Australia's smallest brewery gears up for big trade

Damien Norman of Bankhouse Brewery in Dean, Victoria, says his beer brewing is a 'hobby that got out of hand'.
Damien Norman of Bankhouse Brewery in Dean, Victoria, says his beer brewing is a 'hobby that got out of hand'. Photo: Richard Cornish

In a tiny former bank in the village of Dean, north of Ballarat, Damien Norman has opened Australia's smallest commercial brewery.

With travel between Melbourne and regional Victoria permitted again, Norman has been working furiously over the past month to make up for lost trade. However, with the total capacity of each brew batch at Bankhouse Brewery just 44 litres (about five cases of beer), production is a slow and steady process.

"It's a hobby that got out of hand," says Norman, who brews and sells his beer in a weatherboard structure built as the English, Scottish & Australian Bank in the late 1880s.

Bankhouse Brewery's selection of (very) small-batch beers.
Bankhouse Brewery's selection of (very) small-batch beers. Photo: Richard Cornish

"We were closed for most of COVID, but now the word is getting out. People have heard about this mad bloke making tiny batches of beer in a 130-year-old bank and they're keen to visit."

After leaving his career in electrical wholesale, Norman started brewing to keep himself occupied. "My wife threw me and the brewing kits out of the house and into the shed," he says. "But it snows here in winter so I moved into the old bank because it has an open fireplace."

Norman renovated the dilapidated 20-square-metre building, turning the safe room into the fermenting room and putting a fridge where the teller once stood. It opened for trade in January, but current COVID restrictions mean only two customers can fit in the brewery at a time.

People are really impressed about everything being local, but it wasn't something I set out to do.

Damien Norman

Bankhouse may also be Australia's most "local" commercial brewery, with Norman making a beer called Local Gold flavoured with hops grown two kilometres down the road by agronomist Al Tippett and his wife Cass.

The Tippetts founded Boutique AC Hops three years ago when they were looking for ways to diversify from growing wheat and barley and raising sheep. The fact there are more than 50 craft brewers within an 80-kilometre radius of their farm was an inspiration for the couple's next crop choice.

"This is a great climate for hops and they just took off," says Al Tippett. "They grow 30 centimetres a day."

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The Tippetts now grow seven hops varieties in deep volcanic soil: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Hersbrucke, Willamette, Red Earth and Pearl. Their business sells fresh hops in season and creates milled pellet hops using a $100,000 machine imported from the US.

Meanwhile, the barley for Local Gold and Bankhouse's session ale is grown at Smeaton, 18 kilometres north of Dean. It's then processed at House of Malt, a micro-maltster at Delacombe on the fringe Ballarat.

House of Malt was founded in 2018 by Drew Graham, a former employee of large malting companies. He started his business after witnessing the paddock-to-pint craft beer phenomenon in North America.

"What Damien is doing is leading the way in containing the production of local brewing to a very small territory," says Graham.

"It's part of a movement. Brewers are looking to reduce beer miles by using hyper-local ingredients, but also looking for a sense of place. They want somewhere on the map to pinpoint where their ingredients come from. They want a cool story to tell."

If that's the case, Norman is beyond cool. He grinds Graham's malted barley into grist for beer with a small hand mill powered by an electric drill. A phalanx of 25-litre fermenters is kept warm and dark by wrapping them in old flannelette shirts.

"When I'm done with the brew, the pigs at nearby Brooklands Farm get the spent grain and I get their sausages," says Norman.

"People are really impressed about everything being local, but it wasn't something I set out to do. [The Tippetts and Graham] just happened to be the closest available hops and malt."

The proof, however, is in the drinking. "In my job I get to try a lot of craft beer," says Al Tippett, "and I can tell you, I rate the Local Gold highly. It may use my hops, but I still reckon it's a bloody good beer."