Andrew Bain hits the high country in pursuit of the best craft beers and off-road trails.
On the slopes above the town of Bright a gnarl of mountain bikers is whirring through the forest, coiling down tracks that are slippery with frost and pine needles. In their midst is Scott Brandon, the owner of Bright Brewery. At 10am he's already on his second mountain-bike ride of the day. If beer has been traditionally linked to sport only through backyard barbecues and couches, he doesn't seem to know it.
North-east Victoria has long been a favourite of cycling holidaymakers for its Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, and with road cyclists for its punishing climbs to Falls Creek and Mount Hotham. It's now also forging a reputation for mountain biking, led in part by a quartet of craft breweries: Bright Brewery, Bridge Road Brewers, Sweetwater Brewing Company and Black Dog Brewery. In March the breweries released a pocket guide to the High Country Brewery Trail in which the brewers describe their favourite local mountain-bike rides.
The link between beer and bikes isn't accidental. Across the world, craft beer and mountain bikes have long gone hand in handlebar. In sober Utah, the state's only microbrewery is in Moab, one of the world's great mountain-biking destinations. The New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado holds an annual bicycle parade, operates a "bike-in cinema" and gives each employee a bike after 12 months of service.
"We're striving for that overall philosophy here as well," Brandon says. "Everyone's not just here to run a business - it's a lifestyle thing. All of the brewers mountain-bike, so it's an obvious match. And we're just in this little pocket where we really do get more than our fair share of blue sunny days, which is perfect for what we like to do."
The trails stretch from the Warby Ranges near Glenrowan to the town of Mount Beauty, at the foot of Victoria's highest peak, Mount Bogong. It's here that I begin my visit, on the Survey Track, with Sweetwater brewer Pete Hull.
The Survey Track is like a bushwalk on wheels, with nothing technical but a real sense of bush remoteness, even just a few kilometres from town. Mount Bogong rises through the foliage of the gum trees and after some tight opening bends, the trail straightens out into a flowing single track.
"I like this track because it's got a little bit of a wilderness feel to it but it's not far from town," says Hull, a former food technologist who moved to Mount Beauty for the outdoor lifestyle. "The young guys can bomb it hard and fast if they want to, but then you can also sit on the brakes and cruise along, just enjoying the ride."
It's a similar theme across the High Country Brewery Trail, which highlights rides within the technical reach of most mountain bikers - the sort of rides that should have cyclists reaching for beer rather than Valium at the finish.
In Bright, where the slopes and forests are laced with unmarked tracks, Brandon's choice is the Roger Packham Trail, which contorts along the banks of the Ovens River, plunging into small gullies and grinding back out. It's the trail we ride into Bright after a couple of hours on tracks that local riders hope to eventually turn into a mountain-bike park.
"It's a nice way to finish a ride, just cruising into town along there," Brandon says of the Roger Packham Trail. "It's got lots of little challenging bits and it skips around along the river. It's not particularly difficult - you don't have to be superhuman to ride it - but it is a lot of fun."
The most challenging of the Brewery Trail's nominated rides is at Beechworth, where Bridge Road Brewers is the oldest and largest of the four craft breweries, producing 15 varieties inside its former coach-house stables.
The brewery is also just four kilometres from the Beechworth Mountain Bike Park, which winds a tortuous course through dry bush at the town's edge. "It's fun - there's no boring stage to the track - and it's always a challenge," Bridge Road brewer Ben Kraus says. "It's about concentration as well as physical exertion. If you stop thinking about what you're doing, you're going to go over the handlebars."
However, even Beechworth has its simpler options, and one evening I join Kraus and the town's Chain Gang mountain-bike club on their weekly night ride to explore one of them. Heading out through darkness on dirt roads and fire trails, we eventually intersect with the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail near Buckland Gap. It's a section of track now paralleled by the undemanding mountain-bike trail, Flame Trees. Designed by Glen Jacobs, who also created the mountain-bike course for the Sydney Olympics, the six-kilometre track intermittently climbs above the rail trail into free-flowing stretches of single track through bush.
"Originally the concept for the Brewery Trail was just about making people aware that there were breweries here, and that they could actually do a loop of them," Kraus says as we ride. "We were looking to find a link to cycling and we were well aware that on weekends, lots of our customers had already been out mountain-biking and they were coming in for lunch afterwards. It was already something that was happening and we were just wanting to strengthen that link."
Next morning I head west, into farmland at Taminick, near Glenrowan. Here, inside Taminick Cellars, one of the region's oldest wineries, is north-east Victoria's newest brewery.
Black Dog Brewery opened in November, with beers brewed by fourth-generation winemaker James Booth. From the century-old stone cellar door, which looks out over vineyards and farmland, dirt tracks lead up through forest to the ridge of the Warby Range and Booth's nominated mountain-biking trail: Booth Road. "It's sentimental, of course, because it's got the family name," he says. "And it's just a fantastic track. It's kept in really good nick, with plenty of different levels to it ... and lots of tracks leading off it."
One of those tracks - Friends Walking Track - has recently opened to mountain-bikers. This ungroomed 4.6-kilometre trail bumps over granite boulders and past giant grass trees, coming eventually to Kwat Kwat Lookout. We pull up at its stony edge and the view is massive, stretching past Wangaratta and the Ovens Valley to the snowy tips of Mount Bogong, Feathertop and the more-distant Kosciuszko.
And there's a beer not far away.
Seasonal and regional – by wheel
Riesling Trail, South Australia
Slicing through the Clare Valley, the 36-kilometre Riesling Trail is a cycling showcase of fine food and wine. Eight of the valley's 37 vineyards have direct gate access to the rail trail and offer wine tastings, gourmet platters and meals. Or roll down the road to Little Red Grape, Sevenhill, with cellar door and bakery. See southaustraliantrails.com.
Great Southern Rail Trail, Victoria
In southern Gippsland, dairy cows rule the slopes, making it a fitting setting for a hunger-satisfying ride.
This 49-kilometre rail trail cuts a path from Leongatha to Foster, passing through Koonwarra, a favourite among gourmands for the Koonwarra Store, with its seasonal and regional produce. The town is also host to a great farmers' market on the first Saturday of each month. See railtrails.org.au.
Great Gourmet Ride, Tasmania
Looping out from Deloraine, this 62-kilometre ride (with podcast) fuels appetites while showcasing the fertile lands that produce the ingredients.
The ride ducks into the Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm, Etc bakery, in Elizabeth Town, and Ashgrove Farm Cheese, before detouring towards 41° South salmon farm. See greatwesterntiers.net.au/cycling/great-gourmet-ride.
The Mid-Western Regional Council has produced a booklet of rides around Mudgee, including a route that weaves through the region's wineries and eateries.
Inside a 10-kilometre radius of town, it is possible to cycle past and into 22 wineries. Download at bikemuster.com/docs/Cycle_Mudgee_Region_Booklet.pdf.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism North East and Tourism Victoria.
Albury is the nearest airport to north-east Victoria. Virgin Australia has flights to Albury from Sydney, and Rex has flights from Melbourne and Sydney. See virginaustralia.com; rex.com.au.
Copies of the guide to the High Country Brewery Trail can be downloaded at victoriashighcountry.com.au/brewerytrail. Bike hire is available from Cyclepath in Bright.
At the other end of the trail, West End Bike Hub in Wangaratta is a good source of mountain-biking information. See cyclepath.com.au; westend.bikehub.com.au.
The Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail ends opposite Cafe Velo. Opened last September, and owned by former national road cycling champion Wayne Hildred, the French-inspired retro bike cafe is strung with maps of local cycling routes, jerseys and memorabilia.