The official attendance figures may prove me wrong, but I had the feeling that there was somewhat less hustle and bustle at this year’s two-day Australian Beer Festival than in former years.
The event came at the very end of the newly-instituted Sydney Craft Beer Week, with its sixty-or-so beer-related events spread over nine days, so if my perception is correct, there is an obvious explanation.
Some drinkers and brewers who participated in the various Craft Beer Week activities may already have exhausted their time and stamina before the latter two days of this busy week. Nevertheless, ample crowds, encouraged by sunshine and mild temperatures, turned out on 27 and 28 October to support the 8th annual festival, held as usual at the Australian Hotel in the Rocks area of the city.
Of the twenty-four drink stalls in operation (one fewer than last year), three were devoted to apple cider producers (Hills Cider Company, Bilpin Cider Company, and The Apple Thief), but that is enough said of them here. The well-known, ‘national’ beer brands of Coopers, Cascade, Matilda Bay, James Squire and Little Creatures engaged a further five stalls, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the winners of the associated home-brew competition occupied another. That leaves fifteen.
Seven of the remaining fifteen stalls represented beer companies that don’t have (or have but don’t use, in one sad case at Picton) their own breweries, namely Hawthorn Brewing Co. and Two Birds Brewing (from Victoria), and Longboard Brewing Co., Endeavour Beverages, Balmain Brewing Co., Scharer’s Brewery and Koala Beer (from NSW). McLaren Vale Beer Company was in this group last year, but has since fired up its own brewery at Willunga in South Australia, so now has graduated to my next category.
Only eight stall-holders at the Festival this year were those most interesting brewers who own and operate their own hardware, and who also are independent or substantially independent of the big brewing companies. Besides McLaren Vale already mentioned, this category comprised Mountain Goat (Victoria), Moo Brew (Tasmania) and Riverside Brewing Co., 4 Pines Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co., Illawarra Brewing Co., and Casella Beer (New South Wales).
Casella, the maker of Arvo beer, sits a little uncomfortably in my ‘independent or substantially independent’ category. Having recently announced a joint venture with Coca-Cola Amatil, to commence at the end of 2013, this new brewery is poised to advance quickly toward or into the realm of the big multi-national brewers. For the time being, however, it remains small and independent.
I am no fan of Arvo beer, which was designed with considerable consumer input and appeals to those who are more likely to be seen drinking XXXX Gold or VB than a craft-brewed IPA or Saison. I was much impressed, however, by the fact that both of the Arvo big guns, head brewer Andy Mitchell and his deputy Anthony Clem, were pouring beers at their company’s stall. They had even brewed a small batch of a tasty beer especially for the festival, as an alternative offering to their bland staple Arvo 51. Although I think I can guess the answer, I would love to know for sure which out-poured which at this event, and by how much.