“I think any centre, whether it be a capital city or a small country town, is only as vibrant as the food and beverage scene is… and the sky’s the limit with the scene here.” - Jade Burley, Shepparton Brewing.
Over the past decade or so, it's become increasingly easy to find a local brewery – sometimes even a multi-tap crafty venue that wouldn't be out of place in a capital city – when travelling around Australia. Sure, you can still rock up into towns with the two hotels and a club pouring six varieties of industrial lager, but a growing number of regional towns and cities have breweries to call their own.
One, however, had been proving rather resistant – particularly when you consider its size: a population of around 50,000 inhabit the main city and its nearest towns, and it services a wider community around three times that size. What's more, it's only two hours from Australia's craft beer capital, Melbourne. Yet Shepparton hadn't been a brewery in almost a century.
That's all changing – and how. You wait 100 years for a brewery and then three come along at once...
There used to be a well-established brewery in Shepparton, but it shut down in the 1920s, and the town hasn’t been known for beer since then. Instead, the area is better known for its agriculture – in particular its orchard fruits – and for one of the world's largest fruit canneries, SPC Ardmona. But even in this drought-ridden land, the tide can change quickly.
“We’re less a craft brewery and more a local brewery, a regional brewery in the tradition of ones that have been here before… the whole ‘Drink fresh, drink in the shadow of the brewery’ mindset.”
The first relief for new beer production in Shepparton came with the opening of Shepparton Brewery in April 2019. Restaurateurs Matt Milsome and Daina Winch seem to have been caught in Shepparton’s orbit for some time: from Melbourne, they made a tree change to set up a restaurant in regional Nagambie; after that, they opened Teller in Mooroopna, the first hatted restaurant in the Goulburn Valley.
But, as Matt and Daina realised that their most loyal followers were from Shepparton, they gave in and made the move to Shepparton itself, setting up Teller Collective (and keeping the chef’s hat).
When they sold their last restaurant three years ago, it looked like the power couple would hang up their boots. But once you’ve developed an eye for good food and drink, it’s hard to stop.
“Matt’s one of these can’t-sit-still sort of cats,” says Jade Burley, marketing and sales guy at Shepparton Brewery. “He always had an interest in beer and brewing, and felt there was a market for a little brewery restaurant in Shepp.”
As luck would have it, Matt and Daina crossed paths with Jade, who’d previously worked in sales for Hawkers, Deeds, and Moo Brew, and had been part of the team at Saint John Craft Beer and Empress Craft Beer in Tasmania. With the couple’s hospitality background and Jade’s in the beer industry, teaming up seemed like a no-brainer.
Thanks to Matt and Daina’s following as restaurateurs, their venue was always going to be strong on hospitality. But, from the beginning, the plan was to be a brewery that has a restaurant, rather than the other way around.
A 500 litre Braumeister is the beating heart of brewing operations – a size suited to knocking out a few thousand litres a month in their location smack bang in the middle of town, but small enough for Matt to set up and operate the system himself.
Since selling their last restaurant, Matt turned his long-time interest in homebrewing into a brewing obsession. He took the attention to detail and love of research that had served him so well as a chef and used them to develop himself as a brewer.
Shepparton Brewery started with a mid-strength ale, a common ale, an American-style pale ale, and a red ale that remains Matt’s favourite of their brews.
“We don’t want to come into town with big massive IPAs and scary stuff for the locals,” Jade says.
And the locals have responded well. The in-venue demand for Shepparton Brewery’s beer has been high enough that Matt’s had to work tirelessly in the brewhouse just to keep the taps flowing, and they're already making moves to increase capacity.
“We’ve got two new 1,200 litre ferment vessels arriving in later this month, so hopefully that’ll get us to the point where we can service half a dozen local customers outside of the venue.
“If we feel there’s enough volume there with local retailers and venues, the next step will be setting up a three-vessel system somewhere – still within Shepp, but on another site.”
Having said that, the brewery’s focus is not on continuous outward growth and distribution, but on looking after their own region.
“We want to provide for the local area: Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley first and foremost, maybe northeastern Victoria as a wider catchment… but we’re really not interested in doing much more outside of that.”
As you might expect, Shepparton Brewery’s focus on local extends to the hospitality side of things; almost all of the produce comes either directly from a local producer, or from a local supplier.
At a glance, the menu is classic brewpub fare: burgers, pizzas, meat plates, small plates, and tacos. But when you notice some of the details – like the house-smoked Goulburn Valley trout pizza with leek, almonds and fried capers, or the eggplant chips with black garlic aioli – you see the high standard of the food.
“Almost on a daily basis, people visiting the venue say, 'We don’t feel like we’re in Shepp – we feel like we’re in Melbourne.’ And, when you’re in this trade, that’s pretty much the nicest thing someone can say to you.”
But, at the end of the day, Jade reckons the real competition isn’t coming from Melbourne, or even from other venues in Shepparton.
“The biggest hospitality operators are people’s back sheds. That’s who you’re competing with: the guy who’s got the best barbecue area in his shed!”
WILD LIFE BREWING
“We want to celebrate those precious moments of freedom: out on the boat, or the camper van, or with family. It’s all about the life you live on the weekend – your real life, essentially, which we’re calling your wild life.”
The second brewing company coming to this part of the world is bringing a complementary model to Shepparton Brewery. Where the latter’s emphasis is on bringing people to the source of good beer, Wild Life Brewing is coming from the other direction: getting good beer out to where people are already drinking.
Jack Thomson, co-owner and marketing guy behind Wild Life, says: “Shepp Brewery is really hospitality focused. But we’re all about where you drink and how you drink when you’re not at the bar – shed drinking culture, and out with your mates.
“People can go and explore and learn about flavours at Shepp Brewery, then hopefully have a couple of our cases in the shed.”
The Wild Life team is three guys – Jack, his brother James, and their mate Rhys Porter – who grew up together in Shepparton. They developed the idea for the company quite organically: Jack moved to Melbourne and started working in the booze industry, and his visits home (with tinnies of new beers, of course) would get James and Rhys excited about good beer. The trio got into homebrewing and, in time, they decided to challenge the mainstream beers on tap in Shepparton, and to brew a local beer for the town to call its own.
“Regional towns are run by big beer,” Jack says. “So, when we started talking about what we wanted to brew, the mission was always to meet the same occasion as those beers meet. It has to be accessible in palate, accessible in price, and built for the way people drink in the country. It’s all about sessionability, and having really considered, simplified flavours.
“There’s no need to get over-complicated when we’re trying to build a beer you can drink in the shed with your mates.”
They’re calling their first beer an Aussie Session Ale – essentially a midstrength XPA – and describe it as “made for drinking not savouring”.
"We’re not going to bust into Shepp and say, ‘Here’s a bunch of double IPAs’,” Jack says. “We’ll say, ‘You like Carlton Dry and Great Northern? Try our XPA. Try our lager. See what you’re missing out on.’ ”
They’re keen to explore other flavours once they’ve built up their brand, and are hoping to bring out a sour within a year. But since their aim is to focus on Shepparton, they’re not planning to release new beers all the time.
"We’re really thinking about the occasion of our drinker, and our drinker isn’t going to drink a new beer every pint.”
The trio have gone down the contract brewing route to begin with, working out of Hawkers to date. They’re open to building a brewery further down the line, but didn’t see it as the right option for them as they were starting out.
“We wanted to build a site, but as we started building the brand on paper, we fell in love with it so quick. And we thought we’d rather bring this to Shepp sooner than later.”
But this doesn’t mean they won’t have a presence in town. The team decided to think outside the box: they’ve taken a shop front with the goal of being neither a bar, nor brewery, nor bottleshop, but a pop-up where locals can come hang out.
“It’s not a country pub… we’ve got enough pubs in Shepp any way. But it’s not hipsterville either. It’s more like your mate’s lounge room. We’ve got a bunch of lounges and plants, we’ve got taps and fridges of beer, but it’s not meant to be where you come and have your local session.”
Set to open in late October, Jack describes it as a “beer education wonderland” – a place where locals can come in for a beer and a friendly chat with the brewers.
“You’ve got questions? Well, come down and we’re happy to have a chat, show you some hops and grain, and talk about what happens when you buy local, and what happens when you buy from CUB. Really start the conversation with locals about what craft beer can be.
“It’s all about taking an approach that’ll make the beer more accessible.”
Since the plan for Wild Life is to be more or less only available in Shepparton, this approach – making beer as accessible to locals as possible – about more than just business to the three Wild Lifers. It’s about being part of the town, and being a community member.
“We’re focused on the town – it’s in all of our blood. If that means having a smaller footprint, we’re okay with that.”
THREE LEGGED COW BREWING
A third brewery looking to open just a few kilometres from the centre of Shepparton is Three Legged Cow Brewing. Named after a farm-animal-turned-hopping-pet, it’s a four-person operation brewing out of a shed on a cattle farm.
While they’re planning to start with three easy-drinking beers to get them into the market – a pale ale, a SMaSH (single malt and single hop beer) with El Dorado hops, and a summer ale – Three Legged Cow’s goal is to increase the complexity of styles over time.
Jeramy Blight, brewer and co-founder, says: “We’ll make some funky beers down the track, and hopefully get renowned for that. We’ll make some saisons and other farmhouse-oriented styles. We’re hoping to do some fruit beers, and get some great flavours with sours.
“But initially, just some mainstream good quality beers.”
Beginning with a 50 litre Braumeister and a couple of 330 litre fermenters, Three Legged Cow is still very much in its infancy. But the team has a vision of opening to the public in the future, and of increasing capacity.
“I’d like to buy more fermenters at a lower volume and have more variety,” says Jeramy. “If someone comes in and says ‘Can you brew me something for a wedding?’, I’d like to do that.”
For now, though, the team is brewing for their own enjoyment as much as for any commercial interest.
“We’re just having a bit of fun. We’ll go to festivals, we’ve got some outlets already lined up – that’s all we need at this point.”
While they’re still waiting for approvals, the team is aiming to be open by early 2020.
IS THIS TOWN BIG ENOUGH FOR THE THREE OF US?
It’s an interesting coincidence that, in a town with no breweries, three breweries would start their businesses more or less concurrently.
The question is: is there a market for three breweries in Shepparton?
It's worth noting regional Victoria already has a reputation for good food and drink. Between wineries, restaurants, local produce, locally made products and, of course, beer, Victoria is nurturing a food and beverage culture that’s not only growing in quality, but spreading further and further from the cities.
“The Yarra Valley is somewhere it’s always happened, and Mornington Peninsula… but out into the proper rural centres it’s really starting to happen as well,” Jade says.
Jack from Wild Life agrees.
“Living in Melbourne [where he works for Starward Whisky], it’s like every weekend I spend my time in the country, because that’s where the good food’s ending up now.
“Shepparton’s got a nice little coffee scene happening, and a great rustic dining scene, and tourism is developing more and more… we want to do everything we can to help build this new image for regional Victoria.”
When it comes to beer specifically, the independent beer movement is certainly reaching into the regional areas, as breweries, venues and festivals are helping to spread the love.
“An hour and a half to the west you’ve got Bendigo, with a thriving craft beer scene,” Jade says. “You go up to Albury-Wodonga now, they’ve got a good annual beer festival, and half a dozen venues to get into it there. We’re about an hour and a half from Beechworth and Bright, and all the other High Country centres, where if they don’t have their own brewery in the town, there’s still a real scene there.
“And within an hour of Shepp, we’ve got probably six or eight breweries now - Nagambie, Black Dog, Malt Shed in Wangaratta, Palling Bros down in Heathcote… there’s almost a bit of a brewery loop you can do now.”
While you might struggle to do this loop in one day, it gives the Shepparton operators confidence that, in some ways, Shepp is one more link in the chain. But the reasons for their confidence go beyond following a trend – they see things specifically about Shepparton that make it ripe for well-made local beer.
Wild Life very much sees itself as serving the new generation in Shepparton.
Jack says: “There’s an old 50s institution of a pub in Shepp called the Terminus Hotel that was recently revitalised with two different banks of taps – one tap row with big beer options, and the other having a bunch of crafties.
“There is a new generation of beer drinker coming up in regional towns, and we want to be a part of that.”
While Shepparton Brewery focuses on the details of their beer and food in their venue, they consider themselves to be part of a larger ecosystem.
“There’s a fairly vibrant homebrew scene in Shepp,” Jade says. “And there’s guys that do their own salamis every year, their own preserves and sauces, do a bit of brewing… there are older Greek and Italian guys who make grappa or do their own wines in the backyard.
“There’s a real foodie undercurrent here that the casual observer passing through Shepp might not see. I think what people are knocking out in their own homes is of a fairly high standard. There’s people who like to try new things, and people who like things to be full of flavour. And that’s one of the things that gave us confidence that there was a market here.
“I think any centre, whether it be a capital city or a small country town, is only as vibrant as the food and beverage scene is… and the sky’s the limit with the scene here.
“Hopefully in the future it’s bit more of the norm to see a couple of local beers and ciders on tap wherever you go, and see packaged product in all the local restaurants. And hopefully it serves as a way to really keep driving the food and beverage scene forward, and gives other operators here some confidence to take on cafés and restaurants, and really invest in the food and beverage scene here.”