Cheers for FNQ's beers
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, winding its way to Port Douglas, Mossman, Bonnie Doon and beyond. 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 Hemingway's taphouse on the Cairns waterfront.
Finally, we are really seeing "beers from up here” that are actually made up north, not in Brisbane.
I've often banged on about just how talented 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 the level of brewing in Cairns and Townsville blows me away every year.
The Palm Cove competition, in the early weeks of October, is the largest I've seen outside of a state comp, with brewers vying more for bragging rights than prizes or trophies.
Out of that competition has come the latest breweries, Macalister Brewing Company, nestled in the cane fields of Smithfield, and Coral Sea Brewing in the heart of Cairns.
Coral Sea Brewing
Coral Sea Brewing is a collaboration between Hayden Mokaraka, an extremely talented bugger who 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 brewer's job at Blue Sky Brewery where his beers won plenty of awards, crafting the superb Blue Sky Pilsner (a beer 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 and goes great with cheese.
Barrier Reef Brewing
Barrier Reef Brewing Company is based in Aeroglen. 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 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, and dry hopping, they use science as a kind of alchemy to produce interesting drops. The team knocks out three beers at the minute and 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 bottle-o. Instead these can only be found exclusively in restaurants, cafes and bars, or from the brewery itself.
Macalister Brewing Company
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 he wanted to know about the science of brewing, completing a Graduate Diploma of Brewing Science and, 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 on to 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 beer 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 1 litre-sized bottle, which you can bring back for $12 refills.
The journey comes to an end at Port Douglas at Hemingway'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 5000 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 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 has five core beers on tap, and have 1 litre tin growlers for takeaway. The beers are, in the main, lighter styled to work with food and the climate.