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Little Creatures – Change for the better

February 23, 2015
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little creatures logoRecent discussion on this site and in other forums about beer provenance and brand ownership has revived the argument that ‘Big Beer’ will, at every opportunity, ‘cheapen’ the product. This recent article shares Sam Caligione’s thoughts on the factory-brewery’s ability to mass-produce a previously small batch beer and at a significantly discounted price, thus disadvantaging the true ‘indie craft brewer’.

Here in Australia we have seen the acquisition of the Little Creatures brand by multi-national brewer Lionco and the subsequent disquiet with regard to the way in which some drinkers view the brand now. Many, it would seem, are voting with their pockets and making a statement about where they see the future of craft beer in this country. Many again have no qualms about their favourite having a change of faces in the boardroom and rightly expect their chosen brew to taste the same as it did when it was independently owned.

But for some, the temptation to imprint their own prejudices upon the brand is too great. Add to this the internet factor where previously quietly muttered thoughts are now magnified, amplified and spread to a wider audience and before you can say ‘macro-swill’ there can be the impression that things are no longer as they were.

In the case of Little Creatures Pale Ale, the brewery’s first and still flagship beer, this chatter can seriously damage a brand unfairly. Brews News spoke to Head Brewer, Russel Gosling to set the story straight once and for all. Read on and, if you’re one who has stopped enjoying the beer because you’re convinced that the beer is no longer brewed the way it always was, perhaps a change of mind is warranted. Rus Gosling

To begin, Russel took the issue of recipe alteration and ABV decrease and smacked it straight out of the park; “I can confirm that the ABV has not dropped and neither has the recipe changed!” Take that, haters!

“We at Little Creatures consider all our Beers to be WIP and so we continually explore [ways in which to improve the process] continually. As brewers, we have lots of ‘beer conversations’ to assess the product and make improvements. The major modifications occurs when we receive new seasons materials – we’ll slowly but surely adjust things until we get the product where we want it and this is mainly centred on hops: we purchase from both hemispheres (US/ANZ) and so we tweak as we phase in and out of the harvests.”

Previous in-depth discussions with former Head Brewer, Alex Troncoso (over several fine ales) confirms the thinking of the Little Creatures team that, while the beer may be tweaked to allow the hops to sing louder or the dry-hopping to be fine-tuned to improve the end result, it may not really be the beer that has changed. In the same way that our first hot n’ spicy vindaloo left us gasping for air and seeking the conveniences, but we soon acclimatised to the big, bold and firey flavours, so too can our palate adapt to big, bold beer.

For many of us weaned on thin, moderately-hopped yellow ‘fizz’, a beer like Little Creatures Pale Ale was something of an awakening. The hop aroma – BANG! The rich caramel notes from the malt – WOW! That bitter-sweet back-end smack of freshness and bitterness – PHEW! We were discovering flavour. If I had 50 cents for every drinker who has told me that “it used to be really hoppy and ‘big’ but not so much anymore”, well, I’d have $413.50 but I’d also have very large picture gallery of drinkers who truly think that the beer has changed without realising that their threshold for hops may have been the thing that changed.

Gosling finished by putting a few important things in perspective.” I have been with the business for almost 10 years and I’ve seen no major recipe changes during this time (lots of plant changes though!) – we’re just humble Craft Brewers reacting to new materials (as we should) in order to fine tune our recipes so that we make the best beer we can.”

The Little Creatures brew team still gather every Tuesday to taste-test the beers, assess the flavour, aroma, bitterness and hopping and discuss and dissect the changes the beer needs to remain the iconic example of the classic American Pale Ale style. By all means, stop drinking it if you prefer to support small, family-owned or local Australian businesses – that’s your choice. But don’t forsake a beer as good as Little Creatures Pale Ale because you’re convinced it has been ‘dumbed down’ by its new masters.

Take inspiration from the Little Creatures brewers and get some mates together for a Tuesday Tasting. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

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26 Responses to Little Creatures – Change for the better

  1. Sally on February 28, 2015 at 7:16 am

    What a great read
    What a sensational beer
    Surely craft beer drinkers aren’t so narrow minded that they think being Taken Over will change the beer?
    Not on Russ s watch anyway !
    Go hang out with any Brewer for the Day – all of them continually strive to brew a better beer – it’s called passion!
    “Open up a Little….”

  2. Pete Mitcham on February 24, 2015 at 10:00 am

    OK. A huge thank you to Russel Gosling from Little Creatures for responding so promptly to my request(s) for clarification. As to bottle conditioning;

    “We still bottle condition absolutely – along with using whole hop cones and no pasteurisation this is our trifecta of core beliefs! And yes we use a different yeast strain for this process: a very silica friendly one – it is very flocculent and forms a nice compact bottom (lawn) on the bottle base.”

    As to the water;

    “Water Chemistry: there has been lots of commentary on this topic on social media, much to my frustration. So let’s set the record straight. Raw water supply to the Brewery is municipal (towns) water. The water in Fremantle contains little else bar NaCl, table salt then @ circa 70ppm.). So we supplement by adding salts (sulphate &/or chloride) into our Brewing process to achieve the desired process parameters in the Brewery (mash pH) and ultimately the mineral content of the final Beer that we want (e.g. Pale Ales are high in sulphate). So did we change anything, yes we did; what then? Well >50ppm of chloride in water results in ‘stainless steel stress corrosion cracking’ – and yes after 8 years our kettle developed a rather large crack in the base!”

    and another thing…

    “There has been talk of us using sea water on social media – my word, really – and I think confusion exists here because we did previously use sea water at our paraflow (wort cooler: plate heat exchanger) to cool our worts. Obviously it (sea water) had no contact with the wort itself, and this was replaced with an ice water paraflow when we upgraded the Brewhouse in 2008. Geelong has the same plant as Fremantle.”

    I hope this clears up any confusion/mythology about the beer making process at Little Creatures. Thanks again, Rus.

    • Nathan on February 26, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for following this up. Great participation too by the way!

    • shayne on May 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      Whats the difference between water in Geelong and here in WA. I’ve been grain homebrewing for a while now and I still find myself wondering how much water makes a difference. (For reference I just use what comes out the tap here in northbridge, no idea what the water makeup is)

  3. sergentmoo on February 24, 2015 at 9:17 am

    It is definitely still bottle conditioned, and both Feel and Geelong use reverse osmosis water. The chemistry is then tweaked to match what is required.

    Neither of these facts have changed over the last 7 years.

  4. James Clark on February 24, 2015 at 7:02 am

    From memory, the Little Creatures Pale Ale was bottle conditioned when it was first released. It was many ales ago, and I would be happy if someone else could back me up on this. This would prove that the beer has changed considerably and that we as consumers will not be duped into thinking that the big breweries don’t cut corners when it comes to producing a quality product.

    • Pete Mitcham on February 24, 2015 at 7:37 am

      My understanding (which I will seek to confirm) is that the Pale Ale is still bottle conditioned as it always has been. They even use a particular yeast to thwart homebrewers cultivating the original strain.

      • James Clark on February 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm

        It would be great if you could ask Russel to explain why there is no yeast sediment in the bottles?

        • James Clark on February 26, 2015 at 6:37 pm

          In addition to noticing the lack of sediment in the bottle, the words “Bottle Conditioned” are no longer printed on the label. How does ol mate Russel explain that?

  5. Tim on February 23, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Great article Prof.
    I like LCPA, Fat Yak and the James Squire line up. The beers are consistently good, the price is competitive and they are available everywhere. Also, any new craft brewer who doesn’t aspire to the success of these brands and desire to have the customer base is kidding themselves.

    While the craft beer scene is growing, it’s also seen a number of breweries enter the market with oxidised poorly brewed product. Buying craft beer from a lot of newer micros is like playing Russian roulette, being awesome one week and laden with acetaldehyde the next.

    I don’t care who owns the company that makes the beer I drink as long as it’s consistent and doesn’t taste like poorly fermented home brew. Power to the consumer who gets better pricing and product via brewing giant investment and economy of scale, not to the bearded hipster douche who “liked their old stuff before they signed to a major label”.

    Tim

    • Brendan on February 24, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      I’ll take the bearded hipster’s beer over the accountant any day. I’ll also take the flavour and interesting hop profiles they and many other quality brewers (who have never had a beard in their life) too thank you. Glorified and arrogant comments like these are why we are selling fresh berries to China for their middle classes and they are selling frozen ones to us washed in poo. It’s all numbers, hey Tim.

      • Tim on February 24, 2015 at 9:59 pm

        Arrogant comment? You are equating scale with quality which is just isn’t true. Most of the “quality brewers” you refer to have inconsistencies in their product. Globally beer of all styles is produced at scale, but brew those same styles poorly in Australia and the price goes up, the quality goes down and it’s called “craft”.

    • shayne on May 26, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Sometimes you just gotta love the warts, tim. One of my favorite brewerys is “bush shack brewery” down the southwest. Its so ramshackle, the beers are inconsistent ( I suspect they aren’t always getting their temps right ) , and a few have tasted a little oxidized. And you know what? I love it. This is beer with heart, by some bloke on a farm whos cashed in his savings to turn his hobby into a job. It won’t win any awards, but who cares, it tastes great, and everyones having a lot of fun.

      Its like homebrewing. Sometimes the best beers come from the brewday where everyone ends up a bit smashed on on the previous fortnights brew , so the hops measurements go wrong, the grain is all “I dunno, just chuck some of this junk in”, and then come tasting day its a bloody miracle, but nobody can remember how it was made.

      Polished product is for the terminally bored.

  6. mick on February 23, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    May I ask if this in fact was a sponsored article by Lionco? In either case, it’s hard not to hate on a multinational like Lionco-Kirin-Mitsubishi. Their duopoly along with SABmiller’s Matilda Bay accounts for over 60% of all craft beer sold in Australia – a sobering thought considering theres now more than 200 micros in Australia at last count. I do however enjoy their beer for their level of quality and consistency.

    • Pete Mitcham on February 24, 2015 at 6:47 am

      Thanks Mick. No. No it wasn’t a sponsored article. Thanks for asking. Maybe the ‘sobering thought’ is that thanks to the breweries who are able to make larger quantities of consistently high quality beer and ship them to the far-flung reaches of this wide brown land drinkers can have drink something other than mainstream lagers. You’re spot-on – it’s all down to quality and consistency.

    • Editor on February 24, 2015 at 3:38 pm

      Hi Mick (and Nathan) this wasn’t an ad. Brews News has a very clear policy about fully disclosing the few sponsored posts we run, and also when content is included from a media release.

  7. Terry on February 23, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Regardless of flavour changes or not I am proud to say that I am a beer bigot and will spend my money at the numerous local microbreweries popping up than a company who has sold out to the big boys for a handsome profit and are now crying foul.

    • Pete Mitcham on February 23, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      To be fair to the crew at Little Creatures (many of whom I am proud to call friends) it was not them ‘crying foul’.As far as I can tell there has been no official or unofficial comment from anyone at LC or Lionco for that matter. The piece was a response to comments and discussions over the past few months where drinkers claimed to ‘know’ that the recipe had been deliberately changed presumably to decrease costs. My intention was simply to set the record straight in that regard.

    • Nathan on February 23, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Thanks Pete. Fair enough, I wasn’t aware of the negative commentary on this site and think you’re spot on with supporting local breweries being an impetus to change. Let’s be honest, changing your water is changing 94.5% of the ingredients. Same recipe, different taste. I certainly wasnt calling LC people liar, I just figure some of us do notice the nuances

      • Pete Mitcham on February 24, 2015 at 6:58 am

        I’ll put another call in and confirm your contention re water chemistry. My understanding from talking to brewers and attending seminars on water chemistry is that any water used in brewing can be chemically adjusted to suit taste profile, pH, salt content, softness/hardness etc. I had assumed that Geelong water would be treated by LC to make it ‘behave’ in the same way as Freo water.

        • Nathan on February 24, 2015 at 8:44 am

          Yeah water is a bitch is my understanding. Minerals have an uptake between 70-90% which is a very wide difference when your brewing 1000’s of litres. Might take a while to tinker with your water to get it similar to a region. There is a reason Pilsen is famous for Pilsner. Water… So important.

  8. Jon on February 23, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I’ll take them at their word that they haven’t made significant changes to the beer but I personally think many people are increasingly interested in drinking Australian owned beer and that’s why me and many of my friends choose to now support local breweries over foreign owned Little Creatures, Matilda Bay and James Squire.

    I also think that’s going to become a bigger talking point in the future..

    • Editor on February 24, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      HI Jon, Fair call and I agree that it’s going to become a bigger issue in the future, but it won’t matter to everyone. But this is generally less an question of beer quality than politics. Even time we buy a beer based on who owns the brewery, we are making a decision about what matters to us and how we want the industry to look. Hopefully that will mean more small independent breweries survive this time around, because they make the beer landscape more interesting and dynamic. At Brews News we are big advocates for labelling so that the provenance of a beer is clear so those for whom ownership or production matters and consumers can easily make that decision.

  9. Pete Mitcham on February 23, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for your comment Nathan. The point of this piece was to set the record straight in light of recent comments on this site and to this writer about ‘changes’ to LC Pale Ale. You’ve helped me prove the point by insisting that the beer has ‘been changed’ when those who brew (and have brewed it) declare that it hasn’t.
    Far from being an apologist or a promoter for the brand, as you imply, I am merely proposing that there are drinkers out there who have moved on from the Pale Ale because they don’t wish to support multi-nationals but hide behind the myth that the recipe has been ‘dumbed down’.

  10. Mitch on February 23, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    I think the LC have done a generally good job at not changing there beers but i swear Matilda bay have changed a lot. The fat yak is nothing like it once was.

  11. Nathan on February 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    i think this carefully worded advertisement dodges the point. Yes you are using water, malt, hops and yeast. Since moving to the new brewery the flavour has changed considerably for little creatures beer, maybe due to a different water supply which also undergoes reverse osmosis. The damage to the brand is probably lack of sales due to the flavour changing. Harassing consumers by implying they don’t like your beer anymore because they are into beer bigotry seems quite hostile. It’s the exact opposite, it’s the flavour, mouthful and freshness that keeps the pale ale out of my fridge.

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