Not long ago, the closest thing Australia had to craft beer was Coopers. How far we have come. By 2020, this great nation of beer swillers was home to nearly 300 independently owned breweries, and that’s not counting the many successful small operations — such as Mountain Goat Beer, Stone & Wood and Little Creatures — that have been bought out by large companies. Today, the scene is as diverse and fascinating as any in the world, with options ranging from easygoing lagers and double-dry-hopped India pale ales to bottle-conditioned, wild-fermented saisons (a fruity, highly carbonated brew that is fast finding its way into the cellars of the country’s top restaurants).
Bright, funky and floral, the saisons and wild ales (made using naturally occurring yeast) produced by the likes of Wildflower, Two Meter Tall and La Sirène make for outstanding summer drinking and pair beautifully with salads, fish and white meats. At the other end of the spectrum, richer, darker ales, such as Cheeky Monkey Brewing Co.’s Hyperbole #1 Russian imperial stout, are brilliant with stews and roasted red meats — a truth anyone from Belgium or Ireland will happily confirm.
Australia’s most interesting craft brews, which typically come in 750-millilitre bottles, can rival any chardonnay or pinot noir for complexity and nuance. These large-format beers are usually bottle-conditioned, meaning a small amount of fermentable sugar is added at the time of bottling, allowing for secondary fermentation, which creates natural carbonation and an added layer of flavour.
In the same vein as wine, they often benefit from cellaring, which can mellow the harsher notes of a high-alcohol beer and let other flavours shine. While pretty much any beer that is cellared properly will become more integrated and complex over time, there are those, such as Sobremesa Fermentary & Blendery’s Vibes on Toast, that are especially created for ageing. Known as a bière de garde (which loosely translates to “beer for keeping”), Vibes on Toast follows in the European tradition of high-alcohol beers that cellar well and are typically drunk in the summer months when the conditions are too warm to brew fresh beer.
Australian craft beers often riff on styles invented elsewhere, however Tiff Waldron, one of the country’s most revered experts and a brand manager for the online retailer Beer Fans, notes that local brews are being imitated overseas. “I’ve started seeing an ‘Australian-style pale ale’, or ‘pacific ale’, pop up on my trips to the US,” she says. “It’s a reference to the tropical-fruit character that comes from Australian-grown hops.”
Such flavours feature in the organic ale produced by the much-lauded Brae Restaurant in Victoria’s Otways hinterland. Created in collaboration with a nearby brewery, Prickly Moses, the ale often features as one of the set beverages matched with Brae’s degustation menu. Made with spelt grown at the onsite farm, along with Galaxy and Ella hops, which add fresh, tropical aromas, Liquid Asset is a cleansing ale with a dry finish, perfect for food pairing.
It has been served alongside minestrone, made with fermented rye, egg yolk and air-dried mullet roe, as well as pork jowl barbecued with smoked eel. “The rye in the minestrone, like the spelt and rye used in our beer, was grown on the property,” says the restaurant’s operations manager, Julianne Bagnato. “We chose to highlight these ingredients and their different applications at this moment in the menu. The Liquid Asset and the smoky, tender pork jowl are also quite something together.”
Terroir, a term usually reserved for the wine world, has become increasingly important to craft brewers, many of whom rely on hyperlocal strains of wild yeast that are unique to their environment and heritage grains that are shaped by the land. The results are as versatile as anything local wineries produce, representing an evolution in Australian drinking and well worth a place in the cellar.