The Barossa Valley is best known for its shiraz, the Coonawarra region for its cabernet sauvignon, Clare Valley for its riesling and the Adelaide Hills for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir varieties. However, in McLaren Vale, while there is a long association with wine, there's a strong and growing argument to be made for its brewing industry.
At the heart of the region's beer scene is Vale, an operation that's been through more stages of evolution than most. Starting out as a contract operation with the name McLaren Vale Beer Company, it grew fast on the back of its Vale Ale (an early winner of the annual Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll), to the point in 2012 where the construction of a 35-hectolitre brewhouse in Willunga was required.
With brewing in their own hands, their one beer soon became four, with a lager, IPA and dark lager (later changed to amber in 2015) joining the core range, alongside a few experimental brews under the EXP appearing periodically. Over time, Knee Slapper Pilsner and the Mid Coast Bright Ale joined the ranks to solidify the regular range.
The brewery became Vale Brewing in 2015 when brothers Tim, Pete and Michael Collin took back a majority share in the company before, in October 2017, they put what had become one of the largest independently-owned brewing companies in the state on the market. In the middle of a flurry of brewery acquisitions, family-owned South Australia beverage company Bickford's, swooped in, adding Vale and sibling brands Fox Hat and Dr Pilkington's Miracle Cider to their family of brands.
Bickford's had started out in a small apothecary shop in 1839, selling cordials, water, juices and syrups, but more recently had created a portfolio of cider, vodka, wine and spirit brands under the Vok Beverages banner. This led to a few tweaks of the core lineup, most notably with the addition of the 4.2 percent ABV Tropic Ale, which has since gone on to claim the title of World's Best Pale Ale at the 2022 World Beer Awards.
One thing that has remained consistent, however, is the presence of Jeff Wright. He has been head brewer from the off and continues to lead the brewing team, overseeing recipe development and the day-to-day running of both Vale and Fox Hat as they continue to fly the flag for South Australian beer.
As of September 2022, the brewery is back in McLaren Vale too, following the opening of The Vale Taphouse on the grounds of Beresford Estate. It's a move that not only puts the brands back in the heart of the region from which it took its original name, but will give the brewing team greater scope for experimentation.