The two-storey bluestone building that houses the Tooborac Hotel & Brewery has long been one of the most striking country pubs in Victoria. Yet, for several years after the turn of the Millennium, it sat empty - until, on a trip to nearby Heathcote, James and Val Carlin spotted the "For Sale" sign, fell for its charms and decided to give it a new lease of life.
Upon opening in late 2005, the couple was unable to get hold of a Carlton globe for the roof to let passers-by know they were open so came up with an ingenious ruse: Val bought an inflatable Santa, stuck him on the roof and word began to spread.
Before too long, the restaurant had such a reputation among locals the Carlins had to build a 70-seat extension at the rear to cope and, emboldened by their success, they decided to extend the offering. The old Cobb & Co stable was falling down and in real risk of collapse, but serendipity struck when they found a "Brewery for Sale" sign on their doorstep. The old Rifle Brigade Brewery, in Bendigo, was available so they snapped it up and set about rebuilding the stables.
Fully two years later, it was all in place and ready to go, with the first beers rolling out of the brewery in 2009. Since then, the pub has attracted ever-growing crowds to the point that it's frequently booked to bursting, while the beers have evolved – and along with them the brewery.
Having outgrown the original kit, the owner bought a larger one from Kiwi superstars Garage Project when they were upgrading themselves. It meant extending the brewery building, but the proof of the pudding has been, as they almost say, in the drinking. With well travelled brewer Stu Ritchie at the helm, the core beers have been reworked and snapped up a series of gold medals along the way, while he's added many limited release beers too. Among them have been beers you never would have imagined coming out of such a brewery when it opened: a sour saison or maple cream, hoppy brown ale for example.
The grounds have been enhanced at the same time, adding several outdoor areas, from terracing to a wide lawned area where they host semi-regular large events, including the annual OkTooberfest. They're often found at other major event too, pouring beers from a converted ambulance renamed the Beerbulance. The final piece in the jigsaw of transformation has been with its branding; Red Duck head brewer and graphic designer Scott Wilson-Browne was invited to reinvent their look in 2015, with the old school British feel replaced by something much more contemporary.
Ten minutes south of Heathcote and just over an hour north of Melbourne on the Northern Highway, the brewery offers a refreshing alternative in an area dominated by wine. It's seen the hotel grow from popular pub and restaurant to a destination in itself, helped by the onsite accommodation: a one bedroom B&B room attached to the main building and a three bedroom cottage to the rear. Visit at the right time of year and you can even catch the annual sheep shearers challenge, an event that brings in people from all across the region.