Barrel to Mini-Bar to Ester: Wildflower Brewing & Blending

Last month I was in Sydney and I walked into my hotel, Paramount House Hotel with my eyes wide and my smile big. The place was beautiful, the sort of fit out that makes you want to sit and spend time just looking so you don’t miss anything. It opened in April and sits surrounded by the Golden Age Cinema, Paramount Coffee Project, The Office Space and Paramount Recreation Club.

Lobby of Paramount House Hotel

Lobby of Paramount House Hotel
Lobby of Paramount House Hotel

I got into the elevator that’s covered in delightful pink wallpaper with a hibiscus and diving men pattern, I got out on the third floor, found my room and fell in love with the place. They’re not kidding when they say “permanent vacation”, the place does make you want to hang around for a really long time.

Elevator at Paramount House Hotel
Elevator at Paramount House Hotel

This long introduction is leading somewhere beery, I promise.

An exploration of the hotel room isn’t complete without looking in the mini-bar. I almost fell over when I saw a small bottle of Wildflower beer inside.

Wildflower Brewing and Blending in Marrickville, NSW is dedicated to making Australian Wild Ales. To see a bottle of this beer in a hotel room mini-bar was pretty extraordinary given mini-bars are usually the domain of mainstream beers only. Wildflower is also on tap in the hotel lobby and Topher, co-owner of Wildflower, says they are one of their best customers.

A few nights later, with friends old and new, I was having dinner at Ester in Chippendale and there was Wildflower again. We, of course, get a bottle for the table along with a bottle of white wine. It puts a big smile on my face to see Wildflower at Ester, a place listed as the top NSW restaurant by the Financial Review Australia’s Top 100 Restaurants and number two for Australia.

Wildflower at Ester Restaurant
Wildflower at Ester Restaurant

From Singapore Airlines (Cheeky Monkey, BentSpokeBentSpoke to name two) to major sports stadiums (Gage Roads) and AFLW (Two Birds) to hotel mini-bars and top Australian restaurants, Australian craft beer continues to do absolutely incredible things!

Preston Valley Hops

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“I’ve learnt a lot of good lessons this year,” Aaron Davy said as we chatted about the first hop harvest for Preston Valley Hops late last month.

Aaron and his wife Alexis, along with their kids and dog, moved from Hamilton Hill to Queentown, a little outside Donnybrook about 18 months ago.

Since Aaron’s resume includes brewing at WAs biggest breweries, Little Creatures and Gage Roads, it was probably inevitable he would end up involved in beer again in some way. After a successful trial run of growing hops, Aaron decided to dive into growing on a commercial scale.

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He built five-metre tall trestles and with 200 plants across 12 varietals and filled a quarter acre of land and so Preston Valley Hops was born.

Among the varieties grown on the farm there are Saaz, Cascade, Nugget, Chinook, Challenger, Hallertau, Goldings and Perle. Aaron also planted some Victoria, a sister variety to the much-loved Galaxy.

“I am super happy with the way Cascade is going.”

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There must be something about the south-west that loves hops, Karridale Cottages and Hop Farm are thriving, just having finished their third hop harvest, and Preston Valley has exceeded Aaron’s expectations.

Read: Crafty Pint – A Day in the Life of: A Hop Farmer

“The proof is in the pudding, they’re growing really well!”

The Preston Valley land is old farming area that has been grazed for over 50 years “but it’s too good for grazing, we’re right on the river with alluvial dirt so stuff grows here,” he says. Hops are susceptible to pests, disease and mildew so I was surprised to hear from Aaron that he’s not experienced anything like that. Trey over at Karridale* was the same. For whatever reason, these haven’t been an issue for them.

*Trey, is the co-owner along with his partner Olivia, in Karridale Cottages and Hop Farm.

Some plants have grown better than others but Aaron says that was kind of the point of the first year.

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Aaron scoured the internet to research hop and hop farms. He found some information from an American university but, “until you put the rhizomes in the ground and grow a season of hops, that’s how you learn.”

“Trey’s been super helpful, he gave me a heap of rhizomes and good advice when I was setting up,” Aaron says.

 

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“I’m going to narrow it down, depending on demand,” Aaron says, “in terms of going to scale, I’ve really got to focus on what’s going to sell and what I can grow well.” Chinook, he comments, has been growing well but he reckons the lupulin production – all that yellow stuff inside the hop cone that has all the oils, acids and resins that make beer amazing – has been lower than expected. As we chat, Aaron picks a Chinook hop cone off the bine, rips it open and sticks his nose in. He does this a fair bit and he knows it too, he loves it. “Actually, this is really good,” Aaron remarks and smells it again, “actually, that’s really good!” The Chinook is planted in three sections because the plants are from three separate sources, “I’ll definitely propagate from that one!”

“That’s all part of it, it’s about being observant and always smelling the hops.”

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Currently, the farm is a quarter acre with plans to expand to a full acre, the trick will be finding more plants. “Because there is no industry here, you’ve got to scrap and scrounge and get what you can get.” Normally rhizomes would be used to propagate more plants but Aaron is keen to try cloning instead because it’s a better head start with plants than rhizomes because you’re not disturbing your rhizomes and their root systems. “We have a professional local nursery we are working with,” Aaron says and has taken a heap of cuttings from their yard and so far they’ve had a 75% strike rate. Aaron says cloning over rhizomes is a trend he’s noticed happening more and more in the US. Another option is to get plants shipped from the US but they have to spend six months in a quarantine lab, in that time you have to hope they survive and it’s an expensive process that doesn’t refund if those plants don’t survive. Expansion to an acre will depend on how well the propagated plants survive the winter and available funds after they look at a possibly purchasing a harvester and a cold storage solution.

“It’s been such a cool experience,” Aaron can barely contain his excitement as he describes how the plants grow and change with season-to-season.

 

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Mike the Bull, thankfully he doesn’t eat the hops!

 

“Hops are an amazing plant and they’re so cool and having us here, for brewers to come and pick their own hops and get touch with this ingredient, I think, is very cool,” he says, “the pellet is quite far removed from what you have here.”

Cascade and Nugget, in particular, exceeded Aaron’s expectations which he says make him excited to expand and the future of hop growing in the south-west. Aaron and the other hop farmers in the region are keen to work together, the hop growing industry here is still very new, so it’s going to be amazing to watch over the coming years.

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Big thanks to Aaron and Alexis at Preston Valley Hops for taking the time to show me around the farm!

White Lakes Brewing: One Year On

It’s been just over a year since White Lakes Brewing opened so I sat down and chatted with head brewer Sean Symons

“This is pristine,”

Sean Symons, head brewer, White Lakes Brewing

A few years ago Sean Symons was having a pint of Guinness with John Gastev at the Vernon Arms in Baldivis. He and John, whose family of well-known publicans have a love of beer, were in the early stages of scouting for a location for a brewery. As they sat overlooking Lake Walyungup, Sean said “this is pristine” and thought it was exactly the sort of place you’d want to build a brewery.

Within twelve months an opportunity came up to take over the Vernon Arms and in 2015 they started construction of White Lakes Brewing right next door to the tavern.

It has now been just over twelve months since White Lakes Brewing opened their doors. The whole site is called West Garden, home to the Vernon Arms and White Lakes Brewing.


Construction involved converting the function centre on site into a brewery and this meant lifting a large portion of the ceiling to accommodate the HGM brew kit. What was the kitchen is now what Sean fondly refers to as the “mad brewers lab” where testing and quality control happen. The main function space with large timber ceiling beams and exposed brick walls is now home to fermenters and tanks lined up in neat rows. A couple of the fermenters are sitting where the dance floor used to be.

The brew kit is powered by steam, ticking boxes for the brewery in being both environmentally friendly and ensuring great brewery efficiency. The vapour condenser on the brew kit collects steam from the kettle and converts it to hot water, the condensation goes to the waste water treatment which is used to water the lawns and gardens.

Sean built their malt silo; something he was quick to add that he wouldn’t recommend. “It came from the US, flat packed,” Sean said it took a full week to put together.

“We love our lagers,”

Lagers feature strongly in the line up with the White Lakes Draught and Pilsener, German style and Bohemian style pilseners respectively, along with a seasonal Dark which is a German Schwarzbier.

Their Wit is a Belgian style wheat beer that Sean says is “a big favourite” of his and that won a silver medal at the Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA) in May.

White Lakes Standard, among their best-selling beers alongside the Pilsener and Draught, won a gold medal at the AIBA and is based on an English Ordinary Bitter. At just 3.5 percent ABV it is their reduced alcohol offering which was an important inclusion in their range given their somewhat regional location. It also reflects the old English beers that were available when the Vernon Arms first opened.

White Lakes Summer and Pale Ale round out the range providing some hoppier ale options.

“The beers that are approachable and sessionable and that you can return to will be the really successful beers,”

Australian Craft Brewers Conference: Dr Ina Verstl

Dr Ina Verstl is the editor of Brauwelt International, an online resource for executives in the brewing and beverage industry. Ina spoke at last week’s Australian Craft Brewers Conference in Adelaide about the definition of craft, more specifically how she sees the definition of craft strongly linked to independence and local.

Dr Ina Verstl is the editor of Brauwelt International, an online resource for executives in the brewing and beverage industry. Ina spoke at last week’s Australian Craft Brewers Conference in Adelaide about the definition of craft, more specifically how she sees the definition of craft strongly linked to independence and local.

“Craft beer has finally arrived,”

As a category, craft beer is now recognised and accepted as a market segment and this, Ina said, is the big sign that craft is no longer a grass roots movement, it’s part of our cultural mainstream.

“For the consumer, craft beer is ideology in a glass,”

Local versus global, big versus small; Ina believes that for the drinker “ownership is central to what craft beer is.”

The idea of local goes beyond mere location, it’s a whole discourse, Ina says, about the way everything is approached. Much like when it comes to food, being local says to the consumer that quality is a priority above all else and the consumer, not finances, is at the heart of what you do which is why drinkers react so strongly when they see small breweries sell, it feels like a betrayal.

All brewers need to attract each generation and Ina believes this has been a challenge for the ‘large’ breweries like Lion Nathan and Carlton United. Ina draws similarities between craft beer and “fast fashion” with younger consumers attracted by the new innovations and styles and because they’re not hugely brand loyal. But can the big brewers adapt to this?

When craft and independent breweries create a new beer it is often the result of a casual chat and a pint with mates and/or other brewers or just an idea that pops into the brewers head and the process from there is basically a) have the thought then b) make the beer. The ‘big’ guys, on the other hand, launch NPDs with a lengthy strategy in place after they’ve conducted market research and the idea goes through several layers of departments and approvals.

The ‘big’ brewers can make great beer and when it comes to session and gateway beers, beers that are seen as a stepping stone from mass produced lagers to craft beers, Ina says, is something they do very well and she sees this is a challenge for independent breweries.

It’s highly unlikely, Ina says, that the ‘big’ brewers are concerned about the definition of craft beer. If the definition of craft is blurry it’s probably a good thing for them whereas for independent brewers, she continued, it is very important to find a way to differentiate.

Ina strongly believes a seal that signifies an independent brewery would go a long way to separating ‘big from small’, quickly and effectively communicate independence. The Brewers Association in the US introduced their Independent Craft Brewer Seal at the end of June, a move Ina says she was “baffled” it hadn’t happened sooner.

Image from the Brewers Association website

“For years, small and independent craft breweries have been turning the beer industry upside down,” the Brewers Association website says to explain the seal.

Drinkers understand what independence means, we just need to communicate it, Ina says and presents the Authentic Trappist Product seal as an example.

“Our label guarantees the monastic origin of the products as well as the fact that they measure up to the quality and traditional standards rooted in the monastic life of a real Trappist community,” – Trappist website.

Image from taptrails.com

It will be interesting to see if our own Independent Craft Brewers association follows in the footsteps of the Brewers Association in the US in creating a seal.


Last year Victoria’s Bridge Road Brewers introduced their own logos called ‘Respect(ing) the Craft’ and they were designed to quickly convey to the consumer that their beers were authentic craft beer. Read the details here.

 

Australian Craft Brewers Conference: Dr Charlie Bamforth

Dr. Charlie Bamforth was the keynote speaker for this years Australian Craft Brewers Conference and gave a wonderfully engaging and interesting talk.

In introducing Dr. Charlie Bamforth as the keynote speaker for this year’s Australian Craft Brewers Conference in Adelaide, Pete Mitcham wisely opted to forego the long introduction, allowing for more time for us to hear from the man himself, the Distinguished Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis and basically THE expert when it comes to beer.

“Brewers should pull in the same direction,”

Whether you’re a brewer in a large or small brewery much of the concerns are the same, Charlie said, those concerns around the ingredients and the quality of your beer.

The quality of your beer, Charlie emphasised, isn’t dependent on brewers alone but every single person in the brewery. “Everybody is important,” he said and that it was “critical” for a brewery to look after their people and to ensure they are trained, happy and proud to be part of the brewery family.

“Intensely flavoured or not, balance is the key,”

Another key to the quality of your beer, Charlie said, is consistency and balance and that quality isn’t necessarily about the complexity of flavour.

When asked, “what is a good beer?” Charlie says he responds with “I have no idea.” Perhaps you’d expect a far more complicated answer from someone with the words “distinguished Professor” in their title but he simply says, “what’s good for you may not be good for me.” Beer is subjective and no-one should be criticised for their choice of beer, whether it’s craft or not.

“Beer is to be celebrated. Beer drinkers should be celebrated, they do not need to be insulted,”

The current trend of hazy IPAs, otherwise known as New England IPAs, is not Charlie’s preferred choice but it doesn’t change the fact it sells and people like it so, Charlie said, “who is to say they are wrong? They’re not wrong as long as there’s a market for it.”

“I think it should be a fair playing field,”

Whilst saying clearly he did not think there was anything wrong with a small brewery being purchased by a large one, Charlie felt it should be “transparent” so consumers know where the ownership lies.

“The craft industry keeps seeking to go to extremes,”

Maybe the beer industry could learn something from the wine guys when it comes to celebrating their raw ingredients. Crazy ingredients like oysters or chilli and other pushing-the-boundaries additions are great but, Charlie commented, “we have so much to celebrate in the basic raw materials” and whilst wine has been doing a great job in making grapes the hero of their industry perhaps we in the beer world should be making more noise about ours too.

Charlie’s comments popped back into my head when Dr. Ina Verstl, the editor of Brauwelt International who spoke after Charlie, quoted a statistic that said 88 percent of people in Australia didn’t know what ingredients are in beer.

“Do you want a glass?”

Charlie recalled ordering a beer at a restaurant recently and the waitperson asked if he wanted a glass. “Why do you ask?” Charlie replied. “Cause we don’t have very many glasses and we don’t want to run out,” she said.

Now imagine he had ordered a wine.

That conversation wouldn’t have happened.

This short interaction highlighted the huge differences between the perception of beer and wine in restaurant experiences in general. Whilst wine has a sense of theatre around it, most of the time beer doesn’t even get a glass.

“Beer should be put into a glass, admired and looked at and celebrated.”

The Australian Craft Brewers Conference continues today and then Craft Beer Awards are held tonight at Adelaide Oval, stay tuned to the girlplusbeer Twitter feed for the results (mostly) live.

Getting the Gang Back Together – Black Vanilla

Eagle Bay Brewing love collaborating and it’s time for their winter release with Mane Liquor, Whipper Snapper and artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers – Black Vanilla

“It’s fun … except when I get left in the brewery to do all the work!” Nick laughs when I ask him about collaboration brews at Eagle Bay Brewing.

Eagle Bay Brewing seem to love collaborating more than anyone in WA. From annual collabs like the Cacao Stout with Bahen & Co chocolate makers to once-off brews like their West Coast Native Ale with Fremantle venue The Mantle, Eagle Bay seem* to have an open door policy to their (brew)house. In fact they’re working on another collaboration brew right now with Clancy’s Fish Pubs and Twin Peaks coffee.

*always best to ask before you attempt to just wander into a brewery though!

“Working with like-minded producers is always such a pleasure,”

Margarita Wallace, marketing and communications, Eagle Bay Brewing

This year Eagle Bay reunited with retailer Mane Liquor, Whipper Snapper Distillery and artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers to make a beer called Black Vanilla, a whiskey barrel-aged coconut and vanilla imperial stout.

Brew day for Black Vanilla – Photo from Eagle Bay Brewing Facebook

This has become an annual collaboration to make a barrel-aged dark beer and started in 2015 when Eagle Bay teamed up with Mane Liquor and Kyle Hughes-Odgers to make Black and Tannin, a black IPA aged in former Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.

“Collaborating gives you a chance to play with new ideas,”

Nick d’Espeissis, head brewer, Eagle Bay Brewing

In 2016 the crew made Forest for the Trees, and brought in Perth craft coffee roasters Twin Peaks and swapped red wine barrels for whiskey ones with new team mates Whipper Snapper Distillery on board. The result was a whiskey barrel-aged coffee imperial porter.

To make this years Black Vanilla they brewed an imperial stout and barrel-aged it for three months in two Whipper Snapper “Upshot” whiskey barrels. “It’s quite a privilege”, Margarita says “because once those whiskey barrels are given over to us they can’t use them for whiskey again.”

After aging they added toasted coconut and vanilla beans. The result is complex and rich, dark and roasty and it’s drinking great now and will also certainly age nicely.

I was lucky enough to be amongst the first to try Black Vanilla at The Dark Side event at Eagle Bay Brewing last week which they kindly invited me to. The event was held as part of the Cabin Fever Festival in Margaret River. Photos are below from the wonderful evening of food, beers and chat.

My partner once told me about a guy he knew who loved whiskey and when an awesome one would come out he would always buy three bottles – one to drink, one to keep and one just in case. I applied this to Black Vanilla, purchasing three bottles before leaving the brewery.

If you this sounds like an event you’d love and you’re sans a time machine, you can catch the crew who made the beer at the Black Vanilla Winter Feast dinner at Lalla Rookh tomorrow night (Wednesday 25 August). Tickets are $82+bf, more information can be found here.

 

GBW Day 6 : Boatrocker + GABS (again)

Good Beer Week, Day 6

Saturday 20 May

AMONGST THE BARRELS AT ONE OF MY FAVOURITE BREWERIES

After another slightly dusty start to the day, easily made better by the Donut Shop on Gertrude Street, I ventured out to Braeside to check out the Boatrocker Barrel Room with my friend, and brewer for the upcoming Nowhereman Brewing, Paul Wyman.

The bar greets you in the middle of the room when you walk in and it’s eye catching bar front is covered in delightfully fun pink flamingos.

The food on offer is simple – a charcuterie and a cheese board and a few pizzas but it’s hard to go past the boards when you are drinking sours beers and such.

Paul Wyman looking pretty happy at the Boatrocker Barrel Room, charcuterie board (left) and cheese board (right)

The tasting trays are the way to go if you’re like me and want to try as many beers as possible. There’s no set trio of beers, you just pick whatever three beers you’d like to try and the staff will line them up on your tray in the order they recommend you enjoy them in.

The beers were all fantastic. From the hoppy beers on offer, the stand outs for me were California Dreamin’, a US style pale ale, that was bursting with tropical fruit flavour but in a very light body so it was super easy drinking. Stepping up next to the Jabber Jaw Double IPA, that had been freshly tapped that day, was another great beer.

Boatrocker California Dreamin’

The Wilde Cherry beer, that is a blend of 12 and 18 month French oak barrique aged Flanders style red ale, and aged on whole, fresh Morello cherries, was stupidly beautiful. Miss Pinky, their raspberry berliner weisse, was on point as always and the Roger Ramjet (2014) was, as you’d imagine, sensational.

You can re-visit one of my previous blog posts about Boatrocker’s 2013 Ramjet which includes an interview with founder and head brewer Matt Houghton.

It’s pretty cool to be drinking beers amongst the barrels some of them have likely come from. The barrels vary from what appears to be clean and unused to others that have clearly been there for a while, darkened and even damp from what was probably a tasting to check how its contents were evolving.

Admittedly Boatrockers Barrel Room is a bit of a distance out of the city but much like recommending someone visiting Perth should go to Fremantle, it is well worth the trip. Paul and I split an Uber to and from Melbourne CBD and it cost just shy of $50 each way.

(Another) GABS session

What better way to follow up tasting a dozen or so great Boatrocker beers than by trying more beers at the Saturday night session of the GABS Festival. During this session, I made a point of checking out some festival beers.

Sierra Nevada Bombastic Monastic

The Sierra Nevada (USA) Bombastic Montastic, a Belgian Brown Ale aged in Brandy barrels with additions of cocoa and mandarin, was beautiful! Lovely and right with dark fruit notes and surprisingly easy drinking even though it’s 10.2 percent ABV.

Another great beer was the Behemoth (NZ) Chocolate Fish Milk Stout that hasn’t got anything to do with actual fish in the ocean. Apparently there is a chocolate lolly in New Zealand called ‘chocolate fish’ that is a pink marshmallow, shaped like a fish, and covered in chocolate. The beer wasn’t at all sickly sweet like you may expect from a lolly inspired beer. It had a lovely raspberry fruit character complete with the raspberry tartness you get in real raspberries, of course, balanced into soft chocolatey stout.