There's been plenty of coverage of the rapid rise of craft beer in Queensland in recent years. For the most part, however, it's been centred around the state's South East, centred in Brisbane and steadily spreading up and down the coast and into the Hinterland too.
Far North Queensland has had little to call its own. Cairns' Blue Sky Brewery closed in 2014 meaning that, once you headed north of Townsville and its eponymous brewery, the state had no operational microbreweries to offer beer tourists. Even "The Beer From Up Here", CUB's Great Northern Lager is brewed in Yatala, south of Brisbane.
But, that's starting to change, as Will Ziebell found when he spoke to the men behind two businesses bringing small scale brewing to FNQ.
Tropical North Queensland: home to rainforests, beaches and most of Australia’s banana farms. It’s also home (for now at least) to the Great Barrier Reef; one of the seven of natural wonders of the world. In short, it’s a pretty spectacular place to be.
Craft beer wise, however, things have for some time been rather less spectacular. Yet, as is increasingly the case across Australia, it is beginning to make inroads.
One couple playing a key role craft beer’s insurgency in Far North Queensland is Cameron McPherson and Caroline Passingham, the owners of Barrier Reef Brewing Co. While the pair originally planned to be up and running in 2015, they were caught up in the collapse of Core Brewing Concepts and only started brewing in March last year.
Having both worked in the field of veterinary medicine before starting Barrier Reef, Cam and Caroline’s decision to open a brewery in Cairns was something of a left turn career wise. Although Cam was born and raised in Cairns, he moved to the UK immediately after becoming a qualified veterinary surgeon. That’s where he met Caroline, and the two began splitting their time between paid work in England and volunteering with marine animals in Scotland.
After spending 14 years in the UK, Cam was looking for a change in industry, while both were after a change in scenery. During their remaining months in the UK, Cam started volunteering with a few local breweries in Scotland and instantly realised that brewing was in his future.
“I fell in love with the whole brewing process from start to finish,” says Cam (pictured above). “I loved brewing in my kitchen and even now when I’ve got a 1,000 litre batch going I get really excited about it.”
With an obsession for beer that needed sating and a desire to trade the snowfall of Scotland for the tropical forests of far north Queensland, Barrier Reef Brewing was soon underway. While the market in Cairns for craft beer may be smaller than the likes of Melbourne, Sydney or Perth, with a population close to 150,000 and a climate that lends itself to quaffable lagers, the pair believed there would be a large enough market locally.
Furthermore, the city’s position as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and countless spectacular beaches ensures tourists regularly flow into the city.
“Between the locals and tourists there is definitely a market here,” Cam says. “[Since opening] we’ve had a good local following; we’ve got quite a lot of local restaurants on board as well.
“The great thing about being up here is that people want to support local businesses and help them out as much as the can.”
Considering Cairns is one of the most humid places in Australia, for a brewery to be successful it’s also essential for breweries to know what their customers are after. After all, who in their right mind reaches for a barley wine or barrel-aged stout to beat the heat?
While the local popularity of Great Northern Brewing Co’s beers suggests locals like their beers to be as unchallenging as possible, Cam thinks there’s still plenty of space for local craft breweries to attract newcomers.
“I think it is more of a climate thing than anything else,” he says. “People don’t really want super bitter or hoppy IPAs, and certainly not dark beers like porters or stouts. That’s probably the biggest difference between Melbourne and Sydney.
“We make a pilsner to try to get through to people that you can have a great refreshing beer that is actually made in the area,” he adds. “We see it as a bit of a gateway beer.”
Located more than 1,500 kilometres north of Brisbane, anyone opening a brewery in Cairns is also constantly faced with the tyranny of distance. Transport costs for malt, hops and bottles is significantly higher compared to those brewing in, say, Melbourne or Sydney. Then there is always a very real possibility that flooding – or a major cyclone – could cut Cairns off from the rest of the country.
Despite those challenges, there’s little doubt that breweries can still be successful in the tropical north. Indeed, anyone looking for a craft beer success story need look no further than Hemingway’s Brewery.
Having only opened their Port Douglas brewpub (pictured at top) in May 2016, in January 2017 the team behind Hemingway’s announced that they would be opening a second, much larger brewpub in Cairns.
Tony Fyfe, CEO and one of the co-founders of Hemingway’s, says: “It’s been beyond expectation – it’s gone gangbusters.
“We thought when we set up in Port [Douglas] that we’d be able to supply 30 to 40 percent of our production to local businesses but we can’t even keep up with sales on site.”
The Cairns branch of the Hemingway’s Brewery will be a much larger operation than its northern counterpart and will be located in Ports North, an area currently undergoing significant redevelopment by the Queensland state government to further open the area for public and commercial use.
Tony says that with a location right on the waterfront, the new Hemingway’s will act as a hub for the locals and tourists alike.
“We’ve done a really good job with Port Douglas and Cairns is another level,” he says. “The Cairns brewpub will be right on the water as well and it’s a heritage building.
"We are really community driven. We believe that for any brewery to succeed it needs to be owned by the locals, so that’s our primary focus.
“While Port [Douglas] only has 5,000 people that live locally, the locals do love the brewery. The town swells to 20,000 people from March through to October but it is the locals we are about, and Cairns will be very much the same.”
Like Cam at Barrier Reef, Tony stresses that it is essential to be aware of who you are selling to.
“You’ve got to brew beer for the climate, and it is really hot here,” Tony says. “Our number one seller is our pilsner, for obvious reasons. Our wheat beer goes really well too and we’ve got a kolsch at the moment that is selling really well.”
For now, Cairns may remain the land of Great Northern, but it may not be king forever. Just this month, Coral Sea Brewing started brewing its first batches of beer. With ex-Gage Roads and Stone & Wood brewer Morgan Hind running the brewery, locals are to get another chance to drink locally made beer.
And, while winning people over may take time, as Tony points out: “Everyone drinks beer up here, it does go with the climate.”