It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it...
"Sometimes we get days where it’s too hot for foreign visitors to drink the beers and ciders,” Aussie Brewery Tours owner and driver Scott Dewar says.
It was an unexpected opening comment and one difficult to fathom.
As one of so many West Australians who have cracked the code to sucking the frothies on a hot day, I scoff at such a notion.
For any visitor who gets to spend some time in Melbourne, a daytrip to the Yarra Valley is a fabulous day out.
The usual thing to do is the winery tours but in recent years a young former IT guy has branched out into beer and cider tours into the valley. It is a no-brainer alternative, so it is surprising the venture only got going five years ago.
It runs with the same formula as the winery tours — a morning pick-up at your hotel, a nifty ride out on the freeway, through outer ’burbs such as Ringwood that scream of Kath & Kim kitsch.
As we drive, Scott gives the passengers a lowdown on the history of booze in Australia and what a huge part it has to play in the nation’s character and psyche.
He also covers the world’s influence on beers, such as the Belgian, German and Czech traditions of beer making, and how those influences have eventually dripped down to Aussie brewing.
The ingredients of the brews is another part of the informative outing. Rice for Asian beers, corn in the Americas, wheat in Australia, and so on. It is very interesting and a lot more complex mix than you may think.
The first stop is Napoleone Brewery and Ciderhouse. A gorgeous, rolling green venue that grows its own apples for the cider, and its neighbouring property is Victoria’s No.1 wedding venue.
The building is huge and rustic-as-all get-up, with a 100-plus restaurant and a tasting area that could happily wet 40 whistles at a go.
Beginning with light brews, the ciders are first on the tasting menu. The “oohs and aahs” around the table indicate a seemingly solid knowledge of the tasting process, with samples coming in seven- minute intervals.
Scott gives the briefing on the next tasting but, as we have tasted 10 different tipples, the attention to detail by the tour goers is slowly but surely on the wane.
But appearances are everything and we battle through to the end, with a black-as-night beer that pleasingly is pelting with chocolate and coffee flavours. Yum.
Just before we leave, we hear a likely story about the Belgian women brewers, who many generations ago would make up a brew. The ladies would place a broom at the top of the driveway to indicate the brew was ready for the “drive-through” takeaway crowd. And with this, we have the link between women’s brewing and witchcraft. Tenuous ... but in the spirit of entertaining.
On the way to lunch through lush farm ground, it is a delight seeing a maremma sheepdog guarding a flock of sheep on a hill. Never seen that before.
A minute later on the other side of the road are the pelts of four foxes, hanging limp off the barbed-wire fence, killed by a farmer, and I guess as a warning to others.
Same problem all over the Australian farming landscape.
A few minutes up the road, we pull into a small wooden building that is home to Hargreaves Hill Brewing.
The owners suffered terrible losses in the recent bushfires, which wiped out their entire brewery. Only help from the community got them back in business.
The lunch area was small and ordinary, as was the lunch. No worries, a paddle of six brews took our minds back to the all-important beers.
The final beer shooter contained a Kenneth imperial beer that clocks in at 8.2 per cent. Imperial = big booze content.
The next stop has been talked up a lot by our trusty guide Scott. Off we head to the multi-award-winning gin distillery Four Pillars.
Sitting unceremoniously next to a mechanics’ shop, Four Pillars looks out of place. Entering the tasting room, you are hit with the strong, warm wafts of glasses full with half a dozen spices. It is a delightful assault on the senses.
Through big circular windows, you can see into the distillery and watch the producers at work. The distillery has twice taken out the “best gin in the world” title, handed out in San Francisco in 2013 and 2016. No mean feat.
Again the samples are there ready, looking pretty, with colours and cute ice cubes in shot glasses, with a tiny bottle of tonic chilling in the world’s smallest ice bucket.
One of the samples is the fearsome sailor’s brew that clocks in at 58 per cent alcohol content. Talk about blowing your head off.
The problem is I cannot abide gin. Never have. But in the spirit of the day, I dutifully sipped and kind of appreciated the works of the makers. With a squinting glance, down it went, without much joy.
As an interesting aside, founder and distiller Cameron Mackenzie had a not so long ago Olympic Games history — the bronze medallist in the Atlanta 400m. Now he spends his days distilling world-title gin from a tiny shed in the Yarra Valley.
Feeling a little bit battered and ready for sleepy time, I asked Scott if we were done, ready for the ride back to bustling Melbourne town.
But no, he tells me, we have one more brewery to go to. Paddles of samples are done with but you can get a schooner of choice at the last joint on our jaunt.
Coldstream Brewery is a small log cabin, with a bar attended by a few locals and tradies. You could barely swing a cat in there. But it was very cosy, and the conversation, fuelled by the day, flowed just like the beer did all day.
One pint turned into two as we relaxed into the soft chairs and easy chatter. In the end, we admitted we had done what we came to do and then some, and piled in the mini-van for the ride back to town.
We were met by the driving Melbourne winter rain and peak hour traffic. You wouldn’t want to do this trip very often but as a one-off it was a great day out in the green to experience some fabulous brews and banter.
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