A great Australian guide to craft beer tasting »
Expand your beer horizons this summer and all year
By Kerry Scambler
Nothing says summer refreshment quite like a tall, cold glass of beer and with a more relaxed atmosphere and festivals aplenty, summer is also a great time to expand your beer horizons. James Smith has immersed himself in the Australian craft beer industry since 2008 so you'd expect his beer guide to be comprehensive... and it certainly is.
A recent article in Australian Brew News estimated that 51 new breweries opened up around Australia in 2016. The article didn't mention a couple I know in Tasmania so you would expect that number to be quite a bit higher. A few might have closed their doors but there are certainly well over 300 Australian breweries operating. Talk about spoilt for choice!
So what exactly is craft beer? If you have the answer to that then you're better than those in the beer industry itself! It's a lively discussion that is ongoing and with varying points of of view – some say it can't be applied to beer made by the large mainstream breweries but must be crafted by small operators, not pushing for volume.
Others talk of independence, flavours and ingredients. James Smith and I both like beer write turned brewer Willie Simpson's succinct description borrowed from the film The Castle – "It's the vibe".
Just over two years ago, author James Smith lined up 150 Great Australian Beers in his book of the same name, and included only packaged beer and in some cases, more than one beer from a particular brewery. This time around selecting those final 150 beers was made harder with his self-imposed edict of only including one beer per brewery, and also if warranted, draught beer (ie only available on tap) as well.
You won't find the big brand names here – selection is based "on qualities such as flavour, aroma, innovation, creativity and so on" and not volume sales. As James says "If you've spent any amount of time drinking more characterful beers from smaller producers, while you may have occasionally had to ride the rollercoaster in terms of coming across some technically less-than-well-executed beers, returning to an industrial lager is a little like giving up coffee from your local roaster and pouring yourself a cup of Nescafe with two sugars. It's still hot, wet and contains caffeine but it's a lowest common denominator form of that product."
Having said that, it's interesting to note that the only beer from a large brewer to appear in the lagers section is James Boag's Premium (Boag's is owned by Lion) along with the tip that it's the best of the big brand lagers. Personally it's an old favourite of mine but that choice is probably coloured by the fact I worked at J.Boag & Son for thirteen years and my palate thinks of it as an old friend.
But, summer doesn't hang around forever and you're keen to get into the tasting and forget the discourse, I can tell!
Where to start with your beer tasting
If you're new to craft beer, my suggestion would be first to read the introductory chapters, particularly "Beer in Australia" and "What is craft beer?" then to flick through the book and just see what leaps off the pages. And don't be shy about admitting it might be the name of the beer or the label, it's all about starting the tasting journey. Some of the best beers I've tasted have been simply because the name intrigued me, made me laugh or the mix was so outrageous I just had to dive in.
The Great Australian Beer Guide helpfully sorts the beers into sections:
- Session Beers
- Pale Ales
- IPAs (India Pale Ales)
- British and Irish Ales
- Reds and Amber Ales
- Browns, Darks and Porters
- Stouts and Imperial Stouts
- French and Belgian Beers
- Wheat Beers
- Specialty Beers
Each section has background information on the style of beer and then launches into a selection of those beers. Each beer has a friendly icon identifying the beer style, alcohol strength, brewer's suggested serving temperature and the brewer's suggested serving vessel (style of glass),along with tasting notes, the story behind the beer, and a suggestion of other beers to try from that particular brewer.
As mentioned previously, life's an adventure so I'd recommend jumping around a bit for your first tasting. It's also good to note the food recommendations because, just like wine, the flavour of a beer can change significantly when matched perfectly with the right food and if it doesn't taste quite right alone, then try the food match to double check.
As a long time beer-lover, it was pleasing to see how many of the beers James Smith included as best in the country that I've not only tasted but agree with his judgement. These include:
- Seven Sheds Kentish Ale
- Knappstein Reserve Lager
- Stone & Wood Pacic Ale
- Fancy Pants from Mountain Goat
- Taco from Two Birds Brewing
- Little Rivers Hefeweizen
Plus there is plenty of inspiration for new beers to try including Iron Pot Rye Porter – particularly relevant as I live near the beer's namesake! (The Iron Pot lighthouse signals the entrance to the River Derwent and is often mentioned in Sydney to Hobart yacht races when they "round the Pot" and head upriver to Hobart.)
It's certainly an exciting time to be a craft beer lover especially with more festivals and more brews to try. My recommendation? Get the Guide and join the craft beer movement! It's a must-buy for any beer lover.
The Great Australian Beer Guide: Your Guide to Craft Beer and Beyond by James Smith is published by Hardie Grant (August 2016, NSW; HB, 248pp, RRP A$29.99). It is available at all good bookshops and can be found online via booko.com.au here »
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