Yarragon – a sleepy village nestled in the rolling green foothills of the Stzrelecki Ranges a mere 90-minute drive from Melbourne – has firmly established itself as a leader in small town charm in Gippsland.
It’s best known by visitors to the area for its art galleries, bespoke antique shops, fashion boutiques, gourmet delis, and, of course, like any country town worth its weight in chunky pies, its bakery.
However, in recent times it’s also shed some of its small country town chic through the re-emergence of what could very well turn into one of the more exciting craft beer establishments outside of Melbourne: the Yarragon Ale House.
Beginning life way back in 2006 when it was quietly operating as a home brew store and bottleshop, the Ale House has experienced ebbs and flows in popularity over the years. While enjoying a somewhat underground reputation on the back of its range of brewing supplies and craft beers, it struggled to fully realise its potential.
For many, chancing upon the wide selection of wares was merely a happy accident at the conclusion of a shopping spree through the historic main street rather than a planned excursion. Indeed, in recent times – like many small businesses in towns viewed as “historic” – it began to feel dated and stale, in need of reinvigoration to fully capture the imagination and attention of locals and tourists alike.
Without a doubt, however, the newly renovated Ale House has undergone a transformation that’s thrown aside stereotypes of stubbornly-dyed-in-the-wool, draught-drinking country folks sitting in carpeted pubs to instead fully embrace the rapid surge of crafty popularity in the region.
For many in the craft beer world, the COVID-related events of 2020 and 2021 necessitated drastic changes in approaches to business and accelerated the need for evolution and adaptation. In the case of the Yarragon Ale House, the constantly changing environment has matched the aspirations of the owners in their desire to disrupt the status quo.
The reinvigoration began in early 2020 when Keltie Mullin (formerly a cellar door manager at the award-winning Wild Dog Winery) joined forces with Damian Langley (who boasts more than 15 years of brewing experience and heads up the manufacturing of fresh wort kits at Eight Stacks Brewing in Traralgon) to begin the into a fully functioning taphouse.
The catalyst for change was the stark realisation by Keltie soon after joining the Alehouse’s ranks that put in motion the steps to create something never really seen in Gippsland. Or, indeed, something rarely seen in the regions. Despite being labelled an “alehouse”, he says the setup that existed at the time was decidedly un-alehouse-esque.
“You’d have people coming in here and buying slabs of cleanskin ciders straight off the pallet,” Keltie says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Why are we selling cheap, nasty stuff? We’re an alehouse’.”
The time was right for change.
What followed was an initial expansion from a dusty space with a couple of shelves’ worth of local and imported brews sitting alongside a single two-doored fridge containing the likes of VB and Great Northern into a 15 -tap bar pouring delights from Gippsland breweries (such as Good Land, Ocean Reach, Bandolier and Burra Brewing) and rusted-on crafty favourites (think BentSpoke’s Crankshaft and Deeds’ Juice Train).
Throw in three double-doored fridges replete with craft beer, and a matching and equally full cool room containing gems rarely found outside of brewery doors, and it’s apparent the Yarragon Ale House has quickly become unrecognisable from its humble beginnings, morphing into an establishment that feels like it would be more at home in the bustling industrial back alleys of Brunswick or Collingwood than the quaint surrounds of country Victoria.
Of course, none of this is by accident.
“I wanted to put beer in here that no one else had,” Keltie says. “There was nothing around that had a huge range [like we do now]. The more I looked into it, the more suppliers I found, the more breweries I contacted, and we went from there.”
With a keen desire to build connections within the industry paying dividends in terms of the stock made available to them, customers are now reaping the benefits of Keltie’s gregarious approach to business relationships. Preferring to deal directly with breweries and focusing on forming lasting relationships with reps, the desire to ensure he “always has someone he knows well to call” has seen the Alehouse flourish.
Importantly, in a reflection of the supportive vibes emanating from the craft beer community in the tougher times of late, the Ale House owners have ensured it has forged strong connections with Gippsland breweries in order to enhance their standing among locals.
Pleasingly, Keltie and Damian’s enthusiasm has been matched by that of nearby residents, who have embraced the challenge of broaching the sometimes-intimidating craft beer world. Indeed, the “have-a-go” attitude that Keltie brings has resulted in people he’s known in the area for years only just now branching away from the big conglomerates and seeking out craftier options.
“We’ve got a lot more locals coming in and wanting to try craft beer,” he says. "Whereas it used to be that people would come in to buy VB and Great Northern, now we don’t need to stock those anymore.
“We debated putting Northern or Carlton Dry on tap for our re-opening, but in the end thought it was simply a waste of a good beer tap. If people want to drink that, they can go to the pub. But we’re confident more and more people will choose here.”
Of course – as noted by Damian – the dedicated home brewing community who helped initially raise the reputation of the Ale House haven’t been left out of the refurbishments either.
“We’ve got fresh grain, hops and all manner of brewing equipment for DIY beer enthusiasts featured, a change from what used to be a rather disorganised mess of stock,”he says. “[As a result] we’ve got many home brewers in the area now knowing us as the place for supplies and advice.”
Furthering the cause has been the establishment of an ever-growing home brew club composing members with skillsets ranging from complete beginners through to those with advanced brewing setups in their sheds and backyards. For those keen to get involved, post-lockdown there’ll be monthly meets, brew demonstrations, and eventually the chance for home brewers to put their wares on tap.
The ever-present threat of COVID has had an impact, with the latest round of lockdowns across Victoria seeing the Yarragon Ale House enjoying just two weekends of business before being forced to revert back to takeaway only.
Yet, the enthusiastic response at that time certainly demonstrated the fresh appeal of the venue, with the number of patrons inquiring about bookings surprising the owners.
“We were booked out for those two weekends. The liquor license came through at 6pm on the Wednesday, and by Thursday afternoon – just in time for opening on the Friday – we had seven taps running.
“The initial response [from locals] was awesome. We didn’t even really do anything advertising wise, we just told people who came into the shop that it would be happening, and we were still booked out!”
And, while recent time spent locked down so soon after re-opening might have taken a spring out of the step of many small business owners, it only served to solidify future plans for the Ale House, with Damian and Keltie looking to re-re-expand.
“Already we’re looking at [the existing setup] going, we need more taps. You wouldn’t think it possible, but 15 taps aren’t enough already. We’ve got approval for a capacity of 63 inside, and 86 outside. We can’t wait to get the beer garden up and running heading towards summer and having food options is something we’re looking into.”
Potentially the most exciting of all is the Ale House's plans to begin brewing their own concoctions in the coming months. Using three 150 litre fermenters, the releases will feature a range of beers created from (currently) closely guarded recipes honed by Damian over the years. With the end goal of scaling up to a full commercial brewing operation over the next 12 months, it’s safe to say this iteration of the Yarragon Ale House has no intention of shying away from the spotlight.
Which, going by Keltie’s vision for the establishment is no surprise: “We want people to be coming here, and [post-lockdown] would love to have tourists coming through. There’s nowhere anywhere near here that has 14 taps like we do and the range that we do.
“It makes us a little bit unique. We want to be the place to be!”
You can find the Yarragon Ale House at 4 Rollo Street, Yarragon, and alongside hundreds of other good beer venues and breweries in the free Crafty Pint app.