Sydney turned on a weekend of splendidly warm and dry weather at the end of October for the 7th annual two-day Australian Hotel Beer Festival. Held as usual at the Australian Hotel in the Rocks area of the city, this year the section of Gloucester Street adjoining the lower side of the pub was completely closed to traffic, allowing the beer stalls to be set farther away from the footpath than in previous years, to better accommodate the swarms of eager tasters.
Twenty-five stalls were in operation, with a much larger but uncounted number of beers available for sampling. Considering the thorough manner in which apple cider has infiltrated the beer fridges of Australian liquor shops during the past year or so, I was not surprised to find the same beverage represented this year at the Beer Festival. One whole stall (the Australian Cider Co.) and several individual taps were devoted to it, but about them I shall say no more here.
Of the twenty-four remaining stalls, five were devoted to the well-known, ‘national’ brands of Coopers, Cascade, Blue Tongue, Matilda Bay and Little Creatures. A further ten stalls represented beer companies that don’t have their own breweries. Among them was McLaren Vale Beer Company, which is on the verge of installing its own brewery at Willunga in South Australia, but in the meantime is brewing at the Australian Independent Breweries facility at Smeaton Grange in south-western Sydney.
Many of these brewers-without-breweries will probably never invest in their own brewing equipment, but for others, like McLaren Vale, contract brewing or using someone else’s gear is only an interim measure. Gerard Meares, now proprietor of Pinchgut Brewing Co. in Sydney, and formerly brewer for the Flying Horse Brewery at Warrnambool, Victoria, is another example. He is presently brewing at Matt Donelan’s St Peters Brewery, but hopes to be operating his own brewery in Sydney ‘in the near future’. Similarly, three-year-old Rocks Brewing is still pursuing its plan to build its own brewery somewhere in suburban Sydney.
The brewers that most interest me, however, are those who own their own hardware, and who also operate independently or substantially independently of the big brewing companies. Eight stall-holders at the Festival conformed to that model: Holgate and Mountain Goat (Victoria), Burleigh Brewing (Queensland), and New South Wales brewers Murray’s (Port Stephens), 4 Pines (Manly), Stone and Wood (Byron Bay), Illawarra Brewing (Wollongong), and Hop Dog Beer Works (South Nowra). Hop Dog Beer Works is the newest and tiniest (200-litre) of this group of small, independent and innovative breweries. Proprietor and brewer, Tim Thomas, had on offer such delicacies as Horns Up Rye IPA and All Hallowed Pumpkinated Belgian Strong Ale.
If you have been following closely, you’ll realise that I’ve only accounted so far for twenty-four of the twenty-five drink stalls. The twenty-fifth was operated by an amateur brewer, who provided tastings of his Pig’s Ear brand of American IPA and European dark lager. In a highly laudable act of encouragement, this place in the lineup was offered as the prize in the festival’s inaugural homebrew competition. Perhaps the exposure thus provided will smooth the transition of another garage or laundry brewer to the realm of commercial beer production, a rocky path taken already by many of the current band of Australian microbrewery operators who began as talented and enthusiastic amateurs.