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There’s a Beer Storm a-Brewing

Where once our dining hubs featured fashionable wine bars, there is a new trend for alehouses and beer halls serving a collection of boutique craft beers, from pale ales to stouts and beyond. Couple that with home brewers turning their hands to new styles and techniques, and it’s clear there is a beer revolution going on.

No one is more pleased with the conversion than writer James Smith, whose passion for beer was instilled growing up in the famous UK brewing town of Burton upon Trent. His interest in the brew really piqued when backpacking in Australia in his early 20s and since moving to our shores in 2008 he has become recognised as an expert in the craft beer industry. Christened ‘Crafty’ in reference to his website, The Crafty Pint, James is the founder and festival director of the annual Good Beer Week festival in Australia and author of the recently published 150 Great Australian Beers, Your Guide to Craft Beer and Beyond.

But, as James explains, the culture of craft beer is relatively new. When first arriving as a resident he realised there was little information on the country’s beer industry. “There wasn’t much online or in the papers,” James explains. “ I thought, why have you not got a website? Why are you not doing this? Why is no one writing about it? Then I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’ … someone needed to do something about it.”

And so the change began. Today, there are more than 200 breweries and brewery companies producing craft beers, with many brews such as James Squire, Matilda Bay, Cascade and others fast becoming household names and being stocked in leading alcohol retailers nationwide.

James points out: “craft beer isn’t really new, it’s actually going back to what used to be. “If you go back to the 19th century, there were all sorts of different styles of beer being made, and at the end of the century there were actually 300 more breweries in Australia than there are now,” he explains.

The craft beers comeback is bringing with it many new varieties, with breweries bringing varying degrees of hops, malt and spices to their lagers, IPAs, pale ales, wheat beers, stouts and specialty beers. These new and unique blends will stand up against time and ensure beer retains its hold in the market.

“Eventually it will get more and more main stream and hopefully every pub worth its sauce and every single restaurant will at least a small selection of beers,” James says.

A large part of how a beer finds its persona, so to speak, depends on the region in which it is conceived.

“A number of smaller breweries like to make a play on where they’re from, so there might be ingredients in their beers from the local coffee roaster or chocolate maker,” James says. “Often they stay within the region they are brewed.”

The biggest difference between craft and commercial beer is production technique. While the big brands are often bought out by foreign companies, the boutique beer (“essentially what people are now calling craft beer,” James says) companies tend to keep their breweries and distribution on a relatively small scale. In Tasmania, there are craft beers that never leave the Apple Isle.

Consistency of taste is another attribute of the bigger companies. Generally, the beer’s taste from batch to batch will not vary. “Where I guess bigger brands are trying to make well-known beers, and they make them with incredible consistency … they have different approaches,” James explains.

Also gaining a greater following is the art of home brewing with many everyday people setting up home brew kits in their garages and kitchens.

The Australian National Homebrewing Conference Committee’s (ANHCC) Kevin Hingston says the ‘hobby’ is growing more and more popular each year with a steady rise in attendees at conferences, festivals and competitions.

This year, the conference will be held in the nation’s capital of Canberra and will feature speakers with the latest information on brewing techniques and styles and information on the history and science behind the art.

On home brewing, James believes that home-brewers are passionate connoisseurs. “I think there’s a desire among home-brewers to make something they love,” he says. When it comes to competitions, more and more participants are entering their special brews, but rather than being ultra competitive or aggressive, it’s all about community. “People love working together which is good.” The result is collaborative brews where people sit down and come up with an idea of a beer to make and share their talents and skills together.

There is no shortage of places for home-brewers to enter their creation and potentially win a prize. James is also the founder and festival director of the annual Good Beer Week festival held in Victoria. This year, the festival saw about 220 events occur at 160 venues all around the state. “There’s been huge growth … there are lots of one and two-day festivals that are becoming very popular around Brisbane, actually, where maybe 20 or 30 brewers or cider-makers will come and take a stand and might pour three or four different brews each,” James says.

In terms of judging craft beers, and sometimes ciders, style guidelines are set and judges will determine if the beer fits within a certain colour range and alcohol range among other categories.

Ultimately, deciding on a good beer is up to the individual’s taste buds. James laughs as he contemplates the questions one might ask themselves when tasting a beer for the first time: “Do you like? Does it taste delicious?”

He does have some pointers though. Beer is seasonal. “You kind of want heavier in winter- heavier, darker, richer, and when it gets to summer you might want a nice lager or pale ale beer … something that’s a bit refreshing.”

150-great-australian-beersJames Smith’s 150 Great Australian Beers features critiques of some of the best beers being brewed locally, but it also includes a fascinating history of beer in Australia, a breakdown of the brewing process and guides on how to store, serve, enjoy and match beer.

Published by Hardie Grant Books, it is available at all good book stores in hard cover for rrp $29.95.