The north-south divide in Melbourne may be something of an imaginary line following the flow of the Yarra, but until recently it has been all too apparent in the city’s craft beer world. Quality beer venues have been far more heavily concentrated in the northern or eastern suburbs, with the west and south – despite notable exceptions – lagging well behind.
Yet it appears that the compass point is shifting, at least when it comes to the production of beer, as more and more Victorian breweries look beyond the usual spots to set up shop. And nowhere else is this more apparent than in the rapidly expanding southeast. Having had the southeast and the Mornington Peninsula beyond pretty much to themselves for years, Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Red Hill, 2 Brothers and Hix suddenly find themselves inundated with neighbours.
Today, among those calling the southeastern suburbs home are Boatrocker, with its new Barrel Room in Braeside, Bad Shepherd and Wolf of the Willows, who’ve set up shop in Cheltenham, Kaiju! and Exit, who are buddying up in Dandenong South, Dainton Family Brewery, which has put down roots in Carrum Downs, and Riders Brewing Co, launched by Gus Kelly of Kelly Brothers Cider.
In speaking to the brewers, it’s clear that location can be a make-or-break decision for a new venture, particularly if that decision means settling in an area not renowned for embracing beers that come in anything other than clear or green bottles.
Despite that, Andrew and David Ong (right and left respectively below), the brothers behind 2 Brothers, have been doing their thing in Moorabbin since 2007, a time in which there was a high level of scepticism about the new guys on the block.
“Down this way, consumers were really only expecting to be offered national brands they’d been familiar with for decades,” says Andrew. “It might be Coopers Green or Carlton Draught.
“The first visitors we had didn’t actually believe there could be anything different available, and were actually quite sceptical on whether it would even be worth drinking.”
Yet 2 Brothers soon proved there was a market for their beers. It’s a market that is growing faster than ever too, although whether demand is growing as fast as the number of new brewing companies starting up across Victoria in the past 18 months or so remains to be seen.
Indeed, Andrew expects a lot more capacity to come on line in the next nine months and anticipates there may be an oversupply for a time, meaning it will be up to breweries to continue to drive demand for their beers.
“One of the things we’re really looking forward to with the other breweries opening up in the southeast is to raise that consumer awareness and grow that market segment,” he says.
“It’s going to be fantastic. We’d love to see something craft in every person’s fridge. Obviously we’re achieving that ourselves because it would be a travesty not to have something interesting in ours – but it would be great to see that in every household.”
Boatrocker’s Matt Houghton is more than aware of the need to grow a customer base in the southeast, as his brewery’s Braeside location “has a population of basically zero”.
“[The bars near us] are not challenging the palates. But the people who are living in the southeast are not always wanting to have to get a taxi to the city,” he says.
“Giving them something in the local area, a suburban area, they’ll definitely appreciate it I think.”
Having multiple breweries opening up their operations in the same area at around the same time could have positive flow on effects for venues in the area too, he says. But the first step is offering something worth visiting.
“We’re offering people a destination and a unique destination at that. We’re the first to have a large barrel room (pictured below) where you can try the beer and food. It’s inspiration for people to go out beyond what they know as their local.
“I’m hoping there will be a little brewery circuit tour that people can jump on board… We are open on the weekends, so you can make a real day of it. Head down Mornington way, then come up via us or Bad Shepherd.”
The doors at Bad Shepherd (who will feature in a Who Brews? on the site soon and whose tasting paddles are featured at the top of the article) have only been open in Cheltenham for a couple of weeks, but they are already enjoying heavy foot traffic from locals and beer enthusiasts visiting from further afield. Brewer Dereck Hales and his wife Diti Haniotis chose Cheltenham as they both live in the area and wanted to offer something it hasn’t seen before.
“The people in the southeast have been unloved by diverse venues and interesting places to eat,” says Diti (below with Dereck). “But we’ve seen changes in the last couple of years with some great offerings and interesting restaurants opening up around the area.
"As locals, we look at it pretty simply: we love where we live and we want to support local business where we live. It was a no brainer for setting up our brewery and restaurant here.”
And with Scott McKinnon of Wolf of the Willows joining them on the brewing side, it made good business sense too. Dereck and Scott got speaking about setting up a brewery together after meeting at an Ale Stars night at The Local Taphouse in St Kilda.
While it took time for the pieces to fall into place, the stainless steel has now arrived and brewing is underway.
There were other areas than Cheltenham they could have settled on, but Bayside became apparent as the most logical position for their needs, according to Scott.
“We chose Bayside because it’s fertile ground," he says. "There’s not much else around there compared to the north and even now the western suburbs in terms of craft beer. The eastern and city suburbs like Richmond are all pretty well catered for at this stage.
“I really think that the demographic in Bayside – which is middle to upper class and beyond – has been exposed to other palate educating pastimes like good restaurants, wine, good cheese, and coffee. Beer is the one thing that’s lacking.
“And, of course, they’ve got the disposable income to spend on it which is the key thing here really. As well as that, we both live down this way so have good networks, friends, family and so on to get the word of mouth out. That’s the key marketing tool these days.”
Despite the benefits of being one of the few players in the game, lesser known craft beer locations can come with extra difficulties. Getting other venues to open up their taps to local craft is the next big challenge, Dereck says.
“In time, it’s going to grow the craft beer community out this side of town. I really think we’ll see more places in the southeast latching on to craft and embracing it like it has been in other parts of the city.”
Scott (pictured right helping get Bad Shepherd up and running) agrees, but knows it will also be a case of proving its worth with local venue owners.
“There is some pretty incredible real estate with great views and so on, and the opportunities for having our beer in there is obviously attractive to us, but it’s whether those venue owners can see that or not. I’m not thinking we’ll be seeing any 16-tap huge beer hall style venues any time soon, it’ll more be a case of picking up the small venues and taking them through what we as craft breweries can offer.”
One venue that has been flying the flag for craft is Grape and Grain in Moorabbin. Co-owner Mark Storrs says the last year in particular has seen them turn a corner in how much craft is being sold.
“There was a point a year and a half ago where we had great customers, great people coming through, but we were really just paying the bills. In the last year alone, I’ve seen more and more people are drinking craft beer.
“One particular young fella would come in with his rat’s tail haircut and buy his Jim Beam, but one day he wanted a beer recommendation instead. I got him onto the Kellerweis by Sierra Nevada and from then on he tried something else, then something else, and now he’s home brewing. It’s little wins like that which make this worth it.”
More breweries and associated brewpubs or restaurants will bring a lot more craft beer prestige to the area, says Mark (pictured below at his bar).
“Even though our tap list is always good, things like Good Beer Week are hard work for us because we have to find someone who is willing to do something interesting with us down here in the southeastern suburbs.
“A lot of them want to stay around the city area and the inner suburbs. I’m hoping with all that’s happening it will make the area a bit more appetising for brewers and craft beer folk alike. It can only be a good thing because like attracts like. If a bar opened up across the road serving craft beer we’d probably benefit from that too because it attracts more people.”
Hot on the heels of Bad Shepherd and Wolf of the Willows, the Kaiju! family has been putting final touches to its Dandenong South brewery, at which their mates from Exit are brewing too. Previously, both breweries had been splitting their brewing across a number of locations, mainly Cavalier in Derrimut. Exit’s Fraser Rettie confirmed their first beer has been brewed in the new location – their #012 Pale Ale – while Kaiju! got in a little earlier and released the first kegs of RoboHop from the new equipment in early December.
The last in the little flurry of southeast activity (lest a few more join the movement) is Dainton Family Brewing, whose 2,000 square metre Carrum Downs site is due to open in the first quarter of 2016.
As well as finally allowing brewer Dan Dainton and his team to stop playing the gypsy at four different breweries, it will also serve as a restaurant and function space. The search for the right spot took time, but not without good reason.
“We wanted something a bit special that was going to be more of a rural setting with a brewery on it,” says Dan. “Much akin to what’s been happening at Margaret River where there are wineries spread across really lovely landscapes.
“We looked everywhere, but Mornington sort of just evolved to become the area we were looking in. The more research I did, it just seemed to be the place to do it. Plenty of foodie places around, near wineries, not too much density but also not too far from the city. Demographics were something we looked at as well. We need to be where there are beer drinkers as well as tourists.”
The demographics in the southeast means it is ripe to be turned into a craft beer hub, especially if breweries create venues that suit the more country-style environs, says Dan (pictured).
“There’s a chance to echo what’s happening in Margaret River. The councils need to change a few things to keep with the times but it’ll happen. The more breweries that open up, the better – to a point.
“We’re going to see the occasional group give it a go that it just won’t work for, and that’s ok. For the industry to really thrive you need the right people working hard and doing the right things to educate people and support the industry.
“There’s all the potential in the world, we’ve just got to make use of it.”
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.