Australia Day beer report — state of play, state of origin

In the old days where we lived in Australia pretty well determined which beer we’d enjoy on a hot day. Barring a little blurring around State borders, we drank what our home-State breweries offered.

In the mid seventies a new Victorian brewery, Courage, attempted a national roll out with the now defunct Courage and Crest brands. By then, of course, we were also enjoying a range of imported beers.

In the eighties rationalisation of the industry began in earnest and brewers attempted to move State brands across borders. Carlton United did this with great success, building Fosters into a national and international brand.

Interestingly, Fosters faded quickly in Australia to be replaced by Victoria Bitter, another Carlton United brand. It remains, perhaps, the most successful of the border-crossing non-premium State brands.

Huge growth in premium beers started in the late eighties and accelerated in the nineties leading, ultimately, to the national roll out of Sydney’s Hahn Premium and Tasmania’s Cascade and Boags Premium. These joined the already nationally successful Crown Lager, yet another of the Carlton brands, and a growing number of internationals.

By now State brands were thoroughly intermingled in ownership, with Queensland’s Castlemaine, New South Wales’ Tooheys and Hahn, South Australia’s West End and Southwark and Western Australia’s Emu and Swan folded, along with New Zealand Lion, Leopard and Steinlager, into Lion Nathan, itself 46-per-cent Japanese owned.

Meanwhile, Foster’s Group, still Australian owned, controls just about any hallowed old Victorian name you care to remember as well as those from New South Wales’ Tooths and Reschs breweries and Tasmania’s Cascade.

Ironically, while rationalisation and internationalisation tend to foster blandness in mass brands, both of our giant brewers have serious investments in genuine craft brewing operations.

Lion’s Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney and Little Creatures in Fremantle and Foster’s Matilda Bay (Fremantle and Dandenong) produce highly complex, idiosyncratic beers of the highest quality.

Fortunately these are widely distributed, for the most part readily available and add vivid splashes of colour to the pretty bland palette of commercial beers.

Consumer demand for more interesting beers has also meant a proliferation of micro breweries across the country, These tend to service local markets – sometimes for the simple reason that they make draft beer only. But we’re sure to see increasing numbers on retail shelves if demand for premium beers continues to grow rapidly.

With all of the above in mind, my Australia Day beer selections focus on genuine State-of-origin beers, of great individuality, from craft brewers large and small.

The one exception is the Northern Territory. Without a field trip, alas, nothing notable emerged – hence, the choice of the top end’s beer icon, the Darwin stubby.

Here’s to Australia and Aussie beer.

AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY

The Wig & Pen Tavern & Brewery, various beers
Since 1994 the Wig, under proprietor Lachlan McOmish and brewers Richard Pass and now Richard Watkins, has been at the leading edge of Australian pub brewing. The Wig, in Alinga Street, offers a diversity of complex, award winning beer styles built on a regular range supplemented by seasonal specialties.

NEW SOUTH WALES

James Squire Original Pilsener 345ml 6pack $16
NSW has so many good brewers but this one, made by Chuck Hahn’s crew at the Lion Nathan owned Malt Shovel brewery, is a world class interpretation of the Bohemian model. It delivers the tremendous malt richness of the style as well as the magnificent aromatics and intense bitterness of Saaz hops.

NORTHERN TERRITORY

Northern Territory Draught Darwin Stubby 2 litre $30
It’s brewed in Melbourne by Foster’s and the beer, says retired brewer Peter Manders, is a mainstream lager in the style of Victoria Bitter – Australia’s biggest selling brew – so we all know what it tastes like. It’s an icon of the Territory, if not an artefact. And, no, they don’t offer six-packs.

QUEENSLAND

Oxford 152 Micro Brewery, Bulimba, various brews
Early last year I judged at the Australian International Beer Awards with Oxford 152 brewer, Brennan Fielding. I’ve not visited the pub brewery — at 152 Oxford Street, Bulimba — and therefore rely on Brennan’s extraordinary nineteen-medal tally at the awards for my rating and recommendation. A field trip is on the agenda.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Coopers Sparkling Ale 375ml 6 pack about $15
After defeating Lion’s recent hostile takeover bid, Cooper’s cemented its role as the third force in Australian brewing – with an estimated three per cent of the national market. Adelaide loves it. And growing numbers throughout Australia enjoy the rich, fruity, distinctive, cloudy style – caused not by the Adelaide water but by a natural yeast haze.

TASMANIA

Moorilla Moo Brew Wheat Beer 330ml $5.50
Tasmania has a highly visible brewing thanks largely to the quality and mainstream success of Cascade Premium and Boags Premium lagers. But there’s a craft brewing presence as well, including Claudio Radenti’s draught Hazards Ale and this delightful, zesty bottle-conditioned wheat beer from Moorilla Estate Winery’s new brewery near Hobart.

VICTORIA

Naked Ale $4.80 a pot at Young & Jackson Pub, Melbourne
Jules Lefebvre’s 1875 portrait Chloe provoked outrage in Victorian era Melbourne. More than a century on Chloe presides, still naked, over her own bar at Young & Jackson’s pub on Flinders and Swanston Streets. Visitors toast Chloe with Naked Ale, a superb keg-conditioned wheat beer made at Matilda Bay’s Dandenong brewery.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Little Creatures Pale Ale 330ml
Lion Nathan is a major shareholder. Nevertheless this Fremantle operation is a craft brewer in the true sense, making highly complex beers, albeit in sufficient volume for national distribution. Its original creation, Pale Ale, the flagship, stimulates the senses — deliciously — with its passionfruit-like hops-led aroma and flavour.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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