Life in the High Country starts while most city dwellers are still asleep. James Booth at Black Dog Brewery tends to his vines or checks on his latest beer, Bridge Road’s Ben Kraus fits in an early morning road cycle before getting to the brewery and, up at Blizzard Brewing Co, brew days are well underway before many suburbanites have risen.
It’s a different way of life, but one that seems to lend itself beautifully to the appreciation of a good pint of beer. Breweries like Bright, Rutherglen and Social Bandit have become hubs of their communities, providing a place to gather, eat, and decompress at the end of the day, whether you’ve been out biking, skiing or simply exploring the local area.
Driving up the Hume Freeway on your way to a series of breweries will always feel like you’re leaving behind the stresses of normal life, but that feeling properly sets in on turning down the dusty gravel track that will lead you to Black Dog Brewery in Taminick. Surrounded by fields of vines, with its main cellar door perched up on the hill, you could just as easily be somewhere in the south of France instead of just a couple of hours out of Melbourne.
Brewer and winemaker James Booth does it all out here, under both the Taminick Cellars label and as Black Dog Brewery. His wine pedigree goes back some way, as the fourth generation of the Booth family to have owned and operated the winery.
Since starting on his brewing venture in 2011, he has released a number of seasonal releases, built a core range featuring a golden ale, pale ale, IPA and stout, and shared his knowledge of both winemaking and brewing at events across Victoria.
As part of the High Country Brewery Trail, Black Dog serves as a quality entry point to those looking to undertake a long weekend of brewery visits. The benefit of the trail, James says, is drawing people with a love of beer and wine into other parts of the region they may have otherwise missed off the list. While spots like Bright and Beechworth see plenty of tourists pass through, there is far more to uncover across the region once you venture further afield.
Over in Bright, the crowds at the local brewery on a Thursday evening seem to prove James’ point. Families and groups of friends fill every table at Bright Brewery, with more people popping their head in the door every few minutes, hopefully wishing for a table to become available. At first glance, it’s a mix of locals, cyclists and tourists all vying for a plum spot in the beer garden while beer lovers stand facing the bar eyeing up the options for their first beer of the day.
It is undeniably a town set up to accommodate tourists, but those who call it home know how to really get under its skin. Recommendations for brunch (try the pesto toast at Coral Lee, and don’t skip the beetroot) and quality coffee (Sixpence Coffee Roasters) abound, while in depth knowledge of the region’s sports calendar could keep you busy for months to come if heeded.
For Bright Brewery founder Scott Brandon, an area like Bright offers opportunities that simply can’t be found in the sprawl of metropolitan Melbourne. The town has hit upon a combination of nature and city-like influences, with cycling tracks ending in microbreweries and camping spaces within easy reach of high quality cafés.
The brewery serves as something like an epicentre for Bright – a position it has built up over more than a decade since starting in 2005.
“For the first six or seven years, we were just essentially operating out of a shed, with a bit of a bar on the side,” Scott says. “Eventually, we were able to build the restaurant and extend the brewery and it’s made such a difference. It’s given us a real position in the community here.”
Only adding to that position is Bright’s regular sponsorship of sporting events, from uphill cycling to mountain bike relay races. Bright beers are regularly found in the hands of tired cyclists at the end of a competition but, thanks to the region’s varied topography, there’s more than just biking to be found.
Sitting 1550 metres above sea level in the heart of the Dinner Plain ski field sits a brewery you can literally ski into. Blizzard Brewing Co opened its doors in early 2016, and lays claim to being Australia’s highest brewery.
Blizzard founder and Colorado expat Mark Hubbard had grown up with breweries at ski fields as par for the course and didn’t see why the same couldn’t be done in Australia. Despite some logistical difficulties in getting the brewing equipment all the way up the Great Alpine Road, Blizzard is now a must visit for any ski buffs with a fondness for a cold beer at the end of a day on the slopes.
“We’ve had a brilliant response from people who have discovered us up here. Our tap room was kept very busy over the first ski season, and the local licensed venues have been really supportive too,” Mark says.
“I think it really resonates with people that there’s a brewery in Australia that you can literally ski into from the top of a commercial ski lift. Nowhere else in Australia can you do that, let alone many places in the whole world.”
Despite being one of the more recent additions to the High Country Brewery Trail, Blizzard has quickly settled in. Last year, they hosted the other six High Country breweries for the yearly Brewery Trail collaboration brew, where they put down the latest version of their Rule 47 collab beer.
A tradition since 2013, the annual collaboration brings together the local breweries to create a Belgian style beer named after the 47th rule of cycling – “drink Tripels, don’t ride triples”. The rule recognises how intertwined cycling and beer can be, and reminds cyclists that life is too short to drink bad beer.
The collaboration is just one piece of proof that breweries out here don’t just pay lip service to promoting the High Country as a beer destination. Inclusion on the trail requires breweries to show they have a strong commitment to the area and that they will support initiatives with wider tourism groups in the region.
Sweetwater Brewing Company (UPDATE: Sweetwater has stopped trading since this article was published) sits at the base of Mt Bogong, 30 kilometres from Falls Creek ski resort. Here, where ski slopes and mountain bike paths converge, brewer Peter Hull offers a stop for any travellers in need of a beer. As one of the original four breweries on the Brewery Trail, Peter has seen the region change considerably in his decade or so in the area.
Much like Bright Brewery, Sweetwater serves as a meeting point and epicentre for locals and visitors to the area. For a long time, business was primarily driven by the campsite across the road. Parents – usually the dads – would pop over for a couple of beers as a chance to catch up and chat, while the kids entertained themselves at someone else’s tent.
Now, thanks to the wonders of the information age, visitors come to the High Country with more purpose – and know just what they’re looking for, whether it be to challenge themselves on a certain mountain bike trail or they’ve heard about a specific beer they need to try.
Yet, at Sweetwater, business is much the same as it’s always been. People can stop in and grab a pint, or settle in over a tasting paddle – or in this case, a tasting ski – and talk about the beer as much or as little as they like.
“I don’t brew gimmick beers,” Peter says. “We make beers for people to drink, not to sit down and analyse. If they want to then great, go for it. But that’s not what we do it for.
“We’re lucky that all the breweries are spread around across the area, so we can all build our own little base and work from there. Here, we don’t brew for the beer geeks. We simply brew for whoever is coming in the door.”
Read the second part of our exploration of the Brewery Trail on site here, featuring Bridge Road Brewers, Rutherglen Brewery and Social Bandit. We've also published a guide to the best High Country pubs for beer.
While not yet part of the official High Country Trail, you can also check out King River Brewing when in the region.
Kerry McBride travelled to the High Country as a guest of Tourism North East. The Crafty Pint would like to thank all of the venues, breweries and businesses that extended their generosity during the weekend.