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Seeking Australia’s beer oases

April 5, 2011

Where to go for good beer in a dry land

Good beer has come a really long way in this country. Not far enough just yet, but some huge strides have been made over last five to ten years.

Once upon a time there really was nothing but pale generic lagers available at the local pub. Travelling around the country today there are an increasing range of options for great beer available to Australian beer lovers. For the most part you have to be in a capital city but there are improvements to be seen in regional areas and some real gems to be found outside the big smoke.

While it’s not all good news, as the recent loss of variety at Brisbane’s formerly excellent Platform bar shows, it is mostly a pretty rosy, or should one say amber, scene. Victoria, especially Melbourne, Western Australia, centred around Perth and Fremantle, are still the leaders in the Australian beer scene but there are good things happening around the rest of the country.

Beer DeLuxe, Melbourne (Photo: Aaron Caruana)

Based solely on the experiences of a work traveller looking to try good beer, things are getting better. Not fast enough for this beer lover, but they are heading progressively in the right direction.

Rural and regional areas are still, in general, the areas where it is hardest to find good quality beer. There are exceptions to this like Beechworth in Victoria, the Margaret River and Swan Valley areas in Western Australia and Bobs Farm in New South Wales.

In the vast majority of pubs , clubs and bars in regional and rural Australia there is nothing but indistinguishable lagers available on tap and often the exact same choices via a bottle in the fridge, partially through drinker demand but reinforced through aggressive contracting of bar taps and fridge facings by the nation’s large brewers. In some places you can get really lucky and have a choice between two or three different brands of low carb larger, VB and Carlton Draught and often the same things in a bottle as are available on tap. This last point seems an odd selection but people can be observed to order beers in bottle that are available on tap. In only a few cases is the same beer better from a bottle than from tap. This may say something about beer lines in these pubs. It’s generally a pointless exercise try to tell a bar man they need to clean their beer lines. Best to just order something from a bottle and move on.

There are unexpected bright spots in places. In Geraldton you can find Little Creatures and White Rabbit on tap at L’atitude 28 and you can pick up some Alpha Pale in the bottle shop. This likely stems from the great beer scene that emanates from Perth and also encompasses the Swan Valley and Margaret River.

The Wheatsheaf, Adelaide (Photo: Aaron Caruana)

There are some odd places where the beer is only ok but the experience can more than make up for it. If you are ever in Woomera make sure you head down to the observatory. It’s open to the public a couple of nights a week if the sky is clear. You can get a Cooper’s at the best price in town and have a look through a better telescope than the average person will ever get the chance to use. If you are really lucky and are there on a very quiet night you can even get the chance to hook you camera up to the telescope and take some photos.

Around the state capitals things look a lot better. Melbourne is easily the king and trying to compile a full list would be a impossible exercise. See The Crafty Pint for the list of the best places in Melbourne.There is certainly no shortage of venues and events running seemingly all the time.It seems every week there is another beer dinner or festival happening in or around Melbourne.

One of the country’s most successful small breweries, Mountain Goat, can be found just outside the Melbourne CBD in Richmond. If you are looking to travel for beer, Melbourne is the place to start and there are a number of areas around Victoria with collection of small breweries too. Sydney on the other hand has a couple of really good venues but just doesn’t have the breadth of choice that you can find south of the border. There are are two standout venues in the city in The Local Taphouse Darlinghurst and Harts Pub at the Rocks but two great venues does not a great beer town make. One of Australia’s most awarded breweries, Redoak, is also located in the CBD. While it can be a little pricey there are some great beers to be had there and it’s worth a visit if you find yourself in Sydney.

There are other good beer places in and around Sydney and it is improving all the time including an exciting new proposal for a brewpub/restaurant in inner city Surrey Hills. Both cities do have their own charm but Melbourne is unarguably the still the best place for great beer in Australia.

The bar at Little Creatures, Fremantle (Photo: Aaron Caruana)

Moving out to the smaller capitals Perth and surrounds are certainly the pick of the bunch. In Fremantle alone there is the Sail & Anchor, The Monk and of course the wonderful experience that is Little Creatures sitting right on the water. All of these are amazing venues and make sure you visit every one of them. You really should go out of your way to visit Fremantle. The tap selection at the S&A, the amazing food and beer at The Monk and an amazing all round experience at Creatures really does make Fremantle a must visit.

Just outside the city you can find the Swan Valley with a number of great breweries including Feral, a favourite amongst Australian beer geeks. Going further afield you can find amazing beer and breweries amongst the wineries of Margaret River. Margaret River may be best know for it’s, often over-priced, wine but there are some beer gems to be found amongst the vines. In Brisbane there was once a fantastic bar that always had a great range of good beer on tap. Unfortunately they have succumbed to their tap contracts and there is nothing interesting other than one tap of Stone and Wood there now.

There are a couple of restaurants including Scales and Ales and Archive that have a good beer selection. However, it’s lacking that one real beer bar venue to rank with the Taphouse or the Wheaty, and there isn’t a micro brewery of note to be seen around the city. There is the Spotted Cow in Toowoomba that has been quietly leading the Queensland beer scene for years, but the revolution hasn’t spread far.

Lobethal Bierhaus, South Australia (Photo: Aaron Caruana)

Down in Adelaide there is but one great beer venue. It is one of the best in the country though. There are a few micro breweries in a reasonable proximity of the city but it’s not a great choice and the local restaurants are yet to discover beer in any meaningful way. If you find yourself in Adelaide check out my blog, Here For the Hops, for what is going on in the beer scene.

Hobart and Canberra both have a couple of good beer venues that are worth a visit when you are in town and are possibly even worth travelling for. In Hobart the New Sydney Hotel is a Hobart institution and regularly has a number of local craft beers and some from the mainland on tap. They have a Randall sitting on the bar to super hop the beer right before serving. Just up the road is Preachers, which is a fairly new venue that is really supporting local craft beer and has a great relaxed vibe to it. Just outside town is the Evil Genius’ lair that is Moorilla Estate and the Moo Brew brewery. You have to see the place and it’s gigantic art museum to fully appreciate that statement.

There are sensational beers coming out of Moo Brew and they now have special limited release available only at the brewery.

In Canberra is one of the oldest and best known craft beer institutions in Australia, the Wig and Pen. With a ton of different styles on tap and hand pump this is the beer venue you have to visit in Canberra. It’s a real old school brewpub with great beer and a fantastic small pub atmosphere. The other good beer venue in Canberra is Debacle. It’s a great restaurant and beer bar with micros from around the country and classics from over seas on tap and in bottle. There is also the Zierholz brewery just out of town in Fyshwick that is one of the few micro breweries in the country making lagers. The beers have a European bent but they do a wide and interesting range of regulars and seasonal releases.

The situation in the Northern Territory is a fair way behind the other states/territories. There is no evidence of any establishments offering good beer in Darwin, Alice Springs or any other town. Please post a comment if you know something to contradict this.

Overall things are looking pretty good. Sure, we don’t have the beer scene that exists in the USA at the moment but we are certainly moving in that direction. Pundits like to say we are X years behind the USA. This author has been guilty of such statements to make explanations easier in the past. However, as much as I love what is going on in the USA, I hope Australia can develop in its own direction. So far we have been following what has happened in the USA. This said it is hard not to with the amazing range of things the American micro brewers have done over the last twenty years. Some local breweries are showing signs of doing things uniquely Australian and the hope is that will develop further over time. It would be great to see the Australian brewers and beer venues not look to just what their American counterparts have done, as good as it is, but to innovate in an Australian way and with an Australian feel.

It can’t be said exactly what this will look like but we have a very innovative beer community here in Australia and I think we will see it emerge over the coming years. There are many new small breweries going through their start up stages right now. There are many plans for new bars and restaurant to feature good beer and operators planning changes to their menus. Only time can tell how many of these will find the light of day and supply local lovers of craft beer with great new options. The best bet is to keep your eye on Melbourne. Melbourne and Victoria have been the centre of most of the interesting innovations happening in the Australian beer scene over the past few years and all signs this is where the majority will come from in the future. Put any bias you may have a side and take a beer trip to Victoria.

Around the rest of the country we need to keep pushing venues and producers to do more. Things are good but it’s up to all beer lovers to make things even better.

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