Oliver & Marcelle's Victorian microbrewery tour
Having bought a new (to us) car for ourselves shortly before Christmas in 2008, we agreed that would be all Santa would bring us that year. Our challenge was to come up with an idea for a surprise short getaway for the other.
Mindful of budget and too slack to have booked anything over the busy holiday period, M decided that she would make the ultimate sacrifice, and drive Oliver around Victoria, looking for the perfect beer and beer-drinking experience.
Some preliminary research indicated that there is a loose collective of brewers in Victoria’s high country who have pulled together a touring map of the area, calling it the Brewery Trail.
However, thinking we’d make a longer trek, we decided to go the long way via Kyneton and Bendigo. To spice things up, we decided to rate each of the places we visited towards the end of our trip on the basis of the products that we had sampled as well as the experience itself.
So, with one concession to M (a visit to the excellent Age of Couture exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery) and a song in our hearts (Australia’s Greatest Hits on the iPod) we set off (M congratulating herself on what a BRILLIANT girlfriend she is along the way).
Henry of Harcourt Cidery
219 Reservoir Road
Harcourt VIC 3453
Travelling through apple country, it occurred to us that our tour should extend to other things fermented, not just beer, so we stopped at this charming cellar door.
Ciders and perry
Original Cider (8.5%)
Made with Pink Lady apples, this was not our favourite – a little dry for our tastes.
This pear cider was our favourite. Very refreshing, the perfect summer drink.
Duck & Bull (9%)
This was a lovely brew, the addition of ‘true cider’ apples tempered the crispness of the Pink Lady variety. A great balance between dry and sweet.
Kingston Black (10%)
This was a still cider that had added fructose. We weren’t fans.
Last Cider (9%)
This was literally the last of the fruit for the season.
Christmas Spirit (unknown %)
A mix of Nashi pears and Pink Lady apples, this both smelt and tasted like plum pudding.
Pear (unknown %)
This is the ‘muscat-like’ of the selection. Absolutely delicious.
Apple (unknown %)
This was pretty ordinary. If we were impolite, we’d say it tasted like nail polish remover!
Henry also makes a delicious apple cider vinegar and a rather unusual pear cider vinegar.
Product: 4 out of 5
We asked ourselves – how this could be any better, given it was the only cidery we visited? A couple of products were not to our tastes which, of course, is not to say that they were bad …
Experience: 5 out of 5
Drew and Irene are lovely people – they adore what they do, are up for a chat and a tour of the cidery. Their passion is evident and is reflected in their product. Henry’s is well worth a visit.
79 High Street
Woodend VIC 3442
Having heard good things about the food and accommodation at the Keatings Hotel, we decided to stay in Woodend for the evening. Our visit coincided with the New Year's Day Hanging Rock races, so we were a little concerned that it would be a big, noisy night. Our fears were allayed, however, and we had a pleasant stay in the very comfortable Alley Room, which was a bargain at $125 for the night (including a reasonable continental breakfast, which was left in the room and we prepared ourselves), notwithstanding the fact it had no television. We reasoned why need a TV when you have beer? And boy, do they have beer.
We didn’t think to buy a tasting paddle, so can’t tell you much about it, other than to confirm that they offer one.
Mount Macedon Ale (4.5%)
Smells like honey, tastes like honey. Pretty easy drinking with a bitter finish. Probably too sweet to be a sessional beer. Light on the fizz, but you couldn’t slam it down fast.
Oliver thought it was a bit meaty. The closest he could come to a description was that it was ‘roast lamby’, but not in a bad way. It was quite caramelly and full-bodied.
White Ale (5%)
Served warm in stubbies – we’re not sure that this is the recommended temperature, and it spoiled what very likely would have been a nice beer.
M: “It’s clovey …
Oliver: “Yes, it’s meant to be. It's wheat beer.”
A little bit like Hoergarten, as it’s trying to be. Would be nice to try it cold.
Big Reg (5%)
This beer boasts the “Premier’s Trophy for best Victorian Beer - AIBA (Australian International Beer Awards) 2008”. It was not very cold off tap – given it is a Vienna style lager, you’d expect it to be served much cooler. Definitely a meal accompaniment – stew, perhaps? – or late-night tipple. The bitterness is well balanced with a low carbonation.
ESB (Extra Special Bitter) (5%)
This was very red in color, more so than the Big Reg, with an off-white head.
Apparently this won silver medals in the 2007 and 2008 AIBA awards, and gold medals in the 2000, 2001 and 2006 awards. This came as somewhat of as a surprise to Oliver, who proclaimed it to be a shit beer.
M: “Tastes like burn, but not nice burnt like toast or meat but yucky burnt stuff.”
Oliver: “Not a nice beer – not particularly bitter, just not a pleasant taste. In fact, it's not just a ‘not pleasant’ beer, but an ‘unpleasant’ beer, which is much worse.”
It must be bad - M refused to finish hers.
Dunkel Weizen (5%)
This beer tasted a lot like the white ale, but with more carbonation and a good dose of darker malt. Tasty and drinkable, perhaps in great quantities. A potential for sessionality.
(By this stage, having a few under our belts and getting hungry, our attention is drawn elsewhere, namely to the numerous bar meals being served, and to the bloke drinking on a nearby table who looks like the violent, angry, tanned, bleach-tooth yank from Peter's Italian Restaurant in Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA. So in order to avoid being beaten up for staring - or salivating - we agree to try more beers after dinner and retreat to the dining room.)
A well-hopped ale – russet coloured, malty on the nose and very bitter. In fact, this is an astringent bitterness, and not a pleasant aftertaste. One that makes you go “aaah, errrr, awwwww …”
This chocolate porter was almost black in color. Unfortunately it was served far too warm – not even cellar temperature. However, it was delicious. M thought it was a bit like chocolate mousse, really fresh in the mouth. Oliver thought that it was dessert in a pot glass, and would make a good ice cream. An absolutely magnificent beer.
Figuring this was a good beer to finish the evening on, we decided to retire without trying the other beers on offer, namely Double Trouble and Woad Warrior, which we bought for sampling later.
Product: 4 out of 5
Holgate offers a good range with a beer for everyone. There were some disappointments, like the ESB, but also some standouts, namely the chocolate porter, which is a strong contender for Beer of the Year 2009, if Oliver and Geoff get around to doing any tastings in 2009!
Experience: 3 out of 5
Okay, this was a busy day, but these guys know their market and the New Year’s Day races happen every year, so they should have anticipated demand and adjusted their staffing accordingly. This includes making sure their beers are appropriately stocked so that they may be served chilled. It was chaos behind the bar, and the bar staff need to go back to basics, including learning to observe who has been waiting the longest and serve them. This is ‘Bartending 101’. As an example, Oliver waited patiently for close to five minutes while the bloke next to him was served, but the bloke who barrelled up at the last minute was served first. Just not good enough. The pub itself is not particularly inviting. However, it has two great things going for it – the beer and, judging from the brisk bar meal trade and our experience in the restaurant, good food.
Tooborac Hotel & Brewery
We were told by Drew Henry of Harcourt that the Rifle Brigade Brewery in Bendigo had been bought out and/or relocated to the Tooborac Hotel and Brewery (or Tooby’s as it is known). Their website advertises Granite Ale and Redgum Red but, alas, it wasn’t open when we called in before 11am. We were pretty disappointed.
5115 Northern Highway
Tooborac VIC 3522
Boorhaman VIC 3678
It had been a long morning and we were pretty thirsty and hungry. Then, like an oasis, the Boorhaman Hotel arose from almost nowhere, promising beery relief and, we were delighted to discover, lunch. On this day the pub was expecting about 100 bicyclists so we hopped to it and ordered a drink and lunch before the stampede. Over a fantastic barbecue meal ($13 each for sausages and burgers, or fish, served with coleslaw, delicious cheesy scalloped potatoes and chips!) in the expansive beer garden, we drank …
Wheat Beer (4.5%)
Dark golden colour, it was a nice enough beer. Tasting pretty wheaty and malty, we agreed that we could easily settle in for more than one, but that it wasn’t really a sessional beer.
Straw coloured, with a frothy head, this was quite bitter and would have made a more sessional beer. Oliver stated that this was a positive take on the dirty, Aussie lager.
Ginger Ale (4.5%)
Almost green in colour, a little soapy with a quickly dissipating head, this ale was sweet and gingery and quite tasty. It was not overpoweringly gingery, such that M declared that even she, no fan of ginger beer, would drink it.
Buffalo also offered a Stout and Dark Ale, both of which were purchased for later tasting.
Product: 3.5 out of 5
These guys lose half a star (or gain half a star, depending on whether you are a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full type of drinker), as we only tasted three out of their range of five beers. However, they were decent, solid examples.
Experience: 4 out of 5
This honest country pub in the middle of nowhere is obviously the heart of this community, and deservedly so. The staff were really friendly and, let’s face, you can’t go wrong with a $13 barbecue meal.
Bintara Brewery (defunct)
Murray Valley Highway
Rutherglen VIC 3685
Note: Bintara Brewery was part of Vintara Estate (now King Jack Winery) and the brewery no longer operates.
We were interested in the idea of a coupling of a winery and brewery. However, we were to be disappointed by the fact that only two of the four brews offered were available on tap on the day we visited. They charged $2.50 for a 150ml sample, which we thought a bit rich, though it was offset against our purchase of a Pale Ale and Black Beer, which we bought for later tasting, despite our better judgement.
Crystal Wheat Beer (4.5%)
We agreed that this was drinkable, but only just. That it is wasn't particularly pleasant therefore probably goes without saying. There was an unpalatable after-taste which we struggled to identify; M suggested it was of rancid lemon. Enough said.
This beer was also disappointing – astringent and not nearly malty or bitter enough to claim to be a pilsner. M noted that it is evocative of her childhood – it tasted dirty, much like the mineral water she used to drink straight out of the spa pumps at Daylesford. At best, this beer could be described as not being as full-bodied as it should be; if we were kind, we'd say it was not flavoursome; if we were honest we would say it was an awful beer.
Product: 1 out of 5
These were not the worst beers we have tasted, but were close to it. They could only offer two of the four beers on tap which was fair enough, but if they are charging $2.50 a sample, the least they could do was to offer to open a stubby.
Experience: 1 out of 5
The Vintara/Bintara Estate offers a lovely cellar door – there were quite a few people eating considering it was by now mid-afternoon, which was a good sign, and the food smelt good. However, the attendant was basically a bartender who poured us a drink and didn’t offer any insight into the beer or the brewing process, even though the brewery was right behind the bar! We were less than impressed with the level of service and felt that he missed out on the opportunity to capitalise on the fact that this place specialises in both beer and wine. We left feeling that we’d wasted our time. Bintara could learn some lessons from Bridge Road Brewers, which is not too far down the road …
Bridge Road Brewers
Tanswell’s Old Coach House
Beechworth VIC 3747
Next, we headed to Beechworth with more than a little trepidation – the very schmick website with its over-the-top bushranger imagery left us a little concerned that the quality of beer might be a case of style over substance. But we we were off to a good start with the tasting paddle, which featured 8 brews of 120ml each for $10.50. The brewery offers beers for tasting from both its Boutique and Chevalier ranges. Most of its products are available on tap.
Bavarian Wheat Beer (unknown %)
This was cloudy, malty, banana-y and clove-y. Quite malty, it was not as delicate as you’d expect from a Bavarian beer, which may not be a bad thing.
Australian Ale (unknown %)
This brew was quite sweet and honey-flavoured but also nice and bitter. Bridge Road claims that this is a true sessional beer – we heartily agree.
Pale Ale (unknown %)
Very bitter and refreshing, and citrusy – a very nice beer.
Celtic Red Ale (5.3%)
Very malty and almost floral. A lovely colour, dubbed ‘Phar Lap Red’ by M, it even tasted red to us.
Robust Porter (unknown %)
This was much less chocolatey (or ‘mocha-ey’) than claimed and, in fact, tasted quite burnt, but not unpleasantly so.
Bling IPA (unknown %)
Oliver reckons this was extremely bitter and very yummy. The finish was almost cloying, but in a good way. It left a long, lingering bitterness at the back of the tongue. It was a bit full-on for M’s delicate sensibilities and we both agreed that one pot would be quite enough.
Saison (unknown %)
Nice and light, almost green in colour, Oliver reckons that this beer smelt of medicine. Luckily it didn’t taste so – it was tart and had hints of bubble gum. We liked it very much.
Biere De Garde (unknown %)
This beer was much sweeter, and we thought it would make an ideal dessert beer, being neither too bitter nor overpoweringly sweet. A very, very nice beer.
Product: 4.5 out of 5
This was the highlight of our trip and gets high marks for its unusual Chevalier range, which employs brewing methods not common in Australia, with exceptional results. The Chevalier range is available on tap or in champagne-style bottles. Bridge Road offered a great choice of beers at reasonable prices. Don’t be put off by the smooth-as-poo website. The quality of the beer here speaks for itself.
Experience: 5 out of 5
This is the ideal brewer’s experience. We are sure that if it was relocated to a large city it would leave others, such as Melbourne's Little Creatures Brewhouse, for dead. An interactive experience that complemented the beer range with appropriate (and, it seems, popular) food including delicious-looking pizzas. Unlike other breweries we visited, there was lots of information available on the brewing process around the bar area, including craft brewing magazines to take to your table and read. Ben Kraus, the brewer, was engaging, knowledgeable and friendly – he is doing very interesting things and his passion for a decent beer is evident. Indeed, we found out later that he is the driving force behind the beer trail concept, which is a credit to Ben and the confidence he has in his product.
Boynton's Brewing (defunct)
6619 Great Alpine Road
Porepunkah VIC 3740
Note: Beer is no longer sold under the Boynton brand.
This was the second winery/brewery combo of the tour and we hoped that it would restore our faith in the concept. Unfortunately, none of the beers were available on tap - apparently due to demand over the Christmas-New Year period - but the affable host suggested that we crack open some stubbies. All up, four brews are offered at Boynton's – including a light beer, which we gracefully declined.
This was clean, malty and quite tasty. It was suggested that this would be a good match with tapas and we agree. Easy drinking, a quite nice sessional beer.
Pilsner (4.5%), Ale (4.5%)
After a good start, things went downhill at a rapid rate. These brews were most disappointing – astringent and quite unpleasant. The reason for this was evident when our host told us that, unlike the lager that is brewed in Mildura, the pils and ale are brewed at Yarra Flats Brewery (Buckley’s) in Healesville. We hate to say it, but it shows. These were very ordinary beers.
Product: 1.5 out of 5
The lager saved this from being rated a lot lower. Aware that they have quality problems, the good folk at Boyntons are taking steps to address the current sorry state of affairs, which is very good news.
Experience: 4 out of 5
This is a very Italian, gorgeous winery nestled amongst the vines in an exceptionally beautiful part of the world. The owners saw an opportunity to supplement their wine range with beer in order to satisfy designated drivers who want a cleansing ale while others indulge in wine tasting. The day we were there, the winery was hosting an evening for the locals and was gearing up to host a brewer’s day in the following fortnight. If they can get their beer right, they will be on to a winner. We look forward to a return visit.
Given that the beer is actually brewed under contract by other breweries, we feel it's a bit misleading to claim this is "Boyntons Brewing Co". Perhaps "Boyntons Beer" would be more appropriate.
121 Great Alpine Road
Bright VIC 3741
This was our final stop on a very long day. Here we sampled a tasting paddle of six 100ml samples for $12.
Hellfire Amber Ale (5%)
Smelling bitter and clean, with a solid, finely beaded head (as did all the beers on the paddle), this was quite a good beer. Nice and malty, very easy drinking.
Blowhard Pale Ale (5%)
An American style pale ale, this smelt and tasted lemony. Not to M’s tastes, Oliver thought that it was a nice beer.
Razor Witbier (5%)
This smelt like a wheat beer should smell. Oliver thought it was a little on the bitter side for the style of beer to which it aspires, however M liked it so much she bought a whole pot.
Staircase Porter (5.8%)
Oliver: “This is like the little brother of Coopers Stout. Chocolately on the nose with a nice burnt taste. Actually, make that a cousin of Coopers … second cousin? Okay, maybe second cousin twice removed, only a little bit sweeter …” (Okay, it had been a long day, and he wasn’t driving.)
Fainters Dubbel (8.5%)
This looked like a watered-down coffee. M thought it was “yeuch” – just a style of beer that she doesn’t enjoy. Oliver, on the other hand thought that it was true to the style, like a Chimay, with alcoholic ‘warmth’.
Raspberry Lambic (4.5%)
This was the ‘Brewer’s Choice’ and available only on tap. A really pretty colour, just like a coppery kind of raspberry cordial, it also smelt of the fruit. It was tart and very delicious – lovely and sour just as a good lambic should be. M thought it would make an ideal dessert beer.
Product: 4 out of 5
Bright Brewery offered a great mix of beers, including the standout lambic and dubbel, along with the less-enjoyable ale.
Experience: 3.5 out of 5
This brewery enjoys a lovely setting, overlooking the water and a playground (handy for those with their priorities straight, namely drinking while the kids amuse themselves within eyesight). It felt a little like being in a dodgy beer garden, but in a good way. Unfortunately, the bar tenders were inattentive and not particularly welcoming – you got the feeling they’d rather be elsewhere. Tip: look at customers when you're serving them, don't gaze out the window while taking their order! On the other hand, the glass attendants were red hot – we had to defend our unfinished tasting paddle more than once from over-zealous staff! There was also a limited and uninspired food menu – after drooling over other people’s food during the day, we chose to eat elsewhere in Bright. Finally, for a higher price for less beer than we’d enjoyed at other breweries, the pricing of the paddle was a bit steep.
Yarra Flats Brewery (Buckley's)
30 Hunter Road
Healesville VIC 3777
Taking the gourmet track home, we wound our way through the Milawa and Yarra Valley regions (mmmmm, cheese!). Thinking we’d swing by Buckley’s on the way past, we were very disappointed to see that it was all locked up. We were a little concerned about the lack of, let’s call it ‘ambience’, that speaks volumes about the brews. A picture tells a thousand words.
694 Maroondah Highway
Coldstream VIC 2462
This was our last beer stop for the trip. Having spied a brochure advertising a mid-week, two-course lunch for $20, we were intrigued. At $5.50 the tasting paddle of four beers at 80ml each was a reasonable deal. Unfortunately they had run out of pils on tap, so a bottle of this was procured for later tasting.
This was very crisp and bitter, and was served very cold. Well balanced and delicious.
Summer Ale (4.5%)
This beer had a quickly dissipating head and was almost light green. It tasted oddly carbonated, when it had no head at all. Brewed with elderflowers, it was indeed very grassy. Whilst an interesting beer, Oliver was not sure that it was pleasant tasting.
Golden colour and malty (as it should be) it was not that bitter, indeed we agreed that both the ale and lager tasted more bitter). A good sessional beer.
This was the Strongbow-style cider that M knows and hates. It tasted just like alcoholic, carbonated apple juice. Enough said.
Product: 3 out of 5
Two good beers, one dodgy cider and a third beer about which we are unsure. We felt that this brewery had great potential and look forward to tasting their pilsner and chocolate stout.
Experience: 3 out of 5
While the brewery building itself is charming, unfortunately the bar area had all the ambiance of a “family” restaurant chain. The host told us that they’d been exceptionally busy, and this was evident from the uncleared tables and unwashed glasses stacked on every surface, such that glasses had to be washed before we could be served our tasting paddle. Having said that, the hosts were very friendly and generous (providing a free bottle of unlabelled pils), so we look forward to visiting again. It looks like an interesting food menu and the great lunch deal (along with a six-pack and takeaway pizza for $30 deal) is tempting.