Peter Foot finds flow in Victoria’s high country – on the single track and in the breweries.
Question: how would you like to go on a free brewery tour and mountain biking road trip? This was really asked of me, in my real life, on a Tuesday in winter at the Bicycle Network office in Melbourne.
I love mountain biking and I don’t get to do a lot of it. This is a chance to spend a whole week doing it. I like drinking beer and I do it all the time. This is a chance to drink more beer, and presumably better beer, and to tell myself that it’s my contractual obligation to do so. “Well yes, of course,” I said.
The trip is to showcase the High Country Brewery Trail, a route that visits all seven of the craft breweries in the north-east of Victoria, and some of the mountain biking nearby. For weeks before the trip I train by lifting pint glasses and incorporating the words “huck” and “gnarly” into my regular speech. By the time we chuck our bikes in the back of the ute and hit the road I feel that I’m well prepared.
“There’s nothing to mountain biking, you’ve just got to look at where you want to go,” I explain to Andrew as we buzz our way along the Hume. The four-cylinder diesel thrums away, green fields and eucalypts flit by the windows. Andrew is a roadie who I’ve roped into trying his hand at mountain biking, as well as being there to do the driving when I’ve had too many hop-based sports drinks.
“Mountain biking is more late starts and beer, not early mornings and lattes,” I continue. “It’s all about railing berms, and shredding trails, and hucking gaps and…stuff. It’s gnarly.”
Later we wend our way over Tawonga Gap and sail into the Kiewa Valley as dusk is settling. Through the gum trees we pull glimpses of a bucolic scene: lush paddocks with roads and lanes criss-crossing them like veins, and hills, dark and hulking in the failing light. In the morning Mount Bogong, Victoria’s highest peak, stands over the valley like a deity. It really is a sight to cleanse the soul. I get a call from my other work: can I come in today to do a shift?
“I’m afraid I can’t because I’m in Mount Beauty gazing upon the magnificent and snow-covered slopes of Mount Bogong. Goodbye.”
I suck in the mountain air and saunter along to Sweetwater Brewing for the first of our official engagements. It’s an unassuming brick place with a view of Mt Bogong and various sporting hand holds attached to the beer taps, including a ski pole and a 9-speed Shimano road lever. It takes its name from the Kiewa River, Kiewa meaning “sweet water” in the local Aboriginal dialect. There we meet owner and brewer Pete Hull, who tells us a bit about the area.
Mt Beauty was originally built to house workers on the Snowy Hydro scheme, before becoming something of a spiritual home of mountain biking in Australia. Trails were being built by locals here since mountain biking was a thing in this country, and it’s produced some great riders, including mountain bike world champion Paul Van Der Ploeg. The trail network, known as Big Hill mountain bike park, is impressively extensive, with over fifty trails totalling around 40km.
The trails are hand-built and natural, with rocks and roots, and undoubtedly high quality, Big Hill having hosted the cross-country and downhill national champs in the past. But with so many trails on offer, there is also a lot for the beginner to intermediate rider to explore. So we went out there with Pete and his seven-year-old son Mac, to do just that.
We start with some steep and technical climbing, and Andrew falls behind often. He battles manfully, though, and when we wait for him he emerges from the bush smiling like he has gotten away with something.
“So how’s it going,” I ask him at the top of a steep pinch.
“It’s so different to anything else I’ve done. It’s like finding a room in my mind that I’ve never been in before.”
“Here, this should make it easier,” I say as I reach over and unlock his suspension forks.
We venture deeper into the bush, noting how moist and fresh it smells, how quiet and peaceful it is despite being close to town. And we marvel at Mac’s riding ability, his confidence on the trails, how he lets his little bike skip around underneath him.
The last part of the ride is an extended and gradual downhill on a trail called Survey Track. One of the cool things about it is that you can attack it and have a blast, or you can just roll down at your own pace, making it a fun ride for pretty much anyone. I went fast.
Whipping along the hillside, the stress of my everyday life drips off me like water dripping from eucalypts after rain. If you’re ripping along singletrack you have to be totally present. Some rocks ahead: loosen the grip, stay supple, roll with it. A left hand sweeper: feather the brakes, lean in, look through the corner. You feel the tingling spray on your shin as you roll through a puddle, the tyres whir gently against the stillness of the forest. When road riding your mind can wander. When mountain biking you’re all there in a lather of reflex, calculation, mindfulness.
Undoubtedly the tinsel town of the high country, Bright attracts a lot of visitors in part because of the almost absurd number of outdoor activities one can do within a stone’s throw of the main drag.
Here are the cycling related ones alone: Bright is the southern terminus of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, one of Australia’s most popular. Mt Hotham, one of the country’s toughest road cycling climbs, is just up the road. Tawonga Gap and Mt Buffalo are close by too. And then of course there is the mountain biking, which we were to explore with Bright Brewery owner and founder Scott Brandon. We meet him at the front of his brewery (where else?) and pedal a few kilometres up the river to Bright’s Mystic Mountain Bike Park. As we ride Scott points to an empty paddock by the river.
“That’s where we’re going to build our new production facility,” he says. “At the moment we pretty much only make enough beer for our own bar, but soon we’re going to be sending it around the country.”
Mystic is an altogether different beast to Big Hill. Like Big Hill it began as an unofficial network built by locals, and has since been signposted, mapped and made accessible to visitors. But Mystic is currently being expanded with the help of professional trail building outfit Dirt Art, and as such, there are a number of machine built trails to go with the hand built ones, giving a great variety of terrain to enjoy. Another thing that makes Mystic unique is that much of it exists within a working pine plantation.
“We came to an agreement with the plantation operators to use their land for riding, which has allowed all this trail building and has been great for the community,” explains Scott before we plunge in. “Last year we held the mountain bike national championships here, which is really putting Bright on the map.”
We start on the riverside trails which are tight, rocky and offer a good dose of fun without being very technically demanding. Andrew is mainly keeping up this time, and seems to be enjoying himself.
“It’s so much easier with suspension,” he notes.
We then start a solid climb into the pine plantation to sample one of the machine built flow trails. Although pine forests are something of an artificial construct in Australia, there was something beautiful and refreshing about riding in one, as if you had stumbled through a back door to a different continent. The chill air, the resinous fragrance, the warm, late-afternoon light – it was vaguely north-American.
We sweat and toil up hill and then comes the descent, steep and twisty, with a smooth surface and many berms. Here I really let go, get my blood up, get my eye in, and the world melts away, and when I come out at the bottom I’m all pumped up and smiling. And then Andrew appears too, impressively close behind, with a huge, childish grin that creases the skin around his eyes.
“You are learning fast, young one,” I say to the 41 year old. As we ride back to the brewery I wish I could stay for a few more days to keep riding trails.
Later we chat to James, the brewery’s marketing manager, over dinner and a malty, English style amber ale.
“Yes it’s my job to spruik the brewery,” he says, “but I don’t have to bullshit to do that, which is great. The brewery is changing people’s drinking habits. They’re starting to appreciate good beer. Yes, it’s still alcohol, but we’re encouraging people to savour it rather than go out and get smashed.”
I look around the room which is spacious, welcoming and brightly lit. There are many large windows, and couches in the corner, and all sorts of people are here – young, old, families.
“People are starting to use the brewery as a meeting place,” he continues. “Groups of mums come in during the day and have coffee, people are coming here for business meetings or just to catch up.”
It’s a far cry from the old style regional pub, the kind that exists just up the road, complete with gambling, screens on the walls and Carlton Draught on tap. As an aside, I once counted 34 screens (yes, 34) in the main bar of a country pub. A couple had commercial channels on them, and the rest had almost every variety of racing-horses, trotters, greyhounds, or endless lists of odds. And in the corner, there was a poster that said: is gambling a problem for you?
James used to have a communications job at the CSIRO, before being laid off in the Abbott years (“apparently people don’t need to know about science,” he jokes). He didn’t spend much time on a bike before he came to Bright, but has since become a regular rider.
“You sort of have to, it’s so much part of the local culture. I often join the bunch road ride which leaves from town every morning. I’ve even climbed Mt Hotham, a proper mountain. I didn’t think I would ever do that.”
Maybe it was the amber ale, or maybe it was the salivating thought of living so close to so much great riding, but that night I decided that I wanted to live in Bright.
The next day we pick up snow chains and drive through fog and snow, on the long and winding road up Hotham, and further on, to Dinner Plain. At 1,550 metres, Dinner Plain is home to Blizzard Brewing, the highest brewery in the country. It’s a pretty remote place, but it does give them access to very pure water from aquifers fed by snowmelt, and the altitude means that they can boil the beer at less than one-hundred degrees Celsius, which saves power, and that you get tipsy a little bit quicker, which is fine.
This is really the story of the high-country brewers. One of the reasons that so many of them are here is the abundance of pure, fresh water, as well as other local ingredients such as the hops that have been grown at Rostrevor Hop Gardens in Eurobin since the 1890s. The region also has a long tradition of viticulture, and of gourmet dining, and of course all the hiking and skiing and biking and paragliding and the fishing and…you get the idea. It all just goes together.
All seven of the high country brewers had gathered at Blizzard to make a collaborative brew, something they do every year. This year it would be a Belgian style farmhouse ale that each of the breweries would get a few kegs of to sell in their bars.
So what happens when you get seven brewers in a room? Well they stand around and have a chat over a beer of course. But don’t they step on each other’s toes (figuratively speaking)? Aren’t you all competing for a slice of the tourism pie?
“When people come to the area they’ll often visit a few breweries,” explains Ben Kraus, owner and founder of Bridge Road Brewery in Beechworth. “If they have a bad experience at one of the other breweries, they’re less likely to then come and visit my brewery, and less likely to visit the region again.”
The following day when I meet Fiona Myers from Rutherglen Brewery, which opened last year, she expresses a similar sentiment.
“The whole brewing community is very friendly. They embraced us with open arms when we started. If you have an issue, it’s easy to contact them and they’ll help you out. Before we set up, Ben (Kraus) took us on a guided tour of his brewery, gave us information about suppliers and the pitfalls that he’d faced, and shared a wealth of knowledge.”
As I travelled around the high country talking to people in the brewing industry I was struck by this spirit of collaboration and mateship among them. There was a genuine sense that what’s good for one is good for all, that they’re all representatives of craft brewing.
At Chiltern the next day we are met by the local postmaster Matt Williams, who has put much effort into mapping the local trails for recently installed signage. The trail network around Chiltern is very different again from Bright or Mt Beauty, being made up of back roads and fire trails that meander through the greatest stand of box-ironbark forest in Australia. It’s reasonably flat and non-technical, which makes it a great place for casual riders and families. We would learn that there is plenty here for twitchers, history buffs and orchid hunters too.
Recent rains had made the trails very soggy, and we spend a good portion of the time negotiating huge puddles. As I ride out of one of them, I hear a splash behind me and turn around to see Andrew lying sideways in the water.
“Look, he’s doing a triathlon,” I say.
“Quick, get your camera out,” says Matt.
Alas, I am too slow to capture the moment, and for some reason Andrew doesn’t want to lie back down in the water and pose for a photo. But neither this, nor the ribbing he cops for the rest of the ride is enough to wipe the smile from his face. We soon stop at an old mine site, with a picnic area and information boards explaining the workings of the once very productive mine.
Chiltern was built on mining in the 1850s, and bar the bitumen surface, the main street looks like it hasn’t changed a great deal since that time. Narrow and lined with “ye olde” shopfronts, you can almost hear the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, almost smell the dust they kick up.
“There are a number of historical sites in the forest that you can get to on a bike,” says Matt. “We also get people coming here to see the regent honeyeater. And sometimes you’ll be riding through the forest and you’ll see someone on hands and knees taking photos of orchids.” The regent honeyeater is a critically endangered species, closely related to the wattle bird, that is endemic to south-east Australia. In another part of the forest there are wetlands and a bird hide where you can spot brolgas, ibis, egrets and herons.
As I travelled around the high country I gathered why we’d been sent on this trip. Much emphasis is being placed on cycle tourism in the north-east of Victoria, and things are developing, fast. Many existing trail networks are being signposted, mapped and upgraded, and new trail networks are being built (while we were there, 50kms of new trails were officially opened at Yackandandah.) Existing breweries are expanding, and new breweries are opening their doors – three of the seven high country breweries have opened in the last couple of years, and four more are expected to open in the next year or two. It’s an idea that’s catching on. Cheers to that.
Peter and Andrew travelled courtesy of Tourism North East. Apologies to the following people and businesses that I haven’t mentioned because there wasn’t enough space in this article.
Bridge Road Brewers, Beechworth, who provided a hearty pizza for lunch, and where we sat down for beers and dinner with Ben Kraus and the Beechworth Chain Gang, who dedicate much of their own time to maintaining the local trails. Unfortunately our planned night ride with them was cancelled due to very wet weather.
Rutherglen Brewery, Rutherglen, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch after our ride at Chiltern, and the biggest and best-looking tasting paddle you’ll come across. A big thanks to Fiona and Gav.
Social Bandit Brewing, Mansfield, who fueled us for the drive home with great pizza and another tasting paddle. (Andrew stayed sober for the drive. Legend.) Another big thanks to Jeff and Jeanette.
And of course thank you to Andrew, for his good humour, patience, and willingness to have a crack.
Find more cycling adventures from Peter Foot at www.adventurecyclingvictoria.com
Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.