In the New Age surfer town of Byron Bay, you can sample the wares of artisan distilleries and craft beer brewers who are not only amazingly creative, but also have a conscience.
By Simon Webster
Whether you’re sharing world-class waves with pods of dolphins or taking a yoga class in a luxury retreat, there’s a lot to like about Byron Bay. One of Australia’s most iconic destinations, Byron offers a combination of natural beauty and a vibrant alternative community that can turn its hand to almost anything – and find an innovative way of doing it. These independent distillers and brewers are typically Byron – brave, imaginative and determined to do business ethically.
Drink gin, save the rainforest
You don’t really need an excuse to enjoy a beautiful gin, but the Brook family who run Cape Byron Distillery has come up with a good one – you’ll be helping to save the rainforest. Ever since they took over an old dairy farm near Byron Bay in the 1980s, the Brooks have been trying to return their 39ha patch to its former rainforest glory.
And since last year, after teaming up with Scottish master distiller Jim McEwan, they’ve been using botanicals from their own rainforest plants to produce Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin. “We combine the best of tradition with innovation,” says distillery co-founder Pam Brook. “As well as eight or nine traditional botanicals, including juniper, we use another 16 botanicals native to our region.”
“On our farm, we’ve regenerated over 35,000 rainforest trees and we harvest their leaves, flowers and berries and use them in our gin.” You can taste some of those botanicals, as well as the gin they go into, on a cellar door tour of the distillery, which includes a walk in the Brooks’ rainforest. “The more attention we give to the rainforest and the fruits that come from it, the more awareness we create of the need for rainforest regeneration,” Pam says.
Try a gin that changes colour
Another modern Australian craft gin made on a family farm near Byron Bay also makes use of local botanicals, plus a key ingredient found in equatorial Asia and the Torres Strait – the butterfly pea plant (Clitoria ternatea). Butterfly pea petals give Ink Gin its distinctive indigo colour, and they also have a trick up their sleeve.
“The flower petal is pH-sensitive,” says Harriet Messenger, co-founder of Husk Distillers, which makes Ink Gin. “So when you mix Ink Gin with something acidic, like lemon or lime juice, or tonic water, you can mix it to a soft pink and play with a whole spectrum of colours.”
The Messenger family started out in the distilling business making Husk Rum (an “agricole” rum – made from freshly crushed sugarcane juice rather than the much more common molasses) on their sugarcane and cattle farm in 2012. Their environmentally sustainable approach involves using farm-grown ingredients then feeding the distillery waste to the cattle. “It’s paddock to bottle to paddock,” Harriet says.
Because the still was only in use during harvest time, the Messengers began playing around with gin as well. After three and a half years of experimentation, Ink Gin was born. It’s proved so successful that the Messengers are building a bigger on-farm distillery and cafe, and will be open for cellar door tours from early next year.
Beer as a force for good
You can taste an amazing array of local food and drink at the Sample Food Festival at Bangalow, near Byron Bay, on Saturday 1 September. Prominent among the stallholders will be Stone & Wood. Byron Bay’s only independent brewer is hugely popular in Byron and further afield not just because of its range of handcrafted beers, but because of its philosophy of giving back.
“Stone & Wood was set up by three guys who had spent a lot of time in the beer industry and wanted to get off the corporate merry-go-round,” says managing director Ben Summons. “They wanted to get back to the good old days when breweries were at the heart of the village and there to serve the community.”
Stone & Wood has raised more than $500,000 for charities in its nine years of existence and is involved in environmental programs and numerous other activities that it says can make beer a “force for good”.
That 'first beer after the beach' feeling
Stone & Wood has proved so popular that it has expanded, opening another brewery at nearby Murwillumbah. This has created space to set up a tasting room at the Byron Bay brewery where you can join a brewery tour and taste and buy beers. “It’s a down-to-earth place to have a beer and learn about beer and our story,” Ben says. “You can ride your bike there from town.”
Stone & Wood’s range of beers is certainly worth exploring – from seasonal and experimental batches such as the 9.2 per cent Lark Barrel Aged Stone Beer to the flagship Pacific Ale, named after the ocean that draws so many visitors to Byron. “It was inspired by that feeling you get when you walk off the beach in Byron,” Ben says. “You’re sun-kissed and salty from the ocean, and you walk into the pub to have that first beer that’s so refreshing. We put that idea into a glass.” Who’s thirsty?
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