If there is one thing that this country is not short of, it is the so called “Premium” Lager. A species that infests our bottle shops like seagulls at a beach, it is more a marketing affectation than a style. The hallmark of these beers is a higher price, flashy marketing and, often, an insipid taste.
If a macro-brewer’s usual draught offering is the cheeseburger then the premium would be the equivalent of the Mc Angus; slightly better, but face it, you are still eating fast food. A new Victorian brand, Old Time Brewing, seeks to change that perception with their debut release, Old Time Premium Lager. I recently sat down with their Marketing Manager, Mike Fennel, to see what this new product has to offer in an already crowded field.
Old Time Brewing wants this beer to be known as Australia’s best craft lager. Well aware of the blandness that crowds the shelves of the average bottle shop, Mike told me that their ambition is to create a premium lager with a distinct taste and as such, Old Time’s lager has taken its inspiration from Belgian beers. Belgium isn’t really known for its lagers and alarm bells began to ring as images of Stella Artois jumped to mind, but Mike then went on to mention Leffe Blond and Hoegaarden as inspirations. Needless to say I was intrigued and not just a little perplexed…
Brewed under contract out of Southern Bay Brewing in Geelong, this lager boasts a grain bill featuring four different malts: Amber, Pilsner, Munich and Chocolate as well as an unnamed US hop variety. The aim is to create a beer with distinctive flavour and little to no bitterness; a beer for those who may have long ago abandoned lager as their weekly six pack and migrated to scotch or RTDs. Old Time has even gone to the considerable effort of having its product Kosher certified.
Hoping to set the benchmark for premium lager, Old Time sees its beer as a specialty product and as such, some thought has been given to packaging. Bottle only and with no plans to go draught, the label fairly oozes Australiana. A colonial inspired oil painting depicts a stage coach being held up by bushrangers and the six packs feature a mahogany grain livery.
Mike is adamant that quality is a priority and so thick brown glass bottles are employed to protect against skunking and these come equipped with twist top caps. Focusing on six pack sales rather than cartons, the packaging is designed to stand out on the shelf and to create a strong brand identity in the public consciousness.
Now this is all well and good for the retailer but what about the drinker?
The beer pours with a large, quick acting head atop a body of coppery amber, much richer looking than the average lager. The aroma too is promising. Instead of the faint suggestion of grass one usually gets from these beers, it presents a malty aroma of caramel, slight toffee and a touch of powdered chocolate. Old Time’s aim was creating a beer with no bitterness and they have succeeded in that 100%. The beer is all sweet malt with no presence of hops. Mike suggested drinking it at 4° – 6°, to let the malt profile show, which manifests as light caramel and toffee notes. With a lighter carbonation than you’d expect, the beer has a soft mouth feel. In summary, it’s a bit like that last gulp of scotch once all the ice has melted.
This is definitely a departure from what normally lurks within a bottle with Premium stamped on the label and unlike most such beers, Old Time Premium Lager would indeed stand out in a blind tasting of similar beers.
For the seasoned craft drinker, this is not the beer that will make you want to drink lager again. With an emphasis on sweet malt and no bitterness it is a little like the first half of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, with all the building strings and brass but without the uplifting chorus at the end.
For the average punter though, this beer tastes different enough without being offensive. With a sessionable 4.5% ABV and an $18 a six pack price point the beer will no doubt find converts, especially if the trend of people migrating from traditional macro lager to more flavoursome products like cider continues.
Having very recently launched through selected Vintage Cellars, First Choice and Liquorland bottle shops in NSW and Victoria, Old Time is conducting in-store tastings to promote the product.
Whether it is a craft beer or not is more down to your own definition of what constitutes a craft brew. Mike maintains that the recipe is their own, the formula has been crafted by a brewer, not a chemist, and the brewing process is all done by hand. At present Old Time don’t intend to expand their beer range, their next product is to be a pear cider. Whatever your feelings about contract brewed beers such as this, it will be interesting to see how well Old Time Premium Lager does in the market place and whether its smoother, more flavoursome approach will allow it to go toe to toe with the more established premium lagers out there.