Hargreaves Hill was my first foray into the craft beer world many, many years ago. At the time I knew it was a great product but was not the craft beer nerd I am now and over time my appreciation for Simons’ amazing brews has just gone through the roof. Simon and his beers are very much part of the reason I started this blog, to promote craft beer being brewed in the Yarra Valley, the eastern suburbs and beyond. It’s guys like Simon that inspire not only me, but all the other craft beer lovers out there to pursue the best beer possible. If you do a collaboration brew with Deschutes, one of the best brewers going around, your doing something right and drawing the right kind of attention….
Brewing 1400 litres a batch 4 times a week keeps him and his recent newly appointed head brewer Kai Dambergs (previously from White Rabbit brewery) pretty busy, but I was lucky enough to get a bit of time with Simon at his Lilydale brew house to talk beer, the future of the industry and his Good Beer Week experience with Kris from Deschutes along with heaps of other bits and pieces. So with out further ado, the trail blazer of Yarra Valley craft beer: Simon Walkenhorst.
Where did you Brew Saga Begin?
I was always interested in beers as a young bloke, but it really started as a side project to my other job and I just really thought the Yarra Valley was right for a brewery. I always had the idea of but it really came to a head when I was at a mates BBQ and he had brewed up an amazing home brew and it was really, really nice and I really got the inspiration from that to open our own little brewery. Just take good ingredients and not process the hell out of them, just let them speak for themselves. That was pretty much how we got going.
Was there a beer that really turned it around for you?
It wasn’t really one beer, it was a few different ones. When I was overseas for my honeymoon with my wife (who is the other partner in the business) we found ourselves at this quirky little pub up near the Yorkshire dales and there was a whole list of beers i had never heard of before and a lot of really interesting Belgian beers and real ales with hand pumps. We just realised the world of beer was a lot bigger than what we had experienced in Australia at that time. There were’t a great deal of diversity around at that time, around 2001- 2002 there was James Squire, Little Creatures, there was a bit of Mountain Goat. Mountain Goat, Grand Ridge and Holgate are probably the only ones in Victoria that pre date us. You could just see the craft beer world starting to open overseas and we got amongst it.
What inspired you to open/ brew in the eastern suburbs?
We always wanted to open in the Yarra Valley, at that time I was not aware of any other brewers out here. My wife grew up on a property in Steels Creek and so her family had a property our there and we talked the old man into letting us put up a shed and put a little brewing rig in there and we got going. Pretty humble beginning…
Just how successful has it been? Did you expect it to be as big as it has gotten?
I suppose I sort of wanted it to be of a reasonable size, but I’m surprised every year by the growth of our industry and we try to replicate that growth in our business. At the moment there is a great deal of interest in craft beer and there wasn’t anything like that in the beginning, and now, year on year, its just becomes bigger and bigger and I suppose its because its an interesting product and there is so much of a story to tell in craft beer. It just captures a lot of peoples interest, its great to see and the busier we are the easier it is to run in a way, lots of people want our product and its just become a burgeoning little business.
What do you think of the growing craft beer trend?
Inevitably, craft beer will plateau out but its still got a long way to go before we reach a saturation point. I think there are a lot of small breweries that will become bigger breweries, and those big breweries will present themselves in a very craft beer way and I think they are the ones that will feature prominently on shelves and in pubs.
In light of CUB’s tap contacts coming out, was it hard for you to get your beer on tap?
You can pretty well walk in to a pub when you have been in the industry long enough, you don’t even need to be in the industry I suppose, just an astute punter and see that it is clearly a CUB contract venue, all the affiliated brands on ten fonts or whatever. So we did not really bother even asking or pursuing those pubs as a sales leads. We looked more to venues that would not even think of pouring a Fosters product, and there is more and more of those and a lot of proprietors are coming off these long held contracts too and not going back on making more of an opening.
What do you think of their attempts to dent the craft beer market, i.e. Crown Golden Ale?
I think they make beer for a market, there must be a market for it somewhere. I would love to know how related to the craft beer movement the change for Crown Lager going from an adjunct lager to an all malt lager was, I would love to know how related that is the the rise and rise of craft beer. Whats happening now is the bigger companies are being kept honest by the craft beer movement and are being encouraged into brewing beer with better ingredients, making a better product. I think for what the new Crown Lager is, it’s a pretty decent beer. It’s not something I drink a lot of but its now being well made and is clean, light, easy drinking lager with some some good malt profile.
What do you love about the job and industry?
It’s just a good community of brewers, everyone gets along and there’s a lot of good mates I’ve made through the industry. It’s an industry filled with fantastic, passionate people and as a result its a very easy industry to work it, it’s very social. It’s just a lot of fun, we have a lot of fun here. The way we want to run this place allows us to explore and experiment with a lot of new ingredients, new hops and a pretty constant program of exploring and developing our of techniques with every style of beer, that’s something the really excites me. I think we’re in a really good spot too where we can produce a one off beer and now there’s a great market for it, pubs and bars that will put on a one off beer. Some pubs these days won’t even buy a keg of our pale ale because it’s not wacky enough, too mainstream for one of their taps. But those places are fantastic, don’t get me wrong! We work pretty hard at improving our own techniques and skills, we are always taking down numbers and analysing pretty thoroughly, doing a lot of sensory stuff, testing one, three, and nine months down the track to make sure our products are always improving. We taste the beers and ask ourselves, would we go into pocket to buy one of these? That’s really critical to us. I really do believe if we are going to send our beer out there, it’s gotta be better beer.
How was your Good Beer Week working with Kris from Deschutes? Enjoy the train ride?
It was fantastic. It was a pretty full on event to organise in terms of getting 80 people fed three courses on a train. There is no electricity or gas or anything on the train so keeping food to temperature was pretty interesting… The Deschutes guys were great, we had Kris Scholl the technical director come out on the Wednesday and brew the Hopburst with Kai, we learned a lot. Deschutes is a 180 head brewery down in Bend with two brew pubs, so they are massive. It was a fantastic experience.
How did you end up working with Deschutes? How did you come to brew the Hopburst?
We always try to keep an eye out to see who’s coming to town. We also share a similar brewing philosophy in good products, good hoppy beers. We just got very lucky I guess! The collaboration was a lot of fun; Hopburst is a technique that Kris is starting to use at Deschutes which refers to adding lots and lots of hops at the end of the boil, just before the whirlpool or in the whirlpool, with the idea to extract the as much aroma and lots of hop flavour as possible. We just thought it would be a cool idea with a nice malt bill! It’s not an in your face IPA but its quite well balanced. Lots of good flavours.
Do you see potential for brewers in the outer east to collaborate?
Definitely. We talk a lot with the guys at the Public Brewery in Croydon, they pour a bit of our beer there too. They will be a lot of fun to play with. I just think everything in the Valley in terms of brewing just needs to be a little bit more established first.
Whats your favourite style?
It depends what mood i’m in, I love the styles we make, they were the ones I wanted to brew and drink. I love Belgian Tripels , thats probably my favourite style. Also Saisons, the guys out the back are mad for them. We’ve got a lot of reverence for the style because it can be very hard to pull off.
What do you think is the next hot style?
I think further diversity is what’s going to happen, people exploring the full gamete of styles. I know for us, we are interested in doing things that haven’t been done before and that’s probably the reason we aren’t rushing in to do a Saison. We’ve brewed a Grozet before, and we’ve got a Maibock in tank at the moment, similar to one we did with Red Hill Brewing a little while ago for GABS. Exploring forgotten styles, or styles not often brewed, i think that’s where we will continue ahead. Putting things is barrels and all kinds of different techniques in brewing, that is another potential way to go.
What do you think of the adding of Brettanomyces to beer recently, I know with many wine makers they can’t get in to it as they see it as a fault.
I think it can be quite a nice flavour. But if these perceived faults are present and unintended obviously you’ve got some issues to look at but in terms of oxidation, Brett, sourness or any of those flavours can actually contribute to a beer but it has to add to complexity rather than dominate. Thats where I see Brett sitting as well, if all you can taste is Brett then you have issues but if there is hop flavour, malt and good complexity then I think it does have a place in beer.
What’s your favourite beer/ food matching?
This time of year I love duck and Belgian styles. Duck is great with estery beers. We just put a 5 spice duck burger on at the restaurant, perfect with an Abbey Dubel…
What’s your favourite place for a drink?
I would have to say German beer gardens, perfect place for a sunny day. Music and thousands of people sitting around drinking beer by the litre, you would have to go a long way to beat that.
If you had the option, what would you drink: a fresh beer or an interesting/ rare beer?
I’m a bit spoiled because i can drink beer fresh from a tank, it doesn’t get any fresher or better than that. Aged beer is always interesting, say with our Phoenix or Russian Imperial Stout, we find that the ageing produces some interesting characters like autolysis which produces a vegemite-y flavour, this is the break down of yeast. A little bit of oxidation is also good in those beers, it rounds out the palate and we like the affect.
What are your thoughts on Grey Market beer?
You are never going to get rid of it as long as brewers are selling beer. I’ve had some great beer that is not meant to have made it to Australia, and some ordinary stuff. When you don’t know how it got here or where its been often often means you take a gamble and it comes through a very long distribution line, the longer the distribution the more chance of degradation. One such case is Chimay, if you don’t get it from the right guys you end up with some pretty ordinary tasting stuff and it doesn’t present the beer particularly well. It’s not an issue for us, I’ve never heard of it going overseas without our consent. It’s always going to exist, but it is not good for the beer and best avoided.
Any advice for budding home brewers?
Just tool up, always keep working for more knowledge. Reading, jumping on line and being really open to all styles. Become as knowledgeable of all aspects as possible and a lot of that stems from being proficient in sensory way, you know what your tasting, you know what the flavours are and where they come from. Use that as a basis to improve. If you brew a beer and it’s not quite right ask why it isn’t, what is wrong with it, what is that flavour. Its easy to put a process in to improve your beer.
If someone asked you to put a six pack together for them, what would you put in it?
I’d say a Weinstephan, a Tripel Karmeliet, a nice fresh US IPA, maybe Deschutes. A Saison Dupont, something interesting like a Sour, a sour would work in there and a nice stout.
For those who wanting venture to Hargreaves Hill Restaurant/ Cellar Door:
25 Bell St, Yarra Glen, VIC 3775