Froth chats with Ben’s Brew Tours founder Ben O’Brien Limmer and finds out how he first got excited about craft beer.
Is it hard for you to not drink on the tours?
No (laughs). There are a few beers [on the Northern Stars tour] – Hawkers Pale Ale, that’s got a special place in my heart, and the Copycat at 3 Ravens, then every now and again at Moon Dog there’s something special that they come out with that I get a little bit teary-eyed, but no I make up for it. I think there would be something wrong with me if I couldn’t last a few hours without drinking!
When did you come to Melbourne?
We’ve been here … it will be five years in September. We came directly from the UK, from London. We were there for a couple of years. That’s probably where my craft beer journey really took off. I started to discover a couple of beers in New Zealand – the first one I came across that really sticks in my mind was from a little brewery in Christchurch called Wigram Brewing. I came across a beer called a Munchen Dunkel, so basically a dark lager. And that was really the first beer I had that I was like – “Hold on, this isn’t what beer should be, this is not what I expect.” And that’s really where it started off. And then we moved over to the UK and literally got off the plane and we found out there was a festival called CAMRA – Campaign for Real Ale, a big group over there – they were doing this big festival in London. So we literally got there, dropped our bags off and were straight at this festival and had an amazing crash course in craft beer. The whole thig was run by volunteers, so everyone just wanted to talk your ear off about the beers. And then I went from there. Then I was depressed about coming to Australia because all I knew about Australian beer was VB, Carlton Draught, Crown Lager, and I was like, ‘This is not going to be good.’ But I was blown away, coming to Melbourne and seeing the scene that was already here, it was just amazing.
At what stage did you come up with the brewery tour idea?
For quite a while I had been wanting to do something that was more … I just liked the idea of being a tour guide. It was something that I enjoyed doing while I was overseas – going out and exploring historical things, it was just a bit of a thing that I liked, and then when people would visit, taking them out and showing them around. It really became linked with beer last year at the Gala Showcase for Good Beer Week. It was in the Fitzroy Town Hall, all the trestle tables around with the brewers there pouring the beer and you were just able to talk to them. And I was just blown away by how passionate everyone was, and how much more you got out of the beer when you knew the story behind it. And you started to understand where the brewer was coming from and why they were making the choices they were. So I just started asking them, ‘How can I come and see your brewery?’ And most of them were like, ‘No one comes to see our breweries.’ They were either not open to the public or just tours don’t come out. So after a few more drinks, I came back and I was like ‘Well what if someone DID come out to your breweries?’ And everyone was really receptive, everyone was really keen and thought it was a great idea. People like Mazen [Hajjar, Hawkers CEO) jumped on board straight away.
This month is your one-year anniversary?
Yep – the end of July is when we started our first tours.
How’s it been?
Amazing. It’s raced by. It’s definitely become something bigger than I thought it was going to be. It’s been lots of things: it’s been amazing, it’s been hard work, there’s been times where I’ve been like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I’ve never run a business before, so there were things on that side that I just hadn’t thought about that are quite time-consuming. But it’s been above my expectations. Especially when it gets to the end of the tour and you’ve got a bunch of people that have just found out so much about craft beer that it just gives you that sense of satisfaction. You can just see in a lot of those people that kind of spark that I found set me off as well.
Tell me more about your plans to start an 86 Tram beer tour?
Basically it’s going to follow the 86 Tram line. We’re not going to be getting on and off the tram – I think that’s a recipe for disaster. But we’ll be following the tram route, starting from Stray Neighbour, and then gradually migrating down. It will be Stray Neighbour, Carwyn Cellars, Clifton Hill Brewpub, and then we’re just finalising the last place.
When do you envisage that one starting?
End of the month [July]. We’re also planning a south-eastern tour – now that Dainton’s opened [in Carrum Downs] as well. So it will be like Bad Shepherd for lunch, Boatrocker, Dainton, and then probably Grape & Grain for the last bar stop. The Carwyn of the south.