James Booth and his dog, Macca, at Glenrowan. Photo: Teagan Glenane
Fourth-generation winemaker James Booth is accustomed to weekenders navigating the gravel tracks of Glenrowan for a tipple at the cellar door of his family's vineyard, Taminick Cellars.
Since a brewery arm was added to the family business 12 months ago, however, craft-beer enthusiasts have rivalled those visiting Taminick Cellars to sample the winery's bold reds and fortified wines.
''Craft beer is definitely changing people's perceptions of what beer is,'' Booth says. ''People are becoming more adventurous in their palates and that's driving more interesting flavours from brewers.''
Unshackled: Bright, a brewer's dream. Photo: Cathryn Tremain
At one year old, Booth's Black Dog Brewery is the baby of what is called the High Country Brewery Trail. It's a rollicking 150-kilometre drive championing small-batch craft brewers, with other pint stops at Bright Brewery in Bright, Sweetwater Brewing in Mount Beauty, and Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth.
An important secret of the region's brewing success lies in the high country's abundance of soft water, which lacks high quantities of minerals and creates a blank canvas for brew building.
At Black Dog Brewery, Booth uses the property's rainwater to create his range of beers. The popularity of Black Dog's American-style IPA and Pale Ale means he already needs to upgrade his small 75-litre brew house.
''People are loving the big kick and bitterness from IPA beers,'' he says.
For Booth, it's the loosening of the constraints of winemaking that he finds enjoyable.
''You can put your own spin on beer,'' he says. ''When you put hops and malt together you're making your grape. You can swap and change malt and hops to create the perfect flavour but you can't regrow a grape.''
Over at the newly extended Bright Brewery, founder Scott Brandon has seen acceptance of craft beer swell since he opened in an old shed in the centre of Bright seven years ago.
''People used to walk in and 90 per cent would ask if we had Carlton Draught or VB,'' he says. ''Now that's changed to 10 per cent.''
It wasn't until he travelled to North America in the mid-'90s that Brandon began drinking beer. He discovered small craft breweries and on returning to Melbourne began home brewing with a mate. The hobby turned serious when Brandon and his wife, Fiona, made a tree change to Bright.
Using water from the Ovens River, fresh local hops and quality grains, the duo launched with two beers: Hellfire Amber Ale and Blowhard Pale Ale. Now, 12 seasonal and regular beers are included in the range, with 1200-litre batches turning out sour beers alongside Belgian-style Witbier.
''That's how far craft beer has come,'' Booth says. ''Sour beers like our Raspberry Lambic was out of bounds five years ago but now, as palates are developing, people want them.''
Over in Mount Beauty, Sweetwater Brewing Company founder Peter Hull uses mountain water from the Kiewa River in his brewing. A qualified food technologist and ski instructor, Hull spent years bringing water from Mount Beauty to Melbourne for his backyard brewing before moving five years ago with his wife, Leanne, to Tawonga South, where they launched their brewery out of a rented shed at Annapurna Estate winery.
''Because I'm a maths-science nerd I took a scientific approach to brewing, but science doesn't teach you what flavours taste like,'' he says. ''It's a trial-and-error process before you get your confidence up.''
Hull launched with a Pale Ale and Golden Bitter and has since expanded the range to five beers, upgraded to a 250-litre brew house, relocated the brewery and opened a bar on the highway.
He believes the popularity of craft beer is also fuelling the reinvention of the Australian hops industry.
''Off the back of craft brewing, growers can start to experiment more with their hops varieties and not have to rely on sales internationally,'' he says.
Ben Kraus, founder of Beechworth's Bridge Road Brewers and an avid supporter of local Rostrevor Hops Garden, agrees. He puts Australia's craft-beer progression down to quality produce and lack of tradition.
''It's because we had no one telling us how it should be done,'' he says. ''We had no traditions and we were more adventurous in our techniques. In terms of the beers we're making, we [Australia] are world class. America is ahead of us but we're well placed.''
Meet the brewers and sample the brews at High Country Harvest. See highcountryharvest.com.au