Are $10 ‘craft beer’ six-packs actually a good thing?

Over the past few months, Dan Murphys have been offering $10 six-packs of ‘craft beer’ to those who sign-up for their free loyalty card, which is around half the price that these beers would normally be available for.

With the price of beer so high in Australia, being able to find a quality beer at a reasonable price is gold for punters (in support of this point, the most popular article on this blog over the past few years has been on the best value beers in Australia).

At first glance, this seems like a massive win for the regular beer drinker. Access to reasonable quality beer in six-pack formats at an unheard of prices, what’s not to like? Well there are a few considerations beyond the hip pocket to give drinkers pause.

Read More »

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A last minute guide to GABS and my beer picks

The Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular aka GABS aka Australia’s biggest and bestest beer festival begins tomorrow. The event is a gold star on the craft beer calendar with over 100 beers brewed exclusively for the festival.

Last year’s event was a cracker, ironing out some of the teething issues affecting its first year at the Royal Exhibition Hall and showcasing some delightfully inventive and tasty beers that hit the mark. Here was my recap.

This year we can expect even more from the event. More beers, more games, more things to check out, and more stands featuring brewers.

Here are some tips to prepare you for your GABS assault.

Paddleology

The maths of GABS are simple: there are almost 120 beers pouring and you receive a paddle that enables you to taste 5 beers at a time. So it would take 24 paddles to taste every beer there.

Unless you plan on attending every session, you’re going to need to prioritise. I expect to get through 6 paddles in a session, especially with some of the 10%abv+ sippers on offer and with a number of beer stalls worth checking out this year too (hello Garage Project).

The other important thing to keep in mind when selecting your beers is that you can only order from one of the six sections at a time. So rather than choosing your top 30 beers, consider what are the top five beers from each section and which sections you want to hit up first.

You can grab however many tasters you want from each section but the full paddle of five is the most efficient way to order your beers, especially as you may spend some time waiting in lines during peak periods.

My Choices

Interestingly, in this year’s GABS guide, there is even a three-tiered rating system for drinkability from easier drinking to more challenging,

I’m tending toward the more challenging beers for the most part. While I love a good red ale or IPA, I also know I can get beers like that anytime but how often will I get the chance to drink all these barrel aged, sour or added beers.

Without further ado here are my preselections for tomorrow night as selected in the GABS App. Happy days.

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Buyer beware – ‘home brand’ craft beer

Many Australian beer drinkers are starting to embrace craft beer and develop a taste for more flavoursome beers. But many are still cost-conscious and baulk at the price of some craft beers. I can understand their position, as I often find myself on the lookout for beers that are good value but still have plenty of taste like those I listed as the best value beers in Australia.

Beer drinkers who want more taste but are cost conscious, are a key segment for the continued emergence of craft beer but are particularly susceptible to those ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ – craft beers created by big corporates, which distort the market with beers that have a ‘craft-ish’ look and style with a VB-like price tag

If ‘craft’ beers appear too cheap to be true it’s probably because they are. I’ve had a number of people suggest beers to me like Sail & Anchor or Gage Road without understanding that they are owned by Woolworths. These beers may have more taste than your VBs of this world but for the most part their beers are simply not as good as some of the finer independent beers out there.

For the non-obsessive beer drinker who doesn’t have time for research and has a stronger focus on costs when choosing their beers, the lack of transparency about the true owners of these beers is a real issue.

When I’ve told others who beers like Steamrail are actually owned by, they’ve been surprised and replied, “Oh so they’re home brand”. Home brands have a negative connotation attached to them, which is why these beers are trying to obscure their ownership roots, and is also why drinkers need to be educated as to who really owns the beers.

These beers by calling themselves craft, distort the value of craft beer in consumers’ minds and block the beer drinker’s journey to better beer. Their beers also get an unfair advantage by usually being the first to be promoted with discount bulk specials and receiving prime in-store placements. That is why in the USA, laws stipulate that there must be separation between brewers, distributors and retailers. Because this is not the case in Australia, we need to be educated about where they are one-in-the-same.

The ‘not-so-craft’ beer list

  • Steamrail (owned by Coles)
  • Sail and Anchor (owned by Woolworths)
  • Gage Roads (part-owned by Woolworths)
  • Matilda Bay (owned by Fosters)
  • James Squire (owned by Lion)

I’m not saying these are all bad beers, for example, you may find some of their limited edition beers are more adventurous in flavour, or even find one or two of their beers to your liking, I rate Matilda Bay’s Alpha Pale Ale for instance, but you can certainly put your beer money to better use by supporting an independent local brewer who you can trust to put quality and flavour first, and who will continue to support the growth of good beer not just commercialise it.

If you need help finding good beers that are available at reasonable prices here are my 12 best value beers in Australia. They may not be as cheap as the beers listed above but they are worth it.

Beers ranked Top 50 in the World that are available in Australia

When you’re looking to find which beers are rated the best in the world, there’s two sites that any craft beer geek will go to – RateBeer and Beer Advocate. And while the beers that rank well on these sites have a tendency to favour certain locations (USA) and tastes (extreme – favouring imperial stouts) and can create somewhat of a followers mentality, they generally serve as a reliable guide to drinking some of the best beers in the world.

Unfortunately for Australians, not many of the beers that rate highly are available on our shores. The local focus of many of the top craft brewers makes it difficult to procure these top beers outside of their countries. 

For those not able to travel overseas, there is however a limited supply of these top beers available in Australia available at a few bottle stores that stock great craft beer. 

So what are the best ranked beers in the world currently available to buy in Australia? From what I can tell, here is the complete list of beers available in retail stores in Australia that rank in the Top 50 of either RateBeer or Beer Advocate (Beer Advocate ranking in brackets): Read More »

Best ‘Free Entry’ Events at Good Beer Week

Good Beer Week sees a range of exciting beer events taking place across Melbourne. And while I’d love to attend all the events, my bank account (or my partner) probably wouldn’t be all that happy with that, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this regard.

So I’ve picked out the ‘free entry’ events for the frugal and selective, who may be interested in revelling in the festivities without dropping a whole lot of cash.

Of course nothing in life is free and while you’ll still have to pay for your beers but there’s no upfront purchase beforehand, you may be able to control your costs more – or not.

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Craft beer or beer?

One of the hottest topics of debate in the ‘craft beer’ world always seems to be the question over whether beers are really ‘craft’. That question is harder to answer as the definition of ‘craft beer’ is becoming increasingly grey and some have questioned whether craft beer is a useful term at all.

Some prefer to say they simply drink ‘good beer’, but that is also an imperfect term, which reduce the descriptor to a matter of subjective taste. ‘Artisanal beers’ sounds a bit wanky and ‘microbrews’ is more objective perhaps but also too narrow in its focus on the scale of the production.

This is why, for me, though it isn’t perfect, craft beer continues to be the most useful term for distinguishing between the carefully produced beers of say a Mountain Goat and the mass-produced lagers like VB (and hence it’s used in every second sentence on this blog). 

What is craft beer?

To use the term craft beer however one needs to have a workable definition. Norwegian brewers Nogne O recently shared their definition of craft beer, where they referred to some specific parts of the brewing such as the way the beer is fermented, which they felt distinguished craft from the ‘industry’. They summed up craft beer as “hand crafted ingredients used in hand crafted ales, where nothing is rushed.” 

They focused primarily on the process of production in describing craft beer but I think they made a good point when they wrote “where nothing is rushed”.

This is the big difference with craft beer for me, I fee like brewers of craft beer aren’t going to take short cuts. The brewers are focused on the craft (duh) of making beer and choose product and process quality over cheaper faster nastier alternatives.

Craft beer also doesn’t hide the brewing process but highlights it. It isn’t just about satisfying drinkers but also challenging their tastes, creating something that contributes to the ‘beer canon’ and the beer community at large.

Craft beer is defined by its location, its ingredients and the people behind it and its drinkers, not by marketing and brandwank. 

Craft beer is the beer that I want to drink, write about and support.

Craft beer is beer, done right.

Pumpkin beer filtering into Australia

Pumpkin Beer may sound a bit strange to the uninitiated but in fact there’s a long history of pumpkin being used in beer in North America. Apparently Pumpkin was originally used in beer there as a substitute ingredient when malt was hard to come by but is now more valued for its flavour.

Pumpkin beer has become a seasonal staple of the craft beer scene in the US where pumpkin is a popular part of the Fall season, from the carving of pumpkins at Halloween to the eating of pumpkin pie.

The pumpkin beers produced today are more like pumpkin pie in a glass, with a slight pumpkin taste but more focus on spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove.

I’ve had a couple of pumpkin beers in Australian on tap over the years and found them really enjoyable. There was the light, refreshing and wonderfully sessionable take from Murray’s that I thought could have been a go-to beer for me if it was produced more regularly. And there was the very tasty Pumpkin Porter from Moon Dog, where chocolate and pumpkin were combined to wonderful effect.

So when I recently came across Gage Road Pumpkin Ale longnecks selling at a ridiculously cheap $3 at my local Woolies along with another discounted Pumpkin Ale from a New York state brewery Saranac, I thought I’d give them both a try and have a pumpkin-beer-off.

Gage Roads versus Saranac – the battle of the pumpkin ales

The Gage Roads was a very light bodied beer with a yellow golden colour, and fairly fizzy. A festive spice mix of cinnamon and spice and all things nice emanates from the glass. The pumpkin is sweet and savoury, masking some of the bitterness, and the spices linger slightly after the taste.

Saranac has a darker amber body. The head quickly dissipates after pouring and there is a light aroma of cinnamon and spices on the nose. The beer is a lot more subtle than the Gage Roads due to the stronger malt profile that hides some of pumpkin and spices.

If you like smooth well-balanced maltier beers, then Saranac’s your ticket. The Gage Roads is more like a lager in body but that also allows the spices to shine through more, so if you like a bit more zing and taste as I do, then you might prefer that. I can’t imagine drinking a lot of either, but one or two is quite refreshing and tasty.

Another pumpkin beer that I’ve yet to try but sounds great is Hop Dog Brewery’s All Hallowed Ale, which the Craft Pint gives quite a plug.

The rest of the greatest beer hits from the USA

Nothing makes me jealous like reading about others enjoying a trip to the USA to enjoy all the finest brews over there. With that in mind, I hope that my posts on beer in the USA are sparking the same feeling, hell, I’m getting jealous of my six-month-younger-self just writing about it.

I’ve already written waxed lyrical about the need for changing perceptions of US beer now that the USA is an epicentre of great beer. I’ve posted on my divine beer experience in Chicago at Michael Jordan’s bar and the ‘aha!’ beer moment that I had when drinking Russian River beer for the first time. And finally, I noted my surprising finds with the better than expected craft beer of the Deep South.

Now for my final post on the USA, I present the rest of the greatest beer hits from my trip.Read More »

Drinking Craft in the Deep South

I didn’t expect much from the Deep South in terms of craft beer but was pleasantly surprised to stumble onto and out of some great craft beer venues in New Orleans and Austin.

The Avenue was a great pub near my hostel in the Garden District of New Orleans. A big old southern mansion with lots of characters and a great range of beers, including local ones. The pick of the local brews for me was the NOLA Irish Channel Stout with its classic dark roasty flavours.

Whilst in Houston for a night, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me who happened to be behind Leprechaun Cider, a locally brewed cider made from apples grown in the Northwest.

The guy was super cool and passionate about providing a good product. The cider was dry, light and refreshing, reminding me of one of my favourites in Victoria, Napoleone Cider.

In Austin, Texas, I again stumbled upon a great beer venue near my hostel, Draft Pick, with a wide selection of local beers on tap. I had a few paddles to sample the local wares and found the 512 brewery’s Pecan Porter of particular interest, though the whole lot were pretty solid.

If you’re looking for a good place to drink in Austin, head to the Rainey St. bars. Rainey St. seems like your average neighbourhood street but a few of the old houses have been converted into cool bars. They’re really chilled places where locals like to hang out, and you will too. I loved all the fairy lights strung up outside, the people playing cornhole, and the warm Texas climate, which was just perfect for drinking.

Experiencing an ‘aha!’ beer moment

Russian River beer samples

The more experienced a beer drinker you become, the rarer those ‘aha!’ moments become. Those ‘aha!’ moments are the drinking experience that change you forever, where your taste buds are blown away and your perception of what beer is and can be will never be the same again.

When those ‘aha!’ moments do occur, you do appreciate them even more, and I was fortunate to have one of those moments at the Russian River brewery.

Russian River Brewery was high on my list of places to visit in the USA so I made a special trip to the town of Santa Rosa, a few hours north of San Francisco, to visit their pub. When I asked the waitress whether they had any tasting size beers available, I was told I could get a paddle with all 20 of their beers on tap – perfect.

Pliny the Elder was the beer I had heard the most about and basically the reason I came. It was a big piney West Coast Double IPA, the beer was certainly fresh and bursting with flavour but its taste was not unfamiliar either. It was a great beer but it didn’t give me an ‘aha!’ moment either.

Instead that moment came from tasting the sour barrel-aged beers Supplicant and Consecration. Supplication is a brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels with sour cherries and strains of yeast such as the notorious ‘brett’ (brettanomyces). Brewers and winemakers are usually afraid brett will ‘infect’ their beer but in this instance it adds a lovely sour funk to a rich and complex beer.

Consecration was a similarly complex and rich tasting beer aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels with black currants and a similar mix of funk-giving bacterias.