Australia's Yarra Valley, best-known for its slew of award-winning wineries, is now capitalising on its lesser-known history of beer and cider making. Aficionados are flocking to its microbreweries, and a road-trip along the valley's burgeoning booze trail offers a new way to explore the region. Justine de Jonge went in search of the perfect pint.
Beer-making in the Yarra Valley dates back to the 1800s, when the softly-rolling hills were found to be the perfect site for both vines and hops. Today, nearly two hundred years on, not only are the wineries turning out world-class vintages but brewers are employing a mix of timeless brewing techniques and modern technology to yield some of Australia’s best beers and ciders.
Start your tour at the Coldstream Brewery, poised on the cusp of the Yarra Valley. This outfit is the brainchild of four school friends, who bought a dream of brewing their own booze to life. Over several years they transformed a former wool depot into a fully-fledged brewing house, deconstructing and shipping over the components of a New Zealand brewery before reconstructing them on site.
Coldstream currently produce and serve four outstanding beers and two ciders alongside good pub grub. The recycled timber fit-out and sprawling seating make this a great spot for a lazy Sunday afternoon session; try a pint or two of their Crisp Pale Ale.
If you’re a cider-lover, a ten-minute drive down the road takes you to Napoleone Cider at Punt Road Wines. Family-owned since 1948, the winery is surrounded by vines and orchards. This is one of the more upmarket stops on the trail, offering a small range of sweet-smelling ciders made with estate-grown pears and apples; the textured Cloudy Apple Cider is particularly good.
Buckleys Beer in Healesville is the quirkiest destination on this tour. It’s named after William Buckley, an infamous convict who escaped from authorities in the early 1800s to live with indigenous Australians – thus the Aussie saying “you’ve got Buckleys chance” was born. This brewery has a less bucolic setting on an industrial estate, though the staff are knowledgeable, hospitable and passionate about their brews, which are made from natural ingredients.
After a quick free tour of the brewery, you can sit back – or even play a game of foosball – as you savour a glass of Buckleys Bitter. Alternatively AUD$5 will buy you a tasting paddle of four beers, or you could try a bottle of the organic Kombucha, a fermented blend of green tea, hibiscus and lemongrass with a refreshing twist, for AUD$4.
Further afield in Healesville you’ll find the White Rabbit Brewery. Channelling an Alice in Wonderland vibe, this this retro-styled brewery describe themselves as “free thinking Belgian hippies that have just gate-crashed an old English tea party”. Quality ingredients go into their two ales: the rich, malty Dark Ale and the fruity White Ale. The former partners well with a homemade pizza, which can you can munch on a converted-keg stool as low-fi rock blares from the speakers and the workings of the brewery play out in front of you.
On the edge the Yarra Valley, overlooking the Toolangi State Forest, lies Giverny Estate. Kiwi groves were planted here in the 1960s, and thrive in Toolangi’s crisp climate. Today Giverny produces both wine and cider using this unusual fruit; their delicate cider is unique to Australia.
Continuing to historic Yarra Glen, you'll find the Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company in a restored 1800s bank building. The vintage-style bar and restaurant here offers lunch and dinner, as well as an interesting tasting paddle of Hargreaves Hill’s six beers for AUD$6. There's an open fire to snuggle up by during the winter months or you can take your brew outside on a sunny day.
Complete your lap of the valley with a stop at Kellybrook Winery, producer of the award-winning Kelly Brothers Cider. Established in 1962, Kellybrook is one of the only wineries in the region still owned by the original proprietors. Apples are now sourced from Yarra Valley orchards rather than grown onsite, but a traditional rack-and-cloth press is still used to crush the fruit. Kellybrook is also renowned for hosting the annual Cider Festival in May, which sees Morris dancers perform for crowds of scrumpy-sipping festival-goers.
The Yarra Valley is about an hour and a half's drive from Melbourne, though you might need to designate a driver. Discover more of Australia with the Rough Guide to Australia, book hostels for your trip and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
All photographs courtesy of Justine de Jonge.