The Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular aka GABS kicked off with a bang in 2017 in its first weekend in Melbourne. Beer lovers from all over congregated at the historic Royal Exhibition building for another year of unique beer tastes and festivities.
I was lucky enough to attend the event, courtesy of GABS, and pulled off the doubleheader on Friday for back-to-back sessions. For me, the event lived up to its name with a great lineup of beers, a marketplace packed with stands of good beers and beer people, and lively entertainment from Little Creatures Live acts.
There were some definite themes that emerged among the beers this year, with a lot of New England IPAs, the hazy juicy style sweeping the US, a range of spiced beers including a few Curry-inspired beers, and plenty of dessert-style beers, presumably trying to recapture the winning formula of many past GABS winners.
GABS legends and defending champs Bacchus didn’t make it to this year’s event, so who will take their crown as the People’s Choice winner? We’ll have to wait a little while to find out but in the meantime we can speculate with the aid of some Untappd data, which gives an indicator of what beers were most highly rated by punters in Melbourne. I checked the data following the event and these were the top 10 highest rated.
Top 10 GABS beers according to Untappd ratings after Melbourne
1. Stockade – Mountie Maple Imperial Stout – The people of Untappd found this 12%+ beast of a beer a standout and I totally agree. Someone compared this beer to McDonald’s hotcakes and I think they’re right, but even more surprisingly, it actually works too.
2. Pirate Life – Vanilla Thickshake IPA – Pirate Life is giving winning the People’s Choice award a good, er, shake with this beer. A dessert beer and an IPA that works from a beloved brewer, this may be a prohibitive favourite for the People’s Choice award now.
3. (tied) Akasha – Lupulin Fog Double IPA – They are one of the best in the biz at doing hoppy beers, so no surprise to seem them come out on top in the battle of the juicy IPAs.
Little Rivers – Little Licka – perhaps the surprise of the event this little known Tassie brewer won a place with a nostalgic Red Rope Licorice style beer that hit the mark.
5. Hawkers & The Wheaty – Baklava Brown – another dessert beer that was on point, a little sweet but some interesting spices and nice choc-caramel flavours from the malt.
6. Sierra Nevada – Bombastic Montastic Belgian Brown – One of the very few international brewers at GABS, they earned their keep with this beer, a really nice complex sipper at just over 10%.
7. Feral – Dark Matter – This one stood out by being not as ‘out there’ as other beers but just being a really nice ‘normal’ chocolate porter. Hopefully we see more of it.
8. (tied) 2 Brothers – The Smoking Jacket – Coming off a few wins at AIBA, 2 Brothers also pulled off a good GABS beer with the subtle tobacco and cognac elements underlying a very quaffable sweet stout.
Deeds – Juice Train New England IPA – one of the success stories from the many juicy IPAs on offer, from a somewhat unexpected source.
Moon Dog – The Jimmy Laureys – A big bold 22% abv Belgian Strong Ale, personally I wasn’t game to try it, but it clearly won some fans.
And for the record, here are some of my other top picks for beers I enjoyed at GABS.
10 other GABS beers I enjoyed
Wayward – Funky Hoppy People – a hoppy and sour beer, this was something I felt I could easily drink more of.
Chur – Chocolate Fish Milk Stout – This is a classic GABS dessert-style beer with a strong candy-ish raspberry character that indeed tastes like pink marshmallows.
Shambles – ‘Cool Runnings’ Whole Coffee Stout – creamy with plenty of coffee and a subtle earthy, berry flavour, this one was enjoyable.
Willie the Boatman – Marvin Berry’s Choc-Milk Stout – Another sweet stout with cacao, strawberry and raspberry that is well put together with a dry-ish finish.
3 Ravens – Mango Lassi IPA – surprisingly well balanced, a creamy sour and mango beer that goes down alright.
Wolf of the Willows – ‘Raisin Kilts’ Rum n Raisin Scotch Ale – another one that actually drinks pretty easy as it isn’t overly sweet or rummy.
Yeastie Boys – Royal Tanninbomb – An amped up version of their classic GABS winner, Gunnamatta, the IPA with Earl Grey flowers. The Earl Grey can be a bit overbearing for some, but for me, I liked it.
Emporium – No Whey? Yes Whey! – You go to GABS to drink something different, and this white stout with whey was certainly that.
Shenanigans – Flower Power – this lighter refreshing sour wheat beer with some subtle floral aromas was a good change-up beer.
Stone & Wood – Salty Sour East – A particularly salty and funky gose, so if you like that kind of thing, which I do, then it’s good.
It’s my 100th post on this beer blog and I’ve professed my love for all kinds of beers and beer styles over that time, from milk stouts to ESBs, brown ales to sours, and even lagers. But to be honest there’s a few beer styles that I don’t enjoy so much and some I even passionately dislike, so I’ve decided it’s about time I give these styles the dressing down they deserve.
You might like these beer styles, and that’s ok, but to me they’re trash, and that’s ok too. So with my snark control turned way up, here are some of the worst beer styles according to me:Read More »
Brewery bars give brewers a unique opportunity to connect with their local community, grow their brand, put a face and a space to their name, and make better margins on sales too.
I’m always keen to sample the latest beers fresh from the source. In general, brewery venues are relaxed, spacious, welcoming and family-friendly venues that also have great fresh beer, which makes them a great stopping off point on any journey. I’ve had my fair share of tasting paddles at breweries across Australia, so thought I would share some of my favourite venues to visit.
These are my favourite brewery bars based on the comfort and ambience of the venue, the food, the service and of course most importantly, the beer. Note that while I would love to have been to every Australian brewery, there’s still a few that I’m working on getting to. In the meantime, here are my standouts so far from 5 states across Australia.
Victorian brewery bars to visit
Stomping Ground in Collingwood, Melbourne
This brewpub, from the legendary Local Taphouse & GABS team, is in a great position in the heartland of Melbourne’s craft beer scene in the inner-north and close to various forms of public transport.
The venue is impressive with a huge bar area and spacious and comfortable for all different crowds. They even have a cool rustic kids playhouse, which is great if you care about that kind of thing. Clearly these guys have more money and hospitality expertise than the average brewery. The food is a cut above the usual pub-grub and a good accompaniment for the beers.
Oh and the beer is all really good too. Not blow-your-socks-off-amazing… yet at least … but I really enjoy all of their beers. The One Eyed IPA is punchy, there’s some nice Belgian style beers and sours, the Bearbrass nitro milk stout is smooth and creamy, and all were well made and there’s a good variety of styles, light and dark, familiar and different, on offer. They’re increasingly rolling out more complex beers including sour and barrel-aged beers so keep an eye on what these guys are bringing out next.
Napoleone Brewery & Ciderhouse in Coldstream
Napoleone are best known for their ciders but they also do a really great range of European-influenced beers at an enchanting venue co-located with the quality Meletos restaurant. Located in the ambient Yarra Valley, in a spacious venue with a lovely fit out containing contemporary and rustic elements. It’s an ideal stop-off in the midst of wine country for good food and good beers.
You can grab a tasting paddle from their bar, alongside the excellent food. They brew mostly a mix of English, Belgian and German style beers, as well as a few standards like an American pale ale. All these beers tend to be fairly dry and easy-to-drink while still retaining complexity. The saison, porter, ESB, and rauchbier are all good examples of the traditional styles.
Even for those who don’t love cider, I recommend trying theirs as they have some especially interesting ones. I particularly enjoyed the Methode Traditionelle Pear Cider as a more complex and dry cider.
Hargreaves Hill in Yarra Glen
The Hargreaves Hill restaurant is the only venue on the list that doesn’t include a brewing setup in the building but there’s plenty to like here. You’ll find this underrated brewer’s latest creations on tap and usually at a reasonable price in either a pot or in a paddle. The food is good and tasty, making good use of the local produce in the area. While the building is a lovely old bank building with a lot of character.
The ESB is their most recognised beer but they have a pretty solid range all-round and some interesting tasty specials too like The Phoenix, an imperial red ale, so keep an eye out for their latest seasonal and small-batch releases.
Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth
A stellar regional brewpub if ever there was one, from one of craft beer’s great innovators, this is a great venue. The only issue I ever have with it is getting a seat as it does get busy, so make sure you book ahead especially in holiday periods.
The venue has a buzzing atmosphere, malt sacks adorn the seating, and a stylish Ned Kelly symbol sits atop the tasting paddles to add some style. The food is good whether it’s gourmet pizzas or beer bread pretzels or pastrami wraps, it’s all really well done.
I love the range of beers from Bridge Road and I never worry about not finding anything interesting on their taps. If I had to pick one regional Victorian brewery to visit, this is the one.
Queensland breweries to visit
Balter Brewing in Currumbin
The venue owned by a group including Mick Fanning is awesome. It has a simple barebones industrial factory feel of many breweries but with some nice flourishes that puts it a cut above the rest. There’s the cool mural on the wall, a variety of different seating areas, a slick tiled bar with the rhetorical question ‘Thirsty?’, and a space for good food trucks like the Portuguese truck Barraca.
While the beer range isn’t huge yet, it is reliable and steadily growing. All the beers are more approachable than they are creative but they’re also extremely well made. The XPA and Alt Brown, their first two beers in cans, are a perfect combo of easy-to-drink yet flavourful and interesting beers. They’re simply some of the best core beers going around.
Fortitude brewing in Mount Tamborine
Up in the picturesque hills of the Gold Coast hinterland, Fortitude Brewing have a great spot to stop-off and grab some top drinks and eats. The brewery is co-located with a cheese shop and a restaurant with a nice sheltered outdoor area between the venues where you can take a seat and indulge in your choice of foods while enjoying the top brews.
Fortitude have a range of really sessionable beers. I really enjoyed the Pacer 2.0, a light beer, that packs some flavour, especially fresh from the taps here, and is light, dry and easy to drink.
For the more adventurous beer drinkers, there’s plenty more to offer under the Noisy Minor banner (different name, same brewery). Noisy Minor beers include the great Imperial Red Ale, Admiral Ackbar, an IPA, and my pick of the beers there – a Belgian style black ale, Bete Noire, that was tasty and complex.
New South Wales breweries to visit
The Rocks brewery in Alexandria
Located in the burgeoning hotspot of Sydney’s inner west, the Rocks brewery is in a nice new commercial complex that also contains a trampoline centre. It doesn’t have much old world charm, but it is a really slick venue with enormous steel tanks, state of the art brewing equipment, and comfortable spaces to drink.
There’s also tasty American-style food to chomp on, tasting paddles of their solid range including beers like a porter and White IPA, and if you come at the right time, a bit of live music to nod your head to. It’s an easy spot to drop into and get a good beer fix and a few takeaways for good measure.
Murrays Brewing at Bob’s Farm just outside of Port Stephens
Murrays Brewing’s home base is located at a venue called Bob’s Farm, near the town of Port Stephens. On a nice day, the outdoor area is a pleasant area to enjoy a tipple.
When I ventured there a few years back, it was over Easter, the venue was busy and they had a special Easter Ale on tap with all the flavours of hot cross buns in a glass. Good stuff to go along with their excellent range of beers.
Murrays have long been one of the best breweries in Australia, and while they changed head brewer a few years back, they have reinvigorated their lineup recently with some exciting new beers while still continuing to produce some of the classics too.
Batch Brewing in Marrickville, Sydney
These next two venues as they are very lo-fi setups but they also have a lot of character and a lot of great beer that make them worth a visit in my books.
Batch Brewery is a cosy little venue that has thrown open a bar with taps of its great range and provides a fridge so that locals can pop in and grab fresh beer on tap or to takeaway. Batch produces some of my favourite beers such as their Elsie Milk Stout – the best beer I’ve ever had on nitro and they also do a wide variety of beers from farmhouse style to creative new world combos.
They do get food providers come in and set up at the front to serve the hungry patrons, again very low key.
Willie the Boatman in Tempe, Sydney
Willie the Boatman is located right next to an axe-throwing venue and feels like the inside of a big tin shed. They make a space available for food providers to come in and cook up for the patrons, and the friendly owners might even be on hand to pour beers to complete the genuine small local independent experience.
Beerwise, you’ll find the kind of experimental small batch beers that you wouldn’t find at a larger brewery, when I went this included an oyster stout and a rockmelon gose. If you find a particular beer on tap you like, they can pour you a 1L can of it to takeaway. They also have some of their standard beers in longneck bottles, like the excellent Black Bunny Dark Ale.
Smiling Samoyed brewery in Myponga
Travelling through South Australia, I was particularly fond of this little venue in the middle of nowhere, or more precisely, amidst the bush between Adelaide and Victor Harbour in a town called Myponga,
The tasting paddles use vinyl records, which has to be one of the funkiest paddles I’ve seen. Their pale ales are hoppy delights, outside is quiet and scenic, and it’s an all-round nice spot to stop off and take a breath and drink some beers. The beautiful Samoyed dogs trotting around add to the down-to-earth welcoming feel.
Little Creatures brewery in Fremantle
This Little Creatures venue in was I think my first great experience of a brewery venue, it’s a magical spot for a beer on a nice day in Freo. You can sit inside by the vast steel tanks in a funky industrial space, or take a table outside overlooking the water, play some bocce, drink the classic Aussie pale ale from the source and enjoy a nice array of quality eats.
And to make this a baker’s dozen of great breweries to visit, also check out the Victorian Little Creatures brewery in Geelong in the historic old wool mill there. It’s a grand and spacious venue with personality and has the familiar recipe of good beer and good eats.
The co-location of the White Rabbit brewery also adds to the interest and variety of tastes on offer with their solid variety of core beers and some barrel aged delights to capture the drinker’s imagination.
Every year RateBeer publish a list of the top 100 breweries based on the reviews on their site. For those who don’t know, RateBeer is a beer review site that is generally favoured by beer geeks as an authority on great beer. While the list, like any, is subject to certain biases, in general you know that the breweries that appear on this list are going to be damned good at making beer.
So annually I create a map of these top 100 breweries, pinpointing the main location of each brewer on the list, and enabling craft beer geeks who may dream of visiting these breweries to view where they’re located around the world.
London is becoming a real craft beer hub and with the addition of Beavertown and Brew by Numbers increased the number of UK breweries on the list to 9.
Poland got 2 breweries on the list this year. This was a surprise to me. While Poland traditionally has a strong beer culture, I didn’t realise that they were gaining acclaim in craft beer circles, will have to look into this one.
Pennsylvania is now up to 4 breweries. While the West of the US is still strong, the North East, and even Midwest have a lot of top breweries now too.
Tree House is probably one of the bigger names to enter the top 100 as one of the leaders of the hot and trending NEIPA style.
I’ve always found it impossible to answer the question ‘what kind of music (or beer) do you like’?
For some people it’s easy, they say rock (or pale ale). But for me it’s a challenge because I like so many different kinds and the kind I like most of all generally defies any labels.
Sure I like rock (and pale ales) like almost everyone else does but I wouldn’t answer that rock (or pale ale) is the kind of music I like, because when I really want to listen to music, I usually seek out something new, something entirely different.
I seek out different music like freeform jazz (and lambics) and fusion (and India Saisons) and eclectic music like Congotronics (and imperial stouts) or certain German techno labels (and Berliner Weisses).
I do enjoy rock (as I do pale ales) and I still come back to it, because sometimes I just don’t feel like making the effort to seek out the latest and greatest new tastes and just want to listen to reliable old rock (or drink a pale ale).
I like classic rock like Led Zeppelin (or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) or rock that reinvents the classics especially well like The Black Keys or Wolfmother (Pirate Life’s IPA or Hop Nation’s The Fiend) or rock with a slightly contemporary (or new world) twist on the genre (or style) like Grizzly Bear (or Balter’s XPA).
But the music I like most of all is that which can’t be easily categorised and defined by only one genre. Music like that from my favourite artist Amon Tobin, whose music is some kind of unique blend of jazz and hip hop and classical and drum n bass and sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
The beer I love most defies labels too. When I do drink that kind of beer and it hits all the right notes, it’s an epiphany, a revelation that opens up a whole new world of flavour and makes me rethink how I view beer. Beers like the Avant Garde series from La Sirene, the Mayday Hills beers from Bridge Road, and any of the brilliant barrel aged beers from Boatrocker.
In the GABS Hottest 100 list this year, the vast majority of beers on the list were pale ales and I get that. Pale ales are the beer that people who are less novelty seeking than me will continue to go back to. And it’s the beer that the novelty seeking geeks like me will go back to from time to time because it’s reliable and comfortable and is always worthy of a spot in the fridge (or in the playlist).
In the Hottest 100 I still voted for beers like Balter’s XPA and Hop Nation’s The Chop and La Sirene’s Urban Pale with their first crossover into pale ales, because I appreciate a good pale.
But I also vote for the likes of Bridge Road’s Yee Ha and Pirate Life’s Stout because I like beers that are different or may not be to everyone else’s taste and that’s ok.
Really there’s no reason to get upset because you find that Pacific Ale is a bit too boring for you to drink. I’m sure there were some Triple J listeners who felt the same when Powderfinger won too. It’s a popular vote and that’s going to mean that the list is always going to be dragged more towards the centre than left or right.
But more niche beer styles (or genres) and beers that defy styles altogether will continue to thrive in their own way too. They may never be recognised in a popular list, but they will spark epiphanies and win hearts in a way that a good old reliable pale ale never can.
2016 felt to me like the year that craft beer grew up. It seems now that the breweries rising to the top are increasingly not only producing great beers but are also commercially savvy types with greater financial backing.
It makes sense that as the market becomes more crowded that the more commercially savvy brewers will rise to the top and start to form national brands and take on the big players. But if that makes you a bit misty-eyed for the romantic ideal of nanobreweries owned by a brewer/founder , don’t worry, the romance of the small brewery isn’t gone either.
There were also a lot of new brewery venues opening with a primary focus on their local area and selling on-premises it seemed. For example, I visited Willie the Boatman in Tempe in Sydney, which is a brilliant locally-focused venue where its two owners also frequently pour the beers at the brewery on weekends. I was also impressed to see the likes of Daintons and Bad Shepherd connecting with local communities in the outer suburbs of Melbourne with their good range of craft beers.
All in all, whether craft brewers had a local focus or broader ambitions, they each contributed in different ways to creating a richer environment for beer drinkers, as the availability of great beer and the range of styles being produced continued to increase in 2016.
I managed to sample a healthy amount of good beers myself and below are my personal favourites of new beers of 2016, as well as my latest ranking of Australia’s top brewers.
Cheers to another great year in Australian craft beer.
My favourite new beers of 2016
A list of my favourite Australian beers of those brewed for the first time in 2016:
Pirate Life – Stout – Perhaps Australian craft beer’s most celebrated brewer at the moment, they’ve won plaudits for their hoppy core range of beers but also showed they are no one-trick ponies with this creamy chocolatey oatmeal extra stout, which really hit the spot for me.
Mornington Peninsula – Dog’s Bollocks – I really enjoyed all of the limited-release beers from Mornington Peninsula this year and this one may have been the most understated of all their beers, but marked the first canned nitro beer in Australia and a good rendition of the ESB style that I really enjoy.
Murrays – Coffee Wild Thing – I found the coffee twist to an old favourite, the Wild Thing Imperial Stout, to be tasty and balanced and the best imperial stout I drank this winter. Something of a comeback year for the veteran of NSW craft beer with beers like Skully and Thunderbolt IPA also impressing.
La Sirene – Urban Pale – Once again La Sirene produced many sophisticated and interesting beers, but this one wins my vote for its simplicity and for bringing the farmhouse style to the people in an attractive and affordable can format that is a summertime winner.
Stockade – Peachy Keen – It seemed like a big year for Gose’s and Berliner Weisse’s and this was perhaps the saltiest and peachiest of the gose’s that achieved the effect of quenching my thirst but also provoking me to drink more.
Balter – XPA – I waited a while to see what all the hype was about and was pleased to find that this one tastes as good as its can looks. A big peach aroma and a dry-ish finish works really well for this new Gold Coast-based brewery.
Hop Nation The Chop – One of many brewery venues to open in 2016, opening up in Melbourne’s west, the Chop was an intriguing mix of IPA styles that worked really well, juicy, bitter and fresh.
Fox Hat – Phat Mongrel – I have a soft spot for Oatmeal stouts and I was very happy that this one lived up to the billing and was a big tasting winter beer from this new SA-based brand. Also really good, was Mr Banks’ oatmeal stout, which is another new brewery on my list that I need to visit.
Wheaty Corps – Blackberry Saison – A highlight from the SA Pint of Origin and the first beer I’ve tried from the classic SA craft beer pub.
Bridge Road Yee Ha – Loved this subtle-ish example of the much feared and revered Brett yeast. A simple base beer allows the complexity of the brett to shine through with just a little bit of funk. Look forward to seeing more that comes out of the foeder.
Top Australian brewers power rankings
My latest subjective ranking of Australia’s best brewers with their previous ranking in brackets.
10. tied (new) 4 Pines / Murrays
4 Pines continue to grow and expand as one of Australia’s biggest independent craft brewers. They also make really good beer that is accessible anywhere. Their Amber Ale, brewed with a healthy amount of the excellent Mosaic hop, was their best core beer yet. While I may not rush to get their one-offs, they produce good beers in a wide range of styles.
I also had to have Murrays on this list after they returned to form in a big way this year. They seemed to have dropped off the craft beer radar a bit but really came back to form this year with their special releases including Thunderbolt IPA that won Crafty Pint’s blind tasting, Coffee Wild Thing (see above) and Skully, a Red IPA.
9. (10) Wayward
I was stoked to visit their premises in Annandale this year and sample more of their impressive range. I’m yet to have a bad beer from these guys and they have a great variety of beers beyond just pale ales.Their Fat Charmer, a bigger version of their classic Charmer Red Ale, was a highlight for its flavour and drinkability at the NSW Pint of Origin, while I also enjoyed their tart Sourpuss raspberry Berliner Weisse and dry fruity Saison. They’ve also started bottling this year so we should more of their core range.
8. (9) Bacchus Brewing
My wish came true and we’re seeing more and more of their beers available in good beer stores. They became the first two-time People’s Choice GABS winners with their win at this year’s festival with the Peanut Brittle Gose that was another dessert-like beer – sweet with a salty finish in a unique take on the style.
7. (4) Holgate
Their Flanders Red ale has received quite the praise from Crafty Pint and their barrel-aged stout also had some good wraps. I enjoyed their Tangelo Gose and these craft beer vets showed that they are still among the best in the business.
6. (6) Mornington Peninsula
I was really impressed by the range this year. Nothing too crazy but a good range of different styles released regularly and all done well. I mentioned A nice complement to one of the best core ranges in the business.
4. (7) Pirate Life
Another big year for Pirate Life, quickly moving up these rankings and set to be one of the top performers again in the Hottest 100. Their Triple IPA at GABS delighted the punters with the best rating on Untappd and they turned out a good range of beers this year. I was most impressed by their stout, particularly as it was the first beer of theirs I’d had that wasn’t hop-focused.
4. (5) La Sirene
La Sirene is all class. Their beers are always well-made, complex and intriguing. Their Avant Garde series met a lot of praise (and had beautiful labels), while their Urban Pale was a great first example of them bringing their farmhouse-style beers to a wider audience.
3. (3)Bridge Road
Continue to pump out creative beers that push the envelope and bring Australia craft beer forward. The Mayday Hills range, featuring a huge wooden barrel innoculated with brett yeast is the latest example of that. While I also found their duo of Biere De Wilde beers featuring wild yeasts from different winemakers intriguing and tasty.
The barrel program continues to be a success and produce high-quality beers that are unmatched in Australia. Ramjet once again impressed as one of Australia’s best beers, big and flavoursome and balanced, while the Dark Saison was probably my favourite beer this year from them. They are breathing down the neck of Feral at no. 1.
1. (1) Feral
A relatively quiet year in my books from Australia’s best brewer but they still have a great core range of beers complemented by a variety of excellent limited releases. It seems that many agree with me on their ranking as Beer Cartel’s industry survey also had them in the top spot. Look forward to seeing what they do after moving to a new brewery with greater capacity this year.
It would be easy to assume that the greatest threat posed to Australian craft beer comes from the corporations pumping out bland tasteless pale beers that still dominate well over 90% of the beer market. But drinkers will know the difference between these beers and craft beer as soon as they take their first sip.
And while supermarket craft beers like Steamrail and Sail & Anchor and craft-washed brands like Yenda and Whatever Yak, may fool some with their crafty-looking packaging and lack of disclosure about who they really are, those who also drink full-flavoured craft beer will not be fooled for long by these mediocre beers.
But when it comes to US craft beers like Ballast Point or Oskar Blues, when they are fresh, drinkers will find that the beers are every bit as good as the Australian craft beers out there, if not better.
This is why I pose the question are Ballast Point, and other big American craft brewers looking to expand beyond a saturated US market into Australia, in fact the greatest threat to Australian craft beer?
Certainly the recent influx of Ballast Point tinnies across the country has captured the attention of craft beer drinkers and filled social media feeds. Stocked exclusively at Dan Murphys, they are available just about everywhere and the variety of hoppy pale ales are fresh and really tasty, so I totally get why Aussie craft beer drinkers are stoked.
But craft beer drinkers who otherwise might be drinking Australian craft beer are drinking American craft beer because it’s available at a better price and in most cases it is better quality too. More so than the other threats, Ballast Point is direct competition with local brewers for the Australian craft beer drinker and could impact upon the industry’s growth.
Ballast Point’s beers are of a quality rarely seen in Australia and certainly not at the price point they are being sold at. I was always amazed at the Ballast Point Big Eye IPA being sold for so little and now the Sculpin too can be fetched for less than $30 a six-pack. There are some great value beers available in Australia sure but you won’t be able to find 7%abv+ monster hoppy beers like this at this price and widely available year-round.
There are some great Australian big IPAs out there (see IPAs from the likes of Pirate Life, Kaiju and Feral) but they are mostly in batches at greater cost, mostly sold in singles, and aren’t consistently available. As the Australian market matures, Australian craft brewers will certainly start making bigger IPAs more regularly accessible, but currently it is so much easier and lower risk for American craft brewers already brewing big IPAs like Sculpin at a large volume in a more mature market to bring these beers to the Australian market.
Smart Australian brewers have long recognised the threat that big American craft brewers represent and have taken steps to decommoditise their beers, differentiating their product and also building brand loyalty to separate themselves from competition. Australian brewers have the advantage of being able to build relationships and putting a face to the beer they brew by participating in events like Good Beer Week and establishing taprooms so that drinkers can see it all up close and take the beers away fresh.
Looking at the positives, the competition that US craft beer presents can boost the standard of beer in Australia and accelerate its maturity. To be fair, where would Australian craft beer be without American craft beer? Most of the beers are heavily based on beers and styles from the US. Copying something from American has often passed as innovation in Australian but that won’t cut the mustard any longer.
With Ballast Point and other US craft beers coming to Australia, there’s tasty fresh craft beer available everywhere at a reasonable price. Buying local and independent will hold some sway with drinkers, but the Australian craft brewers who will thrive most against this competition won’t be those who offer inferior imitations, but those who present a genuinely differentiated beer experience, be that through more creative beers, community engagement, superior freshness, or a great brewery venue.
Brown ales are never in fashion. Brown ales laugh at today’s trends. They neither sound exotic like saíson nor tell terrific tales of long voyages over seas like IPAs.
Yet the unfashionable but ever reliable brown ales make a strong case to be a part of anyone’s drinking repertoire.
Brown ales are located in the beer spectrum somewhere between a red ale and a porter. And what I love about brown ales is that they give you a bit of everything, some chocolate, some caramel, and depending on the style, hops.
When done well, they are nicely balanced and all the elements work in harmony. It’s an underrated style and for me works a lot better than the contradictory by name and sometimes by taste, Black IPA style, which has the potential for a clash between the roasted malt and the hops if not done just right.
Some brown ales to try
Big Shed Frankenbrown – I loved this beer on tap and it presents well in the bottle too. It’s an American style with more aggressive hop flavours, bright and grassy, as well as showcasing the caramel and chocolate from the malts. It punches above its alcohol weight too, at only 5% it has a lot of flavour.
Two Brothers Growler is also a classic of the Australian craft beer scene as the Moorabbin brewery was perhaps the first to push the style with this tasty American style brown ale one of their core beers.
The big chocolate flavour and firm piney bitterness reminds of some of the best examples from the US, like the Brooklyn Brown and Abita’s Turbodog.
Mornington Peninsula Brown Ale – To me is an exemplary English style brown ale with every element working beautifully in balance. Goes down well and focuses on the malt characteristics and drinkability. Is also now widely available through Dan’s.
Pact Brickworks Brown Ale – The first bottled beer I’ve had brewed in the ACT, I was pleasantly surprised.
This brown was heavier on the chocolate than is typical for the style while still keeping its foot firmly in the brown camp with a smoother sweeter finish than you would find with a porter or stout.
Mornington Peninsula Russell Brown Belgian Ale – I love how Mornington Peninsula promised me to deliver more exciting beers and they have delivered with limited releases like this one. I like that they’ve gone for intriguing but highly drinkable beers over just big crazy beers.
I’m not always a huge fan of Belgian style beers brewed outside of Belgium but this one hits the mark and is one of the best I’ve had in a while, showcasing the malts and the Belgian yeast nicely.
Founders Sumatra Mountain Brown – Everything tastes better with coffee. Well for me at least. A real sweet finish to this imperial strength brown ale provides a nice contrast with the coffee.
I’m always interested in reading about trends in the US craft beer scene as it can give a good indication of where things might be headed in Australia.
One trend I’ve been paying attention to is how some of US’s biggest brewers grow are rallying against what has long been one of craft beer’s key messages – ‘drink local’.
Founders Brewing, an American craft brewery with a growing presence in Australia, are one of these breweries that are now pushing ‘quality’ ahead of ‘local’. Founders’ Dave Engbers in this article, outlines the message that their sales crew pushes that is decidedly anti-local.
The biggest challenge our sales crew has is “local.” Every town has like eight breweries now. We just keep preaching, and I hope retail follows suit, that “local” does not mean “quality.”
‘Drink local’ has long been a key message for craft beer and it was a shock for me to read a craft brewery flipping the script like this. The ‘drink local’ message linked in nicely with a broader cultural movement to support local producers over multi-national corporations, and made sense to drinkers who like the idea of buying beers from brewers that they can meet in the flesh and breweries that they can visit.
Why have these bigger craft breweries in the US changed their tune? Because they’ve reached a point where to grow further they need to expand beyond being local. To do this, they need to switch drinkers’ focus towards a message of ‘drink quality’, where they boast more experience and can invest more money in equipment for quality control than the younger, local breweries that they’re competing against.
However, the emotional pull of ‘drink local’ is real for drinkers and is supported by the data in this Nielsen survey of beer drinkers in the US in 2015.
That’s why breweries like Samuel Adams lament that their beers are being ignored in spite of their quality, simply because they’re not small, new, or local.
In this Good Beer Hunting article, Christopher Barnes, who works at a distributor of iconic import brands like Rodenbach in the US, opines about about the irrational attachment of drinkers to local beer:
“People will often drink a poorly crafted local beer because they have some sense of story or attachment to the brand regardless of quality.”
For Colorado brewery Oskar Blues rather than trying to rally against local they’re trying to become local by setting up breweries with taprooms around the country.
They most recently opened a brewery taproom venue in Austin, Texas, and in this excellent article, Austin Chronicle writer Eric Puga, outlined some of the friction that their expansion causes with the local industry. He also suggests that ‘local’ is about more than just a physical presence.
The phrase “buy local” among Austin craftsmen and women has traditionally been a call to preserve small, independently owned, hometown breweries…
“Buy local” is a complicated phrase, and it extends to terroir, sustainability, endurance, and perhaps even friendship in the small beer industry; its meaning is much more than a quaint marketing suggestion.
Is it unfair that some drinkers ignore bigger craft breweries in favour of local beer regardless of quality? Perhaps, but the ‘drink local’ message has been an important part of what’s gotten craft beer to where it is, and the emotional side of purchasing decisions cannot be underestimated.
With more local breweries opening up everywhere, growth has been harder to come by for the biggest craft breweries in the US. So they are also looking for new markets to expand into as the US market comes close to saturation point.
Australia is one such market and the likes of Ballast Point and Founders have captured the attention of Australian beer drinkers over the past year, each causing a stir in their own way with the launches of Sculpin IPAs and the Kentucky Breakfast Stout.
This must be causing some concern among Australian brewers, especially with some of the value pricing. The Ballast Point Big Eye IPA was long at the top of my best value for money beers, and the Founders Imperial Stout was recently available at an unbeatable price for that style and quality.
The local advantage is real but this kind of competition from the US is also going to put the pressure on Australian brewers to continue to produce good value quality beers too.
Meanwhile, some of Australia’s craft brewers are getting bigger and more sophisticated themselves.
This is all good news in my books. Craft beer is becoming more professional and that’s going to help get craft beer into more people’s hands. Rather than one-man-band local founder/brewer/salesman types, we’re seeing breweries emerging that are more savvy marketers and experienced operators in the beer business.
While at the same time, brewpubs and brewery bars with a strong local focus are also opening up and proving a hit by connecting with their communities.
It isn’t hard to see that in a few years time we may be facing a similar situation to the one in the US, as newer smaller breweries continue to open up and push their local credentials, while the bigger more established and professional craft breweries try to turn the focus towards quality.
This all means that the question of ‘drink local or drink quality?’ is only going to become a more polarising question for Australian craft beer drinkers in times ahead.
Many craft brewers have a bit of ‘mad scientist’ about them. Because craft beer is about experimentation and pushing into new (or rediscovering old) beer styles and constantly providing the novelty-seeking beer geeks like me with new tastes to explore.
And one of the latest mad science endeavours in Australian craft beer is nitro beers.
Nitro beers involve switching out some of the usual CO2 that carbonates a beer with around 70% nitrogen, creating a denser head and thicker body. Nitro beers are poured through a special tap or go through a specialised bottling or canning process.
Nitro adds another dimension to beers with the body and mouthfeel. Nitro tends to work better with maltier beers like stout and English style ales rather than hoppy pale ales and IPAs, with which it can dull the flavour a bit. Read More »