Learmonth is an old town, settled years before gold was discovered at nearby Ballarat. It has slate-roofed cottages, hawthorn hedges, and ancient volcanoes that roll into lakes.
It has also been a town in decline. In 2012, the state government closed the primary school as student numbers dwindled. The post office is gone, and the windows of the general store are shuttered with plywood. Thanks to cider, however, change in the air.
Learmonth Cidery is a social enterprise helping to transform the town. "We really want the community to come and engage with us," says cider maker Michael Mason as utes line-up next to the former school, their trays packed with apples.
"Many locals have apples in their backyard, or know where an old roadside tree is. They can harvest the apples and bring them here. I'll weigh and crush them, and in a few months' time people will have their apples returned in cider form – but only half of it. We will keep the other half to sell and raise funds for community projects."
The cidery is a part of Learmonth Foundations, a not-for-profit organisation supporting regenerative agriculture in the region. It has also bought land adjacent to the cidery and planted it with apple trees.
Learmonth Cidery produces only 3000 litres of cider annually, much of it traditional English-style cider to be sold at local business Cafe Sidra – a historic store renovated into a sprawling bar and restaurant specialising in cider and cider-friendly food.
Sidra is a separate business to the cidery and owned by husband-and-wife Anthony Penhall and Belinda Brooksby. The cafe also took on the role of general store and post office during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
When The Age visits, Penhall pours four small glasses of cider at Sidra, each one a different hue from gold to red ochre. The varieties are made from a mix of apples and sold under the 321 Cider label. Later comes the Learmonth Cider Cuvee, made in a similar method to champagne. It has a tight but very fine tannin structure and is delicious with Brooksby's pork dishes.
"The cuvee was made with a whole lot of these," says Penhall, holding up a pale green apple. "It's an old French cider variety of apple called Michelin."
The Michelin comes from a nearby orchard of 1000 cider apple trees planted more than 20 years ago by Philip Cormie, businessman, philanthropist, and founder of Learmonth Foundations. They carry names such as Striped Beefing, Foxwhelp, Nickajack and Belle de Boskoop.
"I was going to plant [grape] vines, but after working in the cider making parts of England and Ireland, one thing led to another," he says while supervising his grandson to bring in a case of apples.
"The idea is to create businesses that are self-sufficient, that bring something to the community while also giving something back."
A cider festival is now on the cards for Learmonth this winter. Next harvest season, Mason also expects to have a cohort of helpers as The Cider School (delayed due to COVID-19) opens to would-be cider makers from around the country. "Learmonth is becoming the cider capital of Australia," he says proudly.