Ale and Hearty

A group of Yarra Valley friends decided to take on the world of commercial brewing. Brendan Black reports on the results.

What do you do if you don’t like the taste of beers available to you? For most people, it would simply be a matter of moving on and trying something else. But for a dedicated bunch of beer enthusiasts, the solution was to start up their own micro-brewery instead.

In 2001, a diverse group of people – a winemaker, farmer, school teacher, ice-cream maker and builder – came together to brew their own beer under the label Yarra Flats Brewery at Immerse winery in Dixons Creek. Shortly afterwards, however, the head brewer received a lucrative offer to make wine in Kosovo, so he left, throwing everything into disarray.

Three of the group then lost interest and decided to move on, leaving John O’Callaghan, the builder, who bought them out and took on the venture by himself. With experience as an amateur winemaker with the Eltham Wine Guild, John felt confident that he could continue, and from there the business really grew.


The operation moved to Healesville and started brewing under the name Buckley’s, after William Buckley, an escaped convict who lived with the Wathaurung people on the Bellarine Peninsula from 1803 to 1835. His survival led to the ironic expression “you’ve got Buckley’s chance”, which is perhaps a worthy description of anyone who decides to tackle commercial brewing.

John has received much help from his son, Dean, who wanted to “save the world one brew at a time”. They have since installed solar panels, which heat the water before each brew, and now serve their beers at festivals and functions in biodegradable cups, as well as turning the grain bags into carry bags and giving the spent grain to a local farmer to feed his cattle.

John is keen to help other brewers and has been joined by Steve, who started as a home brewer in 2000, for the past three years. With Steve’s help and engineering background, the brewery now has computer-controlled tanks that ensure their monthly brews are more consistent and easier to manage. Steve’s view is that “brewing is 90 per cent cleaning”, and the main challenge in moving from a 25-litre to 1700-litre brew was becoming familiar with the industrial-sized tanks and fittings, while the processes themselves are largely the same.

The space in which Buckley’s operates, nestled among mechanics and glaziers in a Healesville industrial estate, has the appearance of an outback pub. The corrugated walls are adorned with beer paraphernalia, and an assortment of mismatching tables and chairs are strewn throughout, at which visitors perch themselves, usually with their paddles of beers to taste.

Buckley’s makes two ales and two lagers, each with a distinctive aroma, colour and taste. The Original Ale has a floral nose, with a bitter palate of medium length and a small head. It is their most popular beer and is quite approachable.

The companion ale to the Original is the Bitter which, as the name suggests, is more bitter (and significantly so). It has an eye-catching clear orange/copper hue, a complex, nutty nose, and a long finish. Buckley’s say this is “not a beer for wimps”, yet the combination of flavours means one could quickly get used to its idiosyncrasies.


A style that has become quite popular in Australia is that of pilsner, which originated in the Czech town of Plzen, and comes from the German name for the town (Pilsen). Buckley’s Pilz has a cloudy yellow hue, the usual hoppy aroma and a long-lasting bitterness on the palate, yet with a pleasant aftertaste.

Their bock is a dark lager, the style of which originated in the German town of Einbeck in the 14th century, later adopted by Munich brewers (whose Bavarian accent meant the style was pronounced as “ein bock”, which was henceforth adopted). Buckley’s bock is a dark, almost impenetrable brown, with a nose of corn syrup and caramel, due to six heavily roasted malts. The palate is an enjoyable mix of bitter dark chocolate and molasses, with a good head and long finish. Traditionally, bocks were used for special occasions, though there’s nothing stopping people cracking one open at any time of year, for any reason – it truly is a delicious beer.
Also available from Buckley’s (thanks to Dean) is a lightly fermented tea known as kombucha, which is sweet and with low alcohol, and very enjoyable on a summer’s day. Buckley’s (under the Good Brew label) has three varieties, all with a base of green tea, and hibiscus and lemongrass, sencha mint and apple, or orange blossom, passion flower and turmeric.

In a world now awash with craft beer, Buckley’s are trying to stand out from the crowd by doing things a little differently. With their efforts to produce consistent brews, care for the environment, and offer products that consumers want, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for them.