Bendigo's Beer Frontier

Bendigo's Beer Frontier
June 7 2011 by Crafty Pint

It seems odd that a city of more than 100,000 people situated so close to Melbourne can be described as a craft beer desert. Yet, with little more than a couple of bars and a single pioneering restaurant doing anything to promote Australia’s burgeoning craft beer scene, that’s the story in Bendigo. Thankfully, a pair of über-keen beer lovers are on a mission to make a change.

The main instigator is Justin McPhail, who you may have spotted on The Crafty Pint before, and who is responsible for founding the Better Beer For Bendigo campaign. Under that banner, he has held a successful home brew competition backed by local craft brewers and has big plans for the future.

“I believe in good beer and what I see too often in Bendigo is macro lagers and lemon wedges in clear bottles,” he says. “I believe Bendigo is capable of being a craft beer city. 110,000 people live here, we have a great tourism centre, with wine festivals and the Bendigo Easter festival among the larger events yet with such great produce and great places to visit, we find ourselves in a black hole in terms of microbreweries and good beer bars.

“We’re lucky to live close enough to Melbourne, which has enabled me to see first hand the beer community grow and I believe Bendigo needs some representation in the microbrewery scene. My aim is to open my own microbrewery down the track, but there’s no point opening a brewery in a town where people don’t understand the product.”

His partner-in-crime is Trev Birks, who residents of the Beer Twitterverse may know as @On_theBandwagon. He says his drive comes from a desire to “encourage beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers, male and female, to open their eyes”.

“Call me Beer Grylls,” he says. “My mission is to get them to live a little and survive the initially scary but enjoyable journey from mass-produced mediocrity to hand-crafted heaven… without the ridiculous accent and rehearsed theatrics of course.

Trevolution

Trev “Bear Grylls” Birks ponders his next conversion

“I moved to Bendigo six years ago and in that time, several quality Melbourne hospitality operators have established some brilliant restaurants lifting the standard of eateries, and while Bendigo’s wine history is well documented I noticed the craft beer revolution has been left behind. To inject a Whitlamism – It’s time.

“At present, only The Goldmines, Basement Bar and Golden Vine serve decent craft beers. I managed to convince a local nightclub to stock some Little Creatures and they tell me it’s gone well. And, of course, I’m hoping to convince the father-in-law to give me some fridge space at The Farmers Arms, which is currently being rebuilt. He loves the Stone and Wood Pacific Ale and Three Troupers Pale Ale, so the seed has been planted.”

The pair, who were brought together by a shared love for Bridge Road beers, managed to attract 80 people to their first home brew competition, which was sponsored by Holgate Brewhouse and held at the Basement Bar. The bar’s owner, Scott Seymour, is another doing his bit to grease the wheels of the craft beer revolution.

“I took over the bar two years ago upon moving to Bendigo to cater for all I loved about Melbourne’s bar scene but couldn’t find here, including quality original music and beers,” he says. “When I took over the biggest selling beers were Carlton Draught and Cascade Light. Now my fastest sellers are Stone & Wood Pacific Ale – when I can get it! – and White Rabbit Dark Ale.

“Bendigo lacks its own brewery and craft beer here hasn’t made great inroads just yet but we are working on it. Plenty of pubs have James Squire on tap, which is a step in the right direction but I’d love to see more doing guest taps of some of the great microbrewed beer available here in Victoria. I certainly think people are ready.”

As for Justin and Trev, they’ve got a few things in the pipeline. Although he won’t say much about it for now, Justin is in talks with some establishments about making beer for them, The Dispensary is looking at starting monthly beer education classes, there’s another home brew comp on the horizon plus talk of a beer degustation dinner while Trev is going viral…

“I’m concentrating on converting my mates one at a time, then getting them to ask venues to stock craft beer,” he says. “I’ve got a group of about 30 who regularly drink craft beer now. Even better, a couple have started brewing their own beers. With our Home Brew competitions, it’s really drawn some craft beer lovers out of the woodwork. Our hope for the next competition on September 3 is to attract around 40 brews and more than 100 attendees.”

His hopes are high for the long term too.

“Not everyone will agree with me, but I believe if you’re in a smaller town, the better the chance of success you have,” he says. “Sure, you have distance and logistical challenges to overcome but let’s face it, the equation is pretty simple: beer plus parochial local community support equals success. Small towns like Beechworth, Mirboo, Woodend, Tooborac and Camperdown all have their own microbrewery so Victoria is pretty healthy. As for the rest of Australia, I think more and more brewers are starting to pop their heads out of their hobby sheds and peer into the big blue yonder of larger scale production. It’s exciting.”

As for Justin, the goal is “to get Bendigo ready for not just ‘good' craft beer, but ‘interesting’ craft beer. I have big ideas for our brewing brand, and even bigger ideas once we establish the brewery. I want to be Crafty Pint – Bendigo style!”

Flattery will get you everywhere, young man…

If you want to find out more, you can follow Justin on Twitter and join the Better Beer For Bendigo Facebook page, where you can also sign up for their regular newsletters. A website is planned too. If you’re in Bendigo and are into craft beer, give them your support, have a word in your local landlord’s ear and let’s see what can happen. In the meantime, we’ll let you know when the Dispensary classes start and, if you’re a homebrewer, mark September 3rd in your diary for their next comp at the Basement Bar.

Image at top: Justin McPhail (right) and Scott Seymour (left)

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