Wild things are brewing down south
Some winemakers reckon they’re cowboys and the east coast breweries refer to them as the wild, wild west.
But the tight-knit community of beer farmers in WA’s south are too busy making some of the best brews to past parched lips to be bothered with what other people think.
Big, big things are brewing in Margaret River and surrounds.
Colonial Brewing Co. is expanding to produce a whopping 4 million litres each year with an eye on adding another couple of million litres on that to push Gage Roads for the title as WA’s biggest brewer. Just as well, Colonial can barely keep up with demand for its South West Sour.
Not far behind is Cheeky Monkey, which is building a separate brewery in Vasse to up production to 4 million litres per annum.
Meanwhile Rocky Ridge, just off the Bussell Highway in Jindong, is completely revamping the family dairy farm to grow enough hops, barley and fruit to meet demand for its exciting and ever-expanding range of trendsetting beers.
In the new few years there are plans to expand the farm from two acres to up to as much as 18 acres to fulfil fifth-generation dairy farmer turned brewer Hamish Coates’ burning desire for Rocky Ridge to be a fully sustainable ground-to-glass brewery.
And while some winemakers and brewers view each other as rivals, the University of WA graduate reckons each has a lot to share with the other — especially the “awesome produce” of the region.
“Rather than fighting with each other and having this beer versus wine thing,” Coates says, “we should be celebrating the differences but also the similarities ... and the way we can make those flavours play together.”
His biggest issue so far as been the unexpectedly wild demand for his beer since starting less than two years ago. He made 240,000 litres in the previous financial year, and expects to pump out 600,000 litres by the end of the current one.
“It would have been fine if we had stuck to our original business plan and stayed as a very small South West brewery,” Coates says. “But the beer that was put out tended to be a little more popular than we anticipated. We thought ‘You know, it would be pretty silly not to make more of them’.”
Rocky Ridge recently opened Darleen’s bar on Prince Street in Busselton and plans to open a tap house and tasting room in an old 1930s house near the beach any day now. (Blue Mile Busselton Brewery also plans to open on the foreshore in the middle of next year.)
In another big move, Cheeky Monkey head brewer Ross Terlick has joined Rocky Ridge.
Another shining light of the Margs craft beer scene is Beerfarm, which has made its mark after a false start in partnership with Sydney brewer Young Henry’s.
Beers such as its hop-laden IPL (and delicious, bitter black version), happy accident Shirazzaweisse and Pineapple Sour with head brewer Josh Thomas’ noggin on the 500ml can (complete with cowboy hat) have delighted craft drinkers.
Thomas says the IPL is the Beerfarm brew of which he’s most proud. “I’ll always say that because it’s the one beer that we haven’t changed from the first day we brewed it ... I know they say you shouldn’t have a favourite child, but that is my favourite child.”
Any beer lovers heading to Margaret River must visit the taproom in Metricup — and not just to play the AC/DC pinball machine.
In fact, you can barely drive down a back road without stumbling across a brewery — but that wasn’t always the case.
When it opened in 1994, Bootleg Brewery described itself as a “beer oasis in a desert of wine”.
While it still sells most of its 150,000 litres of beer per year from the Wilyabrup brewpub, head brewer Ryan Nilsson-Linne is stretching beyond the long-running core range. Bootleg recently unleashed a 9 per cent whiskey barrel-aged version of its Raging Bull and has plans to produce its first-ever NEIPA before Christmas.
Now Cowaramup Brewing Company and Eagle Bay Brewing make every turn off the highway a winner — and almost all of these microbreweries have restaurants and playgrounds to both feed and distract entire families. Many sell big cans or two-litre growlers.
Part of the Caves Road Collective, Black Brewing Co.’s output is evenly divided between packaged, kegs and “front of house”, or beer sold at its stunning restaurant.
Albany-raised head brewer Shannon Grigg worked at the Wilyabrup facility back when it was the Duckstein, with a three-year stint at Eagle Bay before his return.
While Grigg has recently brewed up limited-edition farmhouse ales — starting with an Albino Pinot IPA and house favourite Framboise, both in 750ml bottles — he prefers to stick with classics over trendy beers.
“Good lager is very hard to do,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide behind. You can’t throw a metric tonne of hops at it. If there is something wrong with it, then it stands out like proverbial dogs’ balls.”
And he’s not overly impressed with this year’s big haze craze over New England IPAs.
“I’ve had a couple of really good NEIPAs, but I’ll never make one,” Grigg says. “I’m just not interested in it, and I’ve seen what brewers go through with the erratic (nature of them).
“I’m not going to name names but some of the NEIPAs that came out, they’re amazing one week and then the next batch is atrocious.”
Black Brewing Co. recently rebranded its core range and started canning its highly regarded Bao Bao Milk Stout.
The brewery also produces Honest Ale, which uses fresh Yallingup seawater and is a collaboration with surfing legends Taj Burrow, Dino Adrian and Jay Davies.
Bush Shack Brewery is moving from Yallingup to the Ferguson Valley, which is also home to Wild Bull and Moody Cow breweries, and also opening a steakhouse in Busselton. Wild Hop Brewing Company should open in Yallingup early next year with former Rocky Ridge assistant brewer Andrew Caldwell on the kit.
Rather than fighting with each other and having this beer versus wine thing ... we should be celebrating the differences but also the similarities.
And in the centre of Margaret River there’s Margaret River Brewhouse, The River Hotel and that old faithful Settlers Tavern (seriously good barbecue, by the way) for when your skipper knocks off.
Further south in Denmark, Boston Brewing Co. is making seriously brilliant beers, not least of all its Afterglose — a raspberry gose that is almost single-handedly turning craft drinkers on to sour beers.
Under American-born head brewer Tyson Addy, Boston has quadrupled its output to 400,000 litres per year since 2016 and Boston beers can be found in 400 bottle shops and bars across WA.
Another Yank, Artisan Brewing’s Brian Fitzgerald, has made his beer in Boston’s brewhouse for the past four years, producing about 25,000 litres of Belgian-style fine ales each year in their mission to become “the biggest small brewer you’ve probably never heard of”.
Even further south, Matty Wilson of Wilson Brewing Company is the toast of Albany. The former boilermaker continues to expand both the capacity and staffing of his popular microbrewery, which is already producing seven different beers in cans.
The Albany company recently brought in Ben Snashall from Gage Roads as head brewer to free up Wilson to concentrate on expansion.
“We’ve got plans for a second, larger brewery away from this main site,” Wilson says, “with the idea of expanding in the Australian market and looking at exports.”
Possibly WA’s easternmost brewery is Lucky Bay, which makes up to nine different beers near Pink Lake in Esperance. Brewer Nigel Metz showcases the region’s premium grain in his Sandy Hook Barley Pale Ale, and recently produced a Richter Ale for the 50th anniversary of the Meckering earthquake using barley from the central Wheatbelt.
From Busselton to Esperance, wild things are definitely happening in craft brewing. Not bad for a bunch of cowboys.
For accommodation and other inquiries, see margaretriver.com.
Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.
Sign up for our emails