The jewel in Victoria’s crown
James Smith takes us on a whistlestop tour through Melbourne’s world-renowned craft beer scene
Main photo: Oskars Slywan
Monday 28 December 2020
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“People spilling out over the streets, people drinking in the line waiting for their next beer, it was that long, but everyone was happy. It was hectic and awesome.
“We all wore gum boots behind the bar, using jockey boxes and trestles – we would change kegs using the floor as our drip tray. There was friggin’ beer everywhere.”
So says Sam Howard, former venue manager for legendary Melbourne craft brewery Mountain Goat. Mountain Goat wasn’t the first small brewery to open in Melbourne in the early years of the craft beer revolution in Australia. But if you wanted to pick a ground zero for the city’s rise to global beer city of note, those early years around the turn of the Millennium in the back streets of the inner-city suburb of Richmond are a good place to start.
Sam, an expat Brit who later moved on to Moon Dog (of whom more later) now runs two great pubs – The Royston (across the road from Mountain Goat) and The Park Hotel in Abbotsford – with husband Edward Harley. Yet you could easily unearth similar tales from brewers, bar owners, reps, festival organisers – maybe related to a night at the brewery, maybe their first encounter with the brewery’s original flagship beer, Hightail Ale.
Just as many brewers and beer lovers in the States will be able to trace their affliction back to their first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, there’s a generation of Melburnians who have their own hazy recollections of those warehouse parties.
You don’t turn a city of several million people who had known little other than Australian bastardisations of European lagers for generations into a must-visit for knowledgeable beer tourists on the back of one brewery, however.
In the two decades since those back street parties, a cast of thousands has helped turn Melbourne into the country’s craft beer capital, aided by a population willing to embrace anything good and interesting. Maybe embrace is underselling it; Melbourne likes to embrace things and then do them better than anywhere else.
The most European of Australia’s capital cities, it might lack the instant international cachet of Sydney with its Instagrammable Opera House and Harbour Bridge yet, whether it’s sport, music, arts, or dining, Melbourne does it bloody well.
When it comes to beer, the state of Victoria is home to more brewing companies than any other in Australia. The city has the best pub culture in the country (something that was established well before craft beer came along – now it just tastes better). It’s home to Good Beer Week and GABS (the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular), which run together each COVID-free May and have been praised by some of the biggest names in beer as the best of their kind in the world. The country’s biggest beer awards is held there.
Don’t get me wrong: you’ll find great beer, wonderful venues and talented brewers all over Australia. Sydney’s inner west is a phenomenal pocket of small breweries worth walking between more than once. Brisbane’s beer scene is arguably the most fun. You could spend days boozing in the Margaret River region of WA without even getting started on the wines for which it’s best known. But Melbourne is a beer city.
That said, it still helps to know where to start; not all parts of the city are poured equal, after all.
The 86 Tram
Can there be a public transport route anywhere on the planet that’s better for beer lovers than Melbourne’s 86 tram?
Once it leaves the central business district (CBD) on its way north, you could alight at pretty much any stop for mile after mile and find a great bar, pub, bottleshop or brewery a short walk away. As soon as you hit Fitzroy, there’s The Catfish, home to a rotating lineup of local and international beers, the artery-cloggingly delicious Sparrow’s Philly Cheesesteaks, and live music several nights a week.
Indeed, if you only had time to visit one place while visiting, a few hours at The Catfish alone would give you a great insight into what makes Melbourne’s beer scene what it is. Then again, you could walk a few blocks north and gain a similar insight in The Standard’s beer garden, or amid The Rainbow’s English pub stylings, or at The Napier with its roo-topped chicken parmas, or at the Marquis of Lorne or The Rose, or…
OK, let’s just agree there’s a lot of very good pubs in that part of the city. And that’s without mentioning the bars with quality beer at the heart of what they offer: the likes of Bonny, Little Hop, Near & Far (where you’ll always find some UK offerings on tap if you’re missing home).
But back to the 86. Once it’s made its way along Gertrude Street, past some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, it swings left onto Smith Street, an iconic strip that’s been undergoing serious change and gentrification for more than a decade yet still retains its appeal, whatever you fancy shoving into your face.
On the beer front, you’ve got one of the best examples of the bottleshop-meets-bar concept in Melbourne, Beermash, and once you cross Johnston Street you pass The Mill Brewery, the latest incarnation of pioneering retailer Slowbeer, and Fixation’s Incubator taproom within a handful of blocks. Once you’ve had your fill of hops at the IPA-only Fixation, you can wander 200m away from Smith Street to Molly Rose, a brewpub serving up a high quality array of beers encompassing hop-forward IPAs, quirky sours, barrel-aged blends and co-ferment farmhouse style ales.
After the tram leaves Collingwood, the highlights might not be as frequent, but still take in some of Melbourne’s best pubs and bars – The Terminus in Fitzroy North and Carwyn Cellars in Thornbury among them – plus more brewpubs. Tallboy & Moose in Preston typically tap a couple of new beers every week (and do a fine line in “Modern Scottish” food from Wee Man’s Kitchen), while if yeast-driven, barrel-aged subtlety is your thing then Future Mountain, a relatively new, family-run operation where every beer name is a musical reference, is worth the ride all the way to Reservoir.
Way Out West
Melbourne is a large enough city to have areas with distinct personalities. The most obvious divide is found at the Yarra. Crossing from one side of the river to the other almost warrants a visa checkpoint, with craft beer ubiquitous in the north, still finding its feet to the south, albeit with notable exceptions.
The area that’s seen arguably the most change on the beer front in the past five years, however, is the west, where Footscray and surrounding suburbs have so much to offer there’s little reason for locals to leave and plenty of reason for drinkers from elsewhere to jump on a train for a day of exploration.
Two Birds, Australia’s first female-owned brewery, got the ball rolling, with its Nest in Spotswood a fine example of a contemporary brewery venue and the best place to enjoy its fun and pun-heavy beers. Not far from there, and among the more recent arrivals, is Black Arts, a tiny operation specialising in barrel-ageing and blending.
Hop Nation, meanwhile, was started by a pair of winemakers – initially without a brewery of their own, but now with two and a second venue in planning – and has enjoyed rapid growth, in part on the back of the wildly popular Jedi Juice (now rebranded as J-Juice) NEIPA, while exploring beer-wine hybrids and barrel-ageing. In 2019, they created the Blobfish Festival, dedicated to wild, funky and sour beers; it sold out and felt like a milestone in the evolution of beer in Australia.
Add in venues as diverse as Bar Josephine, with its welcoming neighbourhood vibes, and Mr West, which could be transplanted from its location in a shopping precinct to a hip suburb in any global city without being out of place, as well as more Vietnamese food than you could consume in a lifetime and you’re in for a wild time out west.
And Now For Something Completely Different
As much as its people are willing to embrace anything good, you can also trace the rise of Melbourne as a beer city back to a few people willing to think big and refuse to take no for an answer. It was the scale, ingenuity and, sometimes, utter ridiculousness of ideas that saw the likes of Good Beer Week and GABS garner global attention within a couple of years of launching. You still see that sense of “What if…?” driving the beer scene today.
While you’ll detect distinct personalities throughout the city’s beer venues, there are some that go above and beyond, arguably none more so than Moon Dog World. Moon Dog, the brewery, started out in a small warehouse pretty much next door to the city’s brewing behemoth CUB (now owned by Asahi who acquired it from AB InBev) with beers such as Skunkworks Cognac barrel-aged double IPA, Perverse Sexual Amalgam cherry wild ale, and Nordic Saddle Buffer barleywine.
Yet, for all the daft names, experiments and shenanigans – filling the brewery with sand or hot tubs or giant inflatables – it was the opening of Moon Dog World in 2019 that brought it to wider attention. The home of its main 100hL production facility is where you’ll find a 725-capacity venue complete with indoor lagoon, waterfall, hidden tiki bar and “Wall of Warnie” dedicated to Shane Warne and other Aussie icons.
In its own way, Bodriggy Brewery’s home is just as out there: an impeccable reinvention of an old warehouse in Abbotsford, where you can choose from dozens of beers, wines and spirits on tap, while DJs play under a giant glitter ball. Take your pick from leather booths, tall stools, or long benches, while admiring the attention to detail in every curve of metalwork.
Or, if you fancy leaving the inner-city behind for a while, it’s worth making a trek to the city’s southeast, home to an ever-growing numbers of breweries. There are some focused mainly on production, including KAIJU! plus brewpub/taproom-based operations like 2 Brothers, Bad Shepherd, Mr Banks, BoJaK, Wolf of the Willows and the madcap Dainton.
But if you want to take your palate for a ride, you can’t miss Australia’s first Barrel Room, opened by Boatrocker and now incorporating a still, since the brewery and WA’s Hippocampus Distillery became one. Best known for its Starward whisky barrel-aged imperial stout Ramjet, Boatrocker also produces some of the finest Belgian-inspired beers in Australia and has proven itself increasingly nifty in the IPA space of late too.
Today’s Melbourne offers myriad delights for the beer tourist, even off the beaten track, but it’s not too long ago that it was slim pickings.
When I moved here in 2008, finding a pub or bar with a handful of interesting beers on tap required prior knowledge or great luck. The small band of regional brewers – the likes of Bridge Road and Bright in the High Country, Hargreaves Hill in the Yarra Valley wine region about 40 minutes’ drive from the CBD, Holgate Brewhouse in the Macedon Ranges to the northwest, Red Hill Brewery on the Mornington Peninsula, and Red Duck in the regional city of Ballarat – were thus reliant on early-adopting venues to reach metropolitan drinkers.
Some have gone, others have changed hands or changed their approach, but a few continue to contribute to the community they helped create. As mentioned earlier, the north-south divide is real, yet it would be an oversight to leave the city without checking out The Local Taphouse in St Kilda, a trailblazing venue that was offering 20 rotating taps and innovative events before the vast majority of publicans knew beer came in flavours other than lager. Its founders created GABS, before selling the festival in 2019, and now also run Stomping Ground, a brewery with a mightily impressive venue in Collingwood, a second brewpub at the city’s main airport (when it reopens) and a third on the way.
The Melbourne pub experience is encapsulated at the Great Northern Hotel in Carlton. Owner Al Carragher might not rotate his 20 taps nearly as much as his crafty peers, but this is less pointy-end beer geek territory than a classic pub – pool table in the front bar, pub grub, sport on the big screens, excellent beer garden – with far better-tasting beer than when he took over. Former staff can be found behind the bars at The Palace Hotel in South Melbourne and The Retreat in Abbotsford, two more old boozers given fresh injections of life with good beer at the heart of what they do.
Since Mountain Goat sold to Asahi in 2015, the mantle of oldest independent brewery in the city passed to 3 Ravens in Thornbury. Particularly thanks to an ongoing reinvention in recent years, it’s one of the most innovative breweries in town, whether you’re after a juicy NEIPA, a tongue-in-cheek pastry beer, a funky blend of various barrel-aged wild ales, or a beer-wine hybrid.
And, while they don’t have a venue, 3 Ravens’ near neighbours La Sirène’s beers are well worth hunting down. The brewery launched its flagship Saison back in 2011 and has continued to kick goals with farmhouse-inspired, barrel-aged and spontaneously fermented beers since.
* * *
As I look back over this article, it occurs to me I could remove entire chunks, take a different tack and still be left with a sizeable mound of deliciousness on the cutting room floor. There’s the award-winning, amazing-at-everything Lincoln Hotel in Carlton, The Cherry Tree in Cremorne that keeps the uniquely Melbourne spirit of the sadly-departed GB Hotel alive, the Good Beer Week festival hub Beer DeLuxe in Fed Square, the 30-tap, American-influenced Westside Ale Works in South Melbourne, or Hawkers, led by the founder of Beirut’s 961 Beer whose beers have become ubiquitous around the city.
And that, as much as anything, makes the case for Melbourne. It’s a city that’s gone from people sloshing in wellies in a back street warehouse to global beer destination in 20 years. You might not be able to visit before 2022, but when you do, know you won’t go thirsty. And that’s before we even touch upon the state’s wineries and distilleries…
James Smith is the founder of The Crafty Pint, Australia’s leading beer website. Full disclosure: he was also a founder of Good Beer Week and festival director for its first five years.
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