With a rapidly-developing taste for new beers, and Australian brewers seeking inspiration from the U.S.-led brewing renaissance, beer lovers watch expectantly for breweries in the style of Russian River to open and brewers to create beers such as Samuel Adams Utopias. They may have a while to wait.
Chuck Hahn says that while Australian brewers compare very favorably to their American cousins, the beers don’t approach the complexity of the U.S. versions because of the difficulty Australian brewers have in creating higher gravity beers.
In Australia, beer excise is calculated on the alcohol content of beers, rather than a flat rate per bottle. Such a system dramatically increases the cost of higher alcohol beers.
“Our government ensures that we don’t make high-alcohol beers just by taxing us,” Hahn says.
“We can make them: we made an Australian strong ale with 6.8 percent alcohol and it added 50 percent to our excise payment. Instead of paying $11 a case excise we paid over $15,” Hahn said. “More recently we made an abbey ale at 7 percent and paid $17.40 per carton in tax.
“Excise really controls us, but we have come up with some very flavorsome ales, lagers and wheat beers at the 4.5-5.5 percent alcohol level. They’re drinkable, they’re interesting, they’ve got complexities in flavor. We just won’t see the larger volumes of higher alcohol beer.”
While excise acts as a barrier to creating complex, higher alcohol beers, the Australian brewers are very good at creating interesting lower alcohol beers. Malt Shovel is soon to release its Winter Warmer, a dunkel style late “hopped” with native Australian pepperberries. Similar to pepper but with a distinctive flavor, Hahn says the beer will leave a warming sensation on the tongue.
A century after two American brothers, William and Ralph Foster, introduced Australians to lager through the brewery that still bears their name, American brewers are again helping to shape the Australian beer scene.