A brewing precinct can be said to have really come into its own once a barrel-ageing and blending specialist moves in. And, for the already booming craft beer scene in and around Wollongong, The Barrel Shepherd stepped up to play just such a role.
In the North Gong suburb of Bellambi, the team raise their roller doors for just a few hours each week, where the venue awaits twinkling in the warm glow of fairy lights entwined around the floral arrangements that decorate the rustic bar and mountainous walls of wooden barrels that hug the space and make it feel so cosy. Making toasts with glasses of laboriously brewed one-of-a-kind sours, the locals are all smiles, and the growing number that make the pilgrimage are similarly sated.
So, just how did this wondrous experience come to Bellambi?
As a young lad, The Barrel Shepherd co-founder Georg Bobbert emigrated with his family from Germany to the NSW town of Armidale. Although predating organic certification in Australia, Georg’s dad was adamant their family sheep farm would use biodynamic practices: an approach to farming that the other farmers allegedly found “batshit crazy.”
Later, after spending 18 years as an international pilot, Georg and wife Chan incorporated his dad’s approach to shepherding into their passion for brewing. Teaming up with friend Benny Mitchell, the couple use local, organic ingredients such as Ryefield’s hops and local sakura plums to ensure they live up to the namesake of their brewery.
And, according to the team, “shepherding” barrels is a lot more literal than it sounds.
“Each barrel has its own unique character and has different needs,” they told The Crafty Pint.
“We give them the best start we can and tend to them in their journey, but, to some degree, we have to relinquish control until the time comes to blend. There we can bring together the best characteristics of a few individual barrels to create something we are proud of.”
Starting out with just three barrels, The Barrel Shepherd’s now much-expanded barrel collection features French oak ex-wine barrels they use to add complexity to the base beers Georg brews at nearby Resin Brewing using his foraged house culture. Along with the distinct characteristics of each barrel, the sour and primal concoctions ageing and pouring at their venue are frequently infused with local fruit: plums, peaches, grapes – the latter of which are destemmed by hand in a 17-hour process.
Is that time worth the effort? Talk to anyone who’s sampled their unique creations – or, better still, pay them a visit – and we’re pretty sure what your answer will be.
The attention to detail that delivers such subtle delights in each glass or bottle carries across to every aspect of the brand too. Not only does each 750ml release come with a label marrying elegance and simplicity, but their logo is worthy of closer inspection: at a glance, it looks like a flower, but it's one where the petals are made by shepherd's crooks.
With only a few hours each week in which to sample their wares at source – they do have to transform the ageing, blending and packaging operation into a space suitable for guests, after all – there is no bad time to visit The Barrel Shepherd: any time you can secure a table is perfect.
However, an evening visit makes for an almost fairytale-like experience, akin to stepping inside a mushroom house that somehow grew on an industrial estate. Suss out the food truck, chat to producer Georg, Benny or Chan, order a sophisticated glass (or tasting paddle) of beer that is rare by definition, and prepare to be delighted. Prost.