Cheers: Brewers Jason Oliver and Marcus Cox at Thunder Road Brewery. Photo: Justin McManus
Brewing beer, like cooking, is about sticking to a recipe. The tricky part is getting the recipe down to begin with.
In the first two months of this year, the team at the Thunder Road Brewing Company in Brunswick made nine new beers from scratch, in addition to its core range, starting with the most basic of beer ingredients, some rough ideas and a brewer's curiosity that may or may not have been piqued over a couple of pints.
''We're astute fans of history,'' says senior brewer and manager Marcus Cox. A bit of an understatement given that on the day of our interview Thunder Road Brewing was involved in a trademark showdown with Australia's biggest brewer, Foster's, over its use of a 130-year-old recipe - once used by Carlton Brewery - to create its new historical beer, Terry's Ale, released last month. Thunder Road wants to resurrect some of our city's great historic beer names, but Foster's argues some of the brands Thunder Road has chosen are part of its history.
Cox and the Thunder Road team like to build a beer the way you might design a car. ''We come up with a flavour profile and work backwards and put it into a beer,'' he says.
A beer such as Autumn Pacific Rye, which arrives in the glass sporting an autumnal copper-brown shade, lively spiciness and hop-dominated complexity. It's the result of a recent collaboration with Jason Oliver, an award-winning American brewer from Devil's Backbone Brewery in Virginia. ''We took him on a weekend trip to Tasmania and he fell in love with the Tasmanian hops, so we've used Tasmanian and New Zealand hops on a rye pale-ale basis and come up with Autumn Pacific Rye, made with a high proportion of rye malt.'' Just like that.
A brewer's creativity appears to be limited only by his or her imagination, which may go some way to explaining the popularity of Melbourne's Good Beer Week, starting on May 18. Clearly, there are some imaginative hop-and-malt craftspeople out there.
Now in its third year, Good Beer Week is growing. It's being embraced by more hotel venues and is making inroads into Melbourne's food scene, with sommeliers and chefs getting on board. I don't think I've ever seen so many degustation menus accompanied exclusively by beer, and sommeliers presenting beer tastings. It's a different world to five years ago.
''A lot of restaurants have embraced Good Beer Week because craft beer has so many flavours to offer,'' says GBW co-founder, beer writer and journalist James Smith.
''I have been surprised at some of the names that want to put events on.''
Grossi Florentino, Virginia Plain, Pope Joan and the Bishop of Ostia, Matteo's, Cumulus Up and Cafe Vue are just some of Melbourne's innovative eateries getting into the hop.
An international presence with brewers from as far afield as Lebanon, Italy and North America (and as close as New Zealand) helps to create a buzz.
A personal favourite is the chilli showdown at 1000 £ Bend in Little Lonsdale Street on May 25, when the search goes on for Melbourne's best chilli, with the US's Brooklyn Brewery beers to put out any fire. But the all-rounder event, the one that brings out the Aussie competitor in every brewer, is Pint of Origin, a concept based on the State of Origin games, but with more humour. Brewers from six states and the ACT will take over the taps of 10 Melbourne pubs for a week. Venues include the Great Britain Hotel (Victorian brews), the Deja Vu Bar and Lounge (Queensland), the Gertrude Hotel (Tasmania) and the Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne.
The serious beer geeks are catered for. They have their own category of events, led by ''The Big Apple and The Goat'', in which the Brooklyn Brewery team heads to the Mountain Goat brewery in Richmond to create a beer. Fifteen enthusiasts get to be involved in the process. The price is $250 a head, followed by a New York-style lunch that's open to everyone ($100 a head).
Ale straight from the cask will be the star at 3 Ravens Brewery in Thornbury on May 19, with brewers from 3 Ravens, Moo Brew, Holgate and Bacchus doing the pouring, while another local, Thunder Road Brewing, goes to Collins Quarter on May 21 to talk up food and beer matching.
But for James Smith, the Englishman who three years ago saw an opportunity in his adopted country and decided to fill it, Good Beer Week is still in its infancy.
Pick of Good Beer Week, May 18-26
Some events are free and some require you to book via goodbeerweek.com.au. Get in early for the booked events to avoid, as they say, disappointment.
Pint of Origin: Western Australia
The Royston Hotel, 12 River Street, Richmond.
The craft-beer movement was born in WA, and all week the Royston will turn 12 draught taps over to the Sandgropers, featuring Colonial, Bootleg, Nail, Little Creatures, Feral and more.
The Best of the US
Great Northern Hotel, 644 Rathdowne Street, North Carlton.
The US has a history of exciting craft beers. The Great Northern will devote at least 13 of its beer taps to the stuff for the week.
Beer Versus Wine
Virginia Plain, 31 Flinders Lane, on Wednesday, May 22 ($120/head).
Beer nut Mat Beyer (ex-MasterChef) goes toe to toe with sommelier Raul Moreno Yague (Virginia Plain) in a battle of grape versus grain. A five-course dinner will be the ideal backdrop to the action.
Bizarre Italian Beer Tasting
Prince Wine and Spirits, corner Albion and Primrose streets, Essendon, on Monday, May 20 (6.30-8pm, $25)
Leonardo di Vincenzo, head brewer at Birra Del Borgo, comes to Australia with a bag of brews from one of Italy's most exciting producers. Birra Del Borgo is a recent introduction to Australia, so get acquainted.
Beermen. TV Presents: The Hair of the Dog Breakfast
Beer DeLuxe, Federation Square, on Friday, May 24 (10am, $50)
Fabulous heart-starters, lots of laughs and games at the most important meal of the day with Beermen. TV as your host. Five-course brekkie, eight brews.
More information and tickets from goodbeerweek.com.au