There’s no point mincing words here: the Shoalhaven region of South Coast NSW is bloody magical.
Insanely gorgeous beaches, rolling hills where you can discover gourmet cheese, wine, chocolate and more, outdoor activities from surfing and whale-watching to hiking and fishing on tree-lined rivers and lakes, a fine dining scene… If you’ve never visited, chances are that when you do you’ll soon be weighing up a permanent move to the area.
In the centre of the village of Milton – which sits a few kilometres inland overlooking the beaches of Mollymook – is a place that manages to combine much of the region’s appeal under the one roof. It’s the home of Dangerous Ales, who took over and spectacularly reimagined the Milton Hotel, turning an unloved old corner boozer into a destination.
If you’re a beer lover, you’ll want to pay a visit to sample the rotating lineup of Dangerous Ales (and lagers) pouring through the pub’s taps, some direct from brite tanks behind the bar. They’re all made a hop and a skip away across the beer garden and mix the session-friendly with the adventurous and, occasionally, the daft.
They’ve picked up awards, most notably at time of writing for Fightin' With Lightnin' Thiolized Hazy IPA, which was named Champion Juicy-Hazy India Pale Ale at the 2023 Indies (of which more later). And they typically come adorned with humorous names and cutely subversive can designs that manage the not insignificant feat of standing out in a hectic marketplace.
The front bar is the place to enjoy them if you’re in the mood for the classic Aussie pub experience (even if classic Aussie pubs don’t tend to be pouring tropical cream sours or experimental IPAs). But, if the weather’s on your side (which it usually is in this slice of Paradise), make a beeline for the terrace ready to pair your Crispy Boi with views of the coastline.
Got kids in tow? Then wander down the steps to a lawned beer garden that could be lifted from an English country boozer, featuring wooden picnic benches, playground, and fire pits. Or, if you’re in the mood for a challenge, make your way to the pool room. It’s rather fancier than most, what with the chandelier overhead and stylish mural of the local surrounds with the hotel, arguably as it should be, its beating heart.
Or, if you’re a foodie, you’ll want to book a spot in the wide open dining area that leads out onto the pub deck, or maybe in one of the more private areas off to the side. Dangerous Ales became the first brewery in Australia to pick up a Chef’s Hat in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Awards, and it’s an accolade they’ve retained every year since.
While the rapid rise and expansion of the country’s indie beer scene has seen a fair few operators elevate their food offering above the pizza and burgers norm, there’s little to compare with the delights coming from the kitchen – complete with an imposing wood oven that acts as centrepiece in terms of both function and form.
On my first visit, I had a dish based around iceberg lettuce – yes, iceberg lettuce – so delicious that had I been told it was the only thing I could eat for the rest of my days, I’d have signed up there and then. And, when brewery founder Damo suggested I try the wood-roasted fish, adding: “You won’t know yourself.” he wasn’t lying. I don’t recall ever having a piece of fish so texturally perfect from start to finish.
Anyway, with my love letter to the pub and what you can pop into your mouth there done and dusted (although I should also mention the wine list that packs plenty of breadth into its relatively short length), I wrote earlier that the hotel “manages to combine much of the region’s appeal under the one roof” and thus far have only covered food, drink and hospitality. So, let’s get to why the brewery is called Dangerous Ales…
Dangerous is the name bestowed on brewery founder Damien (Damo) Martin due to his exploits as a bodyboarder. Damo was the guy who would always take on the waves others deemed too, well, dangerous. Pop his name into a search engine and you’ll see articles pop up with titles such as “Looking Back On Damien Martin’s Iconic Flogging” and “Three of Damien Martin’s heaviest wipeouts of all time”; then there’s the story in the local paper that opens: “The bodyboarder suffered six fractured vertebrae but is now home facing six to eight weeks in a brace.”
“You’re always going to come back up,” is how he rationalises it over a beer on the deck.
Many of his most epic rides took place in WA’s South West, where he worked in the kitchen at Margaret River’s iconic winery Vasse Felix. That was but one stop on a culinary adventure that also saw him cook for Gordon Ramsay in London, in Morzine in the French Alps, and at Quay in Sydney, experiences that provide context for the quality of the fare at the Milton Hotel, as well as the raison d’être for the knife in the logo.
Having grown up just down the road in Ulladulla, he returned to the area with his young family to launch Dangerous Ales. Initially, the beers were brewed on a setup not much bigger than a homebrew kit, but it wasn’t long before word had spread and demand far outstripped what he could produce.
Hence why you’ll find a 20-hectolitre brewhouse in the shed at the rear of the pub – one upon which, at time of writing, Damo was still solely responsible for every brew (while still also spending time in the kitchen and with four boys five and under at home – little wonder a fellow brewer located up the coast described him as “the hardest working man in beer” and one Crafty writer reckons he’s the definition of a Renaissance man).
It’s a real family affair, too. Father-in-law Andrew Bell joined the operation when they took over the corner pub and can be found helping out with – and enjoying the fruits of – the business. Indeed, he was central to one moment that captures much of Dangerous Ales’ appeal.
At the 2023 Indies, one of the most respected figures in the global craft beer world, Bob Pease – the longstanding president and CEO of the US Brewers Association, was invited to present one of the IPA trophies. As he revealed the winner to be Dangerous Ales’ Fightin With Lightnin, Damo wasn’t in the room, but a huge roar erupted nonetheless: Andrew and his mates, who’d flown to the Gold Coast on a private jet, romped onstage, claimed the trophy, and grabbed an unsuspecting Bob before lifting him onto their shoulders like a triumphant captain on footy finals day.
“Boy, you Aussies sure know how to do beer awards,” Bob said when he returned to present a later trophy.
Taken together with the exquisite nature of the offering at the Milton Hotel, the unique and eye-catching branding, and the wild backstory that’s equal parts sublime and ridiculous, it’s fair to say Damo and his crew know how to do brewpubs too.