Two engineers, a gardener, an electrician and a cellarhand walk into a bar….saloon bar, that is. It’s not your typical bar joke, but the story of five ‘mostly beardy’ blokes with an inspired approach to locally-produced craft beer.
Dave ‘Hendo’ Henderson, Dave ‘Worky’ Work, Olexij Straschko, Alex Marschall and Tim Hardy are the unorthodox brewers behind Western Ridge Brewing Collective, better known to locals as the ‘Nuri Bruri’.
Their handcrafted, small batch indie beers are attracting a following as much for their unconventional styles as their quality.
On the back of the Western Ridge signature pale ale, this Barossa collective is striking the perfect balance of art and science with inspired brews such as stewed fig-infused brown ale, coffee stout and strawberry gum session ale. And with a focus on seasonal, whole ingredients with a small food footprint – they are fiercely committed to locally and ethically-sourced products – their business philosophy is going down as well as the beers are.
The rules of engagement for the ‘five guns’ at Western Ridge are simple: “You have to make beer – that’s an obligation – and you have to be a brewer.” The team puts the collective ahead of the individual, making their differences their strength.
“For example, the stout that Tim’s been developing has become a core company recipe,” says Hendo. “Between us we have nearly 50 years of shed experimentation. We use our collaborative knowledge, so that each of us gets the best of us.”
Being both egalitarian and irreverent, each brewer has an equal say in decision-making and more fun than is proper.
“Under the shareholder agreement, some things need a complete majority but for making beer, it’s heaps more liberal,” says Worky. “Basically you can do whatever you want with the beers, as long as they’re drinkable. We come up with the crazy ideas and Hendo works out if it’s possible.”
Beer and skittles aside, this means being intentional about what they do, and how they do it.
“Our ethics are pretty paramount, which is why we support local and farmer-owned,” says Straschko. “We pay a premium for our ingredients instead of filtering or refining. “It’s been a source of pain and contention at times, but we can sleep better at night knowing we’ve done no harm.”
In the vein of Tasmanian craft brewers producing entirely “on-farm”, seasonal ingredients such as hops and honey are sourced from their own farms and gardens.
It’s become a unique selling proposition, as evidenced by the popularity of the 20K ale.
“All the ingredients came from within 10 Ks, but 20K sounded better,” laughs Straschko. “The barley came from Moppa, the hops from Al’s farm, plus local bore water and rain water, and we did an air swab of local bushland and vineyards to get a Barossa yeast.”
Fresh Friday’ is also pulling customers through the saloon doors, as two beers come off the taproom menu and two new styles appear weekly.
Popular choices have included Marschall’s Vox Populi – the result of a vox pop of customers – and the cabernet guava tart ale, which was a Pink Ribbon fundraiser.
“It sounds like a lot of pressure to put on ourselves but in reality brewers are like chefs, not winemakers,” says Worky. “It’s not that hard to make a different beer – as long as you’re patient, brewing is the easiest thing in the world.”
Adds Hendo: “We rarely get a first pass wrong. You can always make a better beer with the three t’s – time, temperature and talent.”
‘Like their beers, the Western Ridge saloon – a pastiche of 1950s spaghetti westerns – is a product of ingenuity. Almost everything is recycled or reclaimed, from the 1800’s ballast stone to the vintage pianola and wine-stained timbers bearing the iconic Penfold’s signature.
At the cactus-themed bar, non-beer drinkers and teetotallers are embraced with a choice of mango-infused kombucha on tap and zero-alcohol sour plum soda inspired by Straschko’s Ukranian heritage.
Families, dogs, BYO picnickers and people refilling takeaway ‘growlers’ are also joining the “beer consumed” movement.
“This is our first venue selling direct to the customer – this step has allowed us to pour a beer and sell it to someone over the bar,” says Marschall.
“We’re about doing things the long way on purpose, as a show of respect for the people paying for our beer.”
According to Hendo, it’s also a legitimate excuse for having a beer on the job: “There’s a reason we lock ourselves in for a business meeting!”