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 »
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t look forward to a windy, rainy, icy cold winters but I do look forward to the winter beers. As soon as the cold front starts to hit, I crave the full-bodied, darker, richer, stronger ales around town.
Here are some of the characteristics that make for a great winter beer and some of my favourite winter beers going around:
It’s a tough question to answer. But that’s just the kind that I like to debate – preferably with a good beer in hand.
So I began my quest to answer this question during Good Beer Week at some of the beer venues taking part in the Pint of Origin.
Pint of Origin, for the uninitiated, is the simplest of Good Beer Week events that involves great beer bars across Melbourne turning their taps over to beers from a particular state for the week.
It’s a great chance to try beers that don’t often make it across borders and to get a feel for how craft beer is developing across Australia.
So here is my breakdown of the states form which I sampled to try to answer which one brews the best beer in Australia.
The Emerging State – Tasmania
There seems to be breweries opening left, right and centre in Tasmania at the moment. While Tasmanian brewers face a challenge to be recognised on the mainland but are really trying to make the state a destination spot for craft beer with the recent launch of the Tasmanian Beer Trail.
Tasmanian beers were available at the Gertrude Hotel for Good Beer Week and I sampled a few of the ones that caught my interest. The beers I tried came from the likes of Hobart Brewing, Seven Sheds and Two Metres Tall and each featured unusual ingredients such as rye, spelt, and even quinoa!
I can see why Two Metres Tall are already carving out a niche with beers that are truly unique and are closely aligned with their local environment. This approach is really working for them and I think other Tasmanian brewers can also succeed by daring to experiment and be different. There’s some good signs that something good is, er, brewing in Tasmania but I just don’t think the state has gotten there yet.
The Bolter – South Australia
South Australia beers are going off right now and they can already count themselves as a genuine contender to having the best craft breweries in Australia.
Adelaide’s Pirate Life can do no wrong, as they quickly become the industry’s favourite craft brewer, adding the Champion Small Australia Brewery award at AIBA to their awards cabinet and blowing GABS punters away with a huge Triple IPA that’s one of the best rated on Untapped from the event.
Big Shed are equally delighting punters and nailing every beer they release. Their Nuts and Malts (Nutella Palooza) on handpump at the The Palace Hotel in South Melbourne had lovely chocolate and nut flavours with a light brown body and went down very easily.
Their Cherry Ripe Porter seems to have rated best in the battle of the Cherry Ripe style beers at GABS and follows the success of last year’s GABS dessert beer smash-hit the choc-honeycomb Golden Stout Time.
Wheaty Brewing Corps haven’t sent a lot of their beer interstate yet but I hope that changes. Their delightful sounding Wheaty Bix breakfast stout ran out just before I had a chance to try it but I did get to the Blueberry Saison was a funky berry delight.
In the meantime, you can’t sleep on brewers like Mismatch, Little Bang Brewing and Prancing Pony – who’s 9% Magic Carpet Midnight Ride was the best I’ve tasted from them yet – a big, flavoursome and smooth imperial stout.
I’m not quite ready to declare South Australia the best yet but their case is getting stronger all the time and they are rising the fastest right now.
The Hottest Rival – New South Wales
I’ve been talking up the rise of NSW as a craft beer state for a while and the beers I had at The Rainbow Hotel for Good Beer Week didn’t hurt the cause.
My beer choices included Wayward Brewing’s Fat Charmer, a brilliantly hoppy and malty ale, dangerously drinkable for a beer with 7.5%abv, and Grifter’s The Omen, a chocolatey creamy oatmeal stout. They reaffirmed why Sydney’s inner west is the hottest place for craft beer right now.
In regional NSW, Foghorn Brewpub in Newcastle is impressing with one of Australia’s best brewers at the helm, Wagga Wagga’s Thirsty Crow are expanding, and new breweries are opening all the time.
Top to bottom, east to west, craft beer is going off across New South Wales. And what I really like about the scene in NSW is that it seems very much focused on servicing the local communities through brewery tasting rooms/bars. I think this bodes well for their longevity and for growing the love of craft beer in the community.
I really wanted to give NSW the award as there’s definitely been a lot of excitement in the state but the stalwarts of craft beer in Victoria are still just slightly ahead for me. With a bit of further development, soon I think NSW could rightfully claim to be craft beer’s new leaders.
The Leader – Victoria
Accuse me of hometown bias if you like but Victoria has been a craft beer leader for a long time and its continued to grow and keep that spot even as other states are closing the gap.
The next generation of Victorian craft breweries like Kaiju, Exit and Dainton’s are settling into new breweries and pumping out excellent beers. While the more established breweries like Bridge Road, Holgate and Mountain Goat continue to do good things.
When I ranked the top brewers in Australia recently, there were 7 Victorian breweries and I guess it’s no surprise considering that the scene is more established.
But to maintain the status of the best beer state they’ll need to continue to grow and innovate. Thankfully the likes of Boatrocker and La Sirene are doing just that with each producing some of the more exciting beers around the country at the moment.
Of course, there is no right answer to the question of which state brews the best craft beer but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pontificating over.
Is Western Australia being unfairly overlooked after being a leader for many years in its own right? Is Queensland getting closer to becoming a contender? Am I just displaying a Victorian bias and have NSW or SA or TAS passed VIC already?
You can also answer this question and others in the following survey from our friends Beer Cartel and have a chance to win $500 of craft beer too.
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.
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.
Who would you rate as Australia’s best brewers? This is the question that I’m answering on a regular basis with these Power Rankings that break down the best brewers in Australia.
I determine the best brewers based on a criteria of:
Quality of core range/go-to beers
Quality of seasonal and one-off beers
Good breadth and diversity of beer styles produced
Creativity and innovation in the beers produced
Availability of beers across Australia
December 2016 Power rankings for the best brewer in Australia
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 desser-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.
The Good Beer Week 2016 program has dropped and for beer geeks and lovers it truly is set to be ‘better than Xmas’.
The party starts at Beer Deluxe in Federation Square on 13 May and run through to 22 May at locations all across Melbourne. After scouring the program, I’m overwhelmed by the number of great beer events. Whatever beer bar you find yourself in for that week, you’re guaranteed to find some delightfully good beers.
I’ve managed to pick out just a few of the many events that have me excited for GBW ’16.
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.