A long weekend in Bright typically guarantees a few things: accommodation will be heavily booked, and many of cafés and venues packed to the rafters. The High Country town will look a little different this Queen’s Birthday weekend, however, as although Melbourne’s latest lockdown is lifting, its residents are unable to leave the city.
The latest COVID outbreak has impacted Bright Brewery, with the team forced to postpone plans for their 15th anniversary. It’s the latest blow for a brewery that, as with its High Country peers, has had to become used to rolling with the punches.
Following the devastating fires that deprived the region of its busiest trading period at the start of 2020, COVID meant Bright’s businesses spent much of the year either closed or yo-yoing in and out of restrictions.
Yet, as Bright's co-founder Scott Brandon puts it, COVID might keep coming at them but they’ve spent a lot of time building resilience into the business.
“It’s why we built our production brewery a few years ago and started getting our beer back out there,” he says.
The idea that became Bright Brewery was conceived by Scott, his late wife Fiona Reddaway, and two of their friends, David and Julia (pictured above), in 2003, with their first beers brewed at Jamieson Brewery in Mansfield in 2005 before the brewpub – more a glorified shed, if we're honest – opened the following year.
Over the years, the shed grew in stages into one of the most impressive brewery venues anywhere in Australia, collecting major tourism awards along the way, before they opened their production brewery in 2018; it's named Fred’s Shed in honour of Fiona, who passed away after a battle with stomach cancer in 2014.
“A lot of that was to reduce our dependence on tourism because we always knew we would always be dealing with bushfires during our busiest time of years,” Scott says.
The other key reason was so that people could actually find and try Bright’s beers in Melbourne. They had a decent presence in the state capital in the early 2010s before retreating over the years with their small brewpub setup on the banks of the Ovens River unable to produce enough beer to maintain much of a wholesale presence.
Now, with the production brewery cranking out more Bright beer than ever and sales manager Evin Craney building their presence once more in Melbourne, Scott says they’re better able to tell their story. It's one centred around a brewery that cares for its surrounds and its community, with recent ventures including the launch of a PakTech recycling scheme, an XPA made with the RSPCA, and the POW pale ale aimed at encouraging positive action towards climate change to protect the Alpine region.
“For us, it’s all about the lifestyle and the place that we live in and trying to take people on that journey,” Scott says.
“When they come and visit Bright then that’s kind of obvious, but if our beer's just on a bottleshop shelf or on a tap in a bar, then unless people have been to Bright it’s harder to convey that message.”
Certainly, Bright and its eponymous brewery have become ever more closely intertwined over the last decade and a half. The natural beauty and outdoor activities that surround the town might make it a natural fit for holidaymakers but the brewery has managed to become a major drawcard for the town too.
Scott says when he and Fiona moved to the area looking to make the most of the Alpine lifestyle, they found the local tourism market hadn’t kept up with hospitality changes in Australia’s cities.
“It’s been a tourism destination for quite a long time," Scott says, "but, when we moved up here in the early 2000s, it was starting to lose that attraction.”
Their goal was to make the experience of visiting the town on a par with the skiing, paragliding and outdoor lifestyle that surrounds it.
"We wanted to really push for a change in how the town was perceived," he says, "to be a place where you go to have experiences.
“There was tourism that catered towards that very country living, the caravan parks were popular, and the accommodation was all cheap and cheerful. But nobody was really catering to the Melbourne visitors; you couldn’t get a decent coffee in town and there was no motivation for change.”
Today, you can’t just get a good coffee in town but enjoy beans roasted there as well as locally made gin – both produced in the same building, as it happens. The local beer offering in the wider region has grown substantially too; when Bright launched, their only near neighbours were Bridge Road Brewers down the road in Beechworth.
Now Beechworth has two breweries and the region has its own beer tourism campaign in the form of the long-established High Country Brewery Trail. And, while some breweries have come and gone since the first Blowhard Pales were poured, Scott says the number of breweries adds to the reasons people have for returning to the High Country year-round.
“It gives people a reason to come back or spend more time here,” he says.
“It’s all about experience, and the more we can show there’s a lot to experience here, the more we can ensure people come back to the region.”
As for their own growth, Scott says they've been fortunate to be able to build the business and learn along the way as the industry has matured.
“I look back and think we were really green, weren’t we?" he says. “But every time we’ve invested in ourselves and taken that next step we’ve found it really worthwhile.”
The team has grown substantially from the two couples of those early years, swelling beyond 70 in summer, with the core team now including Evin in sales, Laura Gray in marketing, and head brewer Reid Stratton, who joined from New England Brewing Co in 2019.
“You need good quality people to get good quality beer,” Scott says. “I’m a firm believer in getting people who are experts in what you’re trying to do to be part of the journey. I’m really excited for the potential we have; we’ve got great brewers, great product and a great team to get that to market.”
The plan now is for their wholesale program to grow further, an already busy limited release schedule to get busier still, and for more changes at their award-winning venue too.
And, while Bright might be quieter than usual for a long weekend, Scott says there’s plenty to look forward to as winter sets in.
“There’s not a lot of people in town at moment but at least it’s snowing,” Scott says. “If we can’t work, at least we can go for a ski, which is why we live here after all.”
Bright Brewery's birthday celebration might be on hold for the moment, but the brewery is ramping up for the Dark Days Festival from July 16 to 18 – details here.
Photo at top of article (left to right): Bright founders David, Julia, Scott and Fiona.