Sue Wallace sets off on the thirst-quenching trail of seven country microbreweries.
Beer has never tasted so good. Well, to be honest, it is raspberry ale I am sipping in the spring sunshine at the Jamieson Brewery near the Goulburn River in Victoria's High Country.
I am not a beer drinker but this ale has raspberries added to the brew to give it a distinct flavour and, even though it is the colour of pale ale, pink tinges can be seen in the sunlight.
I think it tastes so much better than run-of-the-mill beer. Apologies to serious beer drinkers.
Never before have I learnt so much about beer as I chauffeur friends around the High Country Brewery Trail featuring seven microbreweries that are making a name for themselves and winning awards in Australia and internationally.
You don't have to be a beer drinker to enjoy this country jaunt but it's advisable, if you plan to visit all seven breweries, to spread the trip over a few days and agree on a designated driver.
Victoria's High Country Brewery Trail links boutique breweries that offer hand-crafted beers. All are family operated and set in picturesque locations, from the mountains to riverside.
First stop on day one is the Jamieson Brewery, 25 kilometres from Mansfield, where head brewer Jeff Whyte uses traditional brewing styles to create preservative-free beers with mountain fresh water and no added sugars. We do a brewery tour and my friends enjoy a tasting tray with four beers. The menu also features lamb shanks in stout and beef and beer pies.
Next stop is Buffalo Brewery at Boorhaman, where head brewer Greg Fanning grinds his own wheat and barley to produce his five award-winning brews. Buffalo Brewery began in 1902 and is recognised as the oldest operating brewery in Australia. Lily Arabella Cherry, reputed lady friend of the Kelly gang, graces the Buffalo Brewery's labels.
Last stop for the day is Bintara Brewery, the most northern brewery on the trail, halfway between Wodonga and Rutherglen.
It is owned by third-generation locals Lisa and Michael Murtagh, who produce natural beer with only grain, hops, malt, yeast and water in the brewing process. They also have Vintara Vineyard and restaurant, which overlooks the Murray Valley.
Next day, we head to Beechworth's Bridge Road Brewers, where brewer Ben Kraus, who cut his teeth in brewing in a small winery in Austria, is hard at work. His first Australian beers were produced in his dad's shed in Beechworth and he's won a swag of awards for his special brews.
The brewery is in a 150-year-old coach house and stables, behind Tanswells Commercial Hotel. Kraus is constantly tweaking his range of 12 ales, or creating new ones to make sure they're up there with the best.
Austrian partner Maria Frischmann has a reputation for baking the best pretzels this side of Munich and they go so well with beer.
On the road to Bright, Kel Boynton, of Boynton's Brewing Company at Porepunkah, is both a brewer and a winemaker. He says the two occupations go hand in hand. “It's all about the fermenting process, so if you make wine you can make beer. After all, you can't drink wine all the time, so making beer seemed like a good sideline," he says.
He started with a Porepunkah Ale and Pilsner in 2002 and now produces a lager, pilsner, ale and light beer called Driver's Light.
Further on at Bright Brewery, you can learn the secrets of being a top-class beer-maker from head brewer David Cocks. Serious would-be brewers can spend the day here, perfecting a brew and sampling other beers. His Razor Witbier not only has a sharp name, it tastes great.
After a night at Bright, our last stop is Sweetwater Brewing Company at Mount Beauty, the newest player in Victoria's vibrant microbrewing industry. Sweetwater's Peter Hull uses the pristine waters of the Kiewa Valley.
The Brewery Bar opened in April at the back of Annapurna Estate Winery and is already a popular destination for beer lovers while soaking up the beauty of the high country.
As well as new microbreweries, it seems beer-tasting etiquette has been revamped since the days of swilling, burping and guzzling. Tasting protocol says to look first, pause and marvel at its greatness. Raise the beer in front of you; look at its colour, head and consistency.
Then smell and let olfaction guide you and enjoy the beer's bouquet.
Then it's finally taste time – sip don't gulp and resist swallowing immediately.
Home again, it's my turn for a well-earned drink to toast the success of our brewery adventure – my choice? A gin and tonic.
Sue Wallace was a guest of North East Victorian Tourism.
The Victorian High Country is a 2-hour drive from Melbourne or 45 minutes from Albury Airport. See victoriashighcountry.com.au.
On the Brewery Trail
Bintara Brewery, Rutherglen, phone 0447 327 517, see www.bintarabrewery.com.au; Bridge Road Brewers, Beechworth, phone 5728 2703, see bridgeroadbrewers.com.au; Bright Brewery, phone 5755 1301, see brightbrewery.com.au; Boynton's Brewing Company, Porepunkah, phone 5756 2356, see boynton.com.au; Buffalo Brewery, Boorhaman, phone 5726 9215; Jamieson Brewery, phone 5777 0515, see jamiesonbrewery.com.au; Sweet Water Brewery, phone 5754 1881, see sweetwaterbrewing.com.au.
Victoria's High Country Brewery Trail map and brochure are available from breweries and visitor information centres.