Breweries need to sell beer to survive. It sounds simple enough, but in practice – and especially for craft breweries – this is a real challenge.
One of the advantages that smaller breweries have over brewing monoliths is the ability to rely on selling smaller volumes of more flavoursome beer to a more niche market segment. Even with this advantage, they still need to sell beer and make a profit to stay open.
Breweries such as Murray’s and Mountain Goat built their reputations on beers that burst with hop flavour and character, but both found that to be truly profitable they also had to create beers with broader appeal.
Their respective Whale Ale and Steam Ale were both unfairly criticised by some when launched for ‘dumbing down’ the breweries, but both are now both brewery’s biggest sellers. Australian brewing veteran Chuck Hahn sums this type of beer saying that, “you have to have beers that you can sell enough of to pay for the beers that you can’t sell enough of.”
Based on the southern tip of the Gold Coast, Burleigh Brewing has taken a more pragmatic route than some breweries. The brewery launched in 2007 with a portfolio of solid, if unspectacular, beers.
Head brewer Brennan Fielding, a US expatriate and an industry veteran who has won gold at the World Beer Cup as well as numerous other awards at the Great American Beer Festival, says this was a deliberate strategy. Interviewed in 2008 when he was producing a mid strength lager, a full-strength lager and an American Pale Ale, Brennan conceded that his brewery wasn’t yet trying to break any flavour barriers.
“At the moment we’re only making three beers and you’ve got to admit that so far as craft beer styles go our three beers aren’t real crafty,” he said back then.
“They’re not schwarzbiers, not hefeweizens and not Belgian abbey ales. But we picked our beers for a strategic business reason, which was to get Burleigh Brewing Company on the map.
“We figured if we could get people to try the lager and it was flavourful and they enjoyed it – and not so flavourful that they wouldn’t buy it again – then we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve.”
Since then Fielding has added a well-regarded hefeweizen to his stable, as well as the extremely pragmatic Big Head ‘no-carb’ lager. The latter is problematic for any brewery boasting ‘craft’ credentials, with flavour having to be regarded as an important element in craft brewing.
Carb modified beers, no matter how craftily produced, are to beer what iceberg lettuce is to the world of vegetables: they can be crisp and fresh, but they are still watery and unsatisfying – that’s just what they are. Still, it is a beer that capitalises on a growing segment and is a big seller for the brewery.
Last year the brewery stretched its flavour muscles a bit more releasing a small batch seasonal under its “Bit on the Side” label. Burleigh’s interpretation of a classic English Bitter, named My Wife’s Bitter, was very well received and received a rating of 91 points from the US-based Beverage Tasting Institute. This saw it receive a gold medal in the institute’s World Beer Championships early this year.
This week Burleigh unveiled the latest from its “Bit on the Side” department, Black Giraffe. The beer is a coffee infused lager and sees Fielding adapt a black lager – schwarzbier being the style for which he won gold at the World Beer Cup – to enhance the added coffee. He describes it as a porter fermented with lager yeast and adding coffee.
Simply put, you can forgive any brewery for the odd low carb beer if it means they can also make beers this good.
Black Giraffe pours as black as the name suggests with a dense mocha foam and unleashes a burst of coffee aroma. On the palate the beer has a full mouthfeel, a dry finish and is pure coffee and rich chocolate in between. The brewery media release says Brennan selected the malt and hops used to lend the desired colour, aroma and flavour characteristics without carrying the bitterness and astringency often found in dark beers. If that’s what he set out to do, he achieved it.
In the 2008 interview Brennan said the brewery’s strategy involved getting beer drinkers out of the habit of only drinking pale lager with a view to make more adventurous beers.
“…if I can get them to trust us, then I can bring them on my hefeweizen, then I can bring on my schwarzbier, then I can bring on my imperial pale ale,” Fielding says.
Given he has now brought on his hefeweizen and a schwarzbier, hopefully this signals that his imperial pale ale isn’t too far away. If is as good as this one, I can’t wait.
Drink and enjoy Black Giraffe by itself or with a small bowl of good quality vanilla ice-cream.
This is a limited release with only 600 cases produced, though hopefully will not be a one off. Distribution details can be found here.