In 2014, when Lion decided to move White Rabbit from its original home in Healesville to Geelong, the news was met with some concern from both locals and those who would regularly make the trip to visit the brewery.
But, for two local families, White Rabbit’s departure was viewed as an opportunity: a chance to create a new brewery for Healesville. The quartet was made up of Aaron Malmborg and Ben Hamilton and their partners Emily Sheppard and Hanna Hamilton, who launched Watts River Brewing in 2015.
Aaron and Ben had met as brewers at White Rabbit and, when it came time for the brewery to move, neither they nor Emily or Hanna had any interest in leaving too. Indeed, their attachment to the town was such that it led them to the name for their business: Watts River is the waterway that skirts Healesville and was diverted close to a century ago to create the iconic Maroondah Dam.
Despite sharing two brewers – and the same initials – as White Rabbit, from the outset the foursome was keen to establish their own identity. On the beer front, Aaron and Ben set about achieving that with a core range focused on tight, balanced beers that sit a degree or two away from where you might expect to find them style wise: a lean and dry IPA; a bright, malt-driven blonde ale; a lightly smoky stout. Many make good use of barley grown on Ben’s parents’ family farm, a paddock to pint story the Watts River team proudly emphasises as a regional brewer.
But, step away from the core trio and you’ll find experimentation running rife; as the barrel-lined walls of the brewery would suggest, there’s a penchant for slightly funkier beers. Among those is the brewery’s as-close-to-a-regular-release-as-they-can-manage Brett Pale Ale, a beer that acts as an impressive showcase of how clean and balanced a Brettanomyces beer can be, how strains of the yeast can be used to add appealing fruity characters to an otherwise line and length beer.
Add in the barrels and there's a whole other level; just ask anyone who attended the Crafty Cabal Meet The Brewer session at the Good Beer Week launch in 2018 about the 15 month barrel aged Brett beer...
Initially, Ben and Aaron operated as gypsy brewers as they waited for their stainless to arrival and for council approval to come through before, within a year of launch, the tanks were in and production moved to an old warehouse close to the eponymous river.
The warehouse is now a popular hangout for locals as well as an established stop on the Valley’s tourist trail. It’s easy to see why: not only do the beers offer a diverse selection of experiences, but they’ve given their home plenty of colour too: the brewery fills the rear, vintage furniture and walls of cartons add bursts of orange, red, blue and green inside and out, while repurposed equipment and even a piano add to the charm. Barrels line one side as well as acting as furniture and the homemade bar is the kind to intrigue fans of Heath Robinson.
It’s an insight into the brewery’s ethos and, as such, a great place to enjoy their beers in the company of whichever of the four happens to be behind the bar. Yet you don’t have to try hard to find their bottles and tap decals elsewhere, with their decision to stick around and brew embraced by other small businesses keen to keep local beer flowing.