Wollongong's local beer scene has gone from strength to strength in recent years, and if you wanted proof of how eclectic things have become, take a look at The Barrel Shepherd. The tiny blendery has been welcoming people inside their Bellambi home since 2022 and, as their name alludes, their focus is on barrel-fermenting and ageing, as well as using mixed cultures, fruits and other local ingredients.
Behind the operation are Georg and Chan Bobbert, residents of the Gong for more than a decade. But to really understand how their unique story came to be, we need to go back further. Back to the early 1990s, in fact.
That's when Georg's family migrated from Germany to the Northern Tablelands region of NSW to start a sheep farm. In doing so, Georg's dad brought with him the biodynamic farming practices he'd long used, and while words like organic might regularly appear on our food and drinks today, it wasn't the case back then.
“I think people thought we were batshit crazy,” Georg says. “But Dad devoted his life to that and he's still giving a lot of people advice when they're starting to do it because it is becoming more popular.”
In conceiving the brand, Georg says he always saw similarities in raising sheep and ageing beer in barrels – a process over which you can never have complete control – while shepherds were a common motif throughout their home.
“There was always a very prominent figure of being guided or guiding – and growing up on a sheep farm explains a lot of it – but it really stuck with me,” he says.
It also meant the family ate food they grew or raised themselves, or produce whose provenance they could trace, and that connection to the grower is something that stuck with him when he started homebrewing more than a decade ago. Initially, he was buying organic malt from Belgium at what were dizzying prices for a hobby, so when Voyager launched and started offering local organic malts, Georg discarded his old recipes and has only made beer with their products since.
“A lot of brewers get quite stuck on having exactly the right grains in the right proportions but I’m not shackled to that,” he says. “If there’s no pilsner malt, I’ll use schooner pale or whatever, as long as it’s organic.”
That commitment has extended through to other elements of The Barrel Shepherd's beers: they've largely been made with Ryefield Hops, grown around five hours down the road. Georg says he's used about 80 percent of their hops in the last year and hopes to increase that to 100 percent – a goal made easier by Ryefield’s acquisition of a pelletising machine, which means they can supply more than hop flowers.
Located in an industrial area, The Barrel Shepherd Bar + Cellar Door is primarily a production space and currently only opens to visitors on Saturday afternoons. When he and Chan secured the site, the intention was to have more space for their barrels but, soon enough, extra space just led to extra barrels.
“I had mountains of kegs, which I used to do stuff, and a few barrels in the garage as well," Georg says. "When the opportunity came up, it was really to clear out the garage.
“It’s hard to blend when you have three barrels. I got a bit carried away and enthusiastic, but the more stock you have to blend with, the more versatility you have to create what you want.”
Now there are more than a hundred French oak barrels in the flock, and when talking about his former wine barrels, Georg certainly comes across like a shepherd.
“They're all kind of unique,” he says. “There’s a couple here which are troublemakers and other ones which are quite prized.”
Prior to opening, he figured he'd primarily be selling beer to retailers and maybe flinging the doors open once a month to chat with fanatics of funk and wood; the pair were unsure how the people of Wollongong would embrace their style of beer making. However, with the community quick to step inside, they realised their cellar door was essential to telling their own story. As such, although opening hours are limited, they're already more extensive than originally planned, and they're now looking to extend them in the future too.
“The locals here are just loving it because it’s something different that they haven't had or tried before,” Georg says. “It’s really rare that someone goes, ‘Nah, this isn’t my thing.’”
So, here to talk about his and Chan's thing is Georg, as part of our long-running Who Brews...? series.
The Barrel Shepherd
Who are you?
We are Georg and Chan; a husband and wife combo with two beautiful kids Finn and Keoki. We planted our roots in the northern suburbs of Wollongong 12 years ago and call it home. I worked as an international pilot for 18 years (currently on long-term leave) and Chan has worked in various roles in media and communications as well as teaching yoga and pilates.
Where do you brew?
We do the vast majority of our brewing at Resin in Bulli. They have been super supportive from day one, letting me use their brewing system to create my wort. Lucky for me, brewing at Resin means their brewer Scott is there to help out. Dragging 30 metres of brewer's hose out to a transport tanker is a two-person job and he's also good company and will call out if I’m heading for a "whoops" moment.
Why do you brew?
I love everything fermentation. I think I speak for most brewers when I say that the sight of a bubbling blow-off bucket or krausen spewing out of a barrel bung is as mesmerising as a campfire on a clear night sky. There is something primitively satisfying about seeing something transform the way it does during fermentation.
That, and it's the ultimate form of creative expression for me. Creating something well thought out, made with good intention, and served to inspire.
Was there a beer or a moment that set you on the path to becoming a brewer?
I wouldn’t say there was a single moment or beer. However, I used to spend a lot of time in the States. Back then, IPAs were all the rage and not something you could find in the same calibre in Australia.
Trying to recreate some of the gems I tasted there pushed me into all-grain brewing a decade ago. Times changed and so did my preference of style. The States is quite progressive on the beer scene, so barrel-aged wild and mix fermentations came into my splay of attention early on – no looking back now.
What was the inspiration behind the brewery's name?
I grew up on a sheep farm in Armidale. My papa had many drawings and sculptures of shepherds in and around our family home. For me, they have always represented a practical and grounded connection to the land; they offer comfort and security to all things that cannot be controlled and have an unspoken obligation to guide and protect their flock.
When I thought about the process of barrel-ageing, it brings so many parallels to this concept. Each barrel is its own unique character and has different needs, we give them the best start we can and tend to them in their journey, but, to some degree, we have to relinquish control until the time comes to blend. There we can bring together the best characteristics of a few individual barrels to create something we are proud of.
What beer in your lineup best reprints you and why?
To date, I’d have to say The Afterlife - Syrah. It has a good mixture of sour and funk and not too much of either, with layers on layers and will age well.
It is born from our oldest foraged house culture which I have tended to for years. It was also a labour of love; I didn’t want too much stem in with the grape pressings so after pressing I de-stemmed half the pomace. It's a 17-hour process.
If you could have any person in the world join you for brew day, who would it be and why?
My brother Marco. He used to brew when I was a teenager. It was unscientific and clumsy, but we had low requirements back then and would be fun to fast forward 30 years from then and see what we could produce.
If anyone drops in on brew day, what are they most likely to hear blasting from the speakers?
I haven’t figured out how to hijack the Resin stereo yet, but if I did, you’d likely hear Lead Me On by Kelly Joe Phelps. Any self-respecting shepherd would second that...
What beers are in your fridge right now?
I like to check out what’s being brewed locally, mainly because it's nice to have a chat with the maker. But outside of that, there are a few beers from La Sirène and Dollar Bill which I’m looking forward to opening when the time’s right.
What would be your desert island beer of choice?
Hydration is key when you’re on a desert island, so opting for a low-alcohol beer would be wise, but ... imminent death calls for shedding logic. I know this must sound strange coming from someone who works with wild yeast and bacteria, but I would go with Weinstephaner Pils. It’s an impeccable example of a pils, and a nice change to what’s trending.
Which local beers have blown your mind in recent weeks?
I went to a stout tasting at Five Barrel Brewing in Wollongong recently. The standout for me was this year's imperial – Servant of the People. It was great and has the potential to get better with age.
You can visit The Barrel Shepherd Bar + Cellar Door by heading to 6 Bellambi Lane, Bellambi. You can find it alongside hundreds of other good beer businesses in the free Crafty Pint app.