The story of Hargreaves Hill is one of the best known and most frequently referenced in Australia. It's the small Yarra Valley brewery that opened to give visitors to the wine region an alternative, established by a classically trained pianist and an opera singer. It's the brewery that was burnt to the ground during the Black Saturday fires only to rise with a Phoenix and continue to forge a reputation as a brewer of some of the most refined beers in Australia.
But, as Simon and Beth Walkenhorst and their team prepare to celebrate ten years since their first brew – a hoppy pale ale – this week, we thought it was time to delve a little deeper and find out a little more about one of our favourite Australian breweries, about jazz in suburban pubs, home brewing, being attacked with a shoe, "gypsy" brewing and forging a new career as an indie folk songstress with echoes of Kate Bush...
It turns out that the oft-quoted musical side of the Hargreaves Hill tale predates the brewery by many years and encapsulates more than classical piano and opera. Simon was a 19-year-old studying classical piano at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music while paying his way playing jazz classics in suburban pubs in Melbourne's east; Beth was singing and playing guitar in a band that needed a pianist and, having decided to move away from folk – her mum and dad's music – and into jazz, was told about Simon by her music teacher. He joined the band, they began hanging out at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club and taking in as much live music as they could, Simon suggested Beth took some classical training to lend her voice more technique and soon she too was accepted to the Melbourne Conservatorium.
It was a combined passion for music that at one stage brought trouble while living at Kensington Banks when Beth was studying for her Masters and PhD.
"They were like cardboard houses with very thin walls," recalls Simon. "Beth was learning a Britten opera that was to be performed at Prahran Market – very atonal stuff for which she had to practice very hard."
"Then Simon was up playing his stuff, practicing for hours and hours every day," says Beth, "and the neighbours started to attack us."
"Someone came at me with a shoe," says Simon. "One of my own shoes! He was a shift worker and I'd started playing really early..."
While not everyone took a shine to their talents, Beth continued to train her voice and work through the ranks of the opera world while Simon – still playing and teaching – realised he had "hit a wall" and was looking for something else.
"I wasn't aware of any craft beer in Australia and had no idea that Mountain Goat existed," he says. But after they married in 2000, their honeymoon took them to Paris and the UK, where they tasted "some great beers" and found inspiration.
"We were thinking, 'What can we do in addition to what we already do so we can raise a family in the Yarra Valley?'," says Beth of their desire to remain where they'd both grown up.
"[In the UK] we went to a place called the New Inn that was 300-years-old and as well as having some really good beer pouring from a beer engine they had a great list of Belgian beers," says Simon. "I'd never tasted anything like it and it was a moment where I suddenly became aware there were much greater beer cultures than there was in Australia. The depth of flavours in some of those beers was otherworldly."
Soon after returning to Australia, a friend brought a bottle of home-brewed pilsner to a BBQ that was "just brilliant" and the seeds were more than just sown. Having decided to explore the world of beer, within two weeks they had taught themselves how to brew all grain beers on a setup they'd built in their kitchen.
There followed the construction of their first brewery in a shed on Beth's parents' land in Steels Creek, a rudimentary setup where the first two beers were a pale that melded UK and US styles and a porter.
"Part of the ethos that's been behind what we do is that it's a pretty ancient, simple process and while now we have the advantage of more process control and we can make better beer with better control – which we have to do to send it further and to last longer – it's still pretty simple," says Simon. "The idea was to showcase good ingredients and to brew with the absence of faults rather than [aiming to always be] consistent."
Feedback on the first beers was positive, even if Simon's dad did advise, as dads do: "Don't give up the day job", which he didn't, continuing to teach piano while working out how to sell his beer. Beth was still singing, while adding to the juggling was the arrival of a first child in 2002 and a second around the time of the launch of the first beer.
Most venues and bottleshops wouldn't go near microbrewery beer at that point, with notable exceptions like Cloudwine and the Healesville Hotel, but they were determined there would be a market and, slowly but surely, there was, even if they had to create part of it themselves.
In 2007, the opportunity arose to take over the former National Bank building in Yarra Glen that housed a restaurant that had been a customer of theirs. They took it over, restored and renovated it to its current elegant look, and it became the public facing home of Hargreaves Hill, pouring their beers, augmented by a few imports in the fridge and fine wines from the local wineries they were getting to know well. And, while the brewery was a hard slog, things continued to build to the point that Simon took on his first brewer, Glenn Harrison.
There were a few bumps along the way – Simon breaking his foot getting his surfboard off the car roof at one point, the GFC hitting just as they were establishing the restaurant; "Every time we said how awesome things were getting, we would get a punch," says Beth.
And none was bigger than that delivered by the Black Saturday fires. Beth's parents' house and the brewery were destroyed (below right) as they swept through Steels Creek, her parents only surviving because the fire "jumped' a small section of their property. At the time, rumours swirled that maybe the pair would pack in the brewing lark, but instead they were soon operating almost as gypsy brewers, with Simon or Glenn popping up at the likes of Red Hill, Mountain Goat, White Rabbit – even Ballarat University – to brew batches of beer to keep as many customers supplied as possible.
"It was a tipping point for us," says Simon. "We didn't really know where we were in a lot of ways, so we regrouped. We started building a new brewery [in a factory in Lilydale] and had to learn a lot while commissioning it."
They clearly learnt fast as the first beer from the new brewery was ready in September in what must be one of the quickest turnarounds ever achieved in Australia. Soon afterwards, the rebirth was marked with the release of the aforementioned Phoenix, an imperial red ale that is rarely brewed but much sought after, and, while the brewers got to know their way around the new gear, Beth focused on building the restaurant business in Yarra Glen, home to some of the highest quality food you'll find offered by any brewery in Australia, conceived for the past seven years by head chef Chris Unitt.
"We always wanted to present good food with good beer," says Simon, recounting one New Year's Eve where the two of them invited friends to their home and served up a 12-course degustation. "Beer and food never used to be 'a thing' – beer was always something people had before dinner then moved to wine."
The fires haven't been the last major punch to land a blow on the Walkenhorst family – now three kids strong – but as they turn ten there's a clean bill of health throughout the business. The restaurant is going as well as ever to the point that Beth has been able to step back and return to music with a first EP recorded under the alias Lumie Stark. Glenn has moved to Temple to be replaced by Kai Dambergs from nearby White Rabbit. The business is steadily expanding in all ways: more tanks, new staff, wider reach. And the beers continue on an upward curve, with 2014 seeing them release a series of fine IPAs and a superb Maibock alongside their core range.
A first sour is on its way too, while their AD Belgian dubbel (in Beth's glass in the photo at the top) recently collected a gold at the inaugural Craft Beer Awards, a nice case of things coming full circle given it was such beers that inspired Simon almost 15 years ago.
"We are working to increase quality more than anything," says Simon, not long returned from one exploratory tour of US brewers and already planning another.
"The stainless steel breweries [rather than brewing companies paying others to make their beer] will have an opportunity in the next few years to make beer of a much higher quality. We [as a group] have got knowledge in house and the people in house and are doing it ourselves; it's an exciting time."
So, as they prepare to share beers and stories with friends and fans at their 10th anniversary bash on Sunday (details here), it's fair to say they've earned a beer or three, what with the body blows they've suffered along the way. Yet it seems it's not the punches that stick in the mind.
"We've had so much fun," says Beth. "And we are still having so much fun. Not just making beer but the people we've met in the industry, the scene, learning what we can make beer from... It's just awesome.
"We just keep adding to the naughty, evil spirit of goodness!"
You can join Simon and Beth at the Yarra Glen restaurant for celebratory drinks from 3pm this Sunday (7/12) when they'll launch the latest Phoenix as well as the 2013 RIS Russian imperial stout.