Something is brewing in South Australian backyards. A tribe of backyard brewers have been crafting their own ales, lagers and stouts for decades. You’ll find them over fences, under Hills Hoists, in garden sheds and around rusty ol’ fridges. We caught up with them to froth lyrical about historic amateur beer clubs, under-the-radar gatherings and how to make a top-notch brew at home.
“I’m a backyard brewer and proud of it!” Michael Partington, amateur brewer and former president of Adelaide Ferment (the Amateur Winemakers and Brewers Club of Adelaide), says. “I started at home, through economic need, and then it spread to making cider, joining a brewing club, and then they made me president! I just love it.”
Adelaide Ferment was established in 1972, bringing likeminded beer and winemaking enthusiasts together to foster ‘the good old’ wine-and-beer making techniques and sample a few drops in the process. With monthly meetings and in-house competitions, the clubs were established to give professional know-how to those aspiring to make bangin’ booze. It’s still going strong after nearly half a century.
“I love that you can take it to whatever level you want – it could be once a month, once a week, it just depends how far you want to go with it,” Gavin Pennell, current president of Adelaide Ferment, says. Gavin is a dual-club member, proud to represent the Blackwood Winemakers and Brewers Club as well. “I mainly wanted to sharpen my skills, but I like the social side of things, too.”
The Blackwood Winemakers and Brewers Club is another longstanding club with a reputation held since the seventies, alongside Adelaide Ferment. Together they host intra and interstate competitions, and organise the Australian National Amateur Wine and Beer Show, an Adelaide-based competition attracting entries from all over the country.
Competitions aside, it’s all about the members. They’re as committed as they come, many boast longstanding memberships spanning decades. “About 15 years ago I did a wine course and I picked up a pamphlet for Adelaide Ferment,” Domenic Facciorusso, an avid backyard winemaker and brewer, says. “I went to the first meeting, joined up and never left. If you’re starting from scratch, the club is a good place to start – it’s inspiring to talk to people and see how they do things.”
Domenic’s Italian roots led him to a history in shed-crafted booze. His father made wine in their backyard for as long as he can remember. “Most of the time, it was total crap.” He laughs. “But then, just once, he made this awesome wine – he just got everything right. My friend Fernando and I used to drink it sometimes, and then one day he said, ‘Why don’t we make our own?’ We’ve been making wine for the past 20 years now, and I started brewing a few years ago, too.”
Domenic, Michael and Gavin met through Adelaide Ferment. The club is not only a melting pot of knowledge and expertise but a starting point for a whole new niche tribe of backyard brewing enthusiasts. “As soon as you join a club, no matter what field of interest it is, there’s this broadening out – a great social interaction, caring, sharing thing which blossoms out and everybody shares information – it’s like a big chain,” Michael says. “You have fun and before you know it, you’re at each others’ houses having dinners and parties and all sorts of fun. You form associations and acquaintances with people, you form syndicates, and off you go! It’s a little bit like a car club – you’ve got a Jaguar, I’ve got a Mustang and you say, ‘Hey do you want to come over for a ride in my car? It just goes from there.”
Between them, they’ve made everything from pale ales and stouts, to IPA’s, pumpkin ales, chocolate-coffee beer, and honey beer. “The nature of backyard and small-batch brewing is that it’s all about experimentation,” Michael says. “If a batch goes bad, we just drink it anyway!” He laughs. He’s even made a chilli, kaffir lime beer with chillies and limes from his garden – it’s cost-effective and rewarding.
For many, the social element and smaller offshoot groups are what really matter. “To be honest, after a number of years you’ve learnt all you can from the clubs, but by then it’s become a social thing,” Domenic says. “Everybody has different tastebuds, and that’s why it’s nice to share the beer. We’ll get together and have lunch… we like experimenting with cooking too.”
Michael and Domenic make their own bresaolas and cured meats with another small group, and the occasional curry, too (Domenic is an Indian cooking connoisseur). They also collaborated to make kimchi.
Not only is it fun to be part of a little brew crew, it’s also a great way to step up your beer game. “You get lots of information from wonderful people,” Gavin says. “The more people you involve yourself with, the more knowledge you gain, and the more you get out of it. You use your mates as guinea pigs, which they don’t complain about at all.”
Gavin is revered in the amateur brewers community, having won a number of awards in the club, state and national competitions. Domenic and Michael are also well-awarded in several categories and competitions. But there are no winners or losers here, the blokes support one another and believe there are no mistakes in the crafting of backyard beer. “Beer can be very individual,” Gavin says. “That’s why there are so many different cans and bottles on the market. There are actually more beers than there are wines.”
While Gavin and Domenic make their beers from scratch using grains, malts and hops, Michael uses Coopers brewing kits (available at Foodland), a low-fuss and cost-efficient way to create your own. “I keep coming back to the Coopers kits because it’s just so easy – they’re incredibly reliable and a quality, local product,” he says. Michael has also started growing hops in his backyard which he hopes will add a unique new element to his brews.
“You can make a damn good beer out of a kit if you know what you’re doing,” Domenic says. “Michael makes a really good beer. But I like to experiment, so my beers are all my own recipes. I buy all sorts of hops and keep them in my freezer so I can add what I like. Making beer is a little like making a curry. If you’ve got too much chilli and a little less of something else, it really doesn’t matter – it’s still going to be a nice curry. Likewise, your beer might not be exactly as you set out to make, but it’s still a nice beer.”
You can spend thousands on a backyard brewing hobby but a shoestring budget is fine. “I’ve only spent a few hundred dollars,” Domenic says. And while he’s lined and air-conditioned his shed for wines and preserved food, beer doesn’t require all that. “I just do my brewing in an old esky. I’ve had it repaired a few times and it’s still cracking a bit, but it does the job.” If you go for the kit option, Michael insists it can be even cheaper. “You can make a brew for less than $25 if you want to.”
So, where can you get your tools of the trade?
Beerbelly Brewing Equipment – These guys supply a variety of ingredients and equipment so you can try and test different flavours and crafting techniques. They also craft the full mash for you. Simply follow the instructions to brew a great tasting beer, no timely experiments required.
Country Brewer – From starter kits, to all sorts of sugars, hopps, malts and additives, this is a one-stop shop for the backyard brewer. They also stock equipment and ingredients for all sorts of backyard creations including cider, liqueur, wine, sausages, cheese and coffee.
Brewcraft – Local and imported ingredients, equipment, specialised cleaning products, bottles and glassware.
U Brew-It – For those with little experience, or wanting some hands-on guidance, try this microbrewery. They supply all the facilities, equipment and ingredients. You simply visit the site, mix your beer according to one of their many recipes, and return when it’s ready to bottle it up and take it home. Your beer, their place. Simple.
Brewmaker Home Brewing – From Coopers kits to local and international grains, Brewmaker is a good all-rounder to browse when you begin your backyard brewing journey. Need a beer break? They’ve got the goods for spirits, too.
Are you part of a club, or have a special brew-at-home recipe or technique you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments, below.