By Kerrie Robertson
Kicking back in a friend’s backyard having a drink – that’s the atmosphere the owners of the Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery in the Riverland have always strived for.
The mood may be low-key, but few people have a backyard as spectacular as Wilkadene’s – an old shearing shed nestled among sweeping gum trees, overlooking the Murray River at Murtho, near Renmark.
The former sheep and wheat station has been transformed over the past 30 years by the Freeman family.
The brewery, along with three houseboats and cottage accommodation, is run by Tom and Sarah Freeman, who now employ seven full-time staff and numerous casuals.
It all started with houseboats.
Like many businesses in the Riverland, Wilkadene Above Renmark Houseboats was hit severely by the millennium drought – not by a lack of water as the river remained at pool level, but by public perception that the river was dry.
Making a living became more challenging, and the Freemans realised that they needed to diversify to maintain the property.
Tom had a wine marketing background, loved beer and was already making his own home brew, while Sarah had previously worked in real estate and tourism.
At the time, craft beer was at the beginning of its boom, so they upscaled their home brew set-up and bought commercial equipment.
“We had no idea how to use it,” Sarah says.
“So we hired a consultant and went from there.”
From those humble beginnings in 2009, the brewery is now at full capacity, producing about 70,000 litres a year.
It has a core range of beers including its original Amazon ale, a lighter summer ale, Judas the Dark ale and a more recent addition – a mid-strength beer called Rivertime.
“People are loving Rivertime because it’s so full of flavour compared to some of the other mid-strength beers around – it has almost as much flavour as an IPA,” Sarah says.
The brewery also produces apple and pear ciders, a hard lemonade in its Utopia range, and most recently Rude Ruby – an alcoholic grapefruit wine drink.
White wine grapes are sourced from local growers and the fruit juice from Nippy’s.
Demand for these beverages has now matched that of beer, equalling production levels of 70,000 litres a year.
“Utopia and Red Ruby are going gangbusters, we’re now looking at export options,” Sarah says.
Woolshed Brewery beverages are stocked by a number of hotels throughout South Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
A new distributer has recently come on board in Victoria, and the Utopia range is about to be launched in the Northern Territory.
“The demand for beer is not slowing down at all,” Sarah says.
“Consumers are getting much more savvy and aware of what they’re buying. They want to know the story behind it.
“Anyone can make a beer but I think it’s the story that makes it appeal to people.”
It’s not just the drinks that have grown in popularity over the years. The Woolshed Brewery now sees more than 50 people a day on average through its doors, with numbers swelling into the hundreds on weekends.
“Our biggest day so far was Easter Saturday in 2017,” Sarah says.
“We had 700, 800 people here.”
It’s also a popular, picturesque location for weddings, birthday parties and Christmas shows.
“It’s definitely changed from a quiet little cellar door, to getting bigger than Texas,” Sarah says.
“But it still has the atmosphere like sitting in your friend’s backyard.”
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