With a craft beer scene that is close to nonexistent and a local population amongst the oldest, if not the oldest, in the country, the Southern Highlands doesn’t stand out as a place you’d want to set up a brewery. Yet that's where you'll find one of the youngest in Australia – one that’s thriving even before it’s had a chance to properly launch.
Cameron James and Ben Twomey have opened Southern Highlands Brewing Co in a barn in Sutton Forest, more than 100 kilometres southwest of Sydney, and are proving that the thirst for locally made beer is seemingly latent everywhere and in everyone.
That’s taken James, the head brewer, by surprise as much as anyone.
“I was really shocked at how supportive locals have been," he says. "We have one of the highest percentages of retirees in the country – there really are a lot of retirement villages here. It’s a really nice place, quiet and comfortable, but we haven’t got the biggest beer market to tout our wares to.
“Because we were working with such a small target community and have no distribution, we decided to start small and just see how we went. We hadn’t approached any venues as we didn’t have much stock, but so many people have gotten in touch with us and the interest has been so great we’ve doubled our fermentation capacity already.”
What began only a few months ago with a 200 litre Braumeister and 1,000 litres worth of fermentation space has been upped to a new 500 litre brewhouse and two additional 500 litre fermenters.
“We’ll be able to knock out 2,000 litres, or four different beers, in a week,” says James. “The new Braumeister was due to arrive in Sydney on Sunday so we’ll hopefully start rolling beers out in about a month.”
Getting the green light for Southern Highlands to start selling beer, which was officially granted in May, is the culmination of much persistence and determination on the part of its founders.
“The layers of government it took to get a brewery in a barn was pretty outrageous,” says James.
“It took us nine months. No one here [at the local council] had approved anything like it, so it just went around and around. There was a brewery in Bowral once, but there was basically no benchmark or previous application to work off so they were a bit hesitant. But we got there and we’ve got the bare minimum now which is a wholesale license, meaning we can make beer and get it out to venues.”
The beer they’re making from the off is, strictly speaking, a bit left of centre. But not too far.
Says James: “We don’t have anything that fits into the BJCP guidelines [globally recognised style guidelines against which homebrewing competitions are judged], except maybe the American Pale Ale, which was the first beer we made.
“Naked Harvest is our sort-of Australian blonde ale which is just an easy drinking beer with low bitterness, low hops and a fair whack of wheat in it. Then we’ve got a Celtic Ale. It’s not Scottish, not Irish and not English but we’ve pinched bits from each, like the colour of an Irish red and hops from Kent, put it all together and called it a Celtic. It’s a bit of a combination.
“And we’ve recently been given approval to use the name Bong Bong for a beer. Bong Bong is quite a famous horse race in the area. It was held for years before it got called off because there was so much alcohol and violence – people came from everywhere just to get slaughtered and run amok. But the council is back on board, they’ve tidied it up and the only beer you can get there is mid-strength, so we’ve got the Bong Bong Picnic Ale.
“I do want to do some big IPAs but we’re reluctant to go for it just yet as we’re not sure the area’s ready for it. It might be a bit tough until the people of the Highlands start getting into the scene.”
But if James’ quick list of keen customers is any sort of guide the scene seems ripe for the taking.
“The owner at [regional wine and art hub] Ten Thousand Paces asked us about doing growlers – I wasn’t even expecting people here to know what growlers are! We’re already on two or three taps at the Bowral Rugby Club, then you have interest from guys like Damien Monley, who used to be Matt Moran’s chef, who has his own place here and supports local produce. And we’ve had function venues ask us to do one-off beers for things like weddings, but still done under our brand.”
For now the brewery, which is on land belonging to Twomey, doesn’t have a cellar door and doesn’t package its beer, though solutions to both have and are being considered.
“We’ll look to have our own venue”, says James.
“We’d like to go into Bowral somewhere but it’s a case of looking at zoning laws. When we first looked at it a few years ago we wanted a brewpub but you just couldn’t get the right permission. After that we actually canned the whole brewing idea for two years until Ben came back and said, 'Are you still keen?'”
In other canned plans, SHBC is keen on employing the services of a mobile canning unit, one of which is set to be launched in New South Wales in the coming months, allowing them to supply the independent retailers in nearby towns that have, like many others, already shown interest.
Although everything is new, exciting and promising, they’re keeping their feet on the ground and have self imposed limits on what they commit to from the outset.
Says James: “The last thing we want to do is say yes to everything, run out of beer and have people waiting for weeks. So we’ve put a hold on orders, got the new equipment and will start again from there. Just suck it and see. And we’re fully prepared for the people who like the idea of having local beer at first but then drop us. There are all those minefields to get through to find out our best customers.”
That they’re able to take time to grow slowly and pick and choose their opportunities is a luxury afforded them thanks to the business having been funded independently.
“Like a lot of home brewers, you start to make some decent beer and friends say, 'I’d actually buy this', so I always thought this would be cool to do," says James, "but it costs a pile of money.
"I’d met Ben as he’d settled in Sutton Forest and it turns out that he had the means, tried the beers and wanted to get behind it. For someone who’s not done a lot of brewing before, he’s picked it up really quickly.”
While the two still work other jobs full time – James is a labourer turned hydrographer turned high pressure gas testing specialist turned IT manager, and Twomey an entrepreneur – the way things have started you can’t help but feel a full time career in beer might not be too far away.
You can track developments at Southern Highlands via its Facebook page.
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