In the 1980s, the acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris visited Darwin. “Never did a town greet its visitors more boisterously,” she said. “Never did the beer flow quite so fast.”
I’m visiting Darwin for the first time and I quite agree. Normally the most abstemious of beverage connoisseurs, I find myself suddenly drawn to one or another hotel porch with a pot of something (anything!) at midday. Maybe two pots. Maybe three. The bartender is almost invariably a young lady from Ireland, or Northern Ireland. Another lazy-afternoon drinker will probably start a conversation with you, and if not, you can stretch out Australia’s finest example of print media, the NT News, or eavesdrop on passers-by as they chatter in Indonesian, Greek, Laragiya, Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin, Thai, Dutch or English. It’s all very productive and wonderful.
Darwin’s craft beer scene remains modest. Partly, no doubt, this is because Darwin’s drinking culture has historically been centred around one iconic figure: the Darwin stubby. These two-litre bottles of NT Draught were the staple of Top End drinking for more than 50 years. But the practicalities behind the infamous Darwin stubby – it was retired last year by Carlton United Breweries, along with NT Draught altogether – probably better explain why starting a microbrewery is difficult. The oversized bottles were originally designed with consideration to the logistics of shipping bottles long distances.
This place is truly remote. It’s a small port city, and it’s unbelievably distant from the clustered population centres of south-eastern Australia; its nearest urban centres are in fact spread through the archipelagos of South East Asia. It’s about as close to Kuala Lumpur as it is Sydney. So freighting anything from "south" – and that’s almost anywhere else in Australia, mind you – costs a significant amount. And pretty much everything needs to be brought in: hops and grains come from thousands of kilometres away. On the other hand, while most of the Territory’s water is sourced from bores, Darwin has good surface water: the best in Australia, I’m told by Stuart Brown and Bardy Bayram of One Mile Brewing Company.
One Mile stands almost alone in the Top End craft beer scene. Located in Palmerston – a little ways out of downtown Darwin – Stu and Bardy have been conjuring up crafty creations since 2012. Their beers are now on tap at seven locations in Darwin, including several restaurants. They may be the only microbrewery on tap exclusively at a Hilton in Australia; here in Darwin, their beer commands the only tap at this hotel, and recently they were part of an event where their brews were paired with local oysters. It just goes to show that things work differently up here.
I meet Stuart and Brady on a Friday evening at Lola’s Pergola (pictured at top), on Darwin’s tourist seaport strip of Cullens Bay. The bar’s theme was recently described in a national publication as “carnival-on-acid”, and that’s not a bad description. The One Mile fellas have just dropped off their kegs and are having a beer and a burger with one of the proprietors, a gentleman named Mulga Matt, when I meet them.
“Oh, it’s fucked,” Mulga says in a gravelly voice. “It’s fucked here.”
He’s talking about Darwin’s drinking scene. Drinkers here, I’m reminded, are all about cheap, flavourless, easy-to-gulp beers. Winning locals to craft beer is tough. Discussion is bandied over the table as to why that is.
“They don’t go to Melbourne,” Mulga reckons. Mulga is a memorable character himself: somehow a figure of both reticence and exuberance, he also runs Monte’s in Alice Springs, which I’m assured has a great tap list too.
It’s been a memorable adventure for Stuart and Bardy, who have known each other for more than two decades. Having met in a university context, the two brewers – as well as their partners – seem to form an ideal complement. IT, science, law and marketing form the professional background for One Mile Brewing. Although they face some complications with their site in Palmerston, the building is an inheritance from Bardy’s family – Turkish migrants from the days before Cyclone Tracy hit the town.
“My father rebuilt half this town,” Bardy tells me.
The fellas have their work cut out for them, lugging all of their ingredients up four flights of stairs to their brewery floor. They make it clear that I ought to describe them as a couple of fit, muscular blokes: this, perhaps, is not strictly true, but they are very good company, as we meet for a few Friday night beers. On tap here is the 4:21, their kolsch-style beer, named after the Territory’s idiosyncratic public service knock-off time (yep, 4:21p.m. is knock-off time; nope, I don’t know why). This is One Mile’s flagship, and rightfully so: it’s perfectly drinkable, brewed especially for the warm climate, without flinching on style or presence of flavour. It sits at 4.8 percent ABV and it turns out we’ve downed a few pints by the time our conversation is through.
The colourful Lola’s Pergola is the best-priced and best-vibed place to find One Mile brews, standing alongside others on the beer list such as Prancing Pony’s Pale Ale or Matso’s Mango Beer. Down at Darwin’s visitor-friendly waterfront, the Precinct taps three One Mile beers: their RDO Bright Ale, No Limits IPA (using Centennial, Mosaic and Galaxy hops), and Otto’s Red Ale. Each of these has a local name that decidedly veers away from kitschiness – no tacky crocs or goannas in these labels. But, of course, trying to win the devotion of local drinkers remains the dilemma of the Darwin craft brewers, and, while you'll also find the likes of Young Henrys, Stone & Wood and Prancing Pony there, most of the craft offerings at The Precinct (pictured below) come from the big breweries: 4 Pines, James Squire, Little Creatures and so on.
So far, One Mile’s beers are only available by the keg, but but they’re looking at turning a hand to bottling later in 2016. (Despite fairly regular requests, they don’t seem to have any intention of reproducing the Darwin stubby.)
For an update on One Mile's progress, check out our interview with them from 2018 here
Cleverly, Stu and Bardy have come up with their "Beer Response Unit" – a mobile bar with their kegs, available for hire for parties and events around the Top End. (It unfortunately doesn’t make an appearance at the famous Mindil Beach market, because, strangely, the market isn’t licensed). With limited bars opening taps for microbrewers, it’s another way to get in touch with punters. Their red ale has also been used by a local pie maker, blended with gravy for a chunky beef pie.
Now four years in, One Mile has been joined in the last month by another Top End brewery, Purple Mango. Purple Mango’s agenda is to brew small batches on site at their cafe and wine bar in Marrakai, on the road to Kakadu, and again have aimed for beers with higher fermentation temperatures, and refreshing finishes, with a Steam Ale, Belgian Pale Ale, a mango beer and a fresh ginger beer all in the works. Purple Mango also intends to start bottling, with a couple of outlets in Darwin interested in stocking their products.
UPDATE: As of 2018, Purple Mango was closed with the owners looking for buyers.
The N.T. government has thrown a fair whack of money to Purple Mango to make this happen, so there’s certainly some recognition that the craft beer scene is due to grow. The transient nature of the Top End population is something of an obstacle, but the huge numbers of tourists passing through the town provide a great opportunity too. Recent reports indicate that wine consumption is starting to compete with beer-guzzling. At least one new venue due to appear throughout the upcoming dry season has contacted One Mile about having their beers available, and a brewpub is scheduled to establish itself in a central location later in the year.
Stuart and Bardy have no qualms about admitting that it’s been a hard, slow process; but with the support of their partners, the One Mile Brewery continues to grow, and alongside it, the opportunities for Darwinians to drink tasty beers grows too. In the meantime – at least on a Friday night at a carnival-on-acid bar, over a couple of their finest beers and a good burger – they seem to be enjoying themselves. They certainly gave me an old-fashioned beery and boisterous welcome to the Top End.
About the author: Bert Spinks somehow makes a living from writing, walking and drinking.