Katie Mather meets the homebrewing community that’s the lifeblood of Melbourne’s vibrant craft scene
Monday 28 December 2020
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“Innovation in brewing starts in homebrewing,” says Hayden Henderson, a keen member of The Melbourne Brewers, one of the city’s longest-running homebrewing clubs. I agree, but I let him explain.
“You’ve got so much freedom in homebrewing to try new things. If I try something crazy and stuff up a batch, I’ve probably cost myself about fifty bucks. If someone like Bad Shepherd [a craft microbrewery based in Cheltenham, a southern suburb of the city] did it, they’d end up costing themselves thousands of dollars.”
Our session has begun. I’m speaking to five of The Melbourne Brewers over a grainy Zoom connection, morning in the UK, evening in Victoria. Someone on the chat has a beer. I’m jealous.
I’m chatting to this band of brewers because I want to find out why the Melbourne craft beer scene is one of the most vibrant (if not the most vibrant, don’t tell Perth) in Australia. I have a feeling that the huge homebrewing community there has something to do with it. Chris Duckworth, or “The Duck” to his mates favours the BIAB (brew in a bag) method when brewing his own beer on his two vessel kit, and he explains why he thinks Melbourne’s such a creative place when it comes to flavour and taste:
“We were one of the first homebrewing clubs in the country, we started in 1972 when the Government legalised homebrewing. We’ve had a number of our members go on to become professional brewers and found breweries of their own, like Dereck Hales at Bad Shepherd and Shane Ward at Beach Hut.”
We’ve had a number of our members go on to become professional brewers
“Melbourne’s recognised begrudgingly by other parts of the country as the foodie capital within Australia, and I think homebrewing is a large part of that.”
Tom Cooper, the treasurer of the Melbourne Brewers, says homebrewing doesn’t really leave those who move on to bigger things either.
“Most of the breweries still have their pilot kits,” he says, “and breweries encourage their staff to homebrew.”
He has a flexible homebrew setup, switching from a three vessel HERMS (Heat Exchanged Recirculating Mash System) to a fully modular two vessel RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System) setup. (“I can switch back at any time, just depending on what I feel like using. I like tinkering, I think the term is.”)
Duck agrees with Tom. “Yeah, a lot of the people working at breweries are making beer at home, and they’re known for encouraging their staff to create their own beers — starting small then looking to brew for real and credit them when it hits the tap room or the bars and bottle shops.”
Ian Bennett, the club’s President (who favours BIAB in his 50l three-tier system) says the breweries push the homebrewers too, keeping the scene moving on both sides.
“It used to be that homebrewers pushed the limits and breweries had to catch up. Now breweries are just as likely to push it. It keeps us all on our toes.”
If you’re a restaurant or a small plates bar in Melbourne, you’re going to need delicious things to drink alongside your genre-busting dishes. Hayden links a deep local interest in sour and wild beers to the gastronomy of the area.
“Sour beer’s not competing with craft beer on menus. It’s competing with wine.”
“Here people are more likely than ever to try sour and wild beers — barrel soured too, not just kettle soured. Around Australia you’ve got Wildflower in Sydney and Van Diemon in Tasmania, but then there are seven breweries creating sour and wild beers actually in Melbourne. So you’re talking about a huge percentage of the sour beer made in Australia being made here, and those brewers are really pushing the envelope. That’s got a lot to do with the foodie culture around here.”
Another aspect of Melbourne’s creativity may be meteorological. At least the members of Melbourne Brewers seem to think so.
“We’re more seasonable than the rest of the country,” says Ian, after telling me that their day had been pretty “English” (heavy rain, grey skies).
Duck agrees. “We actually have four seasons here — sometimes all in one day — which is very different to the north where it’s tropical and pretty hot all year round.”
“So the beer styles change to match. We get winter warmers when it’s colder outside, and summer thirst quenchers too because it can still get up to 40 degrees when it gets sunny.”
Spirit of Competition
“The number of competitions in Melbourne really drive you to brew constantly and innovate,” Hayden tells me, and the heads of the people I’m speaking to nod in agreement inside their little Zoomy squares. Hayden’s what you might call “enthusiastic” when it comes to homebrewing comps, entering at least one every month in regular years with beer brewed on his 65l Brewzilla — an all-grain brewing system.
“I’ve got 15 fermenters in my shed full of various wild and sour beers,” Hayden confides. “I’ve been brewing pretty much non-stop during lockdown, and with all the competitions being cancelled, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it all!”
Lockdown has cancelled a lot of the comps and that’s hit homebrewers very hard
Duck’s in more or less the same boat. “Lockdown has cancelled a lot of the comps and that’s hit homebrewers very hard. It means we aren’t getting that feedback, or winning any prizes.”
“The growth of the community is brilliant though,” he assures me. “They’re still brewing and joining clubs and keeping their heads above water. And because we’re a club, we can offer feedback and help with any issues they might be having, even if it’s just over Zoom or Facebook or whatever.”
Homebrewing In Lockdown
It’s worth mentioning that at the time of our Zoom, Melbourne was under strict lockdown rules. Melburniums were only allowed to travel up to 5km away from their homes, meaning many were stuck without pubs, taprooms or even bottle shops in their available vicinity.
Tom says this has driven interest in homebrewing way up.
“You’ve only got to go online to see people who’ve got their King Kegs or whatever, and now they’re like, ah, I’ve gotta make some beer now! They’ve bought the equipment because they can’t get to the pub, so now they’re having to learn how to use it through necessity.”
“People think, “how hard could it be?”” says Duck. “Covid restrictions have driven people to be more self-sufficient in the things they enjoy — bread, coffee, beer — because they can’t get it fresh. People are realising that these things aren’t actually that hard to do. I’ve been learning how to make sourdough!”
“It’s cheaper too, once you’ve paid for your equipment. The tax bands here are harsh on smaller breweries which pushes the price of their beer up. That makes people more keen to homebrew some of the craft beer they like drinking.”
Ian says the increasing quality you can get from homebrewing your own beer is really helping to drive more people’s interest in making beer.
The ingredients and the equipment you can get for homebrewing are improving exponentially
“The ingredients and the equipment you can get for homebrewing are improving exponentially,” he says. “And people have more access to different styles of beer now, giving them more ideas and inspiration. Tap rooms are friendly places to try new things and the brewers are usually there to speak to and ask your questions.”
“More bottle shops are popping up that only specialise in craft beer too,” adds Tom. “They’re really inspiring homebrewers. I went into my local one recently and picked up a couple of really well made sour beers. I’m now trying to brew them at home.”
Club secretary John Keske has a different perspective on Melbourne’s homebrewing scene. Originally from Minnesota, he moved to Victoria in 2008, and noticed a beer-based culture shock straight away.
“The scene was really limited back then compared to the US,” he says, “but craft beer quickly became more popular, first with the hoppy stuff, and it’s just grown and grown.”
John enjoys brewing on his Braumeister, or if he’s feeling like a change he switches to his trusty three vessel system, and mostly brewing outside in the Aussie sunshine. The lucky bastard.
“I do make a lot of American Pale Ales and New England Pale Ales, but to be honest, I mostly enjoy brewing malty beers or lagers. Playing with ingredients other than hops.”
He says that the popularity of homebrewing has kept growing despite the Covid situation, and I’m told that the local homebrew supplies shop and one of their sponsors Grain and Grape were saying they had something like a 400% increase in sales since lockdown sales.
“Even over lockdown we’ve had four or five new members join us,” he says, “Despite not being able to have our meetings in person. It’s great to have new homebrewers join us and start to figure out what they enjoy about brewing, and how they can improve their beers.”
Tom agrees. “One of the things I noticed when I joined Melbourne Brewers was when someone brought in a beer they thought was bad, five or six experienced brewers would come rushing over to help taste it and figure it out.”
“It’s a lot about confidence,” says Duck. “New members can be scared to take criticism, or maybe don’t think their beer’s up to much and don’t want to put them in. At the club there are people who have the experience to help you improve. We want to help everyone improve!”
Getting Everyone Involved
While homebrewing is an increasingly popular hobby in Australia, and homebrew kits are selling out to prove it, it’s not a particularly diverse scene at present.
Hayden tells me that the club prides itself on its friendliness and welcoming attitude, “but it’s very white and male,” he says. “And that just does not reflect Melbourne at all. I’d love to know how to make it more diverse.”
The club prides itself on its friendliness and welcoming attitude
In 2017, a study by Beer Cartel revealed that only 2% of homebrewers in Australia were women. In reaction to the statistic, Melbourne craft brewery Himmelhund Brewing, led by Annabel Meagher, set up Women’s Brew Club. The Pink Boots Society of Australia is making waves too, encouraging women to gain skills in brewing and enter the brewing industry professionally. But it’s a long journey, as anyone working to improve the diversity of the beer world anywhere on the planet can attest to. Perhaps after the lockdowns the proven benefits of homebrewing can help encourage even more people to get involved.
“For our club dinner we often do what we call our Monster Brewday,” says Duck. “We bring our brew rigs down to a warehouse and we brew our beers for the dinner. And that’s when anyone can come in and take a look at the equipment, and all the different styles that are being brewed, all the techniques and all the rest of it...and they can ask experienced homebrewers anything. It’s an open floor.”
“People rock up and we can talk to them about starting brewing, or improving their beer on what kit they have, or if they want to, we can look at their financial situation and see what other equipment they could look at buying to progress their brewing. We want to show that it’s fun, accessible and anyone can do it.”
The Melbourne Brewers just want people to get brewing. And why not? There’s nothing else to do at the moment.
“It’s been a difficult year,” says Duck, “But the resilience that’s been shown in the community through the continued growth of our facebook group and the enquiries we’ve had via the website, it definitely shows that the community here in Melbourne is alive and well despite the lockdown conditions we’re under.”
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