It’s not all about wine up here these days, you know. World-renowned wine expert Jancis Robinson might once have said: “Semillon is Australia’s white wine gift to the world” – a comment that promptly put the Hunter Valley on the global wine map – but, according to one of the region’s growing number of small breweries, the area today is “the Bermuda Triangle of Aussie craft beer.”
With Hunter Beer Co, Hope Brewhouse, IronBark Hill Brewhouse and Lovedale Brewery all within a few kilometres of each other, the area’s craft beer reputation is certainly growing stronger. Once seen more as an appendage to the Newcastle beer scene, the Hunter Valley is now very much its own entity and, when it comes to awards, the region’s brewers keep on winning.
Like most of Australia’s wine regions, accommodation abounds, making it a great place to head for a weekend if you fancy being a wine and beer wanker in a single hit. You’ll also find the Hunter has a deservedly excellent reputation for food.
Hunter Beer Co
Come armed with questions. If there’s anything you don’t understand, or have always wanted to know, about beer then this is the place to get your answers. What’s more, you don’t have to climb a mountain to see this sage; he’ll be behind the bar pouring your beers.
Keith “The Beer Guy” Grice knows a thing or two about beer and more than a bit about brewing. And, with the brewery located handily inside the bar area, he can literally walk you through the process.
That said, the best way to get to know the brewery’s beers is to drink them. A cracking way to start, particularly if it’s a super sunny day up the Hunter, is with the team’s super fresh Kolsch (Keith likes to share the accolades for the beers they produce with his fellow brewers). There’s always plenty of options on tap to get stuck into but, if it’s pouring, ensure you save some room for the Slaked Magpie. This superior dark beer is awash with coffee, chocolate, and vanilla and was awarded a gold medal at the 2016 AIBAs.
There’s always seasonal beers aplenty – often something completely different too, such as the Magnum Wolf IIPA, the creation of Keith’s young protégé Daniel that sits at a hefty 10 percent ABV – and a portion of every beer is made available to take home in 750ml bottles too.
Keith and his crew await you at Wine Country Drive & Fleming Street, Nulkaba.
There are a couple of odd things about this place. Firstly, it’s a Crowne Plaza Hotel in wine country with a brewery attached to it. Second, it has a full-sized tugboat sat out the back in the vineyards (see top), relocated there by the business’ charismatic owner Dr Jerry Schwartz after an acquaintance informed him he had no more use for it as a home. It’s just sitting there, staring across a sea of vines, nowhere to go.
Then there’s the chance you might bump into brewers tearing around the sprawling site between the brewery and the bottling area in a golf buggy, while out at the back of the hotel’s golf course the brewery team had been growing its own hops. We say “had” as the local kangaroos decided they quite liked them so duly ate the whole lot.
The brewery’s Lovedale Lager is a standout, melding three types of German hops with a toasty malt backbone in such a fashion it’s collected trophies for fun (as, indeed, have many of the Lovedale and Sydney Brewery branded beers and ciders created onsite). There's a lot going on besides brewing too: the hotel and brewery put on a successful beer degustation night in spring 2017, at which brewers, winemakers and craft beer aficionados rubbed shoulders while quaffing a range of award-winning beers, and the first batches of whisky maturing in Hunter Valley wine barrels adjacent to the brewery are getting ever closer to release.
Extra-hoppy roos, grinning brewers in golf buggies and hard liquor – it sounds like the Australian sequel to Caddyshack...
Lovedale Brewery is at 430 Wine Country Drive, Lovedale.
In 2016, Matt Hogan and his team took out the Champion Small Brewery trophy at the Craft Beer Awards. It was so unexpected, with none of the brewery's beers having won individual trophies, that Matt had to be beckoned from the back of the room to the stage. But it proved to be a sign of things to come: the following year, Hope collected gold medals for both the Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and Chocolate Milk Porter, with silvers and bronzes going to six other beers on the brewery’s ever expanding roster.
They’re brewed at Hope Estate, a winery deeply embedded within Hunter’s beery Bermuda Triangle. It’s the site of regular – and vast – concerts; The Boss has played here on multiple occasions and Midnight Oil pulled in 20,000 during spring 2017. Such crowds require a lot of refreshment, leading owner Michael Hope to figure he was better off brewing his own beers rather than buying in hundreds of kegs from others. So, having snapped up Murray’s old brewery, they started brewing a mid-strength for concerts before the wider success of the beers – now available in cans too – gave Matt and his growing team more leeway with the styles they brew.
It’s a situation they take full advantage of; take a stroll into the bar and pick from any of 12 taps or grab a paddle or two and work your way through them all. Chances are you’ll be able to work from lager through NEIPA and fruit sour to something barrel aged in the one sitting. What’s more, as you do so, you could ponder whether The Who’s Roger Daltrey might have knocked back an imperial stout, Springsteen chugged on a Black IPA or two or whether Jagger favoured the English Dark.
Thunder along the road to 2213 Broke Road, Pokolbin, for your fill of Hope beers.
IronBark Hill Brewhouse
If you know the Hunter Valley, you will know the name Drayton is synonymous with winemaking in the area. Now it has embraced the craft beer world too with its very own Brewhouse at Peter Drayton Wines. A cellar door was built that included a brewery, one where the team grew from 600 litres to 1700 litres per week in the space of the first six months of brewing; the aim, according to brewer Andrew Drayton, is to triple that again.
The brewery/cellar door has a beautiful little outdoor area in which to enjoy the beers, with the American Pale Ale a standout, full of tropical fruits, citrus and pine flavours and aromas. There are seasonal beers on tap too, with examples at time of writing including the Black Forest Stout brewed with cherries and dark chocolate and the 2017 Anniversary Ale that sits at 9.1 percent ABV – one for the journey-home-nap-in-the-back-of-the-car.
You'll find that beautiful little outdoor area at 694 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin.
Your Designated Driver
Should no one in your party fancy taking on driving duties for the day, help is at hand. Dave’s Travel & Events, which took out a gold in the 2017 NSW Tourism Awards, runs Hop Hunter tours of the region in an in-yer-face orange minibus.
It's a seven hours or so trip, with collections points in Newcastle and the Valley. At time of publication, the man behind the wheel was Shannon, ready to be battered with questions and ready to cater the trip to your beer knowledge, from veteran to newcomer. You'll get a walkthrough of the brewing process, lunch, access to areas not normally open to the general public and a chance to pick the brewers' brains.