My, what a shift – Saturday: hanging out under Perth’s washed-out-blue skies, walking through heat-shimmering orange-dusty car parks, enjoying almost-40°C (104°F) temperatures, and necking cold beers. Today: back in English winter. Not exactly freezing – but a chilly ~10°C (50°F), grey, damp.
Anyway – on said hot and sunny Saturday I took a beery flash-tour of the Swan Valley, Perth’s doorstep “Wine Region” – which, like my homeland Margaret River Wine Region, has developed a small co-industry of boutique drink-in breweries. In nearly 20 years growing up in Western Australia and then a subsequent 15 years visiting about once a year I have never actually set foot in the Swan Valley. I’ve avoided Perth and surrounds in general to be honest… I prefer it “down home”. However on this trip I decided to explore where beer was at around the capital city, and the Swan Valley is home to a small but varied brewing cluster. If you’re interested in a specific brewery I visited you can jump to: Ironbark Brewery, Elmar’s Brewery, or Feral Brewery – alas we were unable to visit Mash or Duckstein.
View Swan Valley Breweries in a larger map
Summary: OK beers, shambolic service
Ironbark is the closest Swan Valley brewery to Perth city – we arrived at the brewery just before midday and wandered into the bar. The place has a cluttered “Heath Robinson” feel, like I was trespassing on some Aussie tinkerers verandah. The midday heat was at its near-40°C full-force – the supposedly cooling mist-spray seemed to vapourise before it could reach you… a cold beer was in order!
The good news was that being midday it was before Saturday’s 1pm-4pm “beer tasters blackout” – presumably something done to avoid hassle when the place is heaving with tourist-bus crowds. However on asking for one I was initially refused “we don’t do beer tasters on Saturdays”. “But”, said I, “your sign clearly says from 1pm”. I’m met with some consternation – someone got it wrong I’m told. They reluctantly offer me a tasting platter, I accept and make my choices – it take a little time as there are no notes about the beers on offer. I say nothing about the fact that the 1pm being a mere typo is hard to believe given it is displayed in two locations in the bar, is on their website, and also printed on every copy of their menu – none of which seem super-recently printed. (AU$10 for 5x 80ml samples.)
We gathered our beers and retreated to a patio table (it’s all patio here). The good news: the beers were fine. Although not outstanding, I was happy enough drinking them and would certainly enjoy a glass or two more from the selection – my notes, written at time of tasting:
- Country Wheat – 4.4% – “top fermented ale with estery flavours”
(right) Loads of orange peel, very nice & refreshing though intense.
- Aussie Pils – 4.4% – “brewed using Saaz hops”
(2nd from right) Fruity & a little odd. But quite drinkable.
- Blokes Brown – 5% – “brown ale”
(middle) A bit TCPish – handful of smoked malt. Not easy going. Seaweedy.
- Hannans – 5.5% – “typical Australian style lager”
(2nd from left) Very light, herbal fruity, sort of fejoa-like. Peppery.
- Munich Lager – 4.5% – “bottom fermented beer using Munich malt”
(left) Clean and lightly caramel. Medicinal herby note to finish.
In retrospect, thinking back to the fruity/estery type flavours, I’m left pondering the possibility of over-warm fermentation temperatures and what yeast(s) they’re using. Not critically mind you, more in the spirit of wanting to know more about things. The Hannans is the beer of the set that I most enjoyed, the Country Wheat just a bit too overdone in the orange-peel department, the Blokes Brown a bit too rough, and the other two exhibiting a little too much medicinal oddness. That said, I’d be happy enough drinking a middy of any of them – none were bad. (It really should be kept in mind that when I write my beer descriptions I’m looking at the edges: the “hints”, “zests”, and “notes” that make a beer different – often potential flaws – if I think a beer is bad or good I’ll say so, if I don’t say it is either then it is OK.)
Having enjoyed my tasting selection I returned to the bar to fill in a couple of gaps and to see if I could get a bottle of their stronger “IPA” to take away with me. For good reason the girl at the bar is reluctant: I’m not going straight home, the car is going to be a hot place to keep a beer, the beer will be unhappy (I’ve already mentioned the near-40°C heat). Good advice, sensible service. So I ask for a “middy” to enjoy now. I’m charged $7.50 – and note that their sign advertising the beer says it is $6.50. Another woman at the bar, the “1pm is midday” one from earlier chimes in with “that’s the bottle price”. Well, it says “middy” on the board against the price…. more bullshit service. I question how long they’ve been doing this beer thing… 17 years I’m told. Amazing that they’ve been in business that long and still can’t get their shit together on the service front. Anyway, I did enjoy my final two beers despite the hassle, finishing on the Warrior Ale IPA-type-thing-with-honey-in was certainly ending on a high-note:
Rousies – 4.4% – “German style lager”
(left) Light malt blast, Kat says “Green King Twang”, I think a bit Burton-y. Good though, IMO.
- Warrior Ale – 7% – “40 IBU beer, made with local banksia honey”
(right) Yum. Rich dark honey comes through, finishing with a beaut hop resin from the Galaxy.
We were going to eat at Ironbark – the idea of wood fired pizza was appetizing. But having seen the pizza being constructed on pre-made cardboard-stiff bases, and in light of the general service level experienced, we decided to move on to the next brewery instead.
I would recommend visiting Ironback Brewery to try out the beers, but probably do your best to to avoid the busyness of Saturday… and the pizza (if you have “standards” for “woodfired pizza”).
Elmar’s in the Valley
Summary: slick, good service, clean beers
A German-esque brewery with a “glass kettle” – the theme here is “purity”. “A key feature of Elmar’s in the Valley is a giant glass kettle, used to enhance the flavours and purity of the beers.” They tag themselves as a “micro glass brewery”, which to me just sounds a bit odd – an attempt at humour perhaps.
We stepped from the heat into the cool air-conditioned building with relief… short-lived since, understandably, they were busy and we had to take a table outside on the somewhat greenhouse-like open verandah. Once again cold beer beckoned!
Our table was next to the outside bar where we discovered that only a handful of the beers on the list were available. Thus my order for the Cloudy Pils and my brother’s for the Schwarzbier were met with a sad shaking of the head. So I grabbed a mug of the 4.8% Marzen – which was an acceptable “beery” beer but not quite reminiscent of märzens as I’ve experienced them, it didn’t quite have enough “oom pah”.
- Marzen – 4.8%
A beery beer.
We had ourselves a quick lunch at Elmar’s – a simple plate of cold bits and pieces and some breads and dip. Not a bad selection and amount as a light lunch for five. Although not particularly outstanding – like the beer a certain something was lacking, no real flavour excitement.
After eating I wandered into the inside bar – and discovered that the beers we had originally wanted were available in there. (My sister had been told the inside selection was the same as the outside selection – perhaps we had just come at a bad between-keg moment.) So I was able to try a selection of three more beer samples. (AU$5 for 3x 80ml samples.)
- Schwarzbier – 5%
(left) Oo, roasty toasty, good stuff.
- Over Draught – 4.8%
(right) Malty sweet but very pleasant ice cold on a hot day. Estery and quite complex.
- Cloudy Pils – 4.8%
(middle) Smooth & slips down easy. Excellent finishing bite. Lemon pithy hop zest.
Overall the beers here hit a little above what I was expecting for the Aussie take on German-esque beers. Past experience has led me to expect a suffusion of blandosity. Nothing here really made me tingle… but the variation was good and the beers rather clean & crisp flavoured compared to Ironbark. The Schwarzbier and Cloudy Pils were both very more-ish – though they need to put more “schwarz” in their schwarzbier in my opinion, as more evident in the photo below!
Summary: not open
We rocked up at Mash and things immediately didn’t look quite right. A large group of vaguely bored and perturbed looking blokes were milling about under a tree and the carpark was virtually empty. Closer inspection revealed that the brewery was:
Bummer! I hope the tour-group didn’t have to wait long for their pick-up.
Summary: not open
We’d decided to skip Duckstein as it was immediately after the similarly Germanic Elma’s. I’d also already been to Duckstein’s place down Margaret River way on a previous visit home – albeit not reviewed the experience (I think “typically bland” comes to mind). I also can’t help but think of Duckburg every time I hear or see the word “Duckstein” – so I have trouble taking them seriously in my head! But given the Mash situation we backtracked to try Duckstein out instead. Alas! Alack! Duckstein had a sign out “Closed for Function”. Ho hum… there was nothing for it but to trek off to the other side of the valley to…
Feral Brewing Company
Feral can be found all alone on the east side of the Swan Valley (every other Swan Valley brewery being on the west). Feral is probably the only name in this list a British beer drinker is likely to have heard of – and that’s mainly thanks to Wetherspoon’s. Feral is one of the breweries they collaborate with for the “international” selection in the festival beer list, twice now in fact. They’re also the only brewery in this visit that I’ve tried beer from before – as bottled Feral White, Porter, and Hop Hog are readily available in bottle shops and also quite a few pubs.
As with Elmar’s the place was heaving when we got there – we were glad they had a table available, also outside. Thankfully the mist-spray was effective and a light breeze had come up so it was pleasant sitting out on the deep shady verandah. I popped inside to grab a selection of beers – a set-menu style tasting tray was advertised so I went for that, also noting that all the beers were offered in an 80ml tasting size as well as “regular” and “large” glasses. The pre-selected tasting tray was a delight of variety! (AU$16.50 for 6x 80ml samples.)
- Sly Fox – 4.7% – “Summer Ale”
(left) Beaut light little hop gremlin. Light fizzy passionfruit juice.
- White – 4.6% – “White Beer (Witbier)”
(2nd from left) Vanilla-sweet coriander cream soda. Lemony.
- Amber – 3.6% – “Australian Amber Ale”
(3rd from left) Peachy resin pepper melon.
- Hop Hog – 5.8% – “American IPA”
(3rd from right) Super sweet lychee juice. Quite different to the bottle.
- Smoked Porter – 4.7% – “Porter”
(2nd from right) Cabanossi on the nose, less so in the mouth, rich sweet shlenkerla-like body but less intense. Herbal cough syrup end.
- Karma Citra – 5.9% – “Black IPA”
(right) Wow. It’s warmed up a bit by now and comes across just like a very good cask BIPA. Or maybe BD EFP’11.
A hard-hitting lineup of flavoursome enjoyment. I wanted more of everything really, but there were beers untried so I grabbed a few more samples.
- Barrique O’Karma – 6.6% – “Barrique Fermented Black IPA”
(primary fermentation new French oak!)
(left) Tastes like BIPA that’s been in a barrel. Hops slightly muted, and a great sandalwoody spice picked up. Beaut beer.
- Boris – 11.5% – “Russian Imperial Stout”
(2nd from left) Pow – alcoholic licorice rod. “liquid vegimite” says one of the party. Wish I could have more.
- Fantapants – 8.5% – “Imperial Red IPA”
(2nd from left) Toasted rye, light antiseptic, zesty. Big hop resin.
- Raging Flem – 7.6% – “Belgian Style IPA”
(right) Iffy. Sort of melony overripe fruit. A bit nasty.
Score so far: 10 beers, 9 lovely, 1 rather horrid. That’s pretty damn good going. The Raging Flem just didn’t taste right or good to me – this often happens when I see the words “Belgian” and “IPA” near each other. The name may not be helping with the perception here… on the other hand I just love the catchy name “Fantapants”, no idea why. The Barrique O’Karma – barrel-fermented version of Karma Citra I presume – is outstanding, phenomenal, memorable…. barrel-fermenting beer in new oak! Not sure if I’ve had a beer made this way before… I guess this is something that neatly comes out of brewing beer in a wine producing part of the world. I wonder what they do with the used oak. I’ve had “barrel aged” IPAs, which are generally so-so on the “IPA” front, hops subdued – but this is punchy, fresh, zesty, but also… barrely.
Feeling mildly-drunkenly gung-ho and on-a-roll, I pop back to the bar inside to mop up whatever I haven’t tried yet… just a couple more beers (a few from the list were unavailable).
The Runt – 4.7% – “APA”
(left) Smells like Oakham Citra, tastes like Japanese green pepper.
- B.F.H. – 5.8% – “Barrel Fermented Hog”
(another barrel-fermented offering, the equivalent of Hop Hog)
(middle) Yep, barrelled Ipa. Sandalwoody zest and a vivid memory of hops. Another stunner if you like wood.
When I wrote the above “vivid memory of hops” I’d not realised the B.F.H. was primary fermented in new oak and then dry-hopped as per usual. Again, like Barrique O’Karma, quite unlike the usual “barrel” + “IPA” experience. Another stunner – as I noted at the time. I bought a large glass of The Runt (which I had previously sampled) as a cleanser… and it is a good’un for the job. This little pair were a most excellent finish to a grand day out drinking. Sadly none of the really exciting beers were available to take away in bottles – maybe they are never offered in bottle?
It was time to head, somewhat reluctantly, home… I’d certainly had my fill of beer for the trip, and my family companions were probably a bit tired of my beer nerdery, plus my poor sister was our “skipper” and we needed to get her home so she could enjoy a beer herself!
Do visit the Swan Valley breweries and do give the full set a chance, they all have something to offer (I expect Duckstein and Mash are worthy as well, and hope to fill them in on some future trip home).
For the “craft beer” drinker & nerd Feral is certainly and clearly where the elusive and ill-defined “it” is “at”. There’s really no comparing Feral to the other two breweries I visited. Feral is the seriously-“craft”, flavour-driven, experience-delivering *KAPOW* rockstar here. If there’s a flaw it’s that there was too much to take in during my single all-too-short visit! I wanted more of nearly everything… unless you really must go on a mad ticker-frenzy tour of the Swan Valley then I recommend making Feral a solid day-trip destination, work slowly and appreciatively through the beers over 3 or 4 hours on one day, then do all the breweries on the west side of the valley on another day. If you don’t have time for two days – just stick with Feral.
Ironbark is charmingly rustic, and like dogs and dog owners the Ironbark beers have their own rustic similarity to the venue. On a cooler & quieter day I can imagine myself enjoying a few proper glasses of their beer, but none of them felt like several-glasses-of beers. Elmar’s – slick is the word – clean venue, clean beers, but not boring. I could happily enjoy a hot summer’s day at Elmar’s just downing cold glasses of that Cloudy Pils punctuated with one or two of the others. Where Ironbark has a DIY-family-business shorts-n-tshirt feel Elmar’s presents as professional and business-suited.
If I lived in Perth I’d be happy to return and give each brewery a proper lunchtime session – although in all cases I think a weekday visit would be recommended. Saturday, in summer, close to the “festive season”… they were all about as packed as you can imagine (no doubt there’ll be total chaos and hell once the summer holiday break hits).
The beer is well and truly worth seeking in the Swan Valley.