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What's Brewing Down Under?

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

Roger has just returned from a stint down under as guest speaker at Melbourne's beer fest. In the first of his reports he investigates how most Aussies don't give a xxxx for industrial lager, and discovers Australia's bouyant craft brewing scene. This is a two-part feature. There's a link to part two at the bottom of the page.

If Foster's is your favourite tipple, don't go to Australia. What was once considered an iconic Australian beer - the 'amber nectar' - hardly features. In a week in Melbourne and Adelaide, I don't recall seeing a single tap for Foster's.

Even Crocodile Dundee shuns it now and the company that makes it has reverted to its original name of Carlton and Union Breweries. CUB's main brands are Victoria Bitter, the biggest-selling beer in Australia and a lager in spite of the name, and Carlton Draught.

With Lion Nathan, which brews Castlemaine XXXX, Toohey's and Swan, the two giants command 95% of the Australian market. Cooper's of Adelaide, doughty brewers of the famous Sparkling Ale, has a further 3%, which doesn't leave much room for anyone else. But an astonishing number of small craft breweries have sprung up, like flowers in the Australian desert after a rainstorm, to grab the remaining 2% of the market.

small is beautiful

The craft brewers were on show at Beer Expo in Melbourne, the first major national beer festival ever staged in Australia. It was the brainchild of David Lipman, publisher of Beer & Brewer magazine, a glossy consumer publication dedicated to all things beery in Australia and New Zealand. Matthew Kirkegaard, editor of Beer & Brewer, is one of a youthful group of enthusiastic beer writers that includes Willie Simpson from Tasmania, and the host of beer dinners around the country, the 'beer diva' Kirrily Waldhorn.

Thanks to the efforts of craft brewers and writers, Australians can now move beyond ice-cold lagers and savour British-style pale ales, an abundance of IPAs, porters and stouts, alongside Belgian and German-inspired wheat beers, strong Belgian-style ales and true Pilsners.

One of the main driving forces behind the craft brewing revolution is an American, Dr Charles Hahn (right). Better known simply as Chuck Hahn, he has built a chain of brew pubs under the Malt Shovel and James Squire names. Chuck was born in New York City and worked for Coors in Colorado for 10 years before being head-hunted by Tooth's in Sydney. He was brewery general manager there but lost his job in 1983 when Foster's bought Tooth's.

Chuck moved to New Zealand where he worked for Lion for 3 years before launching his own Hahn Brewery in New South Wales. He built Hahn Premium Lager into a successful brand but his business collapsed when his banks withdrew their support during a recession. He teamed up with Lion Nathan and opened the Malt Shovel Brewery, named after the tavern where James Squire brewed in the late 18th century.

Squire is commemorated as Australia's first brewer. He was a convict transported from England to Australia. He continued a life of crime until he settled down to run his tavern and brew beer. Chuck Hahn launched James Squire Original Pilsner and then rolled out a number of James Squire brew-pubs. There are two in Melbourne and one in Sydney, with a fourth due to come on stream in Perth in June. The aim is to have a brew-pub in every major city in the country.

The brewing kit on view in the James Squire Brewhouse on Russell Street, Melbourne, seemed familiar: it comes from a former Firkin brew-pub in London. In common with the other brew-pubs, the Russell Street site produces small volume beers such as IPA and Porter and occasional 'off the wall' brews, including a raspberry wheat. Bigger brands such as Pilsner, Golden Ale and Amber Ale come either from the Malt Shovel brewery in New South Wales, which produces 2.5 million hectolitres a year, or Lion Nathan's South Australian Brewery in Adelaide.

heading west

Western Australia, a state with a population of around just one million, has a surprising number of micros. Feral in the Swan Valley won three awards and was named overall champion at the International Brewing Awards staged in Melbourne on the eve of Beer Expo. Its beers include a powerfully hopped American-style IPA, Hophog (5.8%), a lemony and spicy Belgian-style wheat beer, Feral White (4.6%), Rust, a 6% Belgian ale, and Farmhouse Ale (4.3%), unfiltered, cloudy, with big citrus fruit and spicy notes.

Bootleg is the first craft brewery in the Margaret River region. Its beer range includes a malty dark beer, Raging Bull (7.1%) with coffee, chocolate and toffee notes, a seasonal German-style Hefe wheat beer, Tom's Amber Ale (4%) and Wil's Pils at 4.9%. In the same state, Little Creatures is a fast-growing craft brewery with national coverage whose range includes a 5.2% Pale Ale, with grapefruit and floral hop notes balancing rich malt, and Bright Ale (4.5%), packed with citrus hops and juicy malt. There's even a Roger's Beer - g'day, mates - at 3.8% with chewy caramel notes and spicy hops, and a 4.6% Pilsner - toasted malt, light citrus fruit and good hop bitterness.

Matilda Bay in Fremantle is one of the earliest craft breweries in the country and revives memories of David Bruce's Firkin chain in England with a 5.2% Dogbolter - a big malty beer with roasted grain and chocolate notes. The brewery also produces a 4.7% Bohemian Pilsner, rich and malty with a late burst of hop bitterness, and its best-known brand, the 4.7% Bavarian-style wheat beer, Redback, with a pronounced banana and cloves character.

Victoria, Sydney and Canberra

On the other side of the country, Bridge End Brewery in Beechworth, Victoria, responds to the interest in Belgian styles with a Chevalier Saison (6.2%), a fruity and spicy beer, along with Robust Porter (5.2%) with a big roast and chocolate character balanced by peppery hops, and - flying the flag - Australian Ale (4.4%), a fruity, cloudy ale with good hop bitterness and more than a nod in the direction of Cooper's Sparkling Ale in Adelaide.

There's a different and English influence in the Holgate Brewhouse's 5% ESB from Woodend, Victoria, with biscuity malt, floral hops and a long bitter and fruity finish. In Sydney, the long-standing Lord Nelson brew-pub offers Old Admiral (6.1%), with vinous fruit and ripe malt notes, and Three Sheets (4.9%) pale ale that has juicy malt, fruity hops and a long bittersweet finish.

Also in Sydney, the Redoak boutique beer cafe (left), run by David and Janet Hollyoak, has an eclectic range including a Belgian-inspired raspberry beer, Framboise Froment (5.2%), a 6.5% IPA, which is served on handpump in the cafe, and has a big citrus fruit and bitter hop character, and Rauch or smoke beer (5.5%) using malt from Bamberg, with toffee, spicy hops and a long, smoky, complex finish. Redoak also produces a tart and quenching, 5% Blackberry Wheat.

The Wig & Pen in Canberra is another bar with handpumped beer. The influence is firmly British, with a Bulldog Best Bitter (4%), bursting with biscuity malt, spicy hops and rich fruit, with a long and bitter finish, and Creamy Stout (6%), a silky smooth beer with chocolate and mocha flavours and a roasty and fruity finish.

Go to part II: Melbourne's craft brewing scene in depth