Melbourne has become the mecca of craft beer and cider.
Melbourne has become the mecca of craft beer and cider. Photo: Isamu Sawa

Jean Kemshal-bell

An aerospace engineer quits his job at Boeing, a microbiologist makes use of his skills in an unlikely field, and a husband-and-wife team give up their successful music production company, all with the same hope — to create the perfect pint.

Craft brewing, of both beer and cider, may have taken off as a trend in the United States (in the hipster epicentres of Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) but it has now hit hard in Australia, and Melbourne in particular.

There are cities around the world where brewing culture is big, and Melbourne has become one of those meccas. 

Research firm IBISWorld reported in November last year that there were some 120 microbreweries in Australia, with more than a quarter in Victoria.

"Melbourne has become a real nucleus for brewing," says Eden Gilbert, beer manager at specialist beer and wine store Blackhearts and Sparrows. "There are cities around the world where brewing culture is big, and Melbourne has become one of those meccas."

The northern suburbs have become a brewing hotbed; in recent years, several microbreweries have popped up, including 3 Ravens in Thornbury, Kooinda in Heidelberg West, Thunder Road in Brunswick and Temple Brewing in Brunswick East.

Temple's Ron and Renata Feruglio gave up their music production company after Ron grew from novice home brewer in 2001 to become the VicBrew Champion Brewer in 2004, going pro with Temple Brewing a year later.

It's not just craft beer: boutique cider is experiencing strong growth, with the cider market as a whole growing at 35 per cent a year, according to research company Nielsen figures.

While sweet, concentrate-based ciders currently dominate the market, local cider producers are anticipating that cider brands will fragment in the same way as beer, with a growing interest in locally crafted brands with individual flavours.

Gilbert agrees, and this summer Blackhearts and Sparrows won't restock the popular Swedish cider brand Rekorderlig when supplies run down. "Some people have said that it's suicide but we don't think it is," he says. "We think people have moved on."

Gilbert sees the same thing happening with beer, as drinkers shift slightly from standard lagers to, say, a widely available but more characterful brew such as Little Creatures Pale Ale, then start to explore other niche offerings. To give us some insight, Gilbert takes us to a tasting room at Blackhearts and Sparrows' Fitzroy North store.

He sets out a dozen locally brewed beers and ciders for us to try, starting off with the lighter, more commercial styles and moving through to the heavier, fruitier brews. Gilbert pours some of Napoleone & Co's Methode Traditionnelle Pear Cider, which is aged on yeast for at least four months. It is highly carbonated, resembling sparkling wine more than cider. The flavour is dry and delicate, yet you still get hints of sweet pears.

We move on to Thunder Road's Brunswick Bitter, which is made from Victorian ingredients. It's refreshing and much smoother than some of the other mainstream bitter ales on the market. This, Gilbert explains, is because Thunder Road uses fresh hops while the bigger companies generally opt for hop pellets.

Make it funky

Next up is La Sirene's Saison, La Sirene's version of a classic Belgian brew, cloudy with a thick, creamy head. Brewers Costa Nikias and James Brown have imported a unique live yeast from Europe, which Brown, a microbiologist, has cryogenically frozen. This strain of yeast, along with the fermentation process, gives the beer what Gilbert calls a "funky" quality.

Finishing up, Gilbert hits us with the heavy brews, introducing us to Moon Dog's Black Lung II, a smoky stout, brewed in old whisky oak barrels. It's jet black, has very little carbonation and is syrupy like a liquor. You can taste the whisky, which is balanced with the sweet malt. It's bold, strong and not for the faint-hearted.

"Each of our beers has a group of people that absolutely love it and that very same beer has people that really didn't love it," says Moon Dog co-owner Josh Uljans, who runs the business with his brother Jake and school friend Karl van Buuren.

Taking us on a tour of their makeshift brew house, which is literally under the shadow of Carlton United Breweries in Abbotsford, he says that most of their equipment has been improvised from old milk vats. "They're a really cheap source of stainless steel," he says. "It's in a good shape and it's the right size and all it took was a bit of cunning engineering."

It's clearly a passion for the three young men (who are in their late 20s to early 30s) — they still work part-time corporate jobs, they invested everything they had in the business, and when they were setting up, they slept on the brewery's floor to save on rent.

Manhattan project

Taking a similar can-do approach, Andrew and David Ong at 2 Brothers imported their equipment from an old Manhattan brewery, which they bought from the Disney Corporation when it turned the Times Square space into a children's clothing store.

The Australian brothers had both been working in the States for more than a decade — Andrew, 42, as an aerospace engineer at Boeing in Seattle, and David, 40, as a physiotherapist in New York. In 2006, no longer fulfilled with their careers, they decided to set up a brewery in Moorabbin, offering the hoppy American brews they fell for in the States.

With some savings, the pair worked on a shoestring budget, saving costs with Andrew's engineering skills and using second-hand equipment and furnishings where possible. The brothers' timing worked in their favour; starting out just before the microbrewing trend really took off in Australia.

And what's really helping the Melbourne craft beer industry boom? The tight-knit brewing community.

Many of the brewers are friends who help one another out, as they attempt to take on the big (now mostly overseas-owned) guys together.

"Everyone is trying to work together to grow that pie rather than take a bigger slice of a small pie," Uljans says. "It's about people working together to get beer drinkers to appreciate flavour, quality and diversity, rather than fighting tooth and nail to try and win just one tap off someone else."