Harriet and DJ love the Blue Mountains, they also love beer. Winning the Osprey Adventure Grant allowed them to combine their love for them both. Heading deep into the canyons to harvest wild micro-organisms, they want to [literally] give you a taste of the adventure.
DJ McCready is crouched over a Jetboil, keenly watching amber liquid foam and bubble as it heats up. To his left sit several Pyrex glass jars, sanitised cloth and ribbon. To his right are a bunch of drybags, a first aid kit and ropes.
Just as the sticky solution is about to boil over, he turns off the flame.
The sweet, pungent smell of hops and malt sugar fills the air, which is odd given we’re not in a pub or a brewery. We’re 100m below ground in a 50-or-so million-year-old canyon. The sandstone walls envelop us like skyscrapers so tall you have to crane your neck to see the top. Bright green ferns sprout out of the rock. Beams of sunlight stream through cracks, creating ‘God rays’. Dark, spongy green moss covered boulders sit firm as cold canyon water parts around them.
Carefully, DJ pours the liquid into a jar, covers it with the cloth and ties it securely. Standing up, his descender and carabiner on his harness jangle. He carefully puts the jar on a natural ledge carved over millions of years by water. We say a little prayer to Mother Nature, hoping that the microorganisms naturally occurring in the canyon are attracted to the solution, and that from this, we can create a house culture for our beer.
It’s Science, Man
What we’re doing might sound like bootleg biology, but it’s a practise thousands of years old. People have been getting their beer buzz on since 10,000 B.C. The primitive cultures of Mesopotamia are believed to have been the first brewers, a discovery made when bowls with a beer-like residue left over in them were found. Archaeologists believe that it was the remnants of a grain porridge, which ambient microorganisms would have naturally fallen into, causing fermentation. Fermentation is basically yeast metabolising sugars and creating alcohol as a by-product, giving the consumer that sweet beer buzz.
This kind of brewing was finessed over the years, but still highly volatile and mysterious. It wasn’t until science caught up about 150 years ago when we finally began to understand what was really going on with fermentation and suddenly, thanks to things like laboratories, refrigerators and sanitation practices, brewers could control the brewing process and brew far more consistent and predictable beers.
That’s great for, say, an IPA, which you want to taste citrusy and refreshing with just the right amount of bitterness after a long day of hiking. But it kind of takes the adventure out of what can be a raw, unpredictable process that produces something complex, unique and delicious.
DJ has been a brewer for 10 years, but when he decided he wanted to open his own brewery, he took some time off to explore the beer meccas of Europe and the USA. He was seeking inspiration for the kind of beers he would make, and was drawn to the beers that seemed to encapsulated the taste of their region. Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if he could take those old school techniques and let the characteristics of the beer come from the environment rather than ingredients?
When you consider that DJ’s brewery, Mountain Culture Beer Co, sits smack bang in the UNESCO World Heritage Blue Mountains and not, say, the car park of a sewerage treatment plant, it does sound cool. And when we received an Osprey X We Are Explorers Adventure Grant, it seemed possible, thanks to the fact we now had some cash to buy things like beakers, jars, as well as Osprey packs and extra dry bags to keep our goods safe.
Down, Down, Down
The name ‘Blue Mountains’ is a bit deceptive given that the Bluey’s is actually an ancient sedimentary plateau that’s been carved and cut up like a Christmas ham over millions of years by water. So it’s not the higher up you go that leads you to the good stuff, it’s the lower. And that means canyoning.
Canyoning has often been described as “extreme hiking”. Of course, Indigenous Australians were canyoning long before European settlement, but it was the introduction of technical gear such as ropes and anchor systems that allowed the deepest most remote canyons to be explored.
DJ has chosen to harvest wild microorganisms from a remote wilderness canyon because it has seen little human life and is burgeoning with unique flora and fauna. The only drawback of choosing such a canyon is the level of difficulty it presents in getting the gear there. Brewing is normally very equipment-intensive so DJ has had to get creative and do everything on a small scale. Squeezing through tight grooves, clambering over rocks and using questionable hand lines to lower into pools all with a bag full of glass bottles seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
On the morning of our canyoning trip, our first stop is a picnic table where we – a group of five mates along for the ride and myself, DJ’s wife – sip coffee and eat banana bread (also courtesy of the Grant money. Thanks guys!) while DJ gets to work. Over a camp stove he mixes various ingredients to make up highly fermentable media. This is what the microorganisms will be attracted to.
Once he’s finished, we go about packing everything into drybags and carefully stuffing it all into our Osprey packs. We set off and it’s four solid hours of bush bashing, climbing 500m in elevation. The sun is searing hot and our legs and arms look like a four-year-old has gone rogue with a red Texta, thanks to the bleeding scratches from overgrown spiky branches.
Finally we reach our first abseil, the canyon’s entry point. It’s a 25m drop down into a shallow pool. The water is freezing and a shock to the system from the sweaty messes we were five minutes ago. Down here on the canyon floor it’s darker, cooler and quieter. You can’t hear any birds chirping. No wind rustling the leaves on the trees. For the next hour or so we crawl, scramble, rock hop, abseil and swim our way to a small clearing. Here we stop. We pull out snacks, while DJ gets to work on his concoction again, boiling, pouring and then leaving the jars on ledges, exposed to the elements, overnight.
When he’s done, we set off again and a few hours later, the canyon unexpectedly ends. We emerge, squinting in the full sunlight, surrounded by crunchy dry shrubs and eucalyptus trees, the cicadas chirping noisily. From there, it’s a gruelling bush bash back to our tents as the sun fades away.
And Now, We Wait
Over the next few days, DJ keeps a close eye on the jars. Excitingly, something is definitely happening. You can see the solution has developed a layer of foam head, which is called “krausen” and is an indicator that the liquid is fermenting.
The next steps will be to apply some modern science. He’ll need to isolate the strains and send it to a lab to reproduce it. From then, he will use it as a house culture for his brewery.
For now though, we must wait. It will be a few months yet before we can taste this canyon beer. As it is with the nature of anything wild and experimental, sometimes the end result is flawless…. Sometimes it’s not. And that’s just the kind of adventure he likes.
Massive thanks to Osprey for supporting the Adventure Grant