Beer Nuts: Tom Madden

June 26, 2024, by Will Ziebell
Beer Nuts: Tom Madden

At the risk of offending approximately 100,000 people, winters in Ballarat can seem like hard work. 

Sure, all of Victoria gets cold at this time of year, but there's something about the way in which the cold sticks your skin that can make winters in Ballarat particularly gruelling. 

Fortunately, however, there's a bright light on the horizon for beer drinkers thanks to a new beer festival taking place at the city's Mining Exchange this Saturday (June 29).

Well, it's more of a dark light really: Obsidian Dark Beer Festival is devoted to the wide world of dark beer and will see 14 independent Victorian breweries showcasing a diverse array of darker drops. 

Behind the festival is Tom Madden, with whom many in Melbourne's beer community will be familiar. While living in Melbourne, Tom and wife Madeline Backshall were regulars at beer festivals where they were just as likely to be volunteers as they were to be found enjoying the beers as punters.

A couple of years ago, they moved to Ballarat and the seeds for Obsidian were sown. And while the festival's dark beer focus makes it fitting for winter, it was the decision of the organisers of the city's long-running summer festival, Ballarat Beer Festival, to call it a day that led Tom to consider starting a new kind of festival. 

He spoke to Ballarat Beer Festival director Ric Dexter about the idea before running it past the region's breweries and the city council, who suggested he hold it during the Ballarat Winter Festival. 

“Those conversations then led to local conversations with brewers," he says, "and we wanted to go for a bit more of a specialised, more niche event."


Tom and Madeline at an early Brewers Feast (left); Tom worshipping dark beer well before Obisidian was a glint in his eye.


As an admirer of the concept and execution of events such as Hop Nation's sour and mixed culture-focused Blobfish and Range's Juicy in Brisbane, Tom felt there was something of a gap in the local landscape. His professional background is in regional tourism and, given Ballarat's proximity to Melbourne and the frequency and affordable nature of V/Line tickets, he was eager to tap into punters who, like him, adore dark beers.

"There are plenty of local dark beer drinkers and that local crowd is on board," he says. "But we’re also so close to Melbourne and we wanted to have the ability for people from Melbourne to easily get to and from the festival.

“I would always spend 20 or 30 bucks to get from my house in Melbourne to a beer festival, and Metro costs the same as V/Line now."

When it comes to the breweries on show at Obsidian, most of them call Ballarat or regional Victoria home, due to Tom's desire to work closely with locals, including one of the area's newest: among those pouring beers is Joe Belfrage from Good Knight, which is in the process of launching after Joe graduated from Federation Uni's beer course last year. 

“He’s working on establishing that in Ballarat and is doing a dessert stout two ways: one with blood orange and the other cherry," Tom says.

The rest of the lineup had just been released at the time of writing, with the lineup augmented by offerings from local distillers and winemakers such as Kilderkin Distillery, Itinerant Spirits and Mitchell Harris Wines. Among the food offerings is dark beer's natural ally, cheese. 

Ahead of his first beer festival as a director, we invited Tom to tell us about his passion for beer in a rare outing for of our Beer Nuts series. 

Tom Madden

What's your day-to-day job?

I’ve spent the past 12 or so months in a visitor economy and tourism-focused role that works with stakeholders across the Grampians region. It largely focuses on delivering tourism infrastructure projects which have received state government funding. 

I am in the process of transitioning into another role within Regional Development Victoria though, with a focus on economic development more broadly – covering things like jobs, skills, housing, education, visitor economy for the Central Highlands region – which is Ballarat and surrounding councils.

When did you first get into craft beer? 

I’ve been reflecting on this a little bit in recent times and would have to say my passion and interest in the industry really stemmed from a regional powerhouse in Bridge Road Brewers. Growing up in Albury and playing a lot of sport locally – football and waterpolo – the drinking culture was very much focused on mainstream beers of the time. 

As a family, we did a lot of travelling to surrounding towns and frequented Beechworth quite a bit for bushwalking and the famous beesting at the bakery! Around my 18th birthday in late 2008, we went to Bridge Road who, at the time, hadn’t been in their current venue for long and I ordered one of their epic paddles. The beers I had been drinking up until that time could not compare to the flavour and complexities in the beers – and my palate took a liking to it! 

It wasn’t an immediate "drop everything and transition across", but it was definitely the moment that started the shift for me. Shout out to Ben and the Bridge Road team!

What made you fall in love with beer so much?

This is probably far from a unique answer, but beer for me was always associated with hanging out with mates and having a good time. I wasn’t much of a binge drinker and just enjoyed being able to work my way through a selection of craft beers in a social setting. 

I also love the idea of being able to visit breweries, chat to the people involved in the process, and appreciate the creativity that each and every person brings to the industry. 


What's the most extreme act of beer obsession you've committed?

Madeline and I went to Japan for two weeks and spent the whole time jumping between bars, breweries and sake venues – was an awesome trip but we didn’t fit in much in the realm of sightseeing. 

One venue I loved was called Popeye in Tokyo, with over 70 active taps … it was pretty crazy! We will have to go back sometime to actually see some of the sights!

Which beers have most blown your mind over the years?

Always a tough question as there have been so many, and likely many more forgotten – not the fault of the quality of the beer but more the quantity. Some standouts for me would have to be ones that pushed the boundaries of their style somewhat: beers like Taco Beer from Two Birds, some of the wonderful creations from BrewCult. 

Almost anything coming out of the team at Range these days too, all of which owned their style and pushed the barriers for what the typical style guide may say. Then there are the ones that continue to smash the quality and consistency side of things time after time … beers like Praline from La Sirène, Bling from Bridge Road, and Hop Nation’s J-Juice.

What about breweries or beer venues – any standouts? 

We spent a bit of time living pretty close to Tallboy & Moose which was always good to visit and, of course, that is just up the road from Carwyn Cellars. I could spend far too long regaling stories from days spent at Carwyn, from meeting Justin Corbitt [now head brewer at Fox Friday] for the first time with friends of his from Singapore, to the boozy bakery event that ran from midnight to the early hours of the morning. Plenty of fond memories of conversations had and beers consumed at Carwyn. 

My list of places I still want to visit is a little easier to recite, but we can save that one for another time.

How extensive is your beer merch collection?

Other than a couple of band tees, the wardrobe is solely brewery tees! It was something I started collecting when I moved to Melbourne and, before I knew it, there wasn’t a non-brewery or beer tee in the collection at all. I add to it every now and then but it is in desperate need of a refresh at the moment! 

At what point did you decide to make beer more than just a hobby?

It’s been something I’ve always had an interest in and I often keep an eye out for opportunities as they arise with breweries, particularly when we were based in Melbourne. 

In saying that, it was the move to Ballarat that really sparked my interest in doing something about it and, given I am not a brewer – I definitely do not count my short-lived home brewing attempts as giving me any credits there, I felt my skillset would be well served in supporting the industry via events. The penny really dropped to get something moving late 2023 and it all has grown from there.


The very first Blobfish, which helped Tom commit to the concept of a niche beer festival. 

What's your hope for the events business?

I see a lot of potential in the events business in Ballarat. With cheap train transport out of Melbourne, it is much easier to get to and from and provides so many perks to CBD life. Even if it is just visiting for a day event or staying a night or two to explore the local area, there is plenty happening and quite a supportive beer culture in town. 

I think more broadly we are seeing a trend away from the larger festivals and a bit more focus on the niche events. In saying that, the big events that provide entertainment to the masses will hopefully keep up their success, as they have done a lot of great things for the industry over the years. 

Personally, I am hoping to develop a small suite of events to be located in Ballarat, as well as supporting others that wish to run similar events, and look to have a regular offering for those interested in beer. I started with a bit of a bang with Obsidian Dark Beer Festival but I think there is no better way to get into the industry than jumping in the deep end and hoping I can still swim.

If you were able to design your dream beer, what would it be?

It might be considered a bit of a cop-out but I would start by saying I love the variety of beers available and always find myself jumping between them depending on the situation. I would probably say something that needs some time to develop the full complexity of flavour, likely involving barrels and something dark in nature. 

Other than that, I will leave the beer making to the professionals!

And where would be your ideal setting for enjoying that beer?

I have been known to say the best setting is just generally one where you have a beer in hand and there is good company, but as we head into what will surely be a cold Ballarat winter, I would have to say there would be no better place than the warm interior of the Mining Exchange in Ballarat, wouldn't I?

You can still pick up tickets for Obsidian here

If you love dark beers but can't make it to Ballarat, there are other dark beer celebrations on the horizon, including some like Obsidian featuring a selection of breweries: The Dark Nights at The Union Hotel, Newtown; CoConspirators' Famiglia AffairsDark Days at Freo.Social; Smokin' Solstice at Red Hill Brewery; Noosa Hinterland Dark Beer Mini-Fest; Before The Dawn at Tar Barrel; Ramjet Day at Boatrocker; and Dark vs Dark at Modus Merewether.

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