It’s been a rough couple of years for all of us, but locals and business owners on the NSW South Coast have a bit more to pipe up about than most.
Before the dreaded C-word hit our shores in 2020, the South Coast was one of the areas worst hit by the Black Summer bushfires. Townships were decimated, homes and businesses gone in minutes, entire communities evacuated, many lives lost.
Yet, despite the traumas of the bushfires, two tourism-crushing lockdowns and, for some, finding themselves the unwilling stars of mandatory photo op handshakes, life has been sprouting afresh on the South Coast in the form of a fast-growing, thirst quenching brewery scene.
Long acknowledged as a fertile farming region producing award-winning cheeses and other produce, the 370km stretch from Wollongong to the Victorian border now features no less than a dozen breweries, with new venues of a crafty bent seemingly popping up every time you pay a visit to enjoy views of the sapphire blue ocean from the traditional land of the Dharawal and Yuin people.
So is this land of breweries by the beach set to rival the likes of Mornington Peninsula, Marrickville and the Margaret River region as a must-visit for beer tourists?
According to Nigel Ayling, founder of the South Coast Ale Trail and admin of the We Love Craft Beer Facebook group and spin-off Beerducation, the South Coast is ready to offer more established regions some serious competition.
“It’s not a destination, it’s a journey” is the catch cry of the trail he launched late last year. It currently features eight of the breweries found between Wollongong's suburbs and Pambula, just an hour from the Victorian border, with the businesses who’ve signed up at time of writing including Resin, Reub Goldberg Brewing Machine, Grassy Knoll, Bulli, South Yeast, Jervis Bay, Camel Rock and Longstocking.
“If you’re in the Golden Triangle [Marrickville] you can just get on a scooter and drive around to six breweries in a day,” Nigel says. “It’s 370 kilometres from Wollongong to Pambula; you can’t do it in the day, you gotta make it a real South Coast trip.”
To some brewery box-tickers, the idea of spreading a visit over a week or more might seem odd when they’re used to visiting half a dozen at a time, but according to Nigel it’s the steady pace of South Coast travel that’s the drawcard – the blooming brewery scene is merely the hop-infused cherry on top.
“As much as I love seven breweries in a day, I love beaches and mountain bike riding. You’ve got all these wonderful beaches and places you can visit along the way,” he says. “If you take the time and enjoy the places you go, you have a lot of time to enjoy yourself.
“Don’t rush the breweries – take some time and really enjoy it.”
Nigel, a South Coast local of 17 years, believes the growing brewery scene has developed in response to the often sterile pub environment that had been the only option for thirsty coasties and tourists for many years. He claims brewing has become a way to not only put a friendly face to a schooner but also to represent a whole community.
“It used to be you go to the pub to drink with your mates,” he says. “The reality of it is it’s a pretty sterile environment for drinking a beer that doesn’t have a face on it that you can relate to.
“Everyone has a local pub, but if you compare that with craft like Longstocking Brewery, you meet the people who made the beer, they can tell you what hops are in it and which beers are named after locals.
“The people in the venue are just as passionate as the people working in the venue. There might be some mad fans but the people behind the scenes are even prouder!”
Not only does Nigel share a great love for the breweries, the dining and the natural beauty of the South Coast, he believes the region’s long history of growing and rearing quality produce gives the coast’s food and drink scene that extra edge.
“Ryefield Hops in Bemboka – 20 minutes from here – and they are the biggest hop farm on the South Coast. They are doing some great work with local hops,” he says to illustrate his point.
“When they harvest those hops and send them to the South Coast breweries they are brewing it in a couple of days. When you think about paddock to plate that’s the beer version and that’s amazing. You don’t get that in Marrickville!
“The South Coast still has that rawness, like an undiscovered gem, it doesn’t have the wear and polish of regions like Byron or Noosa, there are still a lot of areas untrod by tourists.”
If you’re after proof of how the region’s beer scene is coming alive, look no further than Dangerous Ales. This weekend sees the Milton brewers officially unveil their new brewery, one that represents a serious upgrade and expansion for the business.
Head brewer Damien “Dangerous Damo” Martin reckons the quality and breadth of the South Coast's brewing community is no longer a secret, but you won’t hear him complain about the situation.
“It might be undiscovered to some people in Sydney, but Canberrans are everywhere here in the summertime,” he says.
After launching in the old Milton Hotel in mid-2019, Damo and the Dangerous team have not only survived the past three years intact, they've done so well enough to justify the splurge on the new brewhouse, tanks, and canning machine now responsible for pumping out Dangerous Ales within view of the pub’s back veranda, which already served up a pretty stunning view as is.
Having lived on the South Coast for three decades, Damo developed a love and appreciation for good beer and food while enjoying pilsners in the beer halls of Germany and studying cooking in London under a then up-and-coming celebrity chef called Gordon Ramsay. And it’s this alchemy of precisely-crafted beer and fine dining that has created the unique culinary experience now on offer in Milton.
“Food isn’t food trucks, it's proper sit down meals,” Damo says. “Almost everything we make comes from our woodfire oven: Wagyu rump, kingfish sashimi, slow-cooked lamb shoulders. BBQ cabbage and crispy tofu for vegetarians. No burgers.”
Pairing an upscale food and drink menu with their charming historic pub setting and gorgeous vista seems like a surefire way to draw a crowd, but Damo claims brewing in a town with a population of just 1,663 comes with challenges just as unique as the region itself.
“Because we took over an old pub, [the locals] had a lot of preconceptions about what the old pub should be. We sort of came in and made it more like Dangerous Ales and sort of rattled a few people. Sometimes people were coming in and asking what normal beers we had on tap.
“That doesn’t happen so much now, it’s changed dramatically. I feel like I’ve converted a generation – my age and older – to enjoy sour beers. Even the sour IPA we are packing right now – even guys enjoying Carlton Dry are enjoying 5.7 percent sour IPA!”
An increasingly popular hit among Sydney and Canberra day-trippers, it’s hard to believe Dangerous Ales managed to enjoy such rapid growth in the shadow of the bushfires and the ongoing pandemic. According to Damo, it comes from fostering the support of their community.
“We do a community keg thing once a month, people pay what they want for a schooner, it all goes to a charity while a local band is playing. Midweek we put some specials on for the locals.
“It’s easier to see the local crowd, they are definitely here for live music during the week. Day-trippers are easy to see, they make up the Saturday afternoon and Sunday lunch crowd.”
While they may disagree on just how undiscovered their beloved coastal region is when it comes to beer tourism, Damo and Nigel agree there’s an almost intuitive balancing act required when it comes to appealing both to locals and travellers that has made South Coast breweries focus on what they can’t get anywhere else: the local produce and pristine beauty; turning breweries into points of pride for locals and cultural destinations for tourists.
“When you visit a South Coast brewery you have a personal experience with the people and the community,” Nigel says.
“You drink with the locals that are in the football club sponsored by the brewery. It’s not just the beer, it’s the whole local experience. It’s creating a community that people have a lot of pride in.
“It’s not just beer you’re drinking, it’s the whole community.”
Perhaps the reason why the South Coast has been able to thrive in the face of such hardships is that C-word we keep coming back to; no, not COVID this time: community.
As someone who has travelled the South Coast fairly extensively, I can attest to the fact that seemingly every local you talk to would never want to live anywhere else. They take pride in their hidden beaches, ancient bushwalks, cheeses, first people, farms, flora and fauna. These breweries popping up along the coast are just the latest thing in which they can take pride.
Whether or not the uncut gem that is Sapphire Coast will be honed and smoothed by busloads of tourists remains to be seen, but I doubt the unrelenting community spirit that gives the region its soul will ever waver. It’s survived worse after all.
You can explore the South Coast Ale Trail online here.
And you'll find the breweries mentioned in this article alongside hundreds of other good beer venues across Australia in the free Crafty Pint app.