Bonfires, boars and craft beers: Where the wild winter festivals are

Around the bonfire at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival in Tasmania.
Around the bonfire at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival in Tasmania. Photo: Natalie Mendham

Winter is a tough season for most businesses in the food and beverage industry, with few exceptions.

"The only people who like winter in the alcohol industry are the red wine producers really, every other category has a significant seasonality to it," says Sam Reid, founder of Tasmanian cider maker Willie Smith's.

The impact is even more pronounced in Tasmania. Many tourism operators in the Huon Valley, where Willie Smith's is based, have historically shut their doors entirely during the coldest months. "It's pretty hard to have a sustainable tourism industry when people close for three months of the year," says Reid.

A junkyard barbecue at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival in Tasmania.
A junkyard barbecue at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival in Tasmania. Photo: Natalie Mendham

Willie Smith's solution, when it opened its Apple Shed to the public in 2013, was the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival. The event aimed to announce to the public that the Huon was open for business all year round.

Supporting the mammoth efforts of Mona, which will stage the sixth Dark Mofo festival starting on June 15th, the Mid-Winter Festival further compels tourists to visit the Apple Isle in its most foggy and inhospitable months.

"The winter strategy that Tourism Tasmania put together a few years ago, with Dark Mofo front and centre, has definitely made a big difference," says Reid. "It has created a more sustainable industry for tourism but also for the local producers, because most producers aren't selling to the mainland, nor outside of Tasmania, so they are very dependent on visitors to Tasmania."

A junkyard barbecue, complete with chickens hanging from the hills hoist, at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival.
A junkyard barbecue, complete with chickens hanging from the hills hoist, at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival. Photo: Natalie Mendham

From humble beginnings, Reid's Huon Valley festival has grown to attract 15,000 visitors last year, with record attendance expected again when the 2018 edition is staged on July 13-15. The festival revolves around Saturday night's wassailing ritual, an ancient tradition of the apple industry in Southern England. Thousands of festival goers dressed in pagan costumes gather by firelight to sing and shout at the dormant apple trees, to scare out the evil spirits and ensure a bumper autumn crop next year.

"The point has always been to get everyone together as a community and celebrate humanity, the apple industry and the land, and also the seasons," says Reid. "I think there's a lot to be said for the pagan religions that celebrated the seasons, because they make such a big difference to how we're feeling at the time."

Beyond these serious ideals, the Mid-Winter Festival is one heck of a party. Four different folk bands are coming from the mainland this year to bolster the line-up of local acts to be enjoyed with ample Willie Smith's cider and locally made beers and spirits.

Food-wise, Matthew Evans' Fat Pig Farm will be serving up hearty farm fare, alongside rabbit farmers The Princess and The Fatman, who will be cooking up a rabbit BBQ.

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Wild Grove Farm & Kitchen will be operating a 'Tasmanian-style junkyard barbecue' including a sausage chandelier and a bike repurposed into a pedal-powered rotisserie.


"We've stuck to our plan of supporting the local economy wherever we can, using Huon Valley and southern Tasmanian producers. That's always been pretty important to us," says Reid. "We've got 28 stallholders this year and it's a pretty welcome boost for them at that quiet time of year, because there's not a lot of festivals around at that stage."

Traditionally the family day of the festival, Sunday this year features dedicated programming for the kids.  "We've got a band called 'The Vegetable Plot' whose entire focus is making fruit and vegetables cool again and getting kids eating healthier," says Reid.

Things start to fire up after dark at the Mid-Winter Festival.
Things start to fire up after dark at the Mid-Winter Festival. Photo: Natalie Mendham

Here are some of the best food and drink festivals to keep your spirits high this winter: 

NSW 

Kurrajong Kitchen Cheese Lovers Festival, Centennial Park, June 16
Feast on platters, sip fine beer and wine, meet the cheese-makers, take part in workshops and enjoy live jazz, blues and funk at this festival dedicated to all things cheesy and brie-sy.
cheeseloversfestival.com.au 

Feast of the Beast Winter Solstice Celebration, Bowral, June 23
A forest feast interweaving Celtic, Nordic and Highland history, centred around feasting on a whole roast beef and pig cooked with fire. Rug up and be ready for a mystical night of local wines, storytelling, wassailing, fire-side music and revelry celebrating the horned hunter as he is reborn during Winter Solstice. wildfoodadventures.com.au

Beer & BBQ Festival Sydney, June 29 - July 1, Adelaide July 6 - 8
Founded in Adelaide, the Beer & BBQ Festival has expanded to Sydney for the first time. It has more than 60 beer and cider exhibitors along with some of the country's best restaurants and chefs cooking up a BBQ storm, along with some very special international barbecuers.

beerbbqfest.com.au

Prepping the junkyard barbecue.
Prepping the junkyard barbecue. Photo: Natalie Mendham

Italian Wine & Food Festival, Eveleigh, August 26
Founded by sommelier Lara Caraturo, this celebration of all things Italian includes wine tastings, wine masterclasses, cooking demonstrations, restaurant pop-ups, a marketplace, a kids' area, and even "pizza acrobatics". 
italianwinefoodfestival.com.au

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Barossa Seasons: Winter, Tanunda, July 6 - 8
Feasts and fires, masquerades and music, it's all about indulging the senses, and welcoming the wine season in wild wintry style at this inaugural Barossa Festival in the heart of wine country.
barossagourmet.com

Meats on the spit at the Whiskey, Wine & Fire Festival.
Meats on the spit at the Whiskey, Wine & Fire Festival.  Photo: Supplied

VIC

Winter Solstice Festival, Eltham, June 23
Now its seventh year, this family friendly festival celebrates the return of the light with live music, delicious food, a kids' lantern parade, mulled wine, pony rides, fire entertainers and an enormous, sculptural bonfire.
wintersolsticemelbourne.com.au

Darker Days, Bright Victoria June 30

Founded by Bright Brewery in 2017, Darker Days is centred around locally produced dark beers and warming foods, along with live music and winter activities. Toast the season and welcome the return of lighter days following the Winter Solstice.
brightbrewery.com.au

Deep Winter Festival, Orbost June 29 - July 1
Rug up and ward off the winter chills with cockle-warming craft beers matched with dishes from Gippsland's leading chefs. The three-day festival run by acclaimed local micro-brewery Sailors Grave Brewing includes free and ticketed events, such as a long-table degustation dinner, workshops and a food-and-beer pairing dinner.

sailorsgravebrewing.com/deep-winter-festival 

Whisky Wine & Fire presented by BMW, Caulfield Racecourse July 19 - 22
This new addition to the winter calendar includes jaw-dropping fire installations, boutique whiskies and wines and a feast of smoky, spicy and saucy barbecued dishes, running over four fiery consecutive evenings in July.
whiskywineandfire.com.au

The Whisky Wine & Fire festival promises after-dark delights in Melbourne in July.
The Whisky Wine & Fire festival promises after-dark delights in Melbourne in July. Photo: Supplied

Winter Wild Apollo Bay, August 10 - 12 (death) and August 22 - 24 (birth)
Held over two weekends: one themed death, the other birth, this as dark, wild and raw as you'll find without visiting Tassie. Celebrate, banish the winter blues and discover music, great food, story-telling and performance in Apollo Bay's more intimate venues.
winterwildapollobay.com.au

WA

Truffle Kerfuffle, Manjimup,  June 22 - 24
A three day celebration of one of the world's most luxurious ingredients, fresh black truffles, just minutes from where they are unearthed in the heart of Australian truffle country. Includes truffle hunting, breakfasts, dinners, parties, tutored wine tastings and more.

trufflekerfuffle.com.au

Cabin Fever, Margaret River, July 13 - 22
Quality wine, fireside brews, wine dinners, degustation menus, bonfires, brews, live music and more make magnificent Margaret River  the place to tempt you out of hibernation this winter.
www.cabinfeverfest.com.au


TASMANIA

Dark Mofo, Hobart, June 13 - 24
Skewing strange and awry, visitors will find offbeat theatre productions alongside retrospectives of classic films, light shows and late openings of the lauded local museum, MONA, that the festival runs in conjunction with.
darkmofo.net.au

Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest, Grove, July 13 - 15

The Tasmanian festival is a weekend of pagan rituals, waking up dormant trees and scaring evil spirits away from the Willie Smith's apple orchard in the hope of a good harvest in the coming season.
huonvalleymidwinterfest.com.au

QUEENSLAND

Regional Flavours, Brisbane, July 21 - 22

Organisers promise delicious food, beer and wine, live music and kids' activities, along with a thriving producer market featuring more than 80 stalls from across the state. Work your way through aromatic wine, rich desserts, crisp fruit and vegetables, flavoursome jams and sauces, nuts, cheeses and more.

regionalflavours.com.au