Crafty Australian brewers blaze hoppy trails

Brewpubs offer creative menus to match the beers, creating a destination for locals and tourists. Pictures: Michael Turtle

Brewpubs offer creative menus to match the beers, creating a destination for locals and tourists. Pictures: Michael Turtle

At Murray's Brewing Company, in the NSW region of Port Stephens, the brewing is almost overshadowed by the company. What began as a small craft beer operation about 15 years ago has turned into a large complex with an outdoor deck full of tables, different food outlets, concerts, a market, and grassy areas for children to play.

I still remember the time when a beer was simply the solution to a hard-earned thirst (and, as we know, you could get it any old how). But times have changed, beer has become more boutique, and an ale is now often an experience in itself, rather than a way to refresh after one.

The large beer garden at Murray's Brewing Company in Port Stephens, NSW.

The large beer garden at Murray's Brewing Company in Port Stephens, NSW.

Murray's is an interesting example because it falls just on the edge of the Hunter Valley, Australia's oldest wine region, and while there are more than 2500 wineries across the country, breweries are starting to catch up. According to the Independent Brewers Association, there are now more than 600 independently owned breweries in Australia, a ten-fold increase in the past decade. On average, a new one opens every six days.

Wine tourism has long been something we've understood - a weekend trip to the Hunter Valley or an afternoon of tastings at the Barossa, for example. Beer tourism, on the other hand, didn't previously have quite the same reputation, although I think the tide has finally turned in Australia. People are travelling to regions to visit their favourite craft breweries, while brewery tours continue to rise in popularity. And many of these independent brewers are expanding beyond a small industrial shed to create hospitality spaces that rival the cellar doors and restaurants of many famous wineries.

Mudgee Brewing in the NSW Central West is set in rustic 100-year-old red brick former wool store.

Mudgee Brewing in the NSW Central West is set in rustic 100-year-old red brick former wool store.

Brisbane has certainly embraced the craft beer scene and there are so many breweries to choose from that many visitors join Hop On Brewery Tours, which takes groups to several locations, leads tastings, and possibly introduces the brewers themselves. If you would prefer to explore independently, you can head to Newstead, just past Fortitude Valley, where the concentration of craft breweries has led to the nickname 'The Beermuda Triangle'. The most popular venues - Newstead Brewing Co, Range Brewing, Green Beacon - are large friendly spaces where you're likely to find live music and food trucks.

Green Beacon in Brisbane is part of the craft brewery scene that's blossomed around Newstead.

Green Beacon in Brisbane is part of the craft brewery scene that's blossomed around Newstead.

What started as an inner-city trend years ago (not just in Brisbane but with places like Young Henrys in Sydney and Little Creatures in Fremantle) is now a regular feature in regional Australia. From the coast to the outback, I've come across so many breweries in my travels - often when I least expect them.

While in the Central West of NSW last year to research a story about the wine between Cowra and Orange, I discovered Pioneer Brewing, which describes its beer as grateful, humble, and free-spirited - like the life on the land here, it says. It's the only brewery in the state that grows its own malted barley on the surrounding farm and, although it appears to be relatively remote, brewer Pete Gerber says it has the advantage of actually being in a wine region.

Pete Gerber at Pioneer Brewing near Orange, NSW, drives past the barley he grows on the brewery's farm.

Pete Gerber at Pioneer Brewing near Orange, NSW, drives past the barley he grows on the brewery's farm.

"The way I look at it is, if you put a vineyard in the middle of nowhere, nobody's going to go it," he tells me. "But put seven or fifteen vineyards in an area and it becomes a destination."

Pioneer is also stocked in Sydney and does a good trade. Still, only about 6 per cent of the volume of beer sold across the country comes from independent breweries. They may not be able to sponsor national sporting teams, but craft beers have what the mainstream lagers don't - personality and prestige. Perhaps these days it's better to be cool, than ice cold.

That's certainly the sentiment that led Adam Tomlinson to set up his new brewery Stalwart in an old working-class pub in Nambour on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, giving it a new lease of life with fresh flavours and a modern food menu. Stalwart is just one of about 15 new craft breweries that have emerged in recent years in the region, which has one of the country's busiest scenes.

Adam Tomlinson at his Stalwart brewpub at Nambour on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

Adam Tomlinson at his Stalwart brewpub at Nambour on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

"It's a holiday destination, it's fantastic weather, and it's prime for this kind of thing," Adam says.

"And I think we're leading the way for how it's going to be done in the future, where every suburb is going to have a brewpub."

When every suburb or town has its own brewery, the quality of the beer may become more of a factor in tourism. The Australian beer awards, the GABS Hottest 100, gave the top spot in 2020 to 'Crankshaft' by Canberra's BentSpoke, which has a brewpub in Braddon. Will this mean more travellers will visit? It's certainly the case for Stone & Wood in Byron Bay and Balter on the Gold Coast, which took out the top spots the previous two years (although they do have a lot of other marketing going on).

Joslyn Erickson leads a Hop On Brewery Tour at Newstead Brewing Co in Brisbane.

Joslyn Erickson leads a Hop On Brewery Tour at Newstead Brewing Co in Brisbane.

Visiting is partly about the taste and partly about the environment, which is why these beer gardens in Queensland and the NSW North Coast are particularly popular. But the rise of beer tourism can also be seen as a bit of a shift away from wine tastings, which can sometimes be perceived as too swanky (with and without the 's'). Sometimes on holiday you just want somewhere relaxed to spend hours drinking in the local culture as much as the ales - all in the pursuit of hoppiness, right?

You can see more on Michael Turtle's Travel Australia Today website.