Winners and losers of the 4 Pines sale to AB InBev

The sale of Manly’s 4 Pines brewery to beer’s dark overlords, AB InBev, was big news, as these kinds of sales always are, but to keen observers wasn’t entirely surprising or as shocking as say the sale of longtime industry stalwarts Mountain Goat to Asahi.

4 Pines were one of the largest remaining independent craft brewers and a logical target for a cashed-up corporation looking to sink its teeth into the Aussie scene by snapping up a local craft brewery.

4 Pines’s focus on producing larger volumes for sale through retail stores, and their rapid expansion strategy, makes me think that they were hoping to attract just this kind of offer at some point.

Whatever the reasoning, the move to sell to AB InBev, is set to impact the industry and Australian beer drinkers. Here are the winners and losers from the deal as I see them.Read More »

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Worst. Beer styles. Ever.

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 »

Is Ballast Point the greatest threat to Australian craft beer?

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 deserve your attention

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.

Big Shed Frankenbrown
Big Shed Frankenbrown

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.

Are nitro beers set to explode?

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 »

Some Extra Special ESBs in Australia

The Extra Special Bitter (ESB) has a cocky name that belies its appeal as a beer style that is generally understated, balanced and highly drinkable.

What I love about ESBs is the great interplay between the different elements. Without any one ingredient dominating, the malt, hops and yeast are each able contribute their own distinctive characteristics to the beer.

The ESB is a broad style that is difficult to define. It is basically a kind of English-style pale ale that is a bit stronger. These BJCP style guidelines describe it as “A rather broad style that allows for considerable interpretation by the brewer”.

This is borne out in the ESBs brewed in Australia that range from sweet to dry, light to dark, and creamy. Here are some of the best examples going around in Australia at the moment:

3 Ravens English ESB

A Gold Medal winner for this style at the AIBA awards, along with Mountain Goat’s Hightail Ale. It is a bronze/copper colour with a dry earthy finish. This ESB is a really good winter beer for those that enjoy an eminently drinkable malty ale.

Mornington Peninsula’s Dog’s Bollocks ESB

The Dog’s Bollocks is a new release that seems to play on the tendency of UK ales to have bizarre names like Sheepshagger. The beer itself is interesting as a rare canned ‘nitro beer’, the nitro giving it a creamier thicker body that enhances its already sessionable nature.

This beer really hits the mark as a smooth creamy beer with a pleasant interplay of sweet malts, earthy hops and fruity esters.

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Napoleone’s Longbow ESB and Fighting Jack ESB

While many craft breweries are focused on following American styles, Napoleone are making their mark through their interpretations of European styles and recently released an ESB for their first canned beer. The Longbow ESB is quite pale for an ESB so is a bit subtler in its malt flavours but has some nice nuances of fruity esters from the English yeast.

Personally I enjoyed most their bigger ESB on tap from the brewery bar last year, Fighting Jack, packing in at over 7% with a darker colour and bigger malt profile.

Napoleone-tasting-paddle
Tasting Paddle at Napoleone brewery bar

4 Pines ESB

4 Pines’ ESB is one of the lighter and sweeter examples out there. I enjoyed it more as it warmed up and the fruity esters of the yeast came through more.

Hargreaves Hill ESB

An Australian classic that may get overlooked by some, I feel like if it was called a pale ale and had a rad label it would be one of the best regarded beers in Australia.

This is distinctly different to other ESBs on this list as the beer is powered by new-world hops, the bright berry and tropical fruit aromas of the Nelson Sauvin hops shining over a sweet malt base.

Holgate ESB 

Holgate’s ESB is a well-balanced beer and good example of the style. It drinks particularly well when it has a fuller mouthfeel after being pulled from a handpump at the brewery bar or at the Royston Hotel say, and is a handy winter beer.

For those lacking for the classic examples of the style, there’s Fullers ESB which is the forefather, and Courage’s Strong Bitter is another. They are a good drop and are available at the big retailers. And for those brewing at home, Jamil provides a good style profile here.

Got milk… in your beer?

Milk in beer?? Well not quite, at least not anymore. The increasingly popular style of beer called ‘milk stout’ doesn’t literally contain milk but lactose, a sugar derived from milk that doesn’t break down into alcohol and therefore adds sweetness and a fuller body to the beer.

Many beer drinkers are put off by darker beers, whether it’s simply the colour or they didn’t enjoy the classic dry stout, Guinness. But the sweeter milk stout may be the perfect style to convert these drinkers to dark beer as it is often easier drinking, less astringent, and plays well with familiar flavours that people typically consume like chocolate, coffee, vanilla and sugar.

For some historical perspective, the style originates from the UK in the 1800s when milk was added to stouts for nutritional purposes and doctors even prescribed if for ailments and nursing mothers. The sweeter style of stout was also an way for brewers to combat the growing market of mild ales.

Eventually the use of the word ‘milk’ in the name of the beers was banned in the UK in 1946 to avoid this false association, but now milk stouts are another historical style being reinvented by craft brewers around the world including in Australia and it has to be one of my favourite beer styles. So here are some top class milk stouts brewed in Australia that I can highly recommend.

5 Australia Milk Stouts that are f’ing awesome

  1. Batch Brewing’s Elsie the Milk Stout – This beer blew me away when I had it on nitro at the great Sydney bar Keg & Brew. I’d never had such a flavoursome beer on nitro before that delivered such great chocolate aromas with a creamy mouthfeel to round it out. Definitely one of my perfect winter warmers.
  2. Thirsty Crow’s Vanilla Milk Stout – This brewery from Wagga Wagga built their reputation amongst beer aficionados for this award-winning brew and it’s no surprise. It’s an even sweeter version of the style with the Madagascan vanilla in there but has all the wonderful flavours and full body. I adored this beer when having from a cask at GABS and also enjoyed fresh on tap from the brewery. Tough to find outside of the brewery’s bar but worth seeking out.
  3. Brewcult’s Milk and Two Sugars – The winner of People’s Choice at GABS in 2015, this is a stronger milk stout than the others at just over 7% and benefited from a mega addition of coffee to create an ultra tasty beer that you could be forgiven for drinking at breakfast.
  4. Exit Milk Stout – Another addition to Exit Brewing’s core range, the milk stout exemplifies all that’s great about the style, the sweeter finish allowing the flavours from the chocolate malts to really sing and seems to make the beer more complex yet still drinkable so that it appeals to both beer geeks and novices alike.
  5. Kooinda Milk Porter – This beer goes under the radar a bit but it is another excellent example of the style. As a milk porter, it has a slightly lighter tinge to it and is not as full bodied as the others but for drinkability and flavour hits the sweet spot.

A milk stout from Castle in South Africa

For some international examples of the style, the UK’s Mackeson Stout is renowned as the classic example of the style, first brewed in 1907.

More recently in craft beer circles, Left Hand Brewing from Colorado are the best exemplars of the style, with their milk stout their number one seller.

The first time I enjoyed this style was actually when I had a Left Hand Milk Stout on nitro at a bar on Rainey Street in Austin, Texas. It has to be one of the coolest drinking spots in the world where old suburban homes have been transformed into kick-ass bars with lovely outdoor drinking areas, and on a perfect balmy Texas night, I parked myself on a wooden table under some fairy lights with this cult beer.

Even on a warm night, it proved to be a perfect choice of beer. The beer while restrained and well balanced, still had enough depth to delight with its dark chocolate aromas, creamy body and smooth slightly sweet finish.

 

Are we living in the peak generation for beer?

I got to thinking recently that we may be the luckiest generation there is and ever will be when it comes to beer. Not only are we living in an unprecedented era of diversity and creativity of beer but future generations will never appreciate it as much as we do because they will never have experienced how things were before the craft beer movement took hold.

In the early 20th century technology like refrigeration improved the standards of beer, then later globalisation increased the diversity of beer styles, and over the last couple of decades microbreweries and craft beer proliferated to increase creativity and experimentation in beer. As a result, we’re now at a point where there’s an amazing choice of beers at our fingertips to a point that we hardly would have thought possible even a decade ago.

Craft beer will continue to grow and become more widely available and we’ve still got a ways to go to catch up to some other countries but for those who really seek out good beer, I wonder whether we’ve just about reached the peak for beer.

Just go to any of the great independent bottleshops around Australia or to a beer festival like GABS and you can find a selection of malty beers, hoppy beers, barrel-aged beers, farmhouse-style beers, sour beers, salty beers and beers brewed with all kind of different ingredients added. Basically you can find any kind of taste you want.

And these beers will be of great quality too. We have access to some of the best beers in the world now in Australia, international beers like Cantillon, Founders and Ballast Point, and then there’s the local heroes like Feral & Pirate Life, and New Zealand’s 8 Wired and Garage Project are as good as any too.

That’s not to say there aren’t great beers and times ahead but I just wonder how much more I can experience in terms of drinking beer? Certainly when first entering the world of craft beer, I would regularly experience epiphanies but now they are fewer and farther in between. And that’s ok.

My point is that it doesn’t get much better than what it is right now, so remember that and appreciate the beers you have.

In terms of wealth, millennials may be the first generation that may not be as well off as the preceding generations. Things like home ownership have become unexpectedly out of reach for many of our generation but great experiences through food and beer have become increasingly attainable.

Growing up our beer options were limited to choices between different brands of bland homogenous beers, and we’ve since witnessed an incredible boom in great beer.

When we drink the latest and greatest beer, we can also think back to 10 years ago and remember just how far we’ve come and appreciate that beer just that bit more than anyone ever will again.

 

 

Lagers are not craft beer’s enemy… but German purity laws might be

While there is plenty of debate around what craft beer is, the craft beer movement has often defined itself by what it is not. Craft beer is not like the Other beers – bland lagers, brewed with adjuncts and produced en-masse by faceless corporations in unknown locations.

Many craft brewers brand themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’ in opposition to these Other beers and the corporations who own them. Such terms have proven useful marketing material for the likes of BrewDog, Rogue and other craft brewers to differentiate craft beer, but this has also caused misconceptions about who and what the enemies of craft beer really are.

Adjuncts are not the enemy

The Other (not craft) beers often use adjuncts like rice and corn rather than malt, and craft brewers often take exception to their use, categorising these as cheap substitute ingredients in place of malt. However, there are exceptions to this claim too.

Two Brothers’ Kung Foo Rice Lager and Willie the Boatman’s ‘Albo corn ale beer‘ are two examples of Australian brewers who have highlighted the adjuncts used in their beers. But perhaps the best example I’ve tasted of malt substitutes being used effectively is from US gypsy brewer Stillwater. His use of rice and corn they use in the ironically named ‘Premium’ produces the typically thin body, which allows the flavours from the funky Belgian and Brett yeasts to shine through to great effect.

This is where I have an issue with the Reinheitsgebot, which was so talked about with its 500th anniversary. These German beer purity laws are often lauded for upholding beer quality (whether that is the true reason or not), but by restricting what ingredients can be used in beer, the laws also serve to homogenise beer, which goes entirely against craft beer’s spirit of creativity and experimentation.

Hop extracts are not the enemy?

The Other beers often use hop extract rather than real hop flowers or pellets, which again is seen as a cheap substitute. And again it’s a little more complicated than that.

Traditional Belgian strong ales are some of the most revered beers by the craft beer community, strong and flavoursome beers from the likes of Westvleteren and St Bernardus always rank near the top of the lists on beer review sites. And yet these brewers are also known to use hop extract rather than hop flowers.

In Australia, NZ brewer Garage Project showcased Mecha Hop at GABS 2014, a beer which ironically highlighted its industrial process and use of hop extracts. While hop importers Hopco recently called for craft brewers to open their minds to the idea of brewing with hop extracts.

Lagers are not the enemy

The beers that dominate the mainstream beer landscape are almost all pale lagers and the term ‘lager’ has suffered in reputation as a result. But of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with lagers – a lager is simply a beer brewed with a top fermenting lager yeast revered for its ability to produce a clean taste.

Craft brewers have long favoured ales, but some lagers are now making a name in craft beer too. A number of Australian craft brewers produce excellent quality lagers that take advantage of the desirable attributes of a lager without sacrificing on aroma and flavour.

Temple’s Powerstance Pilsner and Hawker’s Pilsner are excellent Aussie examples of tasty craft lagers. Building on this classic European style, the beers possess grassy aromas and a firm spicy bitter finish.

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While the term ‘lager’ evokes images of pale lagers, the lager yeast can also be effective with darker malts too. Dainton’s Samurye Lager uses rye malt to give the beer some intriguing spice, while Burleigh Brewing’s Black Giraffe black coffee lager is an old craft favourite with plenty of taste.

There’s no right way to brew a beer, there are many

Craft brewers have demonised some of the methods of the large-scale beer companies producing beer, in order to differentiate and justify the premium prices of their beers. As you can see from the examples above however, there are many shades of grey around what constitutes good and bad beer.

By pushing black-and-white claims that adjuncts are bad or hop extracts are bad, craft brewers make themselves liable to be seen as liars and hypocrites.

It’s time for the industry to worry less about right and wrong ways to brew beers because for me craft beer is about pushing beyond the boundaries – not simply shifting them.

Whether a beer is a lager, follows German purity laws or includes corn, rice, or hop extract, the important questions are – is it good? Is it interesting? Is it a taste experience that’s worth paying for? If the answers are yes, the purity of what’s in it will matter a whole lot less.

 

 

 

The new craft beer trends are old

Having plumbed the depths of standard beer styles, craft brewers are exploring new tastes by reviving some of the more obscure and unique beer styles in world history.

These beer styles stem from specific regions of Germany and Belgium and came close to extinction, only to come back bigger and perhaps better as part of the craft beer movement across the world including Australia.

Read More »