The Overland Corner Hotel Flowers Anew

For all the hardships suffered by the beer and hospo communities throughout the global pandemic, hardships that are still a day-to-day reality for many on the East Coast, there's been a multitude of inspirational tales and lighthearted moments too.

We've documented scores of them in the Postcards From From The Edge series, but if there's any that can compare to this turn of events when it comes to making the most of a bad lot, rolling with the punches, and coming up smelling if not of roses, then certainly of blooming Flowers, please send details on a postcard to Crafty Towers.

It's a tale of the unexpected that starts in Sydney with the sale of a house and the purchase of a caravan, moves to a reception free spot in the Hunter Valley, takes in a mad dash across state lines, seven months on a houseboat without actually going anywhere, the purchase of a 160-year-old pub, and scenes like a modern Australia version of Field of Dreams – but with baseball replaced by local craft beer.

It features a cast including one of the key characters in the rise of Sydney's craft beer scene, a foursome of brewery and café owners, and, seemingly, the entire population of the SA Riverland region.

But let's start in Sydney, in the time before Australia's nationwide shutdown, and with Brad and Nicole Flowers (pictured below).

 

 

Brad was working as a distributor of independent Australian beers under the Hops & More banner, representing breweries across Australia. Given both he and Nicole had travelled extensively with their jobs – Nicole as the national sales manager for a skincare company – and their kids were in the early years of primary school, they decided to embark on an adventure.

They sold their house, bought a caravan, and decided to spend three years on the road, visiting Brad's breweries along the way. Given their combined experience of caravanning at that point was precisely zero, they decided to fast-track their education, driving to a free camping spot in the Hunter Valley with no facilities or indeed internet or phone signal.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Until you realise just when they'd hit the road. It was early autumn 2020, as COVID was starting to sweep the globe, and when Nicole travelled to a local town to stock up, she found everything had changed and their proposed three-year trip was stuck in the starting blocks.

Enter the houseboat.

One of the breweries in the Hops & More portfolio is Woolshed Brewery, based on a bend of the Murray north of Renmark. The Flowers family had become good friends with owners Tom and Sarah Freeman, travelling to the Riverland several times a year to mix work and pleasure pre-COVID. Aware state borders were set to close, and of their mates' predicament, the Woolshed owners suggested they make a dash for the SA border.

 

One of the houseboats – complete with beer taps – moored at Woolshed Brewery in the SA Riverland.

 

"How lucky, in hindsight," Nicole says. "We were homeless. The grandparents didn't want us because of COVID and the kids."

An 18 hour drive and some sweet-talking of border cops (who knew the Woolshed, of course) later and they were ensconced at the brewery. Well, almost. Tom and Sarah also operate a trio of houseboats, which they were now unable to hire due to the nationwide shutdown, so Brad, Nicole and the kids moved onto one.

"I can't even imagine a better thing happening," Nicole says. "We had the whole of the Woolshed to ourselves with Tom and Sarah."

Not only was it an idyllic way to see out the early months of the pandemic, but it also gave the Freemans a chance to work on their mates. They'd set their eyes on an iconic hotel about a 45 minute drive to the west – one of the earliest buildings in the region – that had been run into the ground and was on the market.

"Tom and Sarah spent about a year-and-a-half convincing us to buy the pub and live here," Nicole says. "They had to convince me to leave Sydney.

"For Tom, it was the same notion as the Woolshed: at the end of a dead-end road, sell them beer and they will come." 

And convince they did to the point that – along with a third couple, Fred and Nikki Monaco, who run River Jacks Café in nearby Berri – they took ownership of the Overland Corner Hotel and set about bringing it back to life. Months of gutting, cleaning, renovating and decorating followed, with the Flowers family living in their caravan at the rear – parked adjacent to the quarry from which bricks that form the pub were built – while they applied for their liquor license.

Because they were living and working onsite, people would stop in every day asking when it would be ready to reopen. One local was going further than that too: keeping an eye on the progress of their license application ready to spread the word once it came through. And, when it did – one midnight in February – Tom's prediction that if you build it, they will come came true. And then some.

"People wandered down the street; there were cars coming up the hill," Nicole recalls. "We had no food and no chef, just the beer, and they just started wandering in. I don't think we even had all the furniture; no tables in the dining room, five or six tables outside."

 

The Overland Corner Hotel – like a slice of rural England transported to Australia, with free camping on the Murray to the rear.

 

Brad recalls opening the doors hoping they'd get a few in, and reckons they ended up with more than 400 that first weekend.

"It was hilarious – we virtually sold out of beer in the first 24 hours," Nicole says. "We did a BBQ for the locals the next Sunday expecting 20, but 100 turned up. I had no hospitality experience – I didn't even know how to pour a beer – and we had no bar staff. We had no idea what we were doing, but Brad has the right personality."

He had the connections to restock the bar too, and despite reservations from some as to whether the location would be ready for the sort of beers he'd made a living from selling, they stuck to their guns.

"The first delivery was 250 cartons of crazy beers, in their eyes," Brad says. "'What are you doing?'."

Nicole feared they'd bought enough beer to last ten years. Of course, they soon shifted it, and the pace has never let up. Little wonder as, once you step inside, you discover they've recreated the feel of a centuries-old English countryside boozer, complete with a room showcasing some of the history of the building, its former inhabitants, and the region, all surrounded by a beer garden you won't want to leave.

"This is an historic pub and means so much to people in the local region," Brad says of their success. "It really has been part of a lot of people's lives since birth. It had become so rundown, and people wanted to see it back to being a full-time pub.

"Then there's the tourists who stop for lunch and stay for a week. They just can't leave and love the free camping."

Nicole adds: "From day one when we opened the doors, everyone gave it a go. I can't believe we're not even a year old and we're getting 350 people coming in on weekends. It's amazing!"

That the couple who've been together for more than 20 years were a good fit for such unplanned adventure is blatantly apparent.

At one stage earlier in their relationship, Brad was in hospital being treated for a suspected spider bite, with the infection so bad it was feared he could lose his arm. Nicole decided he needed "a proper job", spotted an ad for a well-paid role in sports advertising – something in which he had no experience, and sent in an application without telling him.

When he got called for an interview, she sent him to the company without mentioning exactly why they wanted to see him, so he rocked up in board shorts, and promptly talked himself into a role that saw them travel to major sporting events in the UK.

 

Can't take the caravan around Australia? Let's buy a pub.

 

What's more, that they're a good fit for running a pub becomes clear within ten minutes at the Overland Corner Hotel during opening hours. As soon as you hear Brad's voice booming through the narrow corridors and doorways as he welcomes guests old and new, regaling them with the building's history and launching into a spiel about supporting local producers, it feels like a case of to the manor born.

Pretty much everything on offer when it comes to the booze is Australian and independent. The four taps feature three Woolshed beers and a blonde ale bearing the pub's name, also brewed along the Murray at the Paringa brewery. The fridges are stocked with an array of beers from Brad's portfolio, from Badlands' New World Pilsner and Big Shed's Frankenbrown to Little Bang's Sludgebeast, Watsacowie's kveiky treats and Hope's imperial offerings. And, although there's a few big brand spirits alongside those from local distillers, that's set to change, and the wine is all local too.

Admittedly, there are cans of Great Northern and Carlton Mid in the fridge, which at time of writing account for around 40 percent of beer sales. But, as much as catering to those averse to a 9 percent ABV imperial sour or blueberry milkshake IPA, they're a conversation starter too. Catch him at the right time when asking for a Great Northern and Brad might offer you an envelope.

"Pop your money inside there and I'll send it overseas," he'll say.

Or it might be a more straightforward: "Sure, you can have a Japanese beer."

Either way, as he puts it: "It's all about education."

It's an attitude that those in Sydney beer circles – and many elsewhere in the country – will know only too well. After all, how many other beer distributors have spawned their own hashtag on social media, let alone one as succinct as #fuckinflowers?

While Brad had run pubs and clubs earlier in his career, and had been considering opening his own small club in Sydney, it was a move into the craft beer world more than a decade ago, back when it was only starting to poke its nose into the NSW capital, that saw him find his true calling.

It began when he was selling wine, and was introduced to Karen and Dave Golding of Red Hill Brewery and asked to sell their beers in Sydney. This quickly grew into a portfolio incorporating the likes of Prickly Moses, Hargreaves Hill, Cavalier, Two Birds and Feral.

"He lived and breathed it, 24 hours a day," Nicole recalls. "He took so many calls.

"He thought he would be on the road a lot, but as a one man show he rarely made it off the driveway as he was always on the phone."

 

Clockwise from top left: the quarry from which the pub was hewn; the beer garden; the soon-to-be-peacocked lounge; a peek into the building's history.

 

"It was a wild old time," Brad says, "like the Wild West. The craft beer scene was pretty limited, but then it exploded."

As his reach spread from New South Wales into Queensland and Tasmania, breweries from all over Australia started making contact to see if he'd distribute their beers, and he'd line up regular "family trips" around the country, often in the company of Luke Scott (then head brewer at Prickly Moses), Danielle Allen of Two Birds, Heath Shirtcliffe (then at Cavalier), and Steve Finney (then at Feral).

"We became a bit of a travelling family of circus freaks," is how he describes it. "We'd go to beer weeks and beer festivals when they were really about the brewers and the beers, rather than today when they're more like going to a fête. It was all the owners and brewers travelling around."

As for the origins of the hashtag at a past Sydney Beer Week, Brad refers to crazy times and hazy recollections, of hosting all his brewers in town and taking them on adventures that would start and often return to the Sweeney's rooftop bar.

Its genesis can be traced to Fortitude Brewing rep Dan Rawlings, who was on a mission to get it trending. However, when it comes to the finer details, well, they're not really suitable for print.

So, if the promise of a beautiful pub seemingly lifted from a countryside village in Devon, a majestic beer garden, great food, the warmest of hospitality, free camping on the river, and as broad a selection of craft beer as you'll find in a regional pub anywhere in Australia isn't enough for you to add the Overland Corner Hotel to your future travel plans, there's always the chance #fuckinflowers will let the odd story slip.

Oh, the hotel's also one of the most haunted buildings in Australia, so don't forget to ask about the mum and her 160-year-old kids doing the haunting, the purging with sage, the cutlery and the mysterious moving toys.


You can visit the Overland Corner Hotel on the Old Coach Road, Overland Corner, and in the free Crafty Pint app alongside hundreds of other good beer venues and breweries.

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