If you’ve ever had the misfortune to pass through London’s Heathrow airport, you’ll have experienced the grim-faced passport control officials. Without a word, they grab your passport, look at the photo, glare at your face, hand back the document and wave you silently on your way.
What a difference at Melbourne airport. “G’day, Roger, what brings you to Australia?” the beaming official at the passport desk asks. “A beer festival? Jeez, mate, I’ll see you there!”
Australia lives up to its image. Everyone is “mate” because it’s a matey kind of place. As someone originally from London’s East End, where “mate” is also common currency, I felt immediately at home Down Under.
There’s a second, potent reason for feeling at home there: it’s a great beer drinking country. Only the Czechs out-drink the Aussies and in Australia the beer scene is changing rather more dramatically than it is in the Czech Republic. If Foster’s is your favorite tipple, don’t bother to go. What was once considered an iconic Australian beer―the “amber nectar”―is hardly featured prominently in the scene. In a week in Melbourne and Adelaide, I don’t recall seeing a single tap for Foster’s.
Even Crocodile Dundee shuns it now and the company that makes it has reverted to its original name of Carlton and Union Breweries. CUB’s main brands are Victoria Bitter, the biggest-selling beer in Australia―and a lager in spite of the name―and Carlton Draught.
With Lion Nathan (owned by Kirin of Japan), which brews Castlemaine XXXX, Toohey’s and Swan, the two giants command 95 percent of the Australian market. Cooper’s of Adelaide, doughty brewers of Sparkling Ale (see sidebar), has a further three percent, which doesn’t leave much room for anyone else. But an astonishing number of small craft breweries have sprung up to grab the remaining two percent of the market.
The craft brewers were on show at Beer Expo in Melbourne in the spring―autumn in Australia. It was the brainchild of David Lipman, publisher of Beer & Brewer Magazine, a glossy publication dedicated to all things beery in Australia and New Zealand. Thanks to the efforts of craft brewers and writers, Australians can now move beyond bland lagers and savor pale ales, an abundance of IPAs, porters and stouts, alongside Belgian and German-inspired wheat beers, golden ales and true pilsners.
Australia’s First Brewer
At Beer Expo, held at the Melbourne Show Grounds, I met one of the main driving forces behind the craft brewing revolution, Dr. Charles Hahn. Better known simply as Chuck Hahn, he has built a small chain of brewpubs under the Malt Shovel and James Squire names. Chuck was born in New York City and worked for Coors in Colorado for 10 years before he was headhunted by Tooth’s in Sydney. He launched his own Hahn Brewery in New South Wales and built Hahn Premium Lager into a successful brand, but the business collapsed when banks withdrew their support during a recession. He teamed up with Lion Nathan and opened the Malt Shovel Brewery, named after the tavern where James Squire brewed in the late eighteenth century.
Squire is commemorated as Australia’s first brewer. He was a convict transported from England to Australia where he continued a life of crime until he settled down to run his tavern and brew beer. Chuck Hahn launched James Squire Original Pilsner and then rolled out a number of James Squire brewpubs. There are two in Melbourne and one in Sydney, with a fourth due to come on stream in Perth this year. The aim is to have a brewpub in every major city in the country.
The Russell Street site in Melbourne produces small volume beers such as IPA and Porter and occasional “off the wall” brews, including a raspberry wheat. Bigger brands such as Pilsner, Golden Ale and Amber Ale come either from the Malt Shovel brewery in New South Wales, which produces 2.5 million hectolitres a year, or Lion Nathan’s giant South Australian Brewery in Adelaide.
On the eve of Beer Expo, craft brewers from all over the country paraded their beers in central Melbourne. It gave me the opportunity to sample brews from as far away as Western Australia, a state with a population of around just one million but with a surprising number of micros. Feral in the Swan Valley has an impressive portfolio that include a powerfully hopped American-style IPA called Hophog; a lemony and spicy Belgian-style wheat beer, Feral White; Rust, a Belgian-style ale; and Farmhouse Ale, unfiltered, cloudy, with big citrus fruit and spicy notes.
Bootleg, in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, brews a malty dark beer, Raging Bull, with coffee, chocolate and toffee notes; a German-style hefe wheat beer; Tom’s Amber Ale; and Wil’s Pils. In the same state, Little Creatures is a fast-growing craft brewery with national coverage whose range includes Pale Ale, with grapefruit and floral hop notes balancing rich malt, and Bright Ale, packed with citrus hops and juicy malt. There’s even Roger’s Beer―g’day, mates―with chewy caramel notes and spicy hops.
Matilda Bay in Fremantle is one of the earliest craft breweries in the country. It’s best known for Dogbolter, a malty beer with roasted grain and chocolate notes, and a Bavarian-style wheat beer, Redback, with a pronounced banana and cloves character. It’s named after a poisonous spider, so beware.
On the other side of the country, Bridge End Brewery in Beechworth, Victoria, responds to the interest in Belgian styles with a Chevalier Saison, a fruity and spicy beer, along with Robust Porter with a big roast and chocolate character balanced by peppery hops, and―flying the flag―Australian Ale, a fruity, cloudy ale with good hop bitterness.
The Redoak boutique beer café in Sydney is run by brother and sister duo David and Janet Hollyoak. They have an eclectic range including a Belgian-inspired raspberry beer, Framboise Froment, and IPA, which is served on hand-pump in the café, and has a big citrus fruit and bitter hop character. Their Rauch or smoke beer uses malt from Bamberg in Germany, with toffee notes, spicy hops and a long, smoky, complex finish.
Variety in Victoria
At the conclusion of Beer Expo, I went on a rapid and exhilarating tour of breweries in Melbourne and Victoria state. Three Ravens is in the up-market residential Thornbury area of the city, the brainchild of brewer Marcus Cox and partners Matt Inchley and Ben Pattison. They supply cask-conditioned beer to one local pub, the Sherlock Holmes, run―elementary, my dear Watson―by a British expat. But the bulk of their production is bottle-conditioned. Marcus uses Pilsner and Maris Otter malts and darker grains for color and flavor with Fuggles, Goldings, Hallertau and Saaz pellet hops in brewing kit built in New Zealand.
The range includes Blond, with fine, floral Saaz notes and juicy malt; Bronze with spicy hops, sultana fruit and a dry, hoppy finish; and 55, a 5.5 percent beer with a massive peppery hop aroma (40 bitterness units), orange and tangerine fruit on the palate and a rich fruity and spicy finish. White is a Belgian-inspired wheat beer with a coriander and peppery hops character while Black is an English-style stout matured in bottle for six months, with oatmeal making up 10 percent of the grist.
In sharp distinction, the Two Brothers Brewery is in a downtown area of Melbourne, on an industrial estate. Founders Dave and Andrew Ong have a spacious warehouse that houses a bar as well as brewery. They welcome blue-collar drinkers from the surrounding units, who drop in after work for a cold lager, but Dave and Andrew hope to entice them on to more flavorsome beers. Two Brothers has an impressive modern plant but it can accurately be called “a Mickey Mouse brewery.” The kit comes from a failed brewery in New York City. The Disney Corporation bought the site because it needed a warehouse facility there. Disney helped the brothers load the brewing kit on to giant trailers during the night as the local authority wouldn’t allow them to drive the trailers through the streets during the day: photos on the walls trace the hectic midnight dismantling of the brewing equipment.
Two Brothers opened in 2008 and produces ale as well as lager. The kit was built in Canada and has a mash kettle that doubles as the copper for the boil, following clarification of the wort in a lauter vessel. Two-thirds of the annual 100,000 litre production goes in kegs to pubs; the rest is sold on the premises, with beers served from conditioning tanks.
The standard lager is Taxi, brewed from Pilsner malt and Saaz hops. It has a corn aroma, light citrus fruit and gentle, floral hops. Chief is a complex beer in the Vienna red style, brewed with Pils, Vienna, Munich and carapils malts and Perle hops. Growler is fermented with English ale yeast and is made with pale, crystal, chocolate and wheat malts; while Rusty is in the style of Belgian pale ales, brewed with Pils, crystal and Vienna malts and hopped with Saaz.
The Red Hill Brewery is in an idyllic location in the Mornington Peninsula region of Victoria. This is wine country and the hills and slopes are smothered in vines. Red Hill attracts many visitors to the rustic location that includes a log cabin restaurant serving excellent food. With a name like Golding, David and Karen had to grow hops. They have possibly the smallest hop garden in the world, where they cultivate Goldings, Tettnang and Willamette. David was a keen home-brewer and his spick-and-span brewhouse is based around a similar American system to Two Brothers: a mash kettle that doubles as the copper plus a lauter tun. Rainwater is collected on the roofs of buildings to the supplement the local supply. The water is exceptionally soft and David adds salts to harden it for some of his beers.
Red Hill has been in operation for four years and all the beers are bottle conditioned and sold to bars and hotels in the area. Golden Ale is a warm-fermented Kölsch-style Germany beer that uses pale and Pilsner malt and 10 percent wheat. Only German hop varieties are used and the beer has a spicy hop and biscuity malt nose, with light citrus fruit, malt and hops in the mouth, and a hoppy and fruity finish. Wheat Beer is exceptionally fruity, with banana to the fore. It’s brewed with Pils malt, wheat and Tettnang hops. Pale Ale is dry hopped with Hallertau and fermented with a Kölsch yeast strain. It has a big lemon and orange fruit aroma and palate. Scotch Ale is highly complex: Maris Otter pale malt is the backbone, with the addition of brown, crystal and carapils. The hops are Goldings and Willamette. Ripe sultana fruit and peppery hops dominate the aroma and palate. Finally, a 6.5 percent Belgian Blonde is big in every way. It’s brewed with Pils and Vienna malts and white sugar. It has an enormous peppery hop nose from a blend of the local hops, with chewy malt and fruit in the mouth, followed by a long bittersweet finish with plum fruit, malt and spicy hops.
Not all beers have such restrained names as Golden, Scotch or Blonde. I came across one beer on my travels called Effen. Why the name? Because, as the label’s tag line helpfully explains, “It’s effen good beer.”
Remember, you’re in Australia.
Roger Protz, the respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, and his new autobiography, A Life on the Hop.