Of all the breweries to appear on the Australia landscape in recent times, it's fair to say none arrived quite like Thunder Road. From its lavishly hi-tech brewery, complete with pimped up lab, to the decision to launch with a lager and go after the vast majority of Aussies not drinking craft beer rather than the early adopters – plus a trademark-related court case that garnered national attention – it’s an operation that’s marched to the beat of its own drum.
It’s the long-planned project of beer loving businessman Philip Withers, who’d fallen for the industry while touring the States – specifically while drinking Chuckanut’s Kolsch in Washington State – and for whom the Brunswick-based brewery is a return to his family roots.
Thunder Road launched its first beer, the Full Steam Pale Lager, in 2011. At a time when the majority of craft brewers in Australia were doing their best to distinguish themselves from mainstream beers, here instead they sought to offer something similar, albeit inspired by the pale lagers and pilsners of Europe (and Chuckanut) rather than the bastardisations that had come to dominate Australian beer-drinking culture.
In time, Full Steam was followed by the beer the brewery has since become best known for: Brunswick Bitter. Again designed as a beer not a million miles away from what most Australians were drinking, it spread quickly across tap points in Melbourne’s inner north, and has continued to spread, particularly since becoming the brewery’s first canned release.
None of which necessarily sounds like a recipe for a brewery that would pique the interest of ardent Crafty Pint readers. Yet, scratch the surface at Thunder Road and it’s a pretty fascinating beast.
While they have garnered little of the attention of the likes of Brunswick Bitter or Collingwood Draught (or, indeed, the Pacific Ale at the heart of the trademark case), there’s been a steady stream of more colourful releases and international collaborations. Head back to the very earliest days of Good Beer Week and you’d have found them releasing a triple IPA; since then, there have been various lagers of many an ilk, spiced saisons and more besides, particularly since they turned greater focus on the venue side of the brewery.
The beers have met with expert approval too: Thunder Road has entered the Australian International Beer Awards twice. On both occasions, in 2014 and 2015, Philip and his team walked away with the Champion Medium Australian Brewery trophy.
While, unfortunately, the brewery isn’t located on a real Thunder Road, it’s fronted by an historic bluestone cottage just off Lygon Street, in Brunswick, that offers further insight into the owner’s passion for beer (and history and collecting). Inside, when it’s opened to visitors, you’ll find a treasure trove of historical beer literature and memorabilia.
Of course, for most readers, your interest is more focused on the beers of today and, in the brewery behind, you’ll find a striking wooden bar lined with 10 taps in the shadow of the brewhouse. Those taps always pour the brewery’s core range and, thanks to the 400l pilot system, there’s room for the brewers to run wild to fill the other taps with one-off and limited release beers.
The venue only opened to the public on a regular basis in 2017, belatedly achieving one of Phil’s early intentions of running not just a production site, but a venue as well. In that regard, Thunder Road’s key focus is creating a space for locals, whether it’s the students who can still just afford to live nearby, or the countless young families who surround the brewery.
The food is served from what must be one of the country’s largest, and shiniest, food trucks – one that looks like it’s been plucked from the front of a dive bar in America’s South that’s run by a man who so closely resembles Elvis, you’ll start to wonder if the King does actually live on. The focus of the truck’s industrial-grade kitchen is on pushing out the kind of food designed with beer in mind: sliders, wings or the humble dim sim.
It’s a situation that leaves no room for a packaging line, meaning all Brunswick Bitter intended for tinnies is brewed on-site then taken off-site for packaging, with Thunder Road’s bottle range also packaged locally elsewhere.
While the flagship Brunswick Bitter, whose insignia is found throughout much of northern Melbourne, and the brewery's spin on Pacific Ale are likely what comes to most drinkers' minds when they think of Thunder Road, it's worth delving deeper as, underneath, you’ll find a passion for Australian beer and, in particular, its history. Indeed, as lagers make a comeback within the craft beer world, a growing number of brewers release an approachable beer named after their home turf and many invest seriously in their labs, it appears the beat of Thunder Road’s drum is catching on.