Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of beer in Australia will be well aware of the crucial role played by Matilda Bay. Launched in 1983 at the height – or nadir – of the industry’s domination by a handful of large brewing companies, the brewery is rightly recognised as ground zero for the contemporary craft beer world we’re lucky enough to enjoy today.
It wasn’t just the variety of beers they brought to drinkers starved of choice that made Matilda Bay so important either. The founders showed another, better, more welcoming way to run pubs, going on to run dozens across the country after honing their skills in WA, and proved to be grand disruptors as much as far-sighted innovators.
Beers like Dogbolter and Redback grew from cult favourites to Aussie icons. Even after a hostile takeover by what was then Foster’s, and a subsequent relocation of the brewery’s home to Dandenong in Victoria, Matilda Bay kept looking to push local palates in new directions, whether through one of the country’s first saisons or classic American pale ale Alpha, with Brad Rogers at the helm before he left to found Stone & Wood with a couple of CUB colleagues.
Yet the good times weren’t to last, and the once mighty did indeed fall. That said, fall isn’t really the best term, as it was more of a long, drawn out fade into irrelevance; as the craft beer world it had helped create finally burst into life, the Matilda Bay name was attached to a series of beers best left forgotten; Itchy Green Pants, anyone? Dare we even mention Frothy?
While the Yak Ales lineup the brand had spawned took on a life of its own, Matilda Bay became rather sad. The brewery had been moved from Dandenong to Port Melbourne with grand plans only for CUB to sell the whole shebang to Colonial. And with countless beer lovers still clinging to the faint hope this essential piece of Australia’s rich brewing tapestry could still be turned around, eventually it became clear it was kindest to let it rest in peace, to remember the good days and, just maybe, pretend most of the later years never happened.
Where it had ended was so far from where it started out. Surely there was no coming back. Unless…
Wind back a few years and when I was drafting my first book on the Australian beer scene I spent a few hours in the company of Matilda Bay co-founder (and founder of much else in beer, wine and coffee) Phil Sexton at the Giant Steps winery in Healesville. The main reason for our catch up was to go over the early years of Matilda Bay, the Sail & Anchor, and the rise (and fall in many cases) of microbreweries in the 80s and 90s.
When we moved to the present, as it was then, he said if he was to start a brewery again, he’d do it there: in the Yarra Valley. And now he has, albeit you’d call it a reboot as much as a startup.
You’d also have to admit it’s the only conceivable way in which Matilda Bay had any chance of resuscitation: the return of its original leader, on a mission to reclaim its heritage, its reputation, its honour.
Making the process easier was the fact he had a place in which to base the rebuild: the aforementioned former home of Giant Steps. At time of writing, the transfer of the winery from the rear of the building to a nearby vineyard was still a work in progress, but the remainder of 336 Maroondah Highway is now very much Matilda Bay, and very much a brewpub.
Sure, structurally it’s the same high-ceilinged, light-filled space, with the kitchen where it always was, still pumping out delicious wood-fired pizzas and other dishes showcasing local produce, and the verandah remaining as good a place as ever to settle when visiting the Valley. But otherwise it’s pretty much all beer: from the fridges full of cans and bottles, the stacks of cases and the branded merch in the shop, to the 20 hectolitre brewery in the Beer Hall at the rear, complete with a vast mural described as the contents of Phil’s mind made into art.
The bar pours Matilda Bay’s core lineup plus the odd seasonal – there’s no unlimited limiteds here – and some guest beers from local indies. The visual palate, such as the tiles lining the island bar that greets you when you walk in, feels very Matilda Bay, even if nobody really knew what Matilda Bay was for years, and the long tables running alongside the brewery are just crying out to host lively beer dinners.
Adding to the vibe are the nods to Phil and his team’s passion for music. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps album features within that giant mural, while old gig posters catch your eye when you’re on the way to attend to nature. What’s more, it’s the only Aussie venue to date in which I’ve heard tracks from Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys’ concept album about Paektu Mountain in North Korea.
Of course, a pretty venue, delicious pizzas, and good taste in music aren’t going to see Matilda Bay reclaim former glories, no matter how central an excellent hospitality offering was to the success of the early years. You’re going to need to make, and sell, some pretty good beer. On that front the approach has been to lean on the brewery’s heritage rather than start anew – and when you’ve got recipes stretching back to a mere four years after Sierra Nevada launched their first beer, why wouldn’t you?
Thus, at the heart of the new Matilda Bay are nailed-on classics from the old Matilda Bay, those Phil believed stood the test of time. Dogbolter returns as a “winter ale”. Alpha – an AIBA Champion Australian Beer as recently as 2013 – fills the pale ale slot. Redback has been given a nudge towards modern Aussie pales without losing its Euro wheat soul, now called Redback Summer.
The main new beer, flagged up by Phil in interviews ahead of the brewery’s reopening, is the Owl Original Ale, which takes inspiration from the classic English golden ales Phil enjoyed in his early CAMRA days in the UK and sprinkles in elements of other easy-going Northern European ale styles.
There was a saison on tap and a limited release Pils brewed for Oktoberfest when I called in during spring 2021, so you should be able pick up the theme pretty easily. It’s as if the brewing team – which at time of writing featured, among others, Phil’s son, a former distiller, a winemaker, and one of the industry’s most experienced consultants – has scoured the world for timeless styles and set about recreating them for the Aussie market.
It all makes so much sense, it’s a wonder things managed to go so awry in the first place. Where the new Matilda Bay will end up sitting with the modern beer world it helped birth remains to be seen, but if the main reason for this new chapter was to reclaim the brand and do it right, it’s safe to say they’re off to a fine, and refined, start.