked trajectories, but I can’t help but feel the same euphoria could have been achieved with one, or even two, fewer brews. That could, in turn, have lowered the ticket price and enticed a few more punters along.
The major highlight for me, and I imagine many people, was not the quantity of beer or even the variety presented, but that one single taste that ignited all of the senses – whatever that may have been. Add to that the opportunity to sit and listen to one of Australia’s brewing luminaries spout off about this and that, and there’s reason enough to attend whatever event Murray’s will cook up next season. A part of me can’t help but hope, though, that they tone the next one down just slightly, so my senses, palate and faculties are all still in peak form by the final course.
Sam Fletcher was a guest of Murray’s craft brewery for the dinner.