People in the Central West of New South Wales will happily wax lyrical about bright Chardonnays and warm Merlots. They salivate over bacon, secretly scoff fudge and wait year round for cherry season. But beer is different. It’s a social drink, but its virtues are rarely sung.
“Made from beer,” proclaimed Carlton Draught’s tongue-in-cheek slogan, yet if Toyota described the latest Corolla as “made from car” the response would be justifiably nonplussed.
Yet, in the past five years, no less than three craft breweries have set up shop in a region with a reputation for premium wines. Their arrival – like the other microbreweries in the Central West – appears to be a reflection of the wider trend sweeping the Australian brewing industry. Beer consumption nationally is at a near 70 year low and, as industry heavyweights like Lion (Kirin) and CUB (SABMiller) see sales steadily dropping, in their place come the estimated 300-plus and counting small brewing companies.
For Lucas Martin, co-owner of The Agrestic Grocer, the cellar door for one such brewer, Badlands Brewery, is an important part of his business.
“It makes us money!” he jokes as the café bustles around him, “and that speaks to the history of the region.
“It’s easy to sell, especially to the tourism crowd. They come in and you say to them, ‘Every single one of those wines and beers and spirits and ciders is local’ [and] that’s enough of a sell, you know?”
The appeal of buying locally made products is just one of the myriad reasons that, according to IBISWorld’s December 2015 report , craft beer has grown to account for an estimated 8.4 percent of all beer produced in Australia in 2015/16.
“There’s a culture to be aware of,” say Lucas as he doodles incomprehensibly on a scrap of paper by way of explanation.
“It’s funny; the boutique element is a bit yuppie, the handcrafted is hipster, but there’s overlap. Counterculture is the best way to describe it.”
An unassuming shed on a dusty road ten minutes out of Orange houses another of the region’s success stories. An emigrant from the IT industry, Marty Oliver (pictured at top) was able to combine his love of brewing with engineering and electrical knowhow to build his own brewery: Borenore Brewhouse. Since opening in 2014, Borenore has released beers that range from a pale ale and wheat beer through to Belgian Abbey style ale and a 7 percent, 70 IBU IPA.
“The technical and creative parts of my brain work together with a love of food and palate,” he says. “Being able to use the foodie part and get paid for it, that’s the great thing.”
Of course, passion alone is not enough to make a successful brewery. With craft brewing still relatively new to the Australian landscape, and with brewing industry heavyweights like Lion and CUB having enjoyed unimpeded success for so long that until recently most were unaware that beer came in varieties other than pale lager, there will be some who are still unaware of the existence of small scale brewing – particularly when you move away from the major centres with their specialist venues, beer festivals and beer weeks.
“There's no Tooheys New of the wine world,” says Lucas. “You’ve got cask wine and things like that, so generally if you're happy to drink cheap cask wine, then that's not the market that you're trying to tap into with [premium] wine.
“With craft beer, the people drinking Tooheys New, well, they're ultimately the people you want to convert to craft beer. So it's probably a harder path to travel.”
“Unfortunately we’ve grown up with mass-produced beers,” he says. “They make them as fast and cheap as possible while still retaining a level of quality that’s acceptable to 95 percent of the population… I’m after that five percent that wants incredible flavour, incredible aroma and would rather drink far less of a superior product rather than just slamming down six average beers.”
Above the polished silver tanks of Badlands Brewery, which has already made inroads into more developed markets on the East Coast, Jon Shiner leans back in his office chair.
“There was quite a diverse range,” he says of his days growing up in the UK, “and every little town you went you’d have another beer…
“Over here there might be six beers or eight beers on tap, but to me they all tasted the same and didn't taste of very much so I figured if I couldn't buy it I'd have to learn how to make it.”
Jon’s seen the industry from more angles than most, having been a homebrewer, a contract brewer, and now operator of his own brewery. He’s also seen his fair share of setbacks, and you’d think he’d be cagier about singing the praises of other breweries in the region, but Jon simply doesn’t see them as a threat.
“I certainly don’t see myself as being in competition with other small brewers,” he says. “Virtually all brewers are reasonable, nice, open people. It seems to be an industry that attracts those types.”
Mark Lockwood, owner of 1859 Central Ranges Brewing Co, which has been operating in a large shed at the Beekeepers Inn in Vittoria since 2012, is one such type. Thoughtful and laconic, he’s quick to describe the collaborative relationship he and the other brewers have.
“There’s a lot to learn,” he says. “If Marty comes out here, I come out for lunch and just sit down for an hour or two and just talk about what we’re working on.”
Mark can easily see the benefits collaboration can bring to local brewers. A stronger presence at food events such as Orange F.O.O.D. Week and last weekend’s Crafted LIVE helps to build Orange’s reputation as a craft beer destination and encourages tourists to visit the region and participate in brewery tours. Industry figures suggest that the vast majority of visitors to Central NSW stay with friends and relatives, making word of mouth from locals equally important to driving business.
“To promote to an audience like Sydney and bring them over the mountains,” says Mark, “are people going to travel that are interested in microbreweries for one brewery? When they start to realise there’s three or four – it’ll be five soon – in the Central West we can promote [them] to an audience like Sydney.”
According to the IBISWorld report, industry analysts expect that the relatively rapid growth of the craft beer market will stabilise over the next five years. The current fragmentation within it is predicted to ease as some smaller breweries either cease trading or are acquired by mainstream ones, as seen in the past few years with Lion’s acquisition of Little World Beverages (owner of Little Creatures and White Rabbit) and Asahi’s of Cricketers Arms and Mountain Goat.
For the brewers in the Central West, though, the future holds as much potential as it does challenge.
“We’re talking about an industry that’s growing really quickly,” says Mark, suggesting that while "it’s going to get to the point where there are new breweries opening all the time across Australia” there will be closures too "because they have over-invested too much too soon and they haven’t been able to pick up the market share they wanted.
“I’m in it for the long term, I’m not in it for a quick buck or a quick boom.”
Certainly, the challenges of competing in an ever busier market do nothing to dull the passion of these brewers.
“Having people go, 'I didn't know a beer could taste this great or smell this great' or 'Wow, how well does this go with this food?’,” says Marty, “that really excites me because we haven't really explored food and beer matching in Australia like we have with food and wine matching, so I think there's a lot of opportunity for growth and education.”
Jon sums it up well, his statement a familiar echo of anyone who’s built a labour of love from the ground up.
“One of the reasons I love talking, studying, making, drinking beer is that it's kind of endlessly fascinating,” he says. "The more you learn the more you realise how little you know.”
About the author: Timothy Hanlon is a writer and producer based in the Central West of NSW. He enjoys writing about almost anything for almost any media (though he apologises for some of the more awful TV ads he's made). You can find him at www.wordsbytim.com.