Is Australian craft beer worth the money?

Craft beer is taking off around Australia despite some initial resistance.
Craft beer is taking off around Australia despite some initial resistance. Photo: Anna Kucera

Maybe it's the shock of the new but craft beer's move from the fringes into mainstream consciousness has attracted comment not directed at other aspects of the food and drink world.

After decades in which beer was pretty much one and the same thing wherever you went in Australia, the arrival of this alien beer form – chameleon-like in its palette of colours, aromas and flavours – didn't fit the ingrained narrative.

Thus it was met with reactions along the lines of: "It tastes wrong", "It's for hipsters and beer snobs", or "It's bloody expensive!"

Such barbs contain elements of truth. Not every small brewery is making consistently good beer yet; within any culture or subculture you'll find impassioned enthusiasts taking their obsession to an extreme; and, for the most part, it is more expensive than big brand lagers.

The major retailers with their home brands (Coles with Steamrail, Lorry Boys and 3 Pub Circus; Woolworths with Sail & Anchor, John Boston and, to an extent, Gage Roads) and other well resourced newcomers (Asahi with Cricketers Arms and Mountain Goat; Australian Beer Co, the joint venture by Casella and Coca-Cola Amatil behind Arvo, Yenda and Yellow Tail beers) can offer case prices close to or matching the likes of VB or Tooheys. But it's not a viable option for Australia's 300-plus little guys, particularly those who have invested in their own breweries rather than buying beer from contract facilities.

As such, anyone looking to pick up a pale or amber ale from a small independent can easily pay $5, $10 or more for a six-pack than they would for a VB. And that's before you enter the realm of the limited edition beer or the high ABV imported specialty beers. Single bottles can retail for $20, $30, even upwards of $40. You'll find a rare Sydney brew, Redoak Special Reserve, in our guide that's $75 for 250ml.

It's a situation that has sparked somewhat hysterical apples and oranges comparisons along the lines of: "This rare, imported beer, served in glassware designed for the beer in an elegant venue by a staff member who told me all about the brewery, cost me $20, whereas I could get a schooner of Carlton Mid for $5 at the bowlo – what a bloody rip-off!"

While such critiques are akin to bemoaning the cost of a degustation at Attica next to a KFC Lunch Box, the fact remains that you can pay the same for a single bottle of beer as you can for a damn good wine.

Which begs the question why?

It could be rarity: a brewer releasing a limited number of beers to mark an occasion, wax-sealed in a champagne style bottle and individually numbered. It could have been years in the making, a blend of barrel-aged beers that have undergone multiple fermentations before conditioning for months in bottle prior to release.

Maybe it's imported from a small, highly sought after international brewer. Maybe it's high in alcohol content.

A common thread is the need to be special in some way and deliver an experience, we present a selection of some of the pricier drops available in Australia right now and the stories behind them.

If you're intrigued, but not ready to drop a $50 on a beer just yet, they're paired with more affordable options here that could give you a hint of what to expect.