Brewing Dutch and German favourites in Sydney

Rather than being embittered by a long-term decline in Australia’s per capita beer consumption (129.3 litres in 1989; 89 litres in 2001), Australian brewers sought to excite and entice beer drinkers with new products. Hence, the creation over the past decade and more of light beers, mid-strength beer, dry beers, cold filtered beers etc.

Despite all these artefacts, though, what finally excited consumers and brewers were beers with flavour and character – the increasing diversity and quantity of premium local and imported ales and lagers now tempting us in bars, restaurants and retail stores.

While this represents just eight per cent by volume of the 1,700 million litres of beer consumed annually in Australia, the premium and imported segment continues to grow rapidly and has the potential, some say, to take 15 per cent of the market.

With every percentage point representing 17 million litres, that’s potentially an extra 119 million litres up for grabs.

At present that wonderful diversity of beers comes to us through a few small brewers, a host of small importers, several national importer/distributors, and our two giant domestic brewers, Fosters and Lion Nathan.

The big brewers compete with both domestically brewed beer and imports. Fosters brews Crown Lager and owns the Matilda Bay brewery in Western Australia and the Cascade Brewery in Tasmania; Lion Nathan brews Hahn Premium and owns Sydney’s Malt Shovel Brewery, creator of James Squire beers.

Through its Carlton Special Beverages subsidiary, Fosters also imports and distributes a range of beers including Belgium’s Stella Artois, while Lion Nathan brings in Steinlager from its own New Zealand brewery, plus Holland’s Heineken and Germany’s Beck’s.

The sheer scale of Foster’s and Lion Nathan places them in a dominant position to capitalise on this growing market for top end product. Indeed, Lion Nathan’s growing volumes have allowed it to begin contract brewing in Sydney of Heineken and Beck’s.

If all goes to plan, we should be enjoying Australian-brewed Heineken by March and Beck’s before the end of June. But will we taste a difference?

Lion Nathan Chief Brewer, Bill Taylor, believes not. He also believes that drinkers will benefit by enjoying fresher beer. “And the real jewel will be draft beer”, he said. “In Australia, local draft beers tend to be served ultra fresh, just one to two weeks old”. Imported drafts can be three months old before they go on tap.

And what does it take to brew a replica Heineken?

Taylor says that the distribution of Heineken has been done through a joint venture company, Heineken Lion, and that the intention always was to brew locally once a critical volume had been achieved.

The Heineken team selected Lion’s Sydney brewery as the most suited and trials began in 2004, conducted by Bill Taylor’s team and a brewer from Heineken.

Taylor views the exercise as a great learning experience for his young brewers. “You have to capture the essence of what makes that beer taste different. To do that you have to respect another brewer’s approach and philosophy and make different decisions”.

While the raw ingredients – malted barley, hops and yeast – are specified and supplied either by Heineken or Heineken approved European suppliers, every detail of the brewing process counts in capturing the right aromas and flavours.

For example, with Heineken, Taylor says his team learned that hydrostatic pressure influenced the performance of yeasts in producing subtle but crucial aroma esters. As a result only partially filled upright fermenters could be used in the trials and shallower, horizontal fermenters are being installed for full-scale production.

After trial brews got the tick from Bill’s team and the Heineken brewer, samples went to Holland for tasting and analysis. Just before Christmas approval came through and the Sydney team is now gearing up for full production and release of locally brewed Heineken by March.

Similarly with Beck’s the decision to brew locally followed market success. Again the brewing crew have to embrace the Beck’s philosophy, work with a Beck’s brewer and source ingredients from Becks’ approved European suppliers.

Amongst the dozens of details to master, says Bill, is capturing Beck’s distinctive, pale, colour – achieved by using Beck’s pale malt and ‘a delicate use of heat in fermentation, somewhat untypical of other brewers’.

And because Beck’s abides by Germany’s sixteenth century beer purity law (Rheinheitsgebot), even little things like achieving a specific pH in the wort prior to fermentation has to be achieved in the brewing process.

The ultimate result according to Bill is to brew, in Sydney’s western suburb, a beer that tastes just like the original rich, bitter, pilsner-style lager from Bremen, northern Germany.

We’ll be able to make our own judgement before mid-year.

Beck’s of Bremen Beer, $15 to $18 a 6 pack
By mid year you’ll be able to try Beck’s brewed locally under licence by Lion Nathan’s Tooheys Brewery, Sydney. Right now both the draft and package versions come from Beck’s Brewery in Bremen, Germany. Their own description of it as having a ‘pure, fresh crisp, pilsner taste’ is on the money, if a bit short on detail. It’s notably paler than most international lager styles, but this belies the very rich, malty flavour and intensely bitter hops that balance the maltiness to deliver the ‘crisp, pilsner taste’. In the hops department, it’s certainly more assertive, both in aroma, flavour and bitterness, than Australian commercial lagers and, therefore, to this palate at least, all the more appealing.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007