Port Macquarie, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, is Australia's third oldest penal settlement. Does this perhaps explain why it has such a thirst for strong ale? As a guest of the recent Tastings on Hastings food festival I was able to explore the region's burgeoning craft beer scene, which is spearheaded by Black Duck Brewing and the Little Brewing Company – two operations which embrace quite different, almost contradictory, brewing philosophies. Best known for its Wicked Elf range, Little Brewing makes a range American, Czech, Belgian, German and British style beers. Despite the wacky labels, the beers here are authentic, delicate and beautifully structured. The flavours may be bold, but head brewer Warwick Little, who once studied winemaking, never strays too far from the original recipe. "We brew beers without compromise, yet fervently true to style,” he says. Look out for Wicked Elf Kolsch which is triumph of restraint and yet at 4.9%ABV still packs a meaty punch. Fans of Belgian-style beers will enjoy the Mad Abbot Tripel (9.5%ABV), a smooth, fruity and complex ale which will augment any Christmas Day table. The spic and span brewery, which opened in 2007, will soon open a dedicated tasting deck. Mad Abbot and Wicked Elf beers are available at Dan Murphy’s and BWS stores.
Across town the Black Duck Brewery, which opened its doors four years ago, makes beers which are more tailored to local tastes and Port Macquarie’s summery climate. “People want a cold fizzy beer that doesn’t beat them up too much,” says co-founder and head brewer Al Owen. “The paler beers, like Beach House Blonde and Golden Goose, are always easier to sell. Our Aussie lager walks out the door.” Unlike the Little Brewing Company, Black Duck Brewing relies entirely on local distribution – and the occasional guest tap at one of the city’s pubs. “It’s grown really strongly over the last couple of years,” he says. “We try to work as closely as we can with the local businesses – most of the pubs will give us a spare tap if they can. The local [brewery] reps are really good to us.” The brewery also serves pizza and ploughman’s platters. The tasting paddles ($5) are excellent value. Owen, a former civil engineer, discovered the world of craft beer during a trip to the UK in 2005. Luckily, he found a complete brewing kit lying in storage in nearby Wauchope. ”It was purely opportunistic,” he says. Plans are already underway to substantially expand the brewery’ modest 50,000 litre a year capacity and also hopes to develop its boutique gin-making operation. “People keep buying it, so I keep making it,” says Owen.
So anyone heading north over the long NSW summer holidays should allocate some time to explore Port Macquarie’s small, but energetic craft beer scene. And keep your eyes peeled for self-styled gypsy brewer MooreBeer, which is hoping to establish a permanent base in the city soon.