The Tiny Brewery Making A Big Splash On The Australian Beer Scene
What began as a secretion in the intestines of a sperm whale has become a not-so-secret ingredient at a small South Australian brewery.
Moby Dick Ambergris Ale is one of nine limited-release beers on the menu at Robe Town Brewery, a husband-and-wife run business where creative recipes are the rule rather than the exception.
Maris and Kristi Biezaitis established the brewery located in Robe, South Australia in 2013, not long after moving to the seaside town on South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The milestone was the realisation of what Maris once thought to be no more than a pipe dream.
Maris originally began brewing beer in 2008 in an effort to expand his commitment to self-sufficiency. But he found the process so enjoyable, and the fruits of his labour so tasty, that he allowed himself to wonder.
“I had done various types of jobs previously, but had always kind of lacked a great passion in something that I was doing,” says Maris. “From the first batch of beer I made it home, I knew that I had a passion. I loved doing it.
“I remember tasting the first batch of beer I made while I was bottling it and thinking, ‘This is the best beer I’ve ever had. Wouldn’t it be great if I could do this for a living?’”
The launch of Robe Town Brewery
Three years later, the couple discovered Robe while visiting friends and agreed it was the perfect location for their “rustic brewery”.
Robe Town Brewery launched two years later with two debut beers: Robe Town Pale Ale and Robe Town Amber Ale. Both remain part of the nine-beer main range. Today, the complete catalogue stands at around 20, although none quite as eyebrow-raising as the Moby Dick.
The 7.4 per cent amber ale is made using ambergris, a solid, waxy substance excreted by sperm whales into the ocean. Sometimes referred to as grey amber or, less appealingly, whale vomit, the highly prized and often valuable substance has been used in perfumery for hundreds of years.
So, when friends of the Biezaitises’s mentioned ‘that time’ they found a 400-gram piece of ambergris on a beach near Robe, interest was piqued.
“I almost didn’t believe that they had what they said they had,” Maris says. “When I did a bit of research … and read about what kind of aromas it might give to the perfume and discovered that it was used to flavour food and that it was also used to lift the flavour of old stale wines, I thought, ‘This is perfect. Rather than trying to import some exotic ingredient from the tropics of Australia, why not use this thing that was found right here in Robe?’”
The brewery’s star beer: Moby Dick
Like all Robe Town’s beers, Moby Dick is brewed the traditional way, with a wood-fire kettle, timber mash tuns, straw filter beds and open fermentation. Small slices of the ambergris are soaked in alcohol to extract the perfume, which is added to the ale at bottling time.
The result is a smooth beer with complex flavours and a musky perfume, which can be attributed to the namesake ingredient. Maris adds: “It has ocean-y and almost animalistic kinds of flavours, so a curious combination.” Curious enough to provoke mixed reactions.
“A lot of people are quite curious and very interested [in the idea]; some people are disgusted,” says Maris. “Actually, that’s the reaction from the taste as well. There are those that find the flavour not to their liking – I’m pretty sure sometimes that’s got to do with the idea of where it comes from – and others love it.”
There have been almost 50 different beers crafted during Robe Town Brewery’s lifespan and inventiveness can be seen across the range. Other imaginative brews include Hey Hay (made with hay steeped in the hot wort), Midnight Smooch (with key ingredients liquorice root and “farmhouse funk”) and The Little Wild Muntrie (a sparkling ale made using the native muntrie berry, sourced locally).
Maris says sticking to a main range without exploring new and unique flavours would be a one-way ticket to boredom.
“It’s in my nature to be creative and, I guess, maybe there’s some kind of drive also to do things differently and not necessarily follow rules or standards or expectations in general,” he says.
“Not in a destructive kind of way, but more to do it my own way or choose the road less travelled … just to make it interesting and different.”
Robe Town Brewery stockists are located throughout the Limestone Coast and in South Australia, Victoria, and Brisbane. Beer flights are available on site, although ‘on site’ might soon refer to a new location with a relocation in the making.
(All images: Robe Town Brewery / supplied)
Published 14 August, 2019