A recent pub crawl throughout High Country Victoria revealed growing support for the region’s breweries from an innovative new generation of hoteliers.
As in most regions of Australia, the brewing scene is evolving rapidly in the High Country. Since touring in 2015, a raft of additional breweries have opened for business, with several more in the pipeline.
The brewing riches have already seen the High Country Brewery Trail expand its ranks from four to seven members, so a return visit seemed only proper. At the suggestion of the helpful folk at Tourism North East Victoria, this time it would also take in some of the region’s pubs, several of which have recently come under new management.
One such venue is the Wandi Pub in Wandiligong, a few kilometres south of Bright, taken over by hospitality pros and snowboarding mates Tim Heuchan and Paddy Subacius in November 2015. It was a weekend-only operation under the previous owners, but Tim and Paddy’s refurbishment and food and beverage overhaul has made it a destination venue for locals and tourists alike.
Just eyeing off the Wandi Pub’s menu was reassuring, given its emphasis on local ingredients. Harrietville Smoked Trout. Mt Buffalo Olive Oil. King Valley Butter. Wuk Wuk Beef. Tim and Paddy are also also big on local wines and beers. The taplist on my visit includes Bridge Road’s B2 Bomber and Little Bling, the latter of which I enjoy with a delicious tasting platter of local olives, cheese, abovementioned smoked trout and toasted sourdough. Above all, the Wandi Pub has a welcoming, relaxing vibe that would ensure me a regular if I lived in the locale. I only want to return in the warmer months and see the huge beer garden in full swing.
The Wandi was en route back from Blizzard Brewery in Dinner Plain, proudly Australia’s highest altitude brewery. There was a light covering of snow in the vicinity when I visited earlier that day, for the High Country breweries’ 2016 collaborative brew, the latest under the #Rule 47 label (you can watch Brews News’ Facebook Q&A here).
Afterwards, the open fire made for a cosy spot to enjoy a paddle of Blizzard’s beers, of which the Avalanche Amber proved a particular favourite. Blizzard will certainly be an oasis for skiers during winter, and is also open limited hours during the ‘green season’.
Setting off to my night’s lodgings at Yackandandah, I made a brief stop at the newly refurbished Punkah Pub in Porepunkah. It’s not often I start my review with the toilets, but Punkah’s really are quite something, complete with aquariums and photographic wallpaper showing historical scenes from the region.
Re-opened in August 2016, the pub’s super slick “industrial provincial” fitout may not appeal to everyone, but it’s certainly unique for a country boozer. Local beers from the likes of Bright and Blizzard are on offer, while the wines are hyper-local, sourced entirely from the 3740 postcode.
Folk music and American BBQ
Yackandandah may be best known for its folk festival, but the Star Hotel’s new owners are earning it an unlikely reputation for American-style barbecue. Using a DIY hot smoker made out of recycled materials from his family farm, head chef and co-owner Matt Frauenfelder is cooking it low and slow, with an Australian twist.
He smokes his meats using native woods such as red gum, apple box, ghost gum and wattle, strategically employed at different stages of the cooking process. “A lot of people source imported American woods like pecan and hickory, but they aren’t natural to Australia,” he says.
The proof was in the mixed plate of beef and pork ribs, served more traditionally with onion rings, slaw and pickles. It was some of the most succulent, tastiest barbecue I’ve had and ably accompanied with a Pale Ale from Rutherglen Brewery, a newcomer to the High Country Brewery Trail that I visited last time round.
Meanwhile, local folk musicians had descended on the pub for their customary Wednesday night jam, the ideal soundtrack to wind down after a day’s driving over a few pints. And with the Star recently having become the home of new local outfit Two Pot Brewery, there is now even more reason for a visit.
Following breakfast at Yack’s sensational Saint Monday cafe, I made for Moyhu, where winemaker Glen Merkel and wife Melissa had recently taken the reigns of the Moyhu Hotel. The pub’s accommodation and outdoor area was something of a work in progress when I visited, but the venue’s huge potential is obvious.
A smart interior refurb and paddock-to-plate ethos in the kitchen have it on the path to big things. Over a beautiful glass of Merkel Wines Gewurztraminer, I learnt of the imminent opening of nearby King River Brewery.
A serendipitous visit occasioned a warm welcome from King River founders, Nathan and Brianna Munt, who were commissioning their equipment that very day. Nathan said the arrival of likeminded publicans such as the Merkels at Moyhu was a godsend for his business, which was immediately able to get its beers on tap at the pub.
“It was a very, very basic country pub only a few years ago… I reckon we would have been pushing shit up a hill [then],” he said.
German beers and fare
Further down the road is another of King River’s first customers, the Mountain View Hotel in Whitfield. The pub is owned by local winemakers Pizzini and fronted by head chef and hotel manager Ben Bergmann, whose German heritage proved an asset to the Munts.
“Part of the reason he’s so excited is I’m brewing two German-style beers, the Alt and the Kolsch,” commented Nathan Munt. “Maybe I was lucky that Ben was there.”
Having owned the freehold of the Mountain View Hotel for close to 20 years, Nat Pizzini has been well-placed to witness the evolution of the King Valley tourism.
“When we started running the hotel back in 1997, pubs in the country were ‘pot and parma’, bangers and mash type places,” she said.
Bergmann took over as chef two years ago, the pub’s fine dining restaurant subsequently winning a Good Food chef’s hat in 2015 for his inspired European-style cuisine. Next door is more casual pub fare, with a German influence – there’s pork knuckle and Bitburger on tap alongside the King River beers.
Pizzini said the locals did not initially embrace the changes her family made to the pub. “[But] if you stayed old country pub style, you’d just be drinking with two other guys. You had to change. Being at the head of that change was difficult, but now it’s demanded,” she said.
“Now the locals are proud to have a country pub where they can take their friends and family, coming from the cities, to a place where you can get a decent meal, like you would in the city,” she said.
Pizzini said the arrival of locally brewed beer had been the latest evolution for the region. “First we put Coopers Pale on tap… Now it’s not Coopers, it’s local beers. It’s been amazing to watch that progression,” she said.
On leaving the Mountain View, wattle lining the Mansfield-Whitfield Road announced the arrival of spring. The picturesque drive took me to another of the High Country Brewery Trail’s newest members, Mansfield’s Social Bandit Brewing Company.
Jeff and Jeanette Whyte have created a cool venue in which to enjoy a pizza alongside their solid lineup of beers, which included a particularly noteworthy Brown Ale, Jackie Brown. But speaking to Jeff, it was clear his biggest style passion lies with India Pale Ales. This is something we have in common, so it was cool to hear the story behind The Beast, the renowned seven per cent IPA he created somewhat ahead of its time at his previous brewing venture, Jamieson.
Jeff had two IPAs for me to try, one of which was the resinous hop bomb, TK’s Wet Hopped Cascade IPA. Even though I didn’t get to taste it at its absolute freshest, it was a highly memorable beer, brewed the same day the hops were picked off the bine. “They were grown in a bloke’s backyard right here in Mansfield. We will do another one this year and we are growing Chinook on the veranda of the brewery. These will go into the same batch to give it even more resin,” reported Jeff.
People want local: Bridge Road
Departing Social Bandit for Sydney, I considered that the High Country’s food and beverage options had upped the ante further, even in the year since I last visited. To get a feel for whether I’d had a rarefied experience at these select few pubs, I quizzed one of the region’s veteran brewers – Ben Kraus of Bridge Road – how the landscape had changed since he started operations ten years ago.
“We’re the main wholesaler in our region of local beer, and we’ve seen massive growth locally of venues with an appetite to put us on and support us,” he said.
“That’s been a slow burn, but it’s really gaining traction. And probably consumers locally are more ready to drink our beer or ask them for it. It’s a massively growing trend. The number of taps that we have regionally, this year to last year, would probably be double,” said Kraus.
Welcome news for beer enthusiasts visiting the region, as well as its many fledgling breweries.
Bridge Road Brewers will host the third annual High Country Hops festival on March 25, 2017.
Yackandandah Folk Festival is on March 24 to 26, 2017.