The inaugural South West Craft Beer Festival, held in February 2012, was an undisputed success, despite some inclement weather. I remember well seeing scores of punters huddled under tables avoiding the rain, determined to have a good time no matter what. The combination of fresh, locally crafted beer, Oktoberfest-style seating and live music was a winning formula and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The second SWCBF was held over the weekend of the 16th-17th of February. Numbers were up with approximately 3,000 in attendance, an increase of more than 1000 on the 2012 event. Like last year, the festival was spread across the weekend with an 18+ Day on Saturday and a Family Day on Sunday. The majority of punters opted for the Saturday session, which I attended.
After taking the shuttle bus from the Margaret River town centre, we arrived at the 3 Oceans Palandri Estate just a tick after midday. Greeting us was a most unwelcome sight – a line that stretched more than 100 metres past the entry arch. The Moshtix system had broken down – a situation not helped by everyone seemingly arriving at the same time, the vast majority having pre-bought tickets. Event organizers Buzz Marketing did the best they could given the circumstances – creating an extra queue and processing the entries manually. Still, it was close to an hour of waiting in the sun before we made it into the festival grounds.
While it might seem strange to hold a beer festival at a winery, the 3 Oceans Palandri Estate is well equipped for large events and has long supported and served WA craft beer, making it an ideal neutral venue. After collecting our wristbands and tokens we headed to the stall nearest the entrance run by Matt and Mara Allen of The Brewers Dray, who were selling their beer preserves and beer soap as well as promoting their Swan Valley beer tours. Next door was Gerard ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, a.k.a. Chef DeBeersine, who was selling his delicious beer cheese and hop honey.
The festival’s layout was mostly the same, the only noticeable changes being the addition of a few umbrellas around the tables and the brewery stalls being arranged in a straight line rather than last year’s L shape – making it easier to know which queue you were in. The majority of seating was positioned in front of the stage where across the weekend, ten bands – including headline acts Boom! Bap! Pow! and Skeleton Jump – kept the crowd entertained. However, as the day wore on and the summer sun burned hot, increasingly, people abandoned the tables to seek the shade of the trees near the food vendors.
On the topic of food, the crowd was once again treated to a great selection of beer friendly meals made by local businesses. Punters could choose from Cecile’s Crepes, Margaret River Burger Bar, Nachos from the Settlers Tavern, Little Weiner Catering (Cheese Kransky and Knacker Hot Dogs), Roko’s Kebab Van, My Way Highway Food Truck (a great selection of German dishes) and goat ball subs from Chef DeBeersine.
While it would be difficult to hold a truly regional beer festival anywhere else in Australia, such is the concentration of breweries in WA’s southwest that punters were truly spoiled for choice. Breweries in attendance were, in alphabetical order; Bootleg, Brew 42, Bush Shack, Cheeky Monkey, Colonial, Cowaramup, Duckstein, Eagle Bay, Margaret River Ale Co., Occy’s and Old Coast Rd. Pouring cider was the aforementioned Cheeky Monkey and Real River Company, whose Custard Cider was a popular and refreshing beer alternative.
A number of breweries used the festival as an opportunity to showcase some new and exciting products. Bootleg was pouring their second release of Bramling Cross – an ale named after the English hop variety and boosted with blackcurrant tea. Newcomers, Cheeky Monkey delivered with their latest seasonal release – a ginger pale ale, which unlike most ginger beers is brewed with malt and hops as well as fresh ginger, making it a real beer.
Last year my personal ‘beer of the show’ was Duckstein’s dry-hopped, unfiltered Wolf Pale Ale – a real surprise from the typically German-inspired brewery. Well, the Wolf was back again but brewer Shannon Grigg had an even bigger surprise in store, namely a cloudy, 7% dark ale dubbed ‘Unbekannt’ which is German for unknown. Unbekannt is unfiltered and utilises German malts and a Belgian yeast strain, giving it a full palate of milk chocolate, tart berries and clove. Unusual, but highly enjoyable.
Eagle Bay were pouring their latest single batch beer – Eagle Bay Summer Ale – an Australian Pale Ale brewed with Galaxy hops which provide an enticing tropical fruit aroma. Also serving up an Australian-hopped ale (this time Stella) was Cowaramup Brewing Co. whose Lightsign Summer Ale has been brought back and was in superbly fresh condition, bursting with ripe citrus and floral aromas and juicy hop flavour.
In typical fashion, Colonial Brewing Co. offered a point of difference by bringing in the King of Oysters, Jerry Fraser, who was shelling out freshly shucked oysters to go with the brewery’s brilliant Kolsch. Personally I prefer the more traditional pairing of stout with oysters, but I can see the logic behind the match, with the subtle Kolsch playing the role of dry champagne and not detracting from the oyster’s flavour.
Other beery highlights included the Twisted Lemon Lager from Bush Shack which was refreshingly tart and not as sweet as expected, the award-winning wheat beer from Old Coast Rd, Margaret River Ale Co’s keg conditioned White Ale and the brilliantly malty and authentic altbier, Colonial Pale Ale.
In a first for the festival, a trophy was on offer to the beer that came up trumps when combining the people’s choice and critics’ votes. The critics this year were Vic Crossland from The West Australian, Pia Poynton from The Crafty Pint (who more frequently writes on her blog, Girl + Beer), Brian Fitzgerald – President of the WA Brewers Association and a certain hat-wearing Brews News correspondent. At the end of the day the award went to Colonial Kolsch, with the brewery’s General Manager Richard Moroney accepting the trophy from Bill Annear, owner-brewer from last year’s best selling brewery, Occy’s.
Despite some fairly major hiccups, it seemed that the majority of festival goers were having a good time and by all reports, the Sunday session went far more smoothly. However, after speaking to people while queuing and looking at the event’s Facebook page, it became clear that there were also a fair number of disgruntled customers. Hopefully event management will take on board some of the suggestions made for next year’s festival, specifically better staggering shuttle bus arrivals, providing more shade (a large marquee wouldn’t be a bad thing) and more people selling beer tokens. I hope people won’t avoid the SWCBF based on one experience, because given the abundance of great craft beer coming out of the region; this is a beer festival that deserves a bright future.