Category Archives: Beer review

Canberra’s BentSpoke brewery launches packaged beer

BentSpoke owners Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain with ACT  Chief Minister Andrew Barr (centre)
BentSpoke owners Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr (centre)

BentSpoke Brewing Co yesterday unveiled its second brewery and a high-speed canning line, located in Mitchell, a Canberra industrial suburb.

Brewer Richard Watkins says the new facility has the potential to brew six million litres a year – equivalent to 666 thousand nine-litre slabs – making it by far Canberra’s biggest brewery.

Until an on-site bar opens in mid-2017, the brewery’s output will be devoted to cans and kegs for distribution around Canberra.

Since opening in mid 2014, BentSpoke’s original brewpub, located in inner city Braddon, has produced around 300,000 litres of beer across about 50 styles. The beers have all been served on site from tap.

However, the opening of the larger Mitchell brewery, with its canning and keg-filling capacity, puts BentSpoke into the highly competitive wholesale beer business. It will fight for tap and shelf space against both mainstream and craft brewers, including Canberra locals Zierholz, Pact Beer Co and Capital Brewing Co.

Watkins says local retailers are keen to support local brewers and by launch date on 3 November, 11 outlets had signed up. These included Plonk, Prohibition, Ainslie Cellars, Curtin Cellars, Jim Murphy Fyshwick and Airport, Page Bottle-O, and the Woolworths-owned BWS stores at Calwell, Franklin and Mawson.

BentSpoke cans feature a removable pull-tab and wide opening
BentSpoke cans feature a removable pull-tab and wide opening

For the launch, Watkins released canned versions of two popular BentSpoke brews. Mid-strength (4.2% alcohol) Barley Griffin Canberra Pale Ale offers ultra fresh flavour with distinctive hops filling the mid palate and giving a vigorous, lingering bitterness. It’s streets ahead of most mid-strength brews. Crankshaft IPA, at 5.8% alcohol, delivers opulent malty character, citrusy hops flavour and thrilling bitterness – a delicious version of this popular, characterful USA West-Coast style.

Both come in 375ml aluminium cans with a pull-tab that completely detaches as it opens almost the entire diameter of the can.

Before commissioning the new brewery, Watkinson hired former James Squire brewer Mick Rance. “He’s a great brewer”, says Watkins, “and he’s got the technical skill to use the canning equipment. We have very low oxygen levels in our beer, as low as the big brewers, which is a big achievement”.

Watkins believes cans offer several advantages over bottles: they’re impervious to light, they don’t smash, and they’re light. The rip-top version he selected gives a wide, round opening that allows the drinker to see and smell the beer – a notable improvement over other pull-tabs. However, the tab detaches completely, leaving a sharp-edged, 50-cent-sized circle of aluminium to dispose of.

That’s a retrograde step in my opinion, reminiscent of the first detachable rip-tops of the 1970s. Discarded tabs from beer and soft drinks littered the ground everywhere. Some people even swallowed them after they’d been dropped into cans. After medical, environmental and public outcries, businesses eventually replaced them with tabs that remained attached. While people are unlikely to swallow the large new tabs, the fact that they detach from the can creates a litter problem, and leaves a loose end on a technology that otherwise benefits the consumer.

BentSpoke Brewing Co is a partnership between Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain, and the Meddings family, owners of Melbourne-based brewing supplier Bintani Australia.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016

Are you ready for sauvignon beer?

Will Bruce, winemaker at Wily Trout Wines, Canberra
Will Bruce, winemaker at Wily Trout Wines, Canberra

Grape and grain have been mixed before – for example in Saltram Pepperjack Ale, where Barossa shiraz juice provides a sugar boost for the fermentation. But it came as a complete surprise in March when BentSpoke brewer Richard Watkins and Wily Trout winemaker Will Bruce fomented the idea of combining hops with sauvignon blanc.

Watkins was to provide fresh hop flowers (from Rostrevor Farm, Ovens River) while Bruce was to allocate a ton of sauvignon blanc. As the de-stemmed grapes stirred into a natural ferment, Watkins committed his rare and precious hops.

For four months, skins, wine and hops fermented then slept together, begetting the quirkiest, most pungent fusion imaginable. Due for release in the next few months, most likely on tap at BentSpoke, the (as-yet-unfinished, un-named) sauvy-beer tastes delicious and dry, with whiffs of passionfruit and a grapefruit-like, tartness and bitterness.

Watch the Wily Trout and Bentspoke websites for the release date and visit again for my tasting note .

Cider and beer reviews

Napoleone Apple Cider (Yarra Valley, Victoria) 330ml $3.65
The Napoleone family grow grapes and fruit for their Punt Road and Airlie Bank wines and Napoleone ciders. They make beer too. Their basic apple cider – a delicate, dry style – shows the crunchy freshness the real real apples it was made from. The family makes several other pear and apple ciders.

Halvouston IPA (Scotland) 330ml $5.30
Halvouston claims to have used American hops since the 1980s, long before the hegemony of the USA west coast’s uber-hoppy IPAs. And an impressive wee drop it is, too: opulently malty, with strong citrus-like hops flavours (from four west coast varieties) and potent, lingering hops bitterness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 13 July 2016 in the Canberra Times

Coopers releases 2016 vintage ale

Ready for tasting: Cooper's Vintage Ale, vintage 2008–2013, Lake Conjola NSW, 8 January 2014
Ready for tasting: Cooper’s Vintage Ale, vintages 2008–2013, Lake Conjola NSW. The just-released 2016 continues the style, this year with a bitter hops emphasis.

In 1998, at the dawning of the craft beer boom, Adelaide-based Coopers launched its first strong vintage ale – a potent beer built for medium-term cellaring. It remained an on-again, off-again project for a few years, but since 2006 Coopers have produced the beer annually, with minor variations to the style.

The 2016 release combines rich maltiness and fruitiness derived from Cooper’s ale yeast, with an assertive hops affect. While the hops contribute aroma and flavour, their biggest impact, to my taste, is in an intense bitterness that harmonises with the sweet malt flavours.

The strong malt and hops input, together with an alcohol content of 7.5 per-cent and bottle conditioning gives vintage ale the ability to age for several years. We keep all of the past vintages at Schloss Shanahan. Though the oldest are fading now, we enjoy tasting the young, hoppy, bitter young beers alongside the mellow, malty older ones.

Cooper’s Extra Strong Vintage Ale 2016 375ml 6-pack $25
We occassionally compare older releases of Cooper’s Vintage ale from the Schloss Shanahan cellars with the current release. Invariably we taste and enjoy the gradual shift, over time, from hops dominance to mellow, sweet, maltiness. The just-released 2016 vintage (7.5 per cent alcohol), shows a harmony of opulent malt flavours and intense, lingering hops bitterness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 6 July 2016 in the Canberra Times

BentSpoke 18%-alcohol ale: brewer’s secret revealed

BentSpoke Cluster 18 – rich, harmonious and 18% alcohol
BentSpoke Cluster 18 – rich, harmonious and 18% alcohol.

BentSpoke Brewery’s Cluster 18 tastes as rich, warm. and harmonious as it looks, despite having an alcohol content of 18%. We visited the Braddon, Canberra, brewpub on a cold winter morning,  savoured every drop of our 200ml glass (prudently, that’s the only size available) and quizzed brewer Richard Watkins. How does he achieve such high alcohol content in a natural ferment?

My first encounter with a beer of this strength wasn’t so happy. About 20 years back, during the Australian International Beer Awards, we judged Samuel Adams Triple Bock, an epic beer: obsidian black, viscous and around 18% alcohol. It poured like syrup, had no bubble and smelled and tasted like Vegemite.

The brewers in our ranks marvelled at the technical achievement, but few enjoyed drinking such a strange beast. Some suggested spreading it on toast.

Watkins shared his brewing secret. Quite simple in principle. Taking the lead from the brewers of Tooheys Dry, he added enzymes to convert non-fermentable carbs to fermentable sugars. After that, he said, a normal ale yeast completed the job.

More remarkable than the technical achievement, however, is the creative genius that can visualise such a potent, velvety beer and deliver it so deliciously.

Flavouring beer with spawn of the devil
BentSpoke brown ale infused with tangelos, chic-covered coffee beans and fresh Canberra truffles.
BentSpoke Tour de Brune, infused with tangelos, choc-covered coffee beans and fresh Canberra truffles.

Tuber melanosporum (the black Périogord truffle) is now produced in commercial quantities in the high, cool country in Canberra’s vicinity. The black tuber’s ability to ripen underground in mid winter led to its banning by the church during the Middle Ages. Who else but Satan could’ve devised such a wickedly sensuous food?

Brewer Richard Watkins first added it to a beer infuser ( the hopinator) at his original haunt, Canberra’s Wig & Pen, but continued the practice when he set up BentSpoke brewpub in the Canberra suburb of Braddon.

The latest batch, weighing in at 8.2% alcohol and served only in 320ml glasses, leads off with malty flavours, strongly suffused with tart and citrus tang of tangelo. When tasted on 4 July, the chocolate, coffee bean and truffle remained in the background – though past experience suggests these earthier flavours will come through several days after the infusion is laid down.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016

Beer review – Almanac Beer Co, Founder Brewing

Almanac Beer Company Pumpkin Sour (San Jose, California) 375ml $19.80
Pumpkin Sour occupies a different beer universe than VB or Budweiser. A brown ale made from a tag team of yeasts and other microbes, then matured in bourbon and wine barrels, it hits the palate with a mighty eight per-cent alcohol and startling tart, sweet, sour flavours.

Founders Brewing Centennial IPA (Grand Rapids, Michigan) 355ml $4.70
The story of modern American India Pale Ale (IPA) is one of hops, hops and more hops, with sufficent sweet malt to absorb all that hoppy flavour and bitterness. The beers are best fresh and young as this one is – a fine example of opulent, luscious malt flavours balancing the delicious malt assault.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 29 June 2016 in the Canberra Times

Black day for Canberra’s Wig and Pen

Dark solace for winter solstice

June 21 marked a black day for the Wig and Pen, Canberra’s oldest brewpub. “We’re launching a huge dark fest, featuring 10 dark beers”, says brewer Frazer Brown.

The exotic line up of malty winter warmers comprises four existing Wig and Pen favourites and six new brews, including a Pact and Pen collaborative porter.

Black beers signify sweet, malty richness, strong roasted-grain flavours – reminiscent of coffee, caramel and chocolate – and often accompanied by an elevated, warming alcohol content.

The line up includes traditional porter and stout styles, ranging from a thunder-in-the-brain Russian Imperial Stout (8.9 per cent alcohol) to a gentle, milk-coffee and chocolate-like London Porter (5.9 per cent). More exotic creations are Elephunk, a fusion between brown ale and IPA, and Bricks and Porter, a smoky Belgian porter style.

The Wig will offer all 10 beers for the first few days of Dark Fest, then a rotating set of five in the following weeks.

Beer reviews

Brewcult Gingerbread Maniac 330ml (Derrimut, Victoria) $8
Keeping with today’s dark and warming theme, Brewcult offers something sweet, spicy and alcoholic (eight per cent). Cinnamon and vanilla join ginger in the brew, but ginger dominates the aroma and  sweet, tangy palate. It finishes fresh and clean, with an aftertaste of dark chocolate and ginger.

Pact Beer Co Brickworks Brown Ale (Canberra) 330ml 6-pack $25
Pact’s new release could easily pass as a porter or stout with its deep brown-black colour and rich, warming aroma. The palate combines the chocolate- and coffee-bean-like flavours of roasted grain, cut with pleasantly tart and tangy hops, which give a fresh, clean dryness to the finish.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 22 June 2016 in the Canberra Times

Beer review – Six Point Brewery, Fuller’s

Six Point Brewery Bengali (NY, USA) 355ml $4.80
Six Point Bengali appeals for it glowing golden colour, dense, white head and inviting citrusy, hoppy aroma. The syrupy rich, 6.5-per-cent-alcohol palate provides the body and malt sweetness to arm-wrestle the extraordinary thrust and bitterness of the hops which, in the end, win the struggle to give a powerful and bitter but fresh finish.

Fuller’s Past Masters 1910 Double Stout (London, UK) 500ml $12
Fuller’s claim to brew this dark and brooding 7.4-per-cent alcohol stout from a hand-written recipe of 1910. The palate combines intense roasted-malt flavours reminiscent of dark chocolate and espresso coffee. Malt sweetness offsets the espresso-like bitterness, derived from both the roasted grain and hops.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 15 June 2016 in the Canberra Times

Committee brews up a winner

A thoroughbred, not a camel

Ask a committee for a horse and you get a camel. But what happens when you ask a committee of brewers for a special beer?

The delicious answer is Saison a Trois, a one-off variant on the French farmhouse ale style. Released for the Australian International Beer Awards in May, it was brewed collaboratively by the winners of the small, medium and large brewery categories of last year’s competition.

Chris Willcock (4 Pines Brewing Co), Matt Houghton (Boatrocker Brewing Co) and Marcus Cox (Thunder Road Brewing Company) set to work on 29 February to create the dark, malty, 6.5-per-cent-alcohol ale.

Despite the dark colour and high alcohol content, it remains light and refreshing, with a very clean, fresh aftertaste. Though it was consumed at the AIBA dinner and following GABS festival, organisers might consider offering next year’s collaborative brew to a wider audience.

Beer reviews

Orkney Brewery Skull Splitter (Scotland) 330ml $7.50
Orkney’s “wee heavy” delivers the dessert-like richness of traditional, strong Scottish ale. Forget about hops and bitterness. This is all about rich, sweet malt flavours – including caramel- and –molasses-like characters – combined with a heady 8.5 per cent alcohol. It’s a delicious, harmonious, winter warmer – in fact, far from skull splitting.

Stone and Wood Stone Beer 2016 500ml $10
Each year Byron Bay’s Stone and Wood makes a stone beer by adding hot stones to the kettle. This intensifies malt flavours, partly through caramelisation caused by the heat. This year’s brew pours black as stout, with warming coffee- and chocolate-like aromas, sweet, malty palate and dry finish, with a pleasing espresso-like bitterness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 8 June 2016 in the Canberra Times

AIBA gongs for Woolworths and Boston Beer Co

326 brewers go head to head

Sixty-three judges at this year’s Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA) tasted 1793 beers from 326 brewers in 36 countries. They dispensed hundreds of gold, silver and bronze medals. In taste-offs of gold-medal winners, they awarded trophies to category winners. And grand taste-offs elected a champion Australian beer and champion international beer.

Woolworths execs smiled all the way to the presentation ceremony, as their part-owned Gage Roads Brewing Co topped all Australian beers with the draught version of its Little Dove. US brewer Boston Beer Company led the international field with its beautifully named Samuel Adams Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Cru.

The real excitement though can be found in the full results at rasv.com.au/beer. For beer nerds, the Catalogue of Results, details the scores of all entrants in every category. But of more interest to the general consumer, the Trophy Guides offers judge profiles, tasting notes, medal winners and lists of category taste-off contenders.

Reviews – 2016 AIBA award winners

BentSpoke Brewing Co Barley Griffin 560ml glass $11
One of six beers created for BentSpoke’s opening in 2014, the easy-drinking Barley Griffin Canberra Pale Ale won a gold medal in the 2016 Australian International Beer Awards. Brewer Richard Watkins won three other medals, silver for Big Nut, and bronzes for Dick Tracy and Pedal Pale.

Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier (Bavaria) 500ml $4.60–$6.50
No surprises seeing Weihenstephan conquering the Beer Awards’ wheat category. It’s a Bavarian specialty, and imagine the tut-tutting in Munich had  a new-world upstart stolen the mantle. It’s a textbook example of the style, with luxurious white head, delicate, banana-like aroma, and light, lively palate, combining subtle, smooth malt with wheat beer’s zesty, fresh finish.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016
First published 26 May and 1 June 2015 in goodfood.com.au  and the Canberra Times

A thoroughbred, not a camel

Saison a trois

Saison a Trois – collaborative brew by 4 Pines, Boatrocker and Thunder Road

Ask a committee for a horse and you get a camel. But what happens when a committee makes beer?

The delicious answer is Saison a Trois, a one-off variant on the French farmhouse ale style. Released for the Australian International Beer Awards in May, it was brewed collaboratively by the winners of the small, medium and large brewery categories of the 2015 competition.

Chris Willcock (4 Pines Brewing Co), Matt Houghton (Boatrocker Brewing Co) and Marcus Cox (Thunder Road Brewing Company) set to work on 29 February to create the dark, malty, 6.5-per-cent-alcohol ale.

Despite the dark colour and high alcohol content, it remains light and refreshing, with a very clean, fresh aftertaste. Alas, it’s no longer available, but here’s a tasting note for the record.

Saison a Trois
Brewed collaboratively by 4 Pines, Boatrocker and Thunder Road, Saison a Trois appeals for its deep amber-brown colour and persistent white head. The aroma and flavour combine a core of sweet malt with alcoholic warmth, an exotic touch of spice and tingly, refresing citrus character on a buoyant, refreshing palate.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2016