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Aussie craft beers boomerang back into favour

A few decades back, Australia was firmly at the forefront of a New World wine revolution. Aussie wines were fresh and exuberant; they had pronounceable names and the packaging was stylish, they were made by folk who were happy to come over to the UK and promote the wines in an amusing, friendly and engaging manner, and – most importantly – they weren’t French. Or German.

With craft brewing now revolutionising the global beer scene, a clear comparison can be drawn between Australian brewers and winemakers.

Actually, that sentence is not entirely accurate. In fact, it’s a bit of a fib. Mainstream Australian beers epitomise everything about which connoisseurs so love to sneer. The lacklustre liquid legacy left by the likes of Foster’s and Castlemaine XXXX has done very little to endear one to drops from Down Under.

To a certain extent, the rather ropey reputation is fair dinkum. In the 1990s, Michael Jackson, the late and great beer writer, raised the hackles of the nation by writing "the more macho, muscular and tanned a society, the blander its beers. See Australia".  

He had a point. The vast majority of beer drunk in Australia is served colder than the heart of a baby-stealing dingo; blander than a dinner date with ‘Flathead’ Fisher and thinner than Kylie Minogue on a cabbage diet. That’s a fact.

But like ‘Plain Jane Superbrain’ from Neighbours, a notoriously nerdy girl who then blossomed from geek to gorgeous by simply taking her glasses off, Antipodean beer is not as bland as it may first appear.

With a vice-like grip on beer consumption (85%), Lion Nathan and Fosters may dominate the domestic market, but a significant craft brewing buzz has been spreading for some time now.

Australia is currently home to more than 140 microbreweries which, when you consider there were just 20 in the 1980s, is rather impressive. With more closures than openings in the last 20 years, the Australian craft brewing culture is notoriously up-and-down, but there’s a feeling that the small guys are slowly getting traction.  

Richard Kelsey, the director of Aussie online boutique beer sales website Beer Cartel, said “A paradigm shift is underway where beer drinkers are becoming more discerning, choosing beer based on its quality rather than on price. This shift is providing micro-breweries with a chance for survival and success similar to the change the Australian wine industry saw in the ‘80s”.

The Coopers brewery in Adelaide has done more than most to undermine the unfair associations with Australian beer. It is, by Australian standards, extremely old. Founded in 1862 by Thomas Cooper, a Methodist from Yorkshire, Coopers remains family-owned and has continued the Australian ale-making tradition which shaped the beer scene until lager made its debut Down Under in the 1920s.

Despite making a foray into bottom-fermenting beers in the 1960s, it’s cask-conditioned and bottle-conditioned ales and stouts for which Coopers is renowned. The ales, famously fruity – all apple and pear – and endowed with a distinctive estery yeast character, are considered Australia’s one true beer style.

The pale ales are particularly popular among native winemakers. In the UK, wine specialist and distributor Bibendum has taken the Coopers brand under its wing and is currently seeding Coopers Pale Ale and Coopers Sparkling Ale into suitably stylish venues.

In the past, the sediment in Coopers bottled ales has proved a headache in the UK with drinkers unsure of whether it should be there and what to do with it. In Australia, traditionalists roll the beer back and forth (before opening) and pour it bright, but I reckon consuming it cloudy delivers more flavour. Besides, it’s good for you. The fact that Thomas Cooper fathered 16 children is no coincidence.

Until recently, Bibendum was also importing a luscious, grapefruit-tinged lager by the name of Knappstein Reserve. In 1970, the Knappstein winery moved into the former home of the Enterprise Brewery in 1970 and it was surely only a matter of time before the winemakers succumbed to curious temptation and breathed life back into the building’s brewing past. In 2006, nearly a hundred years after the brewery first fired up its kettles, a lager re-emerged in a fantastic 70cl bottle. However, despite interest from a few switched-on UK venues, the price-point and packaging proved a little prohibitive. Shame, as it’s an awesome Australian lager.   

Knappstein is one of a number of Australian winemakers which, in recent times, have swapped the grape for the grain and set up their own small breweries. The Colonial Brewing Company in West Australia and the Fish Rock brewery in New South Wales (surely the world didn’t need another South Wales?) are two examples that don’t export. Other craft breweries making superb suds, but sadly not ones available here, include the Redoak Boutique Brewery and the Malt Shovel Brewery, both situated in Sydney. If you’re over there, have a word will you?  

While most Aussie craft brewers lack the capacity to cope with export, one of the most highly-rated Australian beermakers, the Grand Ridge Brewery in North Victoria, is due to make its debut in the UK in October.  

Grand Ridge is Australia’s most awarded craft brewery, having had more than two dozen gongs pinned to its chest since 2002. All nine Grand Bridge beers are being imported into the UK including Brewers Pilsner a refreshing European style lager, Natural Blonde a Belgian style wheat beer, Hatlifter Stout, a creamy Irish stout, and Moonshine an extra strong pure malt beer in the style of a Scotch ale.

Following an unlikely union between Aspall in Suffolk and the Little World Beverage company in Freemantle, Western Australia, British beer drinkers can now also get hold of the “Little Creatures” range – available in 330ml bottles and comprising of Pale Ale (5.2% abv); Bright Ale (4.5% abv); Pilsner (4.6% abv); Rogers’, an amber ale (3.8% abv) named after Roger Bailey and Roger Bussell – two local brewers; and Pipsqueak, a light, Australian cider (5.2% abv).

Inspired by the American craft brewing revolution and loosely based on the Sierra Nevada business model, Little Creatures began in 2000 and has established itself on the back of its flagship pale ale – all hazy golden hue, succulent malt and lychee-like finish.

Howard Cearns, Little World Beverages director, says: “We have often referred to our target audience as ‘flavour hounds,’ those discerning consumers who choose to seek something special. Aspall shares similar territory to Little World Beverages, in terms of both its products and philosophical patience in establishing a quality position in the market.”

Another Aussie beer with its foot in the fridge door of British venues is James Boag’s Premium, a devilishly smooth and handsome lager from Tasmania. Matured for 60 days, that bit longer than most Aussie beers, Boag’s has traditionally used the distinctive double-decoction method whereby the wort is transferred back and forth between mash tuns to release as much brewing sugar as possible. Now in the hands of Lion Nathan, purists are hoping corners won’t be cut.

And what of the other big Aussie brewing behemoth, Foster’s? Quite apart from releasing new versions of its eponymous (and almost freezing) session lager, the Foster’s Group also brings in the other Australian beers in its portfolio via FBG International Ltd, a subsidiary it set up in 2007.  

These include the famous Victoria Bitter (VB) – which is a lager and not a bitter – and Crown Lager, a premium 4.9% abv lager packaged in a distinctive long bottle. While both these come into their own when temperatures are hotter than a flamin’ galah, the more enlightened Australian lager drinker will reach for the über-exclusive Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager.

Only 330 wax-sealed and individually numbered bottles, priced at £40 each, have been released into the UK with the first bottle (0001) sent to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the anniversary of her Coronation. Apparently, it currently resides next to two previous vintages (2009 and 2008) in the Royal cellar – assuming, of course, that Harry hasn’t been down there.

Brewed using fresh Galaxy Hops, added to the brew within 24 hours of being picked, the 2010 vintage has been blended with a proportion of the previous year’s vintage which has been aged in French oak barrels for 12 months. At 10.2%, the brewer John Cozens has the strength and body to lie down, mature and improve for anything up to 10 years.

“The price tag reflects the handcrafted and personalised approach to brewing, the quality ingredients and impeccable presentation,” said Cozens. “The beer will mature and develop with age, similar to a fine wine.”

Ben McFarland, 27.09.2010

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