In Margaret River Wine Country, Bloody Good Fun with Beer at Rocky Ridge Brewing

Rocky Ridge BrewingPhoto Credit: Joel Lim

It’s been 16 months since Rocky Ridge Brewing Co pushed its first batch of beers to market in Western Australia, and founder Hamish Coates needs to vent. So, sitting on a Manchester-bound train rumbling through the English countryside on a late August morning, Coates lays bare a few pent-up frustrations that had gnawed at his sleep-deprived psyche for too long. Traveling to England’s second-largest city to meet with Cloudwater Brew Co, Coates pounds away on his laptop, unleashing a 788-word screed he’d call “The Problems with giving a fuck, and how to solve them” on his brewery blog.

As one might expect from a such-titled missive—only Coates’ sixth blog post in more than two years—it unfurls like steam released from a boiling kettle:   

First off, the problem with giving a fuck is that when you aren’t sticking 100% to the road you have chosen it tears shreds from your soul and crushes your spirit. Now that might sound a little melodramatic- but bear with me.

Coates goes on to address, among other things, why the brewery made a “colossal shift” in motto (if not business approach) from “Everything We Brew, We Grow” to “Freshly Brewed, Freshly Grown.” Rocky Ridge’s precipitous growth outpaced its nascent resources “plain and simple,” he explains, and since a “magic lamp” didn’t make two tons of hops appear in the cold room, that growth compelled him to source hops from outside the Coates family farm for the first time since the brewery’s launch. Previously relying exclusively on harvested rain water, Coates also had to adjust the filtration system to allow for some ground water, too.

Rocky Ridge Brewing
Photo Credit: Beer Travelist

In other words, the brewery that staked at least some of its singularity on producing anything and everything that went into its beers had been forced into an about-face in less than two years—and Coates wants to nip in the bud any whispers of skullduggery this new reality might spark. “I just wanted to put it out there, rather than have people potentially come and say something about it to me,” he says. “Maybe I was thinking too much about it, but it’s one of those things where when you’re busy all the time, little things start to bug you. It was very good for my mental health.”

To be clear, as Rocky Ridge scales up production of its own ingredients, the brewery that calls “sustainability” its core vision is in the meantime staying as local as possible. Coates supplements his farm-grown hops with Centennial, Columbus, and other varietals developed elsewhere in Australia, and uses malts from an organic and biodynamic grower some 300 kilometers inland in Dumbleyung.

However, even when Rocky Ridge is eventually able to fully supply its own core ingredients, there’s no going back to the original credo. The notion of coffee growing in Australia, for instance, is one nearly as fantastical as money growing on trees, and Coates isn’t ready to sacrifice experimentation with non-native ingredients in the name of brand dogma.

“It was bugging me more that when we do stuff with things like coffee that it isn’t from Australia. That’s something that I really want to be proud of, but we don’t grow coffee in Australia. I don’t want to say that just because it’s not grown here that we definitely can’t use it,” Coates says. “We could take a stance to never make a coffee beer, but sometimes those are really good fun. All the fruit is grown in Australia, basically all of our ingredients are from here, but every now and again…”

“Vanilla beans are another one. We can’t grow those here, either, but if we could, we would.”

Heaps of Wine (and Beer)

A long time ago in a place far, far away, a farmer abandoned a 1,200-acre parcel of land in Jindong, Western Australia, through which a ridge of ironstone runs through. When that walk-off plot was posted to public ballot, Hamish Coates’ great-great-great-great grandfather pounced, laying claim to farmland that would over time sustain five generations and counting in this agricultural-driven chunk of Australia’s largest state, geographically.

Rocky Ridge Brewing

With an urban population of less than 40,000, Busselton is the “big city” nearest to Jindong. It’s located about 20 kilometers northeast on Geographe Bay, which in the Busselton area has relatively sedate waters shielded from the turbulent Indian Ocean by Cape Naturaliste. It’s a lovely corner of the world, so much so that the lure of such leisure outdoor activities as swimming, fishing, boating, diving, and snorkeling has over the years gradually transformed the area from an agro-dependent hub to one increasingly reliant on tourism, particularly during the dry and hot summer months.

Related: Five of the Best Places to Drink Craft Beer in Margaret River, Imagined as Ween Songs

Coral flourishes here; it is, in fact, the southernmost point in which it grows. To help spotlight it and other abundant water life, an underwater observatory opened in 2003 off Busselton Jetty, which at nearly two kilometers is the Southern Hemisphere’s longest wooden structure. The bay breaks about 40 kilometers west of Busselton at the top tip of Australia’s western-most coastline, site of some of the country’s most epic surf breaks.

Linchpinning this elysian expanse is the victual bounty of Margaret River, which is a proper town just down the road from Busselton, but also shorthand for this whole blessed region. “I worked out pretty quickly that there’s not much left to desire because if you love the outdoors, trying good food, seeing amazing things, and drinking heaps of wine and beer, it’s the place to be,” Coates says.

Margaret River
Photo Credit: Beer Travelist

There are more than 200 vineyards and wineries in Margaret River; together they handle some 20% of Australia’s premium wine production. The red grapes—cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, and merlot—are of a particularly high quality (at least in our opinion), though sauvignon blanc, semillon, and chardonnay are collectively harvested in greater tonnage than their darker brethren.

With almost 100 cellar doors and fantastic wine lists at every halfway decent café, bar, and restaurant, Margaret River is indeed very much wine country, a fact which Bootleg Brewery, the area’s first craft brewery, acknowledged when it launched in 1994 with the apt slogan “an oasis of beer in a desert of wine.” The landscape is changing, though. Craft beer will probably never overtake wine in Margaret River, but these days, as Coates said, there are indeed heaps of it.

A Job for Life

“I guess my thought has always been that I’ve given myself a mortgage and bought myself a job for life, one which for better or worse is bloody good fun.”

Hamish Coates grew up on the family farm in Jindong, but had no plans to one day carry the generational succession torch by helping run it. Between The University of Western Australia (Perth) and Monash University (Melbourne), he studied business, geology, and physics, and saw himself working as a geophysicist in the mining industry. Shortly after graduating in 2013 he found landscape architecture work in Perth, however, and after taking a break to travel, he returned home with a different idea.

“I thought I might as well give beer a crack and see what happens, so I got a job down in Busselton working for Cheeky Monkey Brewery and Cidery,” Coates says. “I learned a helluva lot about beer from Ross Terlick down there, kept studying, and basically now don’t have time to do anything else.”

Things snowballed fairly quickly. Coates joined Cheeky Monkey in late 2014, a time at which the Coates family farm was focused on beef and dairy. With the latter industry in what Coates calls “crisis mode,” he and his father decided one night, after a few too many, to grow hops and barley they could sell to local breweries keen to use local ingredients. In the end, though, son convinced father—Hamish calls him “The Old Boy”—to take it one step further. Only a year into Coates’ Cheeky Monkey apprenticeship, construction began on the family farm of what would become Rocky Ridge Brewery.

Releasing its first beers in April 2017, Rocky Ridge is the eleventh craft brewery based in Margaret River.

Rocky Ridge Brewing

The dairy, beef, and beer businesses operate on completely different infrastructures, but the farm certainly has a different look these days. And with plans to eventually phase out dairy altogether, it’s likely to experience even greater transformation as the off-grid, fully solar-powered brewery and its resource needs garner priority. Already, annual production capacity is set to more than double to roughly 750,000 liters, not counting the barrel program—more on those barrels in a minute. The orchard is larger. The hops yard, where the Flinders, Goldings, Cascade, and Chinook varietals blossom, is expanding. A test plant for Munich and Crystal malts is in the works, and in one of many other current and future sustainability initiatives, the farm’s beef increasingly relies on its beer.

Related: At Bush Shack Brewery, Mind the Bird Poo

“Hopefully we can get into this nice little self-sustaining circle where we take the barley, malt it, feed that spent grain to the cattle, and then we basically have beer-fed beef,” says Coates. “We looked pretty hard at what New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are doing in the US with sustainability. I still feel like our breweries don’t have as much of a sustainable mindset as I think they need to, and that’s something we’re working really, really hard to make sure we’re at that forefront here.”

Slinging in Singapore

We meet Coates not in Jindong or in Busselton but, randomly, at a Chinese coffee shop in Singapore’s Bukit Timah Plaza, an old-school shopping center that looks like it hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1979. Coates is here to help kickstart Rocky Ridge’s official launch in the Lion City, making the rounds at a week-long series of release parties and tap takeovers at many of the island’s most notable beer bars. Singapore is the brewery’s first export destination, which is no surprise given its relative close proximity—nonstop flights between Perth and Singapore are only about five hours.

Hamish Coates Rocky Ridge
Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Rocky Ridge Brewing
Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Rocky Ridge Brewing
Photo Credit: Joel Lim

Coates sees exporting as key to the brewery’s future. “There’s a very niche market of people in WA who drink craft beer, so what we need to do is say, right, there’s a niche that’s 10% of the market in Singapore, as well, so let’s get our beers to that 10%, and to the 10% in places like Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur,” he says. “We can expand the numbers of our market by expanding our reach without trying to force people back home to drink beer that they’re not necessarily interested in.”

It’s sound reasoning, and Rocky Ridge has the good beer (and sharp branding) to back it up. However, a quality product doesn’t necessarily translate to long-term success in Singapore and other foreign markets, because, well, there are a lot of those from other successful breweries with similar ambitions. Speaking strictly of Singapore, there have been quite a few new breweries arrive with a splash, maintain presence on the city’s fairly limited number of craft taps for a month or so, then drop off as the new kid on the block arrives to make its own mark amidst similar fanfare. Rinse and repeat.

Some breweries recover from the first-shipment hangover, some don’t; some blame the distributor (a warranted gripe, at times) and give it another go with a new one. This situation isn’t unique to Singapore, but this particular craft market is as competitive and somewhat brand-saturated as any in Southeast Asia, especially considering the premium prices attached to craft.

Rocky Ridge Brewing
Photo Credit: Joel Lim

(Aside: We do not lump Rocky Ridge Brewing in with any Johnny-come-latelies or flavors of the month. We’ve been fans ever since stumbling onto Granite IPA, at Liquor Barons Perth City, from the brewery’s first commercial release, and we are not in the habit of expounding thousands of words on breweries that do not excite or interest us, or which we do not wish for our readers to seek. To quote Neil Fallon in “HB is in Control,” however, “like them or not the facts are facts, they are not open to interpretation.”)

Singapore can be a tough cookie to crack, or perhaps to keep cracking, if your name isn’t Stone, BrewDog, or Mikkeller, but Coates has been through this all before back home. “Launching the brand, just getting it out there sight unseen, was a huge challenge. It’s super awkward and super hard knocking on doors and trying to sell a beer nobody has ever tasted,” he admits. “Then you have to follow up two weeks later, ask if they want to put an order in, and you feel really pushy, but you kind of have to be.”

Of course, industry challenges are of little import to most local and traveling beer enthusiasts—for them the ongoing brewery proliferation and the choice it brings across Asia is all peaches and cream, and they’re right to feel that way. It’ll be interesting to see how Rocky Ridge’s Singapore story unfolds, but in the end, that is still but one early chapter in its book. Today, the plot still revolves around home.

All in Good Time

“I think a lot of the other [Margaret River] breweries are looking at me like I’m fucking crazy and need to slow down a bit, which is fine. I like to think we all have a really good relationship, and we’ve got pretty big visions as a whole to create a beer tourism mecca,” Coates says. “In order for that to happen we need to get presence; we need people to know we actually exist. That’s on us individually.”

Rocky Ridge is certainly doing its part to bang the drum.

Not content to sit on a core range and occasional seasonal, the brewery drops almost one new beer a week. Most recently it released Holy S**t It’s a Mid! – The Cucumber Edition, a sessionable gose brewed with 10% cucumbers, and Pine on You Crazy Diamond, an 8.85% imperial IPA brewed in collaboration with Perth beer bar Petition. The Crafty Pint, Australia’s leading beer publication, named two Rocky Ridge beers—Rose Gose and Dirty Bitch—among its six best new WA beers of 2018, while Rock Juice, a hazy 9% double IPA, was a particularly huge hit in Singapore (and at Beer Travelist). “That’s our showcase beer; if we fuck that up we could just pick everything up and go,” Coates says.

Rocky Ridge Brewing

Rocky Ridge Brewing

Last October, “in a space for legends, run by legends,” the brewery opened its own bar, Darleen’s, in downtown Busselton to showcase its own beers alongside other regional breweries across 12 taps. A cellar door located just off the beach and hosting food trucks on weekends is coming to Busselton, too.

“We’re now just, like, lift your game. Give us a challenge. For our collective sake, we need people to say that those beers coming out of Margaret River and WA are the best,” says Coates. “We want to lift the bar. Everybody is starting to get on board, to try and challenge things a bit, and make better beers. That’s what it’s all about—make a better fucking beer.”

To that end, barrel-aging will soon become a significant focal point for Rocky Ridge as it increases its barrel inventory from 120 to more than 600. The brewery has already debuted a few clean barrel-aged brews, including Devine Goodtimes (8% sparkling imperial saison) and Rock-A-Bye Baby (7.77% Baltic porter), but Coates is most psyched about the wild-fermented ales that should start rolling out in the first half of 2019. Each release will be limited to no more than eight or so barrels each. “That’s the stuff that I love; we’ll do anything and everything,” he says. “We have a Flanders red in now that’s about six months old, and it probably needs another 12 months. I can’t wait to get it out of the barrels.”

True to mission, Rocky Ridge uses three (sometimes four) farm-sourced yeasts in its clean beers, and Coates is still working on a wild yeast strain that will run through its range of barrels. It’s still not enough, though. Coates wants everything—the yeasts, grains, hops, everything—coming from his great-great-great-great grandfather’s farm, if not now then tomorrow. It’s eating him up and he’s tired of thinking about it, and though the blog post helped, it is not the panacea.

Rocky Ridge Brewing

“It’s just a matter of time. Unfortunately, I can’t instantly grow a 20-acre hop yard because if I do that, how am I going to process them and how am I going to store them?” he says.

“Really, how the fuck would I even pick ‘em?”

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Rocky Ridge Brewing stockists are listed here. All uncredited photos courtesy of the brewery.

Thanks to Joel Lim for the Singapore photos.

This article was written to the sounds of Fugazi, in particular The Argument and Instrument.

Brian Spencer
written by: Brian Spencer
Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance journalist and the founder of Beer Travelist. Say hello at brian [a] beertravelist.com.