Bendigo group advocates independent beer

Jim Marshall, Zhoe Jess, Justin McPhail, Sam Bastian and Nick Horgan of Bendigo Beer. Picture: Peter Weaving
Jim Marshall, Zhoe Jess, Justin McPhail, Sam Bastian and Nick Horgan of Bendigo Beer. Picture: Peter Weaving

CRAFT beer ain’t king, at least not yet.

Co-founder of Bendigo Beer, Trevor Birks, reckons it’s more like a prince or a duke at the moment. But there is no doubting the popularity of craft beer.

“I think people are getting sick of being told what to drink,” Trevor says.

“Fosters and Tooheys had a stranglehold on 95 per cent of the market and it was mostly lagers with different labels.

“People are realising they’re being sold the same thing.”

Trevor and his team of ale appreciators make up Bendigo Beer. The group only wants one thing – to advocate craft beer and support the independent labels.

Bendigo Beer began in May 2011 when Trevor and Justin McPhail shared a couple of drinks.

“We kept bumping into each other so we had a chat about how we could  advocate good beer in Bendigo,” Trevor says. “We wanted to explain it to people and give the littler guys a bit of a battling chance.”

The group experienced rapid growth and popularity, proving there was great interest in quality brews in Bendigo.

“It vindicated the belief that Bendigo was ready for it,” Trevor says. “Three years ago there were only three venues with craft beer on tap, now there are nearly 40.

“It’s reflected positively on Bendigo and has been good timing with the explosion of good food venues.”

The Bendigo Beer crew works on matching beer tastes and aromas with good food. The Dispensary, Goldmines Hotel and Golden Vine were the three venues that helped begin the craft beer revolution in Bendigo. Now places like the Gold Dust Bar only have craft beer on tap.

“As far as premium beers go, The Dispensary is still number one,” Trevor says. “There are a lot of venues that care about serving good beer with their food and caring where their beer comes from.” 

Justin McPhail and Trevor Birks of Bendigo Beer with The Dispensary's Tim Baxter (middle) at The Dispensary. Picture: Supplied

And if ever there was a group of people who care about where their beer comes from it’s the five people I lent on a bar with during the week. Co-founder Justin McPhail and his fellow beer nerds Jim Marshall, Zhoe Jess, Sam Bastian and Nick Horgan can talk beer.

Having always credited myself with a solid knowledge of beer history, tastes and creative processes, the group blew me away with their encyclopaedic knowledge of everything beer related.

On being asked what sort of beer they keep in their fridges at home, a great debate ensued.

Labels like Mount Macedon Ale, Southern Ocean Ale, Mountain Goat, Holgate Brewery and Golden Ale were all thrown about, but Justin seemed to win out.

“I’ve got an Aurora Borealis, which is a big 14.9 per cent beer that is brewed in Norway and shipped over in scotch whiskey barrels before being bottled in Australia,” he says.

Justin helped co-found Bendigo Beer to improve the quality of beer across Bendigo.

“I wanted to drink this sort of beer in Bendigo at a venue where we go out for dinner or for after-work drinks,” he says. “You should have a variety in town. You can have wine with your meal why not a decent beer? 

“The fact is that craft beer has a variety of tastes and styles for every situation.”

Central Victoria has some great breweries producing drinks. Tooborac and Woodend are currently the closest, but a Bendigo couple is currently bottling their first batch (due for release in July).

“It’s not too far to go to Tooborac or Woodend but it will be good for Bendigo to have its own brewery,” Justin says.

The rest of the team became involved with Bendigo Beer recently, mostly through becoming regulars at the group’s events.

Sam, who recently began running Bendigo Beer events in an official capacity has always been happy chatting about good beer.

“Since turning 18 I’ve been lucky enough to drink craft beer thanks to working at The Dispensary,” he says. “Along with the internet, a couple of books and a couple of nights I can’t remember, I gradually started trying more and more.”  

Bendigo Beer aims to introduce some different beers to people who want a change.

“If you see a 60-year-old dude at the pub who’s been drinking Vic all his life, he’s not what we’re aiming for,” Sam says.

“It would be great to change his perceptions, but that’s not what we’re looking for. You won’t convince him not to drink Vic.

“It’s the young professionals and people who have a bit of money that will accept a change.”

In Sam’s experience it’s easy to introduce a new beer to someone who is trying to decide on a drink at the bar.

“It happens a lot where craft beer is available. You see people asking what they should have and you show them something and say, ‘give that a crack’. 

“We’re objective, which helps a bit more. We don’t get paid by (companies), we just recommend good products. Showing someone a new brew is where the fun of beer and brewing is.”

Having attended both wine and beer events, Sam says beer and wine enthusiasts are a world apart.

“If you don’t know about a certain wine, or Burgundies from France, you almost get forced to sit in the corner,” he says.

“Beer enthusiasts are different. If you don’t know about galaxy hops, someone says ‘get a fresh beer and come over here and I’ll tell you literally everything I know about it’.

“It’s more about people sharing information and a good time. There’s no exclusion. “Beer education is really fun and you can have a good chat over beers about anything.”

Now a not-for-profit organisation, it is clear Bendigo Beer (like craft beer in central Victoria) is getting bigger and better. Big events are on the horizon for the team including their staple event, the Annual Home-brew Competition.

Held at the Goldmines Hotel in September, the brewing competition is a favourite with beer fans.

“It’s a unique home-brew competition because it’s judged by the public, where most of the time beer is judged behind a curtain.

“Like Bendigo Beer, it’s a very inclusive thing. It’s about having fun and sharing the experience.”

Also on the calendar is Bendigo Beer’s involvement with the food and wine festival in November.

In the nearer future, the group is hosting a Beer versus Wine event at the Public Inn in Castlemaine (June 28) and a Big Winter Feast and Out There Ales events in Heathcote.

The Winter Feast includes a five-course dinner with five specially selected craft beers including a weird (but apparently wonderful) maple syrup, bacon and donut brew.

“The story is that the brewers drank the whole night and went to work via a donut bakery. They loved the maple bacon donuts so much they wanted to have them in a brew,” Justin says.

“They bought all the donuts and threw them in the brew. That’s the story but really they used a smoked malt to get the taste.”

Bendigo Beer now finds itself as a leader of craft beer in Bendigo.

Jim Marshall, Zhoe Jess, Justin McPhail, Sam Bastian and Nick Horgan of Bendigo Beer. Picture: Peter Weaving

“We’ve found that beer reps come to us first and ask us where’s a good place for their product,” Justin says. “Because they know that we know their product.

“It’s such a simple sort of thing. We don’t want to be experts, but running events is about getting the best beer into venues.

“We get the word out the same way we always have by social media and a newsletter.”

It’s clear the group of ‘beer nerds’ at Bendigo Beer is making a difference and bringing quality beers to the bars of Bendigo.

With everything from tips on finding your new favourite beer and expanding your palate for ales, these guys and girls are definetly people you need to share a pint (or two) with.

For more information on Bendigo Beer visit, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @bendigobeer.


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