Beer in the Land Down Under
An ice-cold light lager in the heat of the outback. For many, this is the idea of Australia and its drinking culture. Foster’s and Tooheys, the quintessential drop for the Crocodile Dundee stereotype of Aussie manhood. It’s a country you’d visit for almost everything but the beer. It’s true that Aussies enjoy a beer on the beach, at the backyard barbie, in the local pub; but be sure it’s not all light and super-chilled.
As with most other places in the beer-drinking world, craft is growing in popularity, and this movement is challenging the idea of what Aussie beer is all about. Chances are that most outside the country have not enjoyed anything more than the macro brews of our big players, but this could be about to change. Melbourne-based Mountain Goat is set to make some inroads into the U.S. market after a recent hookup with Brooklyn Brewery. No doubt others will follow suit.
Mountain Goat hails from Victoria, a state that is seen as the center of the current Australian craft brewing movement. There are all the factors to make it so. A growing number of craft brewers, a vibrant bar scene in the “laneways” (narrow lanes) of Melbourne, pubs moving more and more to craft and enough hipsters and beer geeks per square meter to drive the movement forward. Add to the mix events such as Melbourne Good Beer Week, promoting the best of Aussie craft beer and those from farther afield, and it would be easy to crown Victoria as the home of Aussie craft brewing. It may be where the noise is generated, but for the true cradle of craft down under, you need to head to Western Australia (WA). Brendan Varis of Feral Brewing Co., one of Australia’s top craft brewers, says, “Victoria may be the hotbed for craft in Australia, but WA is the heartland. There’s insatiable appetite over east, but we were doing this 20 years ago.”
At over three times the size of Texas but with a population of more than 2 million, WA is also known for having the most isolated capital city in the world. Perth sits 1,677 miles (2,700 km) from its nearest large neighbor, Adelaide. There’s brewing to be found from the far north of the state in Broome at Matso’s Brewery (known for Mango beer), to the Great Southern over 1,242 miles (2,000 km) away on the coast of the Southern Ocean at Tanglehead Brewing in Albany. Beau Neunuebel is the 23-year-old head brewer there with an affinity for bold IPAs. American on his father’s side, he describes the experience of visiting San Diego and gaining “a real appreciation for this style of beer … at places like Stone and AleSmith. It’s a look at the future for craft brewing in Australia. The brewing industry there was far ahead. There’s a wealth of brewers and consumers savvy to the beers they brew. We need to educate the drinker here to appreciate what our brewers can do.” It’s a summation that shows promise that WA brewing is strong for the future, thanks to the work of many over 30 years.
In the South West region and the Swan Valley, closer to Perth, you will find the largest concentration of the state’s 41 breweries. These picturesque wine regions are far from the start of craft in Australia, back in 1984 at the Sail and Anchor, a small brewpub in the Port of Fremantle. From this lone craft beer outpost, Fremantle became the pilgrimage for many, becoming the home of Little Creatures, probably the most well-known of Australia’s craft brewers at home and abroad, and smaller operations such as The Monk.
The landscape has changed in recent years with the Sail and Anchor bought by corporate interests. While a better beer list is hard to find, the brewhouse now sits idle behind a glass wall. An expensive ornament and a bitter reminder for many that the Sail isn’t what it once was. A contract-brewed range, devoid of authenticity for many, now bears the name, a cynical piggyback on a brand at the heart of Aussie craft brewing history.
Little Creatures, bought by Lion (in turn owned by Kirin) in 2012, continues to brew quality beer from the Fremantle home (with operations on the east coast). While for some it’s sad, for others it demonstrates that the vision of the original craft brewers helped to grow an industry and brought it to more and more drinkers. It is the familiar story across craft beer, wherever in the world you may be.
The name now on the lips of the craft faithful across Australia is Feral Brewing Co. What started as a small brewpub 10 years ago has evolved into what to many is Australia’s top brewery of the moment. It is now brewing at two sites. The production of a core range is concentrated in a new brewhouse, co-owned with Nail Brewing, another local favorite. In the original brewpub, the brewers are true to their root; they’ve ramped up a sour program and barrel aging, producing everything from Razorback (a 10 percent barley wine) to Watermelon Warhead (a sour Berliner Weisse weighing in at 2.9 percent and perfect for the summer days that top 100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Award after award for both the beer and the skills of head brewer Brendan Varis (and his assistant brewer, Will Irving) prove that it’s working. For Brendan, whether it’s in WA or elsewhere, brewing is simple. “There’s a debate over big versus small brewers and what is craft,” Varis says. “Big brewers don’t necessarily brew bad beer, and just because you’re small and label yourself as craft doesn’t mean you’re any good. If you brew good beer. That’s what matters.”
For someone riding the crest of the craft brewing wave, it’s a statement some may not expect, but is typically West Australian. It’s about getting on with business, your own way. After all, the neighbors are a long way away.