War Games – Froth chats with Brendan Varis from iconic WA brewery Feral

Feral beers in their natural environment – at the Feral Brewhouse in the Swan Valley.
Graham Frizzell heads out to the Swan Valley to chat to Feral Brewing’s Brendan Varis about beer cans, watermelons and terroir.

Bold yet humble, proudly local yet with a nationwide presence, Feral Brewing is the living embodiment of Australian craft beer. The iconic WA brewery took over Australia seemingly by stealth from its home in the idyllic surrounds of the Swan Valley and in so doing became a household name.

Indeed, they were crafty before craft was really a thing in Australia, and they’ve been playing around with American hops since before most of us were playing with toy soldiers. They are famous for brewing an ale that speaks for a nation fed up with beer that is a well-branded duosyllable acronym first and tasty beverage a distant second. And, thankfully, this stealth attack ain’t about to stall any time soon.

War cry (from a can)

The can vs. bottle debate keeps rolling on like an out-of-control lorry careening down the Greenmount Hill. Feral might help settle the argument once and for all thanks to the soon-to-be-installed canning line, the arrival of which will mark a monumental second half of 2016 for the brewery.

Feral Hop Hog at the Feral Brewhouse in WA. 

“The jury’s still out for us [on cans],” says Feral owner and head brewer Brendan Varis. “Brewers with canning lines will say that cans are better but others will say beer from the bottle is better.

“We’re going to have both [a canning and bottling line] soon, and we’ll have the same product being packaged in both cans and bottles – from the same tank on the same day – so we’ll be able to at least answer that question for ourselves.

“There are really good quality can and bottle fillers and really bad quality can and bottle fillers too so I don’t think there’s ever going to be an end to the argument.”

Consumers will have no time for argument, however, as more big news has emerged from the Feral camp. The supremely tropical fruit hop-driven monster that is War Hog IPA will soon be joining Feral’s growing stable of core range releases.

Warhead revisited

It’s not all about hop bombs out west. The Swan Valley is known for its local produce – and wine. Wineries can lay claim to a unique terroir, but one of the most unique beers from the region – Watermelon Warhead – also has a real sense of place. This tart and refreshing drop has a sense of place not only from the ingredients used, but also the devil-may-care approach to brewing that is so uniquely West Australian. The thought of making this beer would have been preposterous a decade or two ago, but in 2012 this “New World” take on the Berliner Weisse style turned convention on its head. But does it have terroir?

“It’s a good question, terroir in beer,” said Brendan. “Beer’s raw ingredients [hops, malt, yeast] are far more portable and have a longer shelf life than grapes. You’ll see people [harvesting grapes] later in the day when it’s not too hot before being crushed that night, and you can’t send off the best grapes from Margaret River and expect them to produce the best wine after travelling such a great distance.

Ace-of-Base-Bottle“The beer we get a little bit of terroir in a different sense is Watermelon Warhead. Literally it’s a case of jumping in the ute and we drive to the paddock, fill her up [with watermelons] and crush them down for the beer. We also use chardonnay barrels that have been used by previous Swan Valley producers, which [imparts] a chardonnay grape character. Outside of that not many beers have a genuine terroir call around them – there are breweries with ‘house character’, but that’s a different thing altogether.”

Terroir or no, the output of Watermelon Warhead is growing exponentially. Plans are afoot to have this brew join War Hog as a year-round release, and with more BrewPub Series beers to follow, such as the recently released Ace of Base Imperial India Saison, Feral looks set to march to the beat of its own drum throughout 2016 and beyond.

Five reasons to visit the Feral Brewhouse

  • The Brewhouse showcases a range of Feral beers rarely seen packaged or on tap. When we visited, the Brewhouse was pouring a lager, Phunkin’ Cat and Barrel-Fermented Hog. Fans of barrel-aged and wild-fermented beer will enjoy the handful of exclusives.
  • The food is great! The cauliflower salad, cheeseboard, prosciutto and of course hand-cut fries all make for fantastic accompaniments for the beers on offer.
  • The Brewhouse is as family-friendly as it gets – with space for little ’uns to run around while you relax with a Hop Hog beneath WA’s famously warm sunshine.
  • The chance to make a droolworthy Untappd venue check-in.
  • Driving around the Swan Valley region is the picturesque Perth of the imagination (just be sure to elect a designated driver!)

The Feral Brewhouse can be found at 152 Hadrill Rd, Baskerville, about 40 minutes’ drive north-east of Perth. www.feralbrewing.com.au

Photo by awesome WA photographer Jessica Shaver