Beer Travel: High Country Part II

February 9, 2017, by Kerry McBride
Beer Travel: High Country Part II

Earlier this week, we ran the first part of Kerry McBride's jaunt through the Victorian High Country, calling in on the members of the region's Brewery Trail. Today, she completes the trip at the three remaining breweries.

You can catch up on Part I here.

The team at Bridge Road Brewers doesn't mess around when it comes to promoting the local area. Hanging up on the wall between beer signs and greenery is a series of town bikes you can borrow for free to go exploring around Beechworth.

A collaborative effort between the brewery, a local winery and local fromagerie, it takes away any excuse for keeping your Beechworth exploration restricted solely to what you can see from the comfort of a seat at the bar.

"I think it's a big part of what we do," Bridge Road founder Ben Kraus says.

"We've looked closely at who we collaborate with, and it's often local wineries, local foodies, and local businesses because that's what we're into. It's much easier to do that because it's real – we're not making up a story just to sound good, it's something we really think is important."

In the same way, the brewery's support of local cycling festivals and events come from a place of true passion and interest. A large number of brewery employees are avid cyclists, but Ben may be the most active of all of them.

Ben Kraus, left, hits the bike trails with a workmate

That's not surprising, when you consider that he is potentially one of the most active people, let alone brewers, you'll ever meet. Whether he's working in the brewery, boosting between neighbouring towns on his road bike, or testing out a new mountain bike trail with a few mates, the man never seems to stop moving.

He also, however, seems to opt in thoroughly on the approach to beer you'll find throughout the High Country: beer is there to be enjoyed, preferably at the end of a day on the bike trails or after a couple of hours hiking. Unlike in the beer bars of metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney, conversations about the beers themselves are beside the point. Instead, they simply accompany a life well lived.

In the case of Bridge Road Brewers, the beers accompanying that life are hard not to remark upon. Brews such as their flagship Beechworth Pale Ale and recently reworked Robust Porter are award winners for good reason. But, for visitors and locals alike who find their way to the Beechworth brewery, it’s more than just the beer that makes it worth the trip.

Ben has built up the brewery over the last decade, starting out in his dad’s shed in 2005 and steadily growing into one of Victoria's most prominent breweries. These days, it’s a significantly larger operation, as evidenced by the foeder [a large oak vessel that is being used to ferment 100 percent Brettanomyces beers] sitting in the brewhouse and the large hospitality team serving up beers and bites to a restaurant and beer garden humming with activity.

Ben, like Peter Hull at Sweetwater and Scott Brandon at Bright Brewery, has been involved with the Brewery Trail since the start. For Ben, it's a key way to show that Beechworth and the wider area offers a lot more than simply being close to bike trails.

“We’re lucky in Beechworth that we don’t miss out on too much that you get in Melbourne,” says Ben.

“We’ve always had a range of restaurants, good pubs and good coffee roasters. There are also fewer people, so you might not get the same density of venues, but you don’t get the lines out the door either. For a little town, we’ve actually got tonnes here.”

A selection of beers at Rutherglen Brewery

While Bridge Road and Beechworth have become natural partners, 40 minutes down the road Rutherglen Brewery is still hitting its stride in a region better known for its wine. Owners Gavin Swalwell and Fiona Myers started pouring their beers in mid-2015 after seeing a gap in the market for locally produced brews that could introduce wine lovers to the ways of hops, malt, yeast and water.

Tucked in behind their Rutherglen restaurant is a microbrewing set up producing beers that could help lead any hardcore wine drinker astray. With the help of a brewer they brought in and a shed converted into a microbrewery out the back, Gavin and Fiona have created a line of beers that fit well in their restaurant and are quietly infiltrating venues around the rest of the area.

It’s a small outfit – if a case of beer needs to be made up, it takes someone a good 40 minutes to cap the bottles individually – but the beer is worth the effort. From pales to red ales to a beautifully nutty porter, they have quickly created enough beers to fill their taps and keep customers happy – once you’ve prised the Shiraz out of their hands.

Over in Mansfield, the experienced hands of Jeff Whyte can now be found brewing at Social Bandit Brewing Co. As someone who has been brewing in this part of Victoria for more than 20 years, thanks to his days at the helm of Jamieson Brewery, he is well familiar with the ebbs and flows of tourism through the area.

When starting Social Bandit in 2015, he knew it was imperative to create something that combined production space with a gathering place for the locals, much like Bright Brewery does in Bright, and Bridge Road does in Beechworth.

Social Bandit's Jeff Whyte.

Here, Mansfield comes together over pizza and beer, dissecting the day’s events and catching up with friends and family.

“The industry has grown enough that we can have a space here that’s a production brewery as well as being a pub,” says Jeff.

“Ten years ago, breweries out here pretty much all had to be pub spaces with breweries attached. Now, we’re predominantly wholesale with the bar in front just as a good cellar door.”

In his Jamieson days, Geoff was one of the first brewers to sign up to the Brewery Trail. A few years on, the work put in is starting to pay off. Visitors to the High Country now have more to choose from than just wine and cycling.

“It’s more than just that though,” Geoff says. “The people who come and discover us keep coming back all the time. It’s hard at first to get that base going, but once it does you’re so much better off longterm.

“If you think about it, there are so many bottleshops and so many bars, getting out to them all is impossible. But what we can do is make sure the people who make the effort to come here have a damn good time.”

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.

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