Category Archives: Craft Beer

2013 The Year in Beer

The start of 2014 means that it’s time to look back on 2013 in order to vote for my favourite beers of the year for the Local Taphouse’s Hottest 100 Beers competition. Looking at the hundreds of beers available to vote for and how difficult it is to narrow down a top five it’s clear that 2013 was very simply the best year in beer ever.

Hottest 100

Vote here http://www.brewsnews.com.au/vote-for-australias-hottest-100-beers/

Sure there were a few beers and brewers that disappointed but that’s been the case every year that I can remember. For every brewer that made a whole bunch of uninspiring beers there was another pushing the envelope.  While more and more exciting imports hit our shores, I doubt that I would change my top five if imports were allowed.

Judging by my choices, it seems that envelope pushing sits well with me when I score beers. My criteria was pretty simple. Look back at the highest rated beers that I checked in last year on the Untappd app and decide which ones I would go out of my way to try again. This perhaps gave an unfair advantage to difficult to find beers and pushed “my go” to session beer, Stone and Wood Pacific out of the running. I don’t think they’ll miss my vote.

I didn’t deliberately try to only have one beer from any single brewer although I could easily have had multiple entries from any of these brewers, and a few others.

5. Dennis Beer Co. Rocket Science Mad Hatter IPA.

There are a lot of new local brewers that have kept me happy this year. Every beer from Riverside has been superb. HopDog has a whole bunch of exciting beers. Wayward, Grifter and Dennis have proven that you don’t need to own a brewery to make great beers. I’ve enjoyed all of the Dennis beers and this was my favourite, fruity and easy to drink with tea leaves adding extra lift and freshness that hides a reasonably high alcohol content. New Zealand’s Yeastie Boys Gunnamatta was the original tea-leaf IPA and is spectacular, the Mad Hatter sits happily beside it.

mad hatter

4. BrewCult Supa Fly Rye IPA

I seem to like the addition of a bit of rye in beers, it seems to help balance beers with plenty of hops and gives a little bit of a toasty aftertaste. Mountain Goat Rare Breed Rye and HopDog Horns Up were a couple of my highest rating beers of the year but this one pips them. BrewCult’s Steve “Hendo” Henderson has made four beers so far and each one could make anyone’s top 5.

3. Bridge Road Chevalier Saison.

The only beer to appear in my top five that was there last year this is simply a superb beer and still the best Australian saison. It is the pinnacle of beers to match with food. There are plenty of other 5 star Bridge Road beers that I had this year that could have been on the list including the India Saison, Bling Bling Double IPA, Dark Harvest, B2 Bomber and the spectacular Aurora Borealis.

2. Two Metre Tall Original Soured Ale

sour

There is no doubt that Two Metre Tall’s Ashley Huntington is a passionate man. The former winemaker and full time farmer makes some serious beers in the Derwent Valley, Tasmania. I tasted the Original Soured and Sour Cherry Ales on the first day of Sydney Craft Beer week and they remained the best beers I had over the 8 days (I had a lot of beers that week.) The Soured Ale is barrel aged for three years and is easily the best lambic style beer that I’ve had outside Belgium.

1. Doctor’s Orders Cephalopod.

cephalopod

This was the one beer that I went back to every time I heard that it had been tapped. The concept was a black Berliner Weisse using squid ink to colour it. Of course it was a different colour every time, ranging from grey to turquoise and every shade in between (I did try it a lot.) The taste was superb, a bit of lemon tartness and a rich texture. It surprised and delighted. Doc is currently brewing another take on the Berliner Weisse style although it’s hard to imagine that it would be better than this. I will go out of my way to drink it of course.

Brewery of the Year – Riverside Brewing Company

Special mention has to go to Parramatta’s Riverside Brewing Company which in its short history has never put a foot wrong. Every one of their beers has been superb and the 44 Amber is the best amber ale that I have tasted. Brewer Dave Padden will go down in Australian brewing history as a man who perfectly understands hops and isn’t afraid to include as many as possible in his beers.

riversideDave Padden enjoying pouring us his beers

One thing is for sure though, 2014 will be an even better year for beer. New brewers will appear, the number of craft beer outlets will continue to expand and the envelope pushers will push even harder.

Bring it on.

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Real Ale in Sydney

I thought I should summarise the list of pubs with handpumps in Sydney. Remember they might not always meet the Campaign for Real Ale’s definitions of Real Ale but they all pump some splendid beers.

If you are only heading there because of the handpumps you should double check before going to ANY of them.

A fuller version of this can be found here https://beerwinebeer.com/2013/03/10/fistpumps-for-handpumps/

Harts Pub, the Rocks – two handpumps usually both running, sometimes one with cider, Rocks beers plus regular guests

Union Hotel, Newtown – two handpumps usually both running, Young Henrys and Murrays beers plus others

Royal Albert, Surry Hills – two handpumps usually both running, Young Henrys and Murrays beers plus others

4 Pines, Manly – one handpump, pretty regular but check ahead, officially real ale

Rubber Duckie Taphouse, Manly (previously Murrays at Manly) – two handpumps usually both running, Murrays beers

Flat Rock Beer Cafe, Naremburn – two handpumps, usully at least one running, beers brewed on premise

Young Henrys Brewery, Newtown – two handpumps, beers brewed on premises

Local Taphouse, Darlinghurst – one handpump, rotating guest beers (Australian Brewery, Riverside Brewery so far)

The Duck Inn, Chippendale – one handpump, Rocks beer, sometimes cider

Quarrymans, Pyrmont – two handpumps, one in use most of the time, Young Henrys beer so far

Petersham Bowling Club – one handpump, Young Henrys beer so far

Lord Dudley, Woolhara – one handpump, beers from the Badlands Brewery

Mojo Record Bar, City – one handpump, Young Henrys beer, only available Friday night and sometimes Saturday, check ahead

Redoak, City – one handpump, only occassionaly used, check before heading there although the other beers are worth a visit anyway

Bellvue Hotel, Paddington – real ale night every last Friday of the month with St Peters beer

Outside Sydney

Wig and Pen, Canberra – 6 handpumps with all beers brewed on premise

Albion Hotel, Newcastle – 2 handpumps, constantly changing beers

Grain Store, Newxastle – one handpump, Young Henrys and Murrays beers so far

Hunter Beer Co at Potters Hotel, Nalbuka, Hunter Valley – one handpump, only at weekends, beers brewed on premise

Let me know if you spot more handpumps in action in NSW (@wilsonscec on twitter or wawilson1969@bigpond.com)

My (Not Really) Near Death Extreme Beer Experience

When I see guys dressed up in Red Bull costumes jumping out of hot air balloons or walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon I usually think “what an idiot.” Risking your life or serious injury for your hobby is just a little bit over the top.

I’m allergic to seafood, so when a local brewery in conjunction with one of my favourite beer websites brought out a beer made with oysters and mussels I didn’t plan to taste it. To be up front it wouldn’t kill me, the allergy is very unpleasant but not anaphylactic. But would I really want to go through it just to taste a beer…

Well, maybe…

Epi Pen at the Ready

Epi-Pen at the Ready

Murray’s and the Crafty Pint’s Auld Bulgin’ Boysterous Bicep has been getting some pretty good feedback. It first appeared at last year’s Beervana as part of a brewery and media collaboration competition. It won the competition by a long way. A blackboard with the judges scores showed almost unanimous perfect marks.

It sure sounded like my kind of beer. A 10% smoked Belgian stout with 200 Port Stephens oysters, 200 blue mussels and 200 green-lipped mussels. Well certainly the 10% smoked Belgian stout part sounded like my kind of beer. The rest I could probably do without.

bicep 1

Wish me luck

On the nose the smoke dominates with hints of coffee and chocolate. A hint of iodine with the smoke makes me think of  of Islay Whisky and I’m reminded of the Ayrshire coast where I spent many summer holidays in my youth. The taste is heavier than expected with thick treacle and rum and raisin Old Jamaica chocolate. To finish there is dry tobacco, a touch of salt, coffee and a quite fresh, lingering orange peel bitterness.

The beer is smooth and complex and every sip reveals more character. Every sip to the bottom of the glass. At some point I obviously decided that quality of the beer was worth the risk to my health. I could have just had a sip or two, made the tasting notes and hoped for the best, instead I downed every last drop.

bicep 3

So a couple of hours later and apart from feeling a bit itchy I’ve not had much of a reaction. It’s difficult to pinpoint any seafood character to the beer and I don’t think that I’m the only person happy with that. The beer is superb, a full bodied and full flavoured Imperial Stout that is worth seeking out. Kudos have to go to Shawn Sherlock at Murray’s and James Smith of the Crafty Pint.

I guess now I’m going to have to try Young Henry’s latest seafood beer, the brilliantly named Mother Shucka Oyster Stout…

Getting Stoned in Byron

I was lucky enough to visit the Stone and Wood Brewery in Byron Bay recently and came away feeling pretty damn good about the beer industry in Australia.

stone and wood logo

Most of you will probably be surprised that I had some concerns about visiting. Their beers are consistently fantastic and receive rave reviews. Stone and Wood Pacific Ale is easily one of my favourite beers and has been a game changer for Australian beer. The thing was I always looked at them as being a bit too “big business” for my liking. I like to visit the little guys, struggling to support their families while focussing on the quality of beer. I’d never thought that Stone and Wood fitted into this category.

Three successful young men founded Stone and Wood in 2008, giving up some senior big business positions to do so. Brad Rogers and Ross Jurisich worked for Matilda Bay, the “craft” beer arm of Foster’s as Head Brewer and National Sales Manager respectively. Jamie Cook was one of Australia’s top beverage marketing men, a director at Dig Marketing, one time Head of Marketing for Foster’s wine division and previously the General Manager of Matilda Bay.

Stone Wood 3

Don’t ask

Around fifteen years ago I was on a holiday to Queensland’s Gold Coast and I dragged my wife to the Sanctuary Cove Brewery which was part of the Fosters owned Tankstream group of brewpubs that included the Sail and Anchor in Perth and the Pumphouse in Sydney. The young brewer showed us around and when it came to tasting he steered me away from the “Cane Toad Beer” towards a new beer that he had come up with called Alpha Pale Ale. He described it as a US style pale with plenty of alpha acids, hence the name.

This was an epiphany beer for me in Australia, the first time that I thought that we could make really great beer here. While the brewpub would go through a few name changes and eventually close down, the young brewer, Brad Rogers, was destined for some big things. He took Alpha Pale Ale with him to Matilda Bay along with Beez Neez and now in addition to his role at Stone and Wood he is the Chief Judge for the Australian International Beer Awards and the chairman of the Craft Brewers Industry Association. 

When I first tried Stone and Wood Pacific Ale (or Draught Ale as it was called at the time) I hadn’t been impressed. Dirty beer lines had dulled the flavours making it seem like just another Coopers Pale Ale clone. I was hooked after my next taste though, the tropical fruit aroma from the Galaxy hops was amazing, with passionfruit bursting from the glass. Stone and Wood was a sure thing to be a big success and the price of Galaxy hops was about to go through the roof.

To build business they had partnered with Little Creatures. This gave them access to national distribution and a bit of capital. A lot of beer lovers were concerned when Little Creatures was swallowed by Lion Breweries last year and fortunately Stone and Wood were in a good enough position to buy back the 20% of the business Little Creatures owned. They received a lot of kudos from the craft beer community for doing so.

Earlier this year we travelled up the coast from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast. We didn’t see many independent beers on the way but Stone and Wood popped up at a lot of beach side bars to keep me happy, even though when I asked for a glass in one bar I was given a schooner full of ice for it. Hmmm. On the way back we stayed overnight in Byron Bay. I posted onto twitter how good it was to drink Pacific Ale at the legendary Beach Hotel and Jamie Cook messaged back saying that I should visit the next day.

Pacific Ale 1

Pacific Ale at the Beach Hotel, Byron Bay, the beach and the Pacific Ocean in the background

The first thing you will notice if you visit Stone and Wood is that the brewery is almost invisible. I had to use my GPS to find it, hidden in an ageing industrial area on the road North out of town. Even once the GPS told me that we had arrived I couldn’t see anything that fitted the bill. Where was the spectacular shiny big business brewery which I imagined would have stunning beach views? A small orange sign with the Stone and Wood logo, hidden behind some overgrown bushes was the only clue that we were in the right place.

The front door to the office area was open (there was no fancy reception, just a couple of desks) and it was Jamie himself who welcomed me, wearing shorts and a t-shirt rather than the suit and tie he would have been wearing at Foster’s. He seemed genuinely happy to talk to me about beer and show me around despite clearly being flat out.

Byron had put on a scorcher for us, over 30 degrees and extremely humid. As we went into the brewery itself you could tell that air conditioning wasn’t part of their business plan. The brewery is just a big open plan industrial unit, ageing and made from corrugated iron. Every available inch of floor space is utilised, pallets of malt and hops at one end, then the brewery itself, plenty of tanks and a packaging line at the end. A few more tanks were due to arrive soon after and it would be a struggle to fit them in.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m hoping that delicious beer might come out of that tap

Two men were on the bottling line and Jamie grabbed a bottle of Jasper Ale for me, as fresh as you could ever drink it. Bottling is done by hand with a sheltered workshop putting together the boxes and empty six packs, saving space and time at the brewery. This is one of many aspects of the business that supports the local community.

Jamie told me that I was lucky to see anything other than Pacific Ale. He explained that they had always wanted to focus on just a few beers, making sure that they were as good as they could be rather than having a wide portfolio or a whole lot of seasonal releases. 

We walked further into the brewing area and I noticed that the only brewer on duty was actually Brad Rogers himself. Wearing shorts, he was shovelling spent malt and it was clearly hard work, the heat an humidity certainly wasn’t helping. This was where the penny dropped for me. While Stone and Wood might seem a bit flash the simple reality is that the success is based on a hell of a lot of hard work and a huge risk taken by the three partners, along with some business smarts and of course, great beer. It might seem pretty big compared to many independent breweries but in reality it is a small business that is competing against some monsters. 

The brewery will continue to expand with demand for the beers, especially Pacific Ale, outstripping supply at peak times. Their draught beer customers take first priority along with accounts that have supported them since the start. They weren’t able to supply all of the beer ordered by some big accounts over Christmas and even with a few more tanks they will struggle to supply it all again this year with demand continuing to grow. They have to order their Galaxy hops two years in advance to make sure that there will be enough.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Major thanks to Jamie Cook for his time (and the Jasper Ale)

It’s great to see Stone and Wood in so many bars up the NSW Coast (and beyond) that would normally be full of big brewery blandness. They are proof that while great tasting beer is essential to bring more people to craft beer it needs some strong sales and marketing to put it into as many places as possible. The separate skills of the three partners along with some seriously hard work has made them the success they are today.

Go out and buy a six pack of Pacific Ale, support a small business and think of the beach at Byron Bay, which isn’t visible from the brewery.

Super Beeronomics

I have some bad news to share. Drinking decent beer is an expensive hobby.

I was joking about my Scottish heritage with the owner of my favourite beer bar recently and then to prove that I wasn’t actually tight with money I pointed out that I’d bought a glass of Chimay Blanche and hadn’t even looked at the price. I then looked at the beer list above the bar and said “Faark, $15 for a half pint.”

I usually ignore craft beer drinkers who complain about how expensive good beer is. They need to get a new hobby. Apparently Brewdog Punk IPA costs two and a half times as much as VB in Dan Murphy’s and some people object to this. Utter insanity. Brewdog will happily tell you that they use ten times as much ingredients in their beer than normal lagers. They don’t have the economies of scale that Fosters has. It’s shipped from the North of Scotland to the other side of the world. It should cost 20 times as much as VB.

Drinking decent beer is an expensive hobby but you know what, we’re actually getting a bargain deal, even at $15 for a half pint (actually 310ml.) Wine prices vary from a few bucks for plonk in a box to thousands of dollars. Why doesn’t a beer that is worth 20 times as much as VB cost twenty times as much.

The thing is though, prices of decent beers are on the way up and you better prepare your wallet.

Taphouse Taps

Local Taphouse Taps – spectapular

Simple economics drive beer prices and as more and as more and more people drink craft beer we are likely to see prices rise, especially for the rare stuff. The last time I had Chimay on tap just a couple of years ago it was less than $10.  Supply is limited (one 20ltr keg was all the Taphouse had) and demand far greater than it was a few years ago so the price has corrected itself. If it was a wine with the same reputation, heritage and quality you would pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle.

Input costs are huge for small brewers. Paying more for ingredients, investment in equipment and a massive whack to the taxman before they actually sell their beer means that their profit is far smaller than the big boys. This continues into bars where owners can buy faux craft beers for less and sell them for same as independent beers.

Until we see a huge number of new beer bars opening we won’t see prices going down from competition between bars. While more and more small breweries are opening the craft beer market is expanding at a similar rate. No small brewer would dream of competing on price, they just can’t afford to. Larger independent brewers who just spent a fortune building large breweries are toying with discounting as part of market entry strategy but have to be careful that they don’t permanently damage the product. Discounting to large supermarket chains has ruined many breweries worldwide.    

Brux

Sierra Nevada & Russian River Brux – beer nerd dreaming

Lovers of rare and special release beers will feel the brunt of a supply and demand economy. The Russian River Brewery in Sonoma, California has an incredible reputation for its beers and doesn’t send them to Australia. When their collaboration with Sierra Nevada hit the shelves here it sold out in a couple of days at $40 a bottle. Just wait for the next time their beer makes it over here.  

Foster’s Crown Ambassador at an RRP of $99.99 is pretty much the most expensive beer you will see in Australia. It was launched while they also owned Penfold’s Grange so it makes sense. Could they release a beer with no reputation, on the coattails of a beer that most beer snobs think is Foster’s Lager in a fancy bottle and charge $100 a bottle. Limit it to just a few thousand bottles, put it in a fancy box and release just before Christmas. It sells out almost immediately, though probably not to craft beer drinkers.

Crown Ambassador

Crown Ambassador – fancy box

The craft beer market is young and small and growing quickly. Pricing will be inconsistant as the market matures so make the most out of low prices while they are still out there. For great value good beer head to the Union in Newtown or you can pick up a magnum of Mikkeller Red/White Christmas at Frankies in the city for $30. It’s best if you bring a friend to share it with.

And there is still plenty of value at the Local Taphouse. All of those beers are worth the asking price and there are plenty of places in town that charge way more. The weeknight food and beer specials are some of the best I’ve seen. Their tasting paddle at $15 offers 5 x 90ml tasting glasses, great stuff if you want to try the rare beers without breaking the bank. You’ll get a funny look if you ask for five glasses of the same beer though.

Happy drinking!