The small beach town of Robe, on South Australia’s picturesque Limestone Coast, has always been a popular spot for Adelaide families holidaying in summer. It’s also home to some surprisingly innovative producers.
Despite a population of just 1400, the town boasts a camel dairy, an uncultured cheesemaker, a recycling hub making bowls out of bread tags, and one of the nation’s most unusual breweries.
The wood-fired kettle is one of the main points of difference at Robe Town Brewery, where Maris and Kristi Biezaitis (pictured above right and second left) make farmhouse style beers, some of which draw inspiration from their Latvian heritage. Traditional techniques like using hay for filtration and open fermenting at ambient temperatures make the brewing process labour intensive, but their idiosyncratic beers have developed a loyal following among locals.
That their appeal isn’t more widespread is mainly due to limited availability. It’s why Maris spent several years searching for a larger site before moving to a cavernous shed on the edge of town in October 2019.
Initially operating from a temporary bar, the relocated brewery attracted a stream of visitors that grew steadily until business came to a grinding halt last March. After taking stock and pondering whether it was even worth finishing the expansion, Maris put the unplanned break to use cutting concrete, putting drainage in and installing a range and chimneys. By the second half of last year, he had a permanent bar and was brewing from the new site. What followed exceeded his wildest expectations.
As South Australia opened up and intrastate tourism boomed, the brewery enjoyed its busiest winter ever in terms of sales, followed by “probably the busiest summer this year as well.” The larger floor space couldn’t have come at a better time: while Robe Town’s previous home could barely accommodate a dozen people even pre-COVID restrictions, the new 250 square metre bar had space for more than ten times that number.
The 12 taps coming out of the new coolroom are the main attraction, but Maris and Kristi were also determined to create a venue for local artists. The stage they built now hosts live music every Friday, a monthly open mic session, and one-off events like comedy shows.
For a small town like Robe, it’s an exciting development and Maris is thrilled that “it's developed into a bit of a creative hub.”
And, because the brewery owners are doing much of the work themselves, there are still plenty of upgrades to come. They’re just putting the finishing touches on a kitchen that will allow them to serve platters of local produce – and there are already plans to add another eight taps to showcase something close to the entire Robe Town range.
When the brewery launched in 2013, their beers stood out in stark contrast to the often hop-forward offerings of their contemporaries. But, while Maris favours maltier profiles and some of his brews eschew hops entirely, he’s no ideologue.
In response to a question that visitors once posed regularly, he released Do You Make An IPA (pictured below) a few years ago. Now, he says: “We’ve got four ales that are more hop-driven plus a hoppy light brown ale.”
Despite these additions, however, the many darker ales, sour mashes and fruit beers available remain more typical of his approach.
With such an extensive range – there are 24 brews available at time of writing – Maris is looking forward to installing a new 1200 litre kettle – one that’s also directly wood-fired. It’s part of an upgrade that will allow him to more than double production, and he’s just taken on another brewer to help with the increased volume.
“We're still not going to be a huge brewery, but that extra capacity and efficiency in the brewhouse will allow us to distribute our beers a bit further than just the local region,” he says.
The expansion is timely, because since opening the new taproom, he says: "We're using almost all the beer we can make here at the brewery.”
It means the rest of 2021 will be filled with Maris getting the new equipment set up and refining processes in the brewhouse. And, while he’ll be thrilled to see more product on the shelves in Adelaide and Melbourne, he promises there’ll always be a selection that’s exclusive to the brewery.
“We still come out with new beers every month. My neighbour came by recently with a box of nectarines and asked if I could use them in a beer, so we picked a whole bunch and made 600 litres of the Nectarine Dream sour.
“It's characteristic of these types of beers we make, which is seasonal, one-off things. Being a small brewery gives us the flexibility to be more experimental... that's what I enjoy doing and it’s the reason I'm in the industry.”