So what can fill the void? Allow me to make a case for “fresh beer” as the new craft beer. While independent beer has gained favour lately with the formation of the Independent Brewers Association and a seal of independence being added to labels, I believe fresh beer is what will help brewers to differentiate their beer in a post-craft world.
We’re seeing several brewers already take up fresh as a key part of their proposition. Ballistic Brewing kicked off their Sleep When You’re Dead series, where “hop loaded beers are 100% cold shipped and sold within 8 weeks of production.” The first beer in the series, an India Brown Ale, was released and in line with the ethos of the series will soon be gone.
This is a similar concept to US craft brewer Stone Brewing’s “Best By IPA series”, which really brought the concept of freshness to the fore, by including a best by date in the name, and with a shelf life of only 37 days.
Meanwhile, Stone & Wood are also bringing freshness to the fore by recently adding the packed on date to their beers as well as the best before date, to provide more transparency on how fresh a beer is, a move also made by the likes of QLD’s Black Hops and Fortitude / Noisy Minor.
Perhaps one of the most successful examples of using fresh effectively was Feral with their creation of Tusk Day. Feral limited the sales of their monster IPA to a single day to maximise freshness, the result has been that they are now the top rated beer on Untappd in Australia.
Fresh is a key to consumer choice these days and is a part of the reason behind the continued emergence of brewery bars, the trend towards cans over bottles, and even the popularity of the latest en-vogue sub-style NEIPAs, which are best consumed fresh and at their most flavoursome.
For brewers, freshness is absolutely integral to the quality of hop-forward styles of beers and means that the beer is consumed as it was intended to be.
Over time hop aromas in a beer diminish and hoppy beers that are sold year-round across the nation at large chain liquor stores where turnover isn’t assured are a bit of a crapshoot. I’ve seen and unfortunately bought plenty of Pale Ales and IPAs that I know are high quality when fresh but which have hung around on shelves for far too long and lost their lustre or in some cases completely transformed into caramel malt bombs.
Fresh beer certainly has its challenges on the distribution and retail side. Cold shipping is considered expensive and difficult across the whole of Australia and retailers may not be educated or caring enough to value quick turnover of kegs and beers on shelves to ensure freshness and quality.
But fresh beer offers several advantages for smaller brewers who are focused on quality. Firstly, fresh beer matters more when the beer is good quality. While Carlton have gotten in on the act with their “brewery fresh” draught beer, the reality is that people don’t give a shit about freshness unless the beer is actually worth seeking out fresh.
The other thing is that beers that are best drunk fresh, like NEIPAs, and produced on a small scale drive urgency in consumers. They get people seeking them out, snapping pics for Instagram, and travelling to find them.
Balter’s IIPA was an example of how fresh limited batch beer can create big time hype and desire. There were reports of people driving all across town and even harassing retailers to track some of this big hoppy beer down.
Lastly, fresh beer hugely favours local brewers and brewery bars over national and international brands who are trying to send their beer all over the country at scale. It’s easier for brewers to control distribution and freshness when you’re delivering locally or straight to the consumer. And it’s easier for the consumer to know they’re getting the good stuff when they’re purchasing straight from a local source. It’s a win-win.
While fresh may not work as well for other styles of beer like stouts and sours, pale ales are still the dominant money-making part of the market where competition is at its hottest.
The other term mooted to replace craft beer is, as I mentioned earlier, is independence. But how much value does the term have with your everyday drinker? Even if independence aligns with their values, many won’t know who owns who (although the independence seal is aiming to change that), and they will look at other factors like price, availability and quality when making a decision.
Craft was once a term synonymous with good quality beer. Independence is the popular alternative right now but doesn’t indicate anything about the quality of the product. For me, this is a mistake as quality is still key for most drinkers.
Freshness is an indicator of quality and a beer worth making the extra effort for. It’s also a battleground where the smallest breweries can compete on and it’s hard to fake. That’s why I think brewers are better off staking their claims on being fresh and coming up with more ways to bring the message that fresh is best to the drinkers.