Matilda Bay's wandering ways reflect the growth in popularity of craft breweries, writes Willie Simpson.
If a brewery can be described as transient, then Matilda Bay would win the walkabout stakes hands-down. Not only has the brewery changed location several times, it has even crossed state boundaries.
The latest home for Australia's original micro-brewery is a former chocolate factory in Port Melbourne, a long way from the Perth suburb of Nedlands where its brew kettle was first fired up in 1984. Then it was owned by Phil Sexton and a bunch of his mates who blazed the craft beer trail in this country.
These days it's part of the Foster's Group and it has taken our largest brewer more than two decades to realise the full potential of Matilda Bay as a drawcard for craft beer fans.
''We've been looking for a suitable site for the best part of two and a half years,'' head brewer Scott Vincent says. ''Our lease was expiring at [the Dandenong South site] and we wanted a prime location which was close enough for people to come and visit. We also needed a site that was big enough to take our brewery.''
The brewing equipment from Dandenong South has been moved to the 2000-square-metre site at Port Melbourne and augmented with extra fermenters and maturation tanks. A cellar-door bar and visitors' centre is currently being constructed, with plans to open about mid-March.
''We'll be running tours once or twice a day, depending on numbers,'' Vincent says. ''We know people want to come along and see what we're doing and understand why they are paying more for a premium beer. They will see that we are not a big brewery and everything is done by hand.''
Vincent is getting his head around the logistics of serving beers direct from their storage tanks. ''People love to stand around tasting beer from the tank, but we'll have to find a way to serve it in our bar,'' he says. ''It means they can sample Redback as a hefeweizen [unfiltered] and one of the real drivers for us is to be able to knock out 1400-litre batches of special brews and get instant feedback from punters.''
The company's history has become convoluted. Matilda Bay Brewing Company was named after a water point on the Swan River near the original Nedlands site, but it quickly outgrew that site and moved to larger premises in North Fremantle.
Foster's bought it in 1990 and the provenance of the Matilda Bay brands has been an interesting juggling act for their marketing people, especially after the North Fremantle brewery - where Redback, Beez Neez and Bohemian Pilsner were produced - closed in 2008. The larger-volume beers are now produced at the Cascade Brewery in Hobart, and have been joined by Dirty Granny Cider.
In the meantime, the so-called Matilda Bay Garage Brewery was opened in Dandenong South in 2004 under then-head brewer Brad Rogers, principally to produce smaller-volume brands, such as Alpha Pale Ale and Dogbolter, and to develop new specialty beers, including Crema, Barking Duck and Rooftop Red Lager.
The latest twist in the story includes the release of I.G.P., a hazy Australian-style pale ale brewed with summer and galaxy hops, available on tap at selected outlets.
The name stands for ''Itchy Green Pants'' and is a brewers' in-joke about working in hot, sweaty conditions.
MATILDA BAY I.G.P. (4.7 per cent)
Pale gold, light haze. Aroma: clean, with fresh grain notes and fruity hints. Palate: medium-bodied, solid malt character balanced with a moderate, earthy hop bitterness; delicate fruit-salad hop notes round out the finish. Overall: easy-drinking ale in the Australian pale ale style.
AUSTRALIAN PALE ALE
The style guidelines for the Australian International Beer Awards define parameters for a "light to amber" colour, "low to medium bitterness" and a "low to medium intensity" hop taste and aroma. This style category was created to accommodate Coopers Sparkling Ale and Coopers Pale Ale; it now includes craft beers such as Nail Ale, Mountain Goat Organic Steam Ale and Beechworth Australian Ale. While not specified, the style is usually made with Australian-grown hop varieties such as Pride of Ringwood.