A Hop-Heads Road Trip


For a long time the road north out of the Cairns CBD has been home to some of the most photographed vistas in the world, past the rainforest clad Macalister Range and Mowbray National Park, through the Rex Lookout where the hang-gliders throw themselves off with reckless abandon, winding its way to Port Douglas, Mossman, Bonnie Doon and beyond (not the same Bonnie Doon that was immortalised in the 1997 flick The Castle, but I can’t help myself when I see the sign). Most recently the road was home to the Cairns Ironman challenge, where racers whizzed by on their bikes, understandably not noticing all those vistas, for the 180km bike leg.

But what everyone may have missed, whether in a vehicle or on two wheels, is that the Cairns region has had an explosive growth in the brewing scene. Four breweries are now dotted along that trail, starting in the Cairns CBD and finishing at Port Douglas, which will soon swell to five with the addition of a Hemmingway’s taphouse on the Cairns waterfront, finally we are really seeing “beers from up here” that are actually made up here, not in Brisbane. I feel like breaking out with David Lee Roth’s “Just like Paradise”

I’ve often banged on here about just how talented our FNQ brewers are. The area is home to brewers and homebrewers that are not just local champs, but also State and National Champions in their categories and a lucky few being crowned overall Australian Champion brewers. I’ve been lucky enough to judge at a few beer comps over the years, and can honestly say that the level of brewing in Cairns and Townsville comps blows me away every year. The Palm Cove competition, conducted in the early weeks of October, is the largest competition I’ve seen outside of a state comp, with brewers vying more for bragging rights than prizes or trophies, especially when it comes to the Cairns v Townsville bragging. Out of that competition has come the latest breweries, Macalister Brewing Company, nestled in the cane fields of Smithfield, Cairns and Coral Sea Brewing in the heart of Cairns.

Starting in the heart of Cairns is Coral Sea Brewing. The company is a collaboration between Hayden Mokaraka, an extremely talented bugger that has been judging at the Palm Cove competition and Australian International Beer Awards for years. He’s been in commercial brewing all his life, starting his career with Heineken, to moving to Oz with Lion Nathan, taking the head brewers job at Blue Sky Brewery where his beers won tons of awards, crafting the superb Blue Sky Pilsner, a beer that I honestly thought I was going to cry over when it ceased production. He’s been joined by Morgan Hind, ex-Gage Roads and Stone & Wood brewer, with beers readily available at selected bars and clubs in and around Cairns. We tried these as a tank sample and, while the beers weren’t at full condition, it didn’t take a genius to see just how good the final result will be. Their core range built around a full strength Lager, and a mid and full-strength aromatic and fruity, hop driven Ale. There’s even a bottled conditioned, barrel aged beer which comes in at around 10.8alc, perfect as an after dinner or dessert beer, goes great with cheese.

Barrier Reef Brewing Company is based in Aeroglen, not far from the Cairns CBS. Last year’s overall craft beer winner from Palm Cove, and the largest exhibitor at last year’s comp. Cam and Caroline have quickly made a name for themselves with their brewing. Cameron caught the brewing bug while working in the UK, call it a by-product of having access to all those freshly brewed Scottish beers, which were so different to the Australian beers of the time. He went back to study and find out everything that he could about the brewing process, and spent time working in microbreweries, working with and meeting some of the great craft brewers that have popped up in the UK, such as BrewDog in Scotland, pumping everyone he could for their knowledge and the finer points of brewing. The pair ended up back in Cairns and decided to set up Barrier Reef Brewing Co with the intention of knocking out some seriously well-made beers. Using pure water, great quality malts, late hopping, dry hopping, using science as a kind of alchemy to produce interesting drops.  The team knock out three beers at the minute, all have been created to be appreciated with good food and good company. And with that in mind you won’t find Barrier Reef Brewing Co.’s beers in the fridge at your local bottleo. Instead these can only be found exclusively in restaurants, cafes and bars, or from the brewery itself.

At Smithfield we find Macalister Brewing Company, the brainchild of Rob Callin, a former high school science teacher who has won more brewing awards than I’ve had hot dinners, cleaning up at that Palm Cove comp year after year. He realised that he wanted to know about the science of brewing, completing a Graduate Diploma of Brewing Science and, got bored with winning everything under the sun, decided to strike out on his own with Macalister Brewing Company. The brewery is set inside a warehouse, backing onto the canefields, with seating for 40, and a regular roster of tucker-trucks visiting, it’s one of the most interesting tropical vistas around and perfect to spend a few hours with mates. Rob has knocked out a pretty good lager and a couple of interesting ales. But to my eye the best beers Rob is doing is his red ale and his smoked porter, a beer that shows everything that is good about the lighter style of dark beer, with excellent smoky notes, underpinned by a dark chocolate smoothness. Rob also sells a “growler”, a 1liter sized take away bottle, which you can bring back for $12 refills.

The journey ends in Port Douglas at Hemmingway’s Brewery. Tony Fyfe and Craig Parsell opened their contemporary FNQ inspired bar in June 2016, and have been kicking on strong since, driven by their awareness of who your customer base is, that for a pub to succeed it needs to be owned by and taken in by the locals. To that end they have supported many community events, and were exhibitors at the Palm Cove comp. The Port Douglas community swells to 20,000 from  march to October, up from their regular 5,000 locals, so the drive to create beers that are both sessionable but will go well with the climate and customers, both locals who are used to the heat and the southerners that aren’t, is the primary focus. There are plans afoot to open a taphouse in the historic, heritage listed Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, with a small brewpub type set up. The team have five core beers on tap, and have one litre tin growlers for takeaway. The beers are, in the main, lighter styled to work with food and the climate.

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