Being based in Melbourne means we are used to life coming to a halt in the winter months. Everything we love about summer is delayed until well, the next one. This includes outdoor festivals which are reserved for the northern parts of the country between April and November. This is why we jumped at the opportunity to spend time outdoors at the Huon Valley Midwinter Festival, drinking superb ciders during the coldest month of July.
We braved the cold, braced ourselves, packed our warmest clothes and took off for Tassie – destination Huon Valley.
Beyond this we had little expectation. The Huon Valley is pretty much at the bottom of the world, in one of the coldest parts of the continent, on an island which many people overseas don’t even consider to be a part of Australia! It is famous for the Tasmanian devil and camper van trips in the summer and definitely not for its world class festivals. And so, we are really happy to say that:
The festival was nothing short of amazing. It has massively outgrown its original setup of a small country festival and boasted over thirteen thousand people through the gates over the weekend this year, up from four thousand three years ago. That says it all.
The festival takes place at the Apple Shed – the home of Willie Smith’s organic cider. If you have ever been to a whiskey distillery you would be familiar with the set up. Not only is the scenery beautiful but the pub and cider museum they have on site makes the trip worthwhile, even if cider is not your thing. If it is, however, you couldn’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity. They have the cider making equipment on show alongside an extensive collection of actual cider apple varieties from their orchard. While some of these you would be familiar with, most you’ve probably never heard of. They’re pretty obscure, particularly Down Under.
Dr Clive Crossley, Red Sails
It’s not called the Apple Isle for nothing. Tasmania has an apple growing history dating back to 1700 and is home to 11 cideries, producing some of the finest examples of the drink in the country. The island boasts the biggest organic apple orchard in Australia, owned by Willie Smith’s. This family business is a true industry pioneer and one of the only organic cider producers in Australia. They have a number of awards under their belts and currently hold the title of The Best Australian Cider from 2015. When we met the team, who were all actively involved in the festival, we began to realise that the success of the brand is no coincidence. A large team with a diverse skill set, each member plays to their strengths. They have attracted exceptional talent, with strong cider making as well as commercial expertise. Sam Reid, their managing director and co-founder, is the President of Cider Australia, the industry body whose reason d’être is the protection and promotion of the craft cider industry.
Tasmania is the most active Australian state when it comes to telling the world about their cider making and is the only state that has their own dedicated body, Cider Tasmania, that aims to promote the industry. The cider makers work together and have created a dedicated Tasmanian Cider Trail, which makes it easy for cider lovers like ourselves to explore their wonderful produce. If you happen to travel around these beautiful lands make sure you look up the cideries on your route – you will thank us!
Sam Reid is the chief festival instigator and festival director. He told us what this festival is all about and why apple growing is tightly connected to this region:
The passion that goes into making this event happen extends to the whole crew at Willie Smiths. Tim Jones, the Chief Cider Maker, told us what the festival means to him, what makes a great cider and why craft beer fans will love craft cider:
Well, this is an interesting one and unlike any other festival we have ever been to in Australia. The pagan tradition of Wassailing, which is the act of “awakening the cider apple trees to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn”, is central to the festival and the many costumes reflect this. We were blown away by the variety and extravagance of the handmade costumes and felt completely under-dressed for the occasion. If dressing up is your thing you can really unleash your creativity and let your inner Pagan run free. Don’t believe us? Look below!
If you rocked up unprepared like us – despair not! For as little as $5 you can get your face professionally painted by the few artists on site.
This may well be the very first time you hear about the Huon Valley Midwinter Festival but make no mistake – the level of organisation is right up there with the better known festivals you come across in Australia. We have been to a fair few such festivities in our time, both in Australia and overseas, and recognise excellent organisation when we see it. When we arrived early in the morning on the Saturday preparations for the day were in full swing. Despite being busy each member of the festival crew we came across made the time to stop, welcome us and have a chat.
We wouldn’t know if we weren’t told that two days prior half of the site was flooded and many of the festival tents destroyed by harsh weather conditions. This could well have been the end, however, they pulled it off like nothing ever happened. Hats off!
Tasmania prides itself with its superb produce and all the food and drink we came across was a fine example of this. There was so much choice and it all looked amazing – pity we couldn’t possibly try it all but we did give it a bloody good go! Think 24 hour cooked BBQ meats, proper raclette melted cheese plates and Huon salmon gourmet burgers. “Handmade”, ”locally grown”, “slow cooked”, “24h smoked”, “gluten free” was the order of the day. If you love your food you will find yourself in heaven!
Cider is the hero drink of this festival – no surprises there given the hosts! Willie Smith’s cider is the real deal and it’s nothing like the standard Aussie mass market lolly juice. They use real cider apples and traditional production methods and have in their range one of the driest ciders we have tasted in Australia. Their Bone Dry cider is a real treat for those that like a traditional, fully fermented cider. And of course don’t forget the mulled cider, perfect by the fire when the sun goes down.
The team from Red Brick Cider (Tasmania) also had a stall, with their Rosé Apple cider a real winner. Imagine a cool climate Pinot Noir Rosé blended with a deliciously crisp craft cider. Yep, you just broke through a mental barrier. You are one new idea richer than a second ago. It really works and we loved it.
There was a selection of Tasmanian wines and craft beers such as Moo Brew (Dark Mofo’s Own Label) for those that didn’t fancy the cider but we didn’t manage to break free from the hold of Willie Smith!
It wasn’t all boozing though, there were a wide range of soft drinks available, including some Tasmanian Elderflower, and of course some badass barista coffee.
The Wassail, singing to the apple trees in combination with other strange and ancient rituals, is the focal point of the festival, taking place on Saturday after dark.
The main ceremony was followed by a beautiful fire dance on the backdrop of complete darkness and the glowing embers of a giant bonfire.
All throughout the afternoon on Saturday the festival was energised by the colourful Morris dancers in Pagan costumes. The energetic music and enthusiastic dancers made this quite a spectacle.
Storytelling, live music, a freak show, creators and musicians playing hand-made instruments with no names or jamming with quirky looking guitars…there was so much to do. We loved the abundance of families with kids throughout the weekend – there was a great feeling of community, with everyone getting together and having a great time regardless of age and nationality. With the cider flowing we expected to see a few more people out of shape, particularly towards the end of the night on Saturday, but we didn’t and this was a pleasant surprise.
One of the greatest features of the festival was the abundance of warm fires. There were firepits, converted barrels, a giant bonfire as well as fire dancers. It helped create an amazing atmosphere and made it really easy to meet people “hanging by the fire”.
Kids were properly catered for throughout the festival with dedicated storytelling tents, delicious caramelised apples and plenty of room to play.
Check out what the festival goers were saying about it in this video:
Getting to Tassie in these off-peak months is fast and cheap if you choose to fly. The duration of the festival is 3 days and with carry on luggage we paid just $110 for return flights from Melbourne Tullamarine. The flight is under an hour and Hobart airport is so small that you can be out of the door 10 minutes after landing.
If you were flying from Sydney the flight duration would be just under 2 hours.
We hired a car from Hobart airport which cost us $52 for the 2 days. Driving from there to the Apple Shed in the Huon Valley was incredibly scenic and took only about 30 minutes. Hobart is Tassie’s busiest city but if you are coming from Sydney or Melbourne you would laugh at the traffic. The roads were empty and it was an easy cruise through the city to the Huon Valley.
If you are unfamiliar with the region look for recommendations on places to stay on the festival website. Most landlords offer special Huon Valley Midwinter Festival discounts and there are some good souls who even throw in a pack of organic Willie Smith’s cider in the deal. The area is pretty rural so booking accommodation in advance is a must. You are unlikely to run into many options driving around but there is plenty available with a quick search online.
Hobart is close enough that finding accommodation there is certainly a viable option too.
If you decided to stay in Hobart and wanted to avoid driving (and have a few ciders instead) there is an organised shuttle bus which does return trips for $20. They have really thought this through!
Bring your wellies or sturdy walking shoes which can handle wet, cold and mud! We were exceptionally lucky with the weather, however, they had had heavy rain the few days prior and the ground was soaking wet. We would throw in a pair of woolen socks as you are bound to spend many hours out and about. Bring a pair of sunnies and warm comfy clothing, a few layers wouldn’t hurt either. It isn’t called the Mid Winter Festival for nothing so come prepared.
Well, you’ve probably reached the conclusion by now that we had a good time and you’d be right. The Huon Valley Midwinter Festival blends the classic festival components of great music, food and festivities together with ancient traditions from the old world and the promotion of an industry and region that is quintessentially Tasmanian. It is so much more than a cider festival and offers something for everyone. The atmosphere is fantastic, the location stunning and the organisation top notch. When it’s cold outside we often don’t feel like venturing out but this event is a celebration of the season and well worth wrapping up for. We wholeheartedly recommend the event and will be going again, next time in full Pagan attire!