The number of small breweries in Australia has exploded in the last decade-and-a-half, from around thirty in the mid-1990s to a little under one hundred and thirty at present. This doesn’t even include brew-on-premises shops and new beer companies without their own breweries, of which there are many more.
A logical accompaniment to this trend has been the growth in the number of expositions, competitions and festivals at which the resulting flood of new beers and beer styles are publicised, evaluated and celebrated. The Bitter & Twisted International Boutique Beer Festival, which took place last weekend in Maitland, New South Wales, is one such event.
From a beer point of view, this year’s two-day Bitter & Twisted Festival was much less ‘international’ than its full title might lead one to expect. In fact, the emphasis was very strongly on Hunter Valley producers, supplemented by several from father afield.
This local focus was evidently not resented, as the two Hunter Valley microbrewers (Murray’s Craft Brewing Company and Hunter Beer Company) and the Hunter homebrewers were among the most keenly patronised exhibitors. Two of them even ran out of beer completely before the close on Saturday and had to replenish supplies before restarting on Sunday.
Other beer producers at Bitter & Twisted were: 4 Pines Brewing Company from Manly (the only other independent microbrewery to have its own stall), Little Creatures from Western Australia (sharing a stall with its Victorian sister brewery, White Rabbit), Matilda Bay from Victoria (the ‘boutique’ arm of the giant Foster’s Group), Bluetongue (originally a small independent Hunter Valley brewery, but now part of a multi-national brewing corporation), Fusion Brewing (a Sydney-based outfit which doesn’t have its own brewery); and Brew-by-U (a Newcastle brew-on-premises shop).
In contrast to the average ‘Food and Wine’ festival, where beer is usually represented to some degree but never recognised in the title of the event, Bitter & Twisted is truly and unashamedly a celebration of beer and brewing.
In addition to eleven beer tasting stalls, home brewing presentations and ‘meet the brewer’ sessions were held throughout the festival. Well-attended beer and food matching lunches were also held on both days.
Although beer appreciation is unmistakably the focus of Bitter & Twisted, the festival encompasses much more than that. Eight or more stalls dispensed a variety of food, including Indian, German, Turkish and Portuguese cuisine, justifying, more than any other aspect, the inclusion of the word ‘international’ in the name of the festival. Amusements such as puppet shows and face painting were provided for children, helping to make the event family-friendly, and live music was performed almost continuously on two stages.
Bitter & Twisted has now been held for three of its four years at the historic Maitland Gaol, the longest continuously-operating prison in Australia when it closed in 1998. It is now a tourism facility and provides a remarkable, indeed bizarre, setting for the beer festival.
Food and drink stalls are spread around the gaol, amidst its high walls, barred gates and fences, armoured doors, and coils of razor wire. Many parts of it, including individual cells, are readily accessible to festival patrons in the normal course of the event.
For instance, one stone-built cell block housed musical performances, another the home brewing sessions, and the prison chapel was the venue for the beer lunches. Guided tours of the gaol, including parts not otherwise accessible, were held periodically during the festival.
The opening of Bitter & Twisted at 10 am on Saturday 6 November coincided almost precisely with the opening of the heavens. This, together with the fact that I had neither an umbrella nor a raincoat, soon had me questioning the wisdom of holding such an event at a place where shelter was scarce. In fact, it was non-existent at the fronts of the beer tents where the main business of the day was transacted. One could, however, take cover in a cell block, or under one of the various awnings or umbrellas provided, but only at some sacrifice to beer appreciation time.
Rain continued throughout Saturday but, in retrospect, it was probably a positive thing. During one period of sanctuary in Cell Block B I discovered the fabulous Indiana Phoenix, a blues band under whose spell I completely forgot about beer for more than an hour.
More generally, the rain somehow vitalised, even energised, the whole event, perhaps by providing an introductory topic for conversation between strangers forced into close proximity as they took refuge from it. Sunny, dry and warm Sunday, by contrast, seemed to me to lack some of wet Saturday’s dynamism.
Besides being soaked with rain before I had my first beer in hand, I was also disappointed initially by the unexpectedly small number of microbreweries represented at this ‘boutique’ beer festival. I hasten to add, however, that the number and variety of brews available from the small number of exhibitors turned out to be quite sufficient to keep me, and probably most others, both busy and contented.
Between them just the two local microbrewers, Murray’s Craft Brewing Company and Hunter Beer Co., had at least fifteen different beers, and the Hunter homebrewers provided a further half a dozen, if not more.
Nevertheless, I would have been happier to have seen a few more brewers, especially of the small independent variety. Perhaps the organisers can entice the likes of the Little Brewing Company (Port Macquarie) and the Mudgee Brewing Company to next year’s festival.