As first meetings go, it was a good one. Not only did Fiona and Ed Nolle rock up to Crafty Towers with beer but they brought capacious, pinot noir style stemmed glasses from which to sample them and a platter that included Delice with truffles as accompaniment.
We discovered Ed's homebrewing partner and mentor of 20 years – not officially part of the brewing company but credited mysteriously on the labels as the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-esque "Attorney at Large" Miguel Sanchez – is a winemaker we've worked with in the past. And conversation flowed freely from the ski fields to family to a musical landscape populated by Cash Savage, Aphex Twin, Wu-Tang Clan and German DJ Boris Brejcha.
All of which would matter little if the beers weren't much chop. Thankfully, we predict with some confidence that Dollar Bill Brewing's beers are going to become much sought after by the country's most ardent beer aficionados – and not just because there's so little of each batch.
Aside from a barrel aged, hopped cider called Cider Ways that came out right at the end of last year, their first entry into the world of commercial brewing is the Grand Cru. It's a pretty ballsy move making your first release a pseudo-Lambic blend of three-year-old mixed fermentation and one-year-old saison aged four years in chardonnay barrels, but the goblet had barely left Ed's hands before its aromas were setting off violent Pavlov's dog style reactions. Anyone who's waxed lyrical about Wildflower's beers or Shenanigans' Grisette Superieur this year – look out!
Joining it at this stage is the spring version of Parlay, the first of what will be seasonal saisons – this one aged six months in old sauvignon blanc barrels; the next fermented on organic white muscat grapes from the Pyrenees. And then there's the Grand Cru MG (Method Gueuze), a blend of four- and two-year-old ales spontaneously fermented in a wild ferment vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula. It's fair to say that anyone holding out for a Dollar Bill IPA is in for a long wait.
Given it's 20 years on from Ed and Miguel's first Coopers kit homebrews and a dozen since their first move into all grain brewing, it's also fair to say Dollar Bill Brewing has been a long time coming. But, they tell us, after a lengthy gestation period, everything started falling into place quickly once they'd come up with the name.
"Fiona said, 'No animals and no numbers'," says Ed. "When we came up with it, we all loved it."
It's a name that tips a wink to Andy Warhol, Smokey And The Bandit and Wu-Tang Clan (Ed and Miguel listened to a lot of hip hop while brewing and there are listening suggestions on the labels, of which more later) – and also comes laced with a hearty dose of irony; no one making 300 bottle batches of beers four years in the making has "getting rich" top of their list of life goals.
"We still worry that it's too commercial," says Fiona of the name. "We're nothing like that!"
What they do seem to be is quick to spot opportunities or moments of serendipity. Via family, friends and connections made over years spent working the ski fields then raising their three kids around Melbourne and Victoria, they've brought some handy collaborators in to the Dollar Bill project – not least the man behind their superb labels.
"We wanted to do something very much in the dollar bill style so started looking for fine line artists to do the labels, looking at Australian illustrators" says Fiona. They came across Craig McGill, who goes under the banner Real Nasty and has designed pieces as disparate as Papua New Guinea's currency and an AC/DC album cover.
"My sister played tennis with him," says Fiona, "so I rang him up and it turned out it was his birthday.
"I asked if he liked beer. He said he had a wine label he worked with so I asked if he'd do us a deal and he said he'd love to."
The art they've come up with since is quite remarkable. Sure, from a distance it's clearly inspired by American dollar bills, but get up close and you can get lost in the detail, with riddles, humour and all manner of cultural references waiting to be unearthed – plus those aforementioned listening suggestions (The Pharcyde's Passin' Me By for the current Parlay). The Parlay labels will all be in slightly different shades so they can sit side-by-side as a set too.
Given we've started to introduce new homepage artwork regularly on The Crafty Pint and set the Crafty Cabal logos to spin ever so slowly at the base of that site's homepage because, well, because why not, it's an approach that made our first meeting even more satisfying.
As for the beer inside, the early beers were created on Ed and Miguel's homebrew kit – three 70 litre batches for each barrel they filled – but today they've taken advantage of another family connection and brew their base wort at Stomping Ground in Collingwood, filling their barrels as soon as the liquid has passed through the heat exchanger and driving them to their cool-room in Ballarat. In time, this will allow for bigger releases, although everything is relative.
Beyond that, they've started work on 7.5 acres of land at Invermay where they hope to move the operation and open a simple cellar door one day a month. Meanwhile, Ed has been reading up on Norwegian farmhouse brewing as a direction he may like to explore.
Part of it, he says, "would be to build a small kiln and do some wood-fired malt."
Taken together with the months spent designing each label and the fact Fiona is handling all sales and deliveries while the couple raises their three daughters, it's a huge amount of effort to go to for a brewing company that currently has a total capacity of 16 barrels – or 3,600 litres – of slowly maturing beer. But it seems no effort is too great as long as they're doing something they love.
"We won't stay in a job we hate," says Fiona. "But we'll go for what we want regardless."
It's an ethos for which anyone on the search for new and fascinating Australian beers and brewing companies should be grateful.
Dollar Bill's website is, like their beers, taking shape slowly here.