As the 2011 edition of the Beer Lover’s Guide is released, publishers Scribal Publishing have given Australian Brews News the chance to publish a couple of the articles from last year’s edition. This first article looks at whether Australia is indeed experiencing a craft beer revolution, or whether it’s just a good beer movement for now…
The 2011 edition, with all new essays on beer, brewing and travel, is out now.
Cheers to those who make our beers
Cast your mind back – for those who can – thirty years. Back before the advent of ‘fusion’ cuisine; back before the wine renaissance and before the word ‘barista’ became part of our everyday lexicon, let alone becoming a respectable occupation.
It was a time of meat and three veg. A time when a sophisticated evening’s dining began with a prawn cocktail comprising an open champagne glass stuffed with shredded iceberg lettuce and draped with peeled crustaceans. Entrée was likely followed by Steak Diane served with a carafe of red. These were the days when cheese was cheddar, coffee was instant and beer was lager, its brand determined by the in which you state you lived.
How the world has changed. Today we intelligently discuss the differences between the shiraz produced in South Australia and those from Victoria, the differences between robusta and Arabica coffee beans, and a boutique fromagerie (we even know what this word means these days) can survive selling nothing but an astounding array of cheese.
For all of these culinary advances, however, until recently beer hadn’t changed very much at all. Beer was still lager and lager was beer, a pale and fizzy liquid whose purpose was to act as a fluid backdrop to sport and barbeques. It was a summer sessional, perfect for knocking off after the lawn-mowing. For all the flavour-driven changes taking place elsewhere in the food and beverage world, the amber fluid was an uncomplicated beast, a drink for thoughtless consumption.
Change is coming though. After many years of being a prisoner to its most successful style, there is now a quiet change taking place in Australia, akin to the wine revolution of thirty years ago. Basic lagers, bland and unexciting, are giving way to such exotic styles as saison, hefeweizen and barley-wine created by artisans both here and overseas.
A bang or a whimper?
With the current explosion of breweries and beer styles taking place in Australia – an explosion that makes a substantial book rather than a pamphlet out of this Beer Lovers Guide – it is easy for beer lovers to convince themselves that the growth in breweries equates to a revolution in the Australian beer scene.
Compared to as little as a decade ago, the number of breweries producing beer in Australia has grown many-fold. The selection of beers available in bars and bottle shops is mind boggling, and represents a huge shift towards diversity in flavour. There are more than one hundred breweries producing the widest range of beers ever and a range of specialty beer bars has sprung up right around the country. However, looking closely, the ‘revolution’ is perhaps more akin to the first wave of what could become a meaningful trend rather than itself being a quantum shift in the drinking habits of most Australians.
While there have been an enormous number of labels spring up and styles released onto the Australian market over the last few years, possibly more than ever before, the volume of the total beer market that these beers represent is still miniscule, estimated to be significantly less than one per cent. At the same time, the mainstream beer market–the part of the market that represents the greatest volume of sales – seems to be actually skewing away from flavour towards lighter styles of beer.
Over the past couple of years, brewers both large and small have released products best described as ‘beerish’. These offerings come with names that include the labels ‘low-carb’, ‘no-carb’, ‘dry’, ‘pure’ and ‘blonde’. They use flavour descriptions such as ‘refreshing, ‘crisp’ and ‘sessional’ in the marketing copy as positive-sounding synonyms for the more accurate adjectives ‘vapid’ and ‘insipid’. Marketed as ‘premium’ beers, a description purely based on price and marketing rather than any inherent qualities in the beers themselves, they have gained market share at a far more rapid rate than the craft beer market. Individually these new releases have already gained more market share for themselves than the entire microbrewed craft beer market combined.
The craft beer segment has grown too, but much more slowly. While a definition of ‘craft’ beers can be a little elusive and not always helpful, they are generally marked as being beers with fuller and more robust flavours than the lagers that are the Australian staples. As with almost any product, the more flavour there is in a beer the more likely it is than someone will find something to dislike about it, something not to their taste. It is no coincidence that some of the biggest selling beers—in fact any foodstuff—are also some of the most bland with the decoration of the packaging and the extravagance of the advertising offsetting the beigeness of the contents.
While this may be seen as criticism, it is not. Beer really is more for the drinking than the thinking. An enthusiasm for beer should not lend itself to the same sort of posturing or over-analysis that can occur with wine. Still, many beer lovers complain that the move away from flavour towards pure refreshment is almost akin to a conspiracy by the big brewers. Again, it is not. It is business. Large brewers are large businesses and large businesses operate on large numbers. Any one of their products needs to capture significant percentages of the beer market to be considered a success—and to survive. Their products need to appeal to the widest possible market to survive and the products that appeal to the widest market are the ones that generally have the least to dislike about them. But it is also this need for large breweries to concentrate on the largest markets that opens the door to the smaller microbreweries that can focus on flavour without the need to attract millions.
The challenges of flavour
While they can operate in the niche markets, craft brewers still need to find a market for their products. Here the challenge faced by the nation’s smallest craft brewers is perhaps best evidenced by the experience of one of its largest. Matilda Bay, the craft arm of beer giant Fosters, has been brewing Alpha Pale Ale for almost 10 years.
Alpha Pale Ale was created in the style of the American pale ale. Pioneered in the Pacific North West of the United States using their local Cascade hop, these beers are big and floral and citrus. The style showed that hops did not need to timidly hide in a beer, casting a feint shadow of bitterness. Instead they could leap out and awake the senses of the beer drinker.
The American pale ale popularised by the Sierra Nevada Brewery 30 years ago, was one of the catalysts for what undoubtedly is these days, in the United States at least, a true brewing revolution. The style was popularly introduced to Australians by Little Creatures Pale Ale around 2000 and had a similar effect of igniting our own interest in flavoursome beers.
Matilda Bay’s version was introduced around the same time. Since then it has grown from what was once a modest 30 IBUs (international bittering units) to somewhere approaching 50 IBUs today. Robust, almost aggressive, it is more assertive even than the excellent Little Creatures version. It is a beer that many microbrewers cite as their favourite among the big-brewery beers. Alpha is on all counts a quality and flavourful craft beer. You would expect it to sell well.
But you would be wrong.
According to Neilsen ScanTrack data, which measures bottled sales through the major retail outlets, Alpha Pale Ale had a good year in 2009 with sales growing by more than 80 per cent. But in volume terms Alpha sold just 8000 litres through these outlets. For an industry that measures its product in the millions of litres, Alpha shifted a little over 1000 cartons through the monitored bottleshops.
Compare this to another Matilda Bay beer, Fat Yak. Launched in November 2008, Fat Yak is Alpha’s little brother. Another American-style Pale Ale, Fat Yak is a much more moderate and approachable version weighing in at 25 IBUs, half that for Alpha. Softer and more fruity than it is bitter, Fat Yak is sometimes and unfairly derided by beer connoisseurs as being craft beer-light, or ‘kraft’ beer. Nevertheless it has exploded onto the beer scene in its first 12 months. So much so that in its first twelve months it sold more than 1.2 million litres through the same outlets that sold 8000 litres of Alpha.
So, you have a position where Alpha is the same style of beer from the same brewer. It enjoys the same big brewery distribution advantages as Fat Yak and has the same marketing weight behind it. It is more highly regarded by those in the know and yet, even after a decade of existence, it was outsold 150-to-one by the less challenging newcomer. It is a testament to Alpha’s quality, and possibly even more to its value as a marquee over the brand, that Fosters has let it has survive. It is also testament to the fact that the mainstream palate is lagging behind the flavours offered by the more ambitious craft brewers. Revolution may be in the wind, but the Bastille is yet to be stormed.
All this is really to say, when quality and flavour don’t sell in huge quantities despite having all of these big brewery advantages, what hope have microbreweries got?
The truth is that this fact is the small brewer’s greatest advantage.
The challenge of the small
Microbreweries suffer many disadvantages compared to large ones. Breweries, even small ones, are expensive to build. Beer, especially good beer, is expensive to make. Distribution is difficult and taps, thanks to timid hoteliers and the generous incentives of large brewers, are hard to come by. Finally, for the growing interest in beer, the average Australian drinker is still proving a fairly timid creature. These are all problems in the beer business, which really is a unit cost game. You need to sell a lot of beer to make the economics work in your favour.
To own a brewery you need deep pockets, patience, an understanding and supportive bank manager and wife or husband (not necessarily different people) and a very Zen philosophy to life. Many people (those who don’t own a brewery) look upon owning a brewery as a lifestyle occupation. They conjure up visions of the brewer swanning around a brewery crafting beer during office hours, that is shared with a quirky band of regulars at an appropriately early beer o’clock. Talk to any brewer and you will discover that it is a labour of love, with the emphasis on labour. Hard labour.
All of this sounds very depressing, but it’s not. It merely puts into context both the challenge and the achievement of Australia’s craft and microbrewers.
Slowly but steadily, the ‘love’ part of the labour is being reciprocated by a growing group of drinkers who are discovering a love for flavour. Guided by a quest for flavour rather than volume of consumption, these drinkers are starting to be guided by their palates and seek out beers that they find interesting.
As this book shows, breweries have sprung up all across Australia. From Broome to Byron Bay, from Hayes in Tasmania to Cairns, small breweries are braving the odds to take the good word about great beer to the people. Importantly, many are staying around. These breweries are flourishing because, knowing they can’t compete against the scale of the large breweries, they are finding sustainable niches.
Unable to compete against beers aimed at the biggest markets, Australia’s craft brewers are targeting the slowly growing band of drinkers that are looking for flavour and they are doing it with an amazing diversity of beers.
Some of these beers, such as those from the new Stone & Wood Brewery in Byron Bay strongly reflect where they are from. Their Draught Ale defies being pigeon-holed into a style, but it is a revelation to many who try it. It is a beach beer, but one that is also developing a following further south. With its soft fruit flavours and dryish finish, it is approachable and drinkable and can accurately be described as a beer that bridges the flavour gap from mainstream to craft. But at the same time it is rewards beer drinkers with its complex malt character and interesting hop profile.
Then there are brewers like Tasmanian Ashley Huntington who grows his own barley and hops. As a former wine maker-turned-brewer, Ashley has been quoted as saying, “I didn’t know any different. If you want to make wine, you grow grapes so I assumed that if you want to make beer you grow barley and hops.”
He brings a winemakers flair to an industry that has traditionally seen consistency as its highest achievement. As a result, his traditionally made ales are interesting and reflect what winemakers call terroir. They are more than just beers, they are a philosophy.
Fortune favours the brave, we hope
These brewers and many others are carving out their niches in different ways but to the same purpose. One thing they have in common is the courage to try and do something that is very, very difficult.
Every one of Australia’s craft and microbreweries has a story to tell…and not necessarily a clever but irrelevant back story concocted by well-paid marketers and reprinted on the label. The great thing about most small breweries is you get the chance to visit them and speak to the person who makes the beer that you’re drinking. As you sip and savour their beer you can ask about what it is and how it’s made, you can find out what the brewer’s philosophy and approach are. You can see where it is made and often watch as it is being made.
The key to the sustainability of the current brewing new wave is you, the beer drinker. Beer is a perhaps the most convivial of drinks and in most cases shouldn’t be over-analysed. But still, take a little bit of time to think about what you’re drinking. As you visit the breweries listed in this guide – and you should make a point to do so – think about how the malt, water, yeast and hops have come together in what you’re holding. Think about the flavours and what you enjoy about it, apart from the sheer drinkability of it. Think about the challenges that the small brewer has had to overcome to get that beer into your hand, and say cheers.