When Australian craft beer drinkers are asked to name their version of The Holy Land, Meccah, or Graceland the answer invariably leads to a little port town in the west called Fremantle. Those who have been around a little longer will be more specific and pinpoint the Sail & Anchor Hotel as the ‘birthplace’ of craft beer in this country.
It was back in 1984 when Phil Sexton led a team of keen and enthusiastic beer lovers to establish a rather neglected public house in which to brew their beer. The stranglehold of both the pale golden lager and the large local brewers’ tap contracts meant that the new and exciting brews made by Phil & Co had no market and the Sail & Anchor became the means to an end and the genesis of a craft brewing legend. For a more detailed and accurate history of this exciting time, visit your local library or consult your Google-machine-enabled-phone.
In 2010 ALH (Australian Leisure & Hospitality group, a part of Woolworth’s) closed down the brewing operations at the Sail & Anchor in what was described to Brews News Editor, Matt Kirkegaard as a ‘commercial decision’. Plenty of emotion from despair and dismay through to disgust and derision echoed through the town and beyond in what was seen as a blow to ‘good beer’ and the death of a cultural icon. The promise that the Sail & Anchor branded beers would be henceforth brewed at “a small,local, independent brewery” seemed to placate few.
Today, Sail & Anchor branded beers are appearing on shelves with the first four labels harking back to a gentler, less complicated time when beer held the promise of simple pleasure delivered through an honest product crafted by skilled and loving hands and a measure of honest toil. True to its docks roots, as well, the new beers carry nice back stories of Fremantle port seafarers and the knots of their trade. The Cat’s Shank, Boa’s Bind, Monkey Fist and Lark’s Foot may sound a little like the shopping list for a mad woman’s breakfast but, in fact, mark the Kolsch, Amber, Pale and Golden Ales respectively.
Did I begin to sound a little cynical and marketing-spin-wary just now? My apologies. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time and conversation with Brews News Editor and spin-skeptic, Mr Kirkegaard. But here’s the thing. We all know that the space that was once the brewery at Sail & Anchor is now a rotating dance floor or the family bistro or whatever so how can these clearly branded “Sail & Anchor Fremantle” beers possibly bear any resemblance to an honest claim? Well, they can, of course, in the same way as Matilda Bay beers are no longer brewed at brewery that no longer exists and was not situated at a Matilda Bay or in the way that any contract brewed beer that makes reference to any person place or abstract concept but has nothing to do with them, does. Follow?
I won’t go on here about the virtues of marketing/spin/gentle deception/bullshit when it comes to beer – I’ll leave that to you all to debate in the comments section following – instead I’ll tell you about what’s in the bottle rather than what’s in the bullshit. The beer is good. The Kolsch is a refreshing, clean Cologne styled ale made for lager lovers and the Golden Ale, while a little thin for me, ticked all the qualifying boxes for an English-inspired summer ale. The Amber was perhaps the pick of the four, good and malty and well balanced. The Pale, whilst a little lean, was in all respects a fair attempt at an entry-level APA even if the ‘sleeve notes’ suggest something a bit more punchy.
So the beer is what it is. Very well made beers that are true-to-style and neither groundbreaking nor disappointing. You could argue that plenty of these beers already exist in the market today and that the Sail & Anchor beers are a ‘big business’ attempt to cash in on the heritage of a place held dear to many craft beer drinkers. Is the beer brewed, as foretold, in a ‘small, local, independent brewery’ or is it really brewed at Gage Roads which, while undeniably local is 20% owned by Woolworth’s, is questionably independent. It already produces Platinum Blonde and Bolt beers, so has no great track record in wanting to ‘craft’ beers of interest or flavour. Then again, who am I to say that that’s a bad thing and that this is not a genuine attempt to redress the imbalance in their beer portfolio?
I guess you could do what I did and buy a four pack of each of these Sail & Anchor beers and judge for yourself. Nice new bottles (which, to the untrained eye – including mine – appear to be 500ml but are 345ml) standing tall in arty, ye olde mariner styled packaging and neatly priced at around the $14 mark and mid forties for a sixteen bottle ‘cube’. Will the marketing of the beers create an aura around the ‘old’ Sail & Anchor and the descendants of its now iconic beers like Redback and Dogbolter or more recent favourites like Brass Monkey and Fremantle Pils?
Will it spark interest in younger drinkers looking for a story to go with their beer? Or will it simply remind seasoned and somewhat jaded veterans appreciate the wide palette of flavours and tastes available to those who know how to look past the label and love the liquid?