Sydney has been a late starter in the craft beer and artisan cider stakes. While brew-pubs and microbreweries have been springing up around the globe, it seemed nothing could shake the Sydney beer drinker's allegiance to Tooheys, Reschs, Hahn and, gasp, KB.
But the craft beer (and cider) revolution has finally arrived in the Harbour City - and with a vengeance. Following the example of James Squire, Redoak, Rocks Brewing and other pioneers, energetic young brewers are now making interesting, small-batch beers honed to the Sydney palate.
Enlightened publicans, meanwhile, are giving over some of their taps to exotic home-grown pilsners, pale ales, porters and, increasingly, full-bodied alcoholic ciders; now the fastest-growing sector of the beverage market in Australia.
1. Original Bock (5.5% alcohol by volume), Balmain Brewing Company
Original Bock deserves a special mention because of its pioneering work on the Balmain peninsula. Sydney is a blonde-beer type of city, and this German-style dark lager is a satisfying alternative. Balmain Bock has been around since the 1980s and is therefore something of a local legend; half a dozen pubs have it on tap. Enjoy its rich mahogany colour, hoppy bitterness and hints of caramel and burnt coffee. A beer for all seasons.
2. Hangman Pale Ale (4.9% ABV), Rocks Brewing Co
Harts Pub in the Rocks has become something of a shrine for Sydney "hop heads" (beer aficionados) over the past few years. Hangman, a full-bodied, American-style pale ale, is one of the mainstays here; the gruesome name is a reference to the early convict days, when a gallows operated on nearby George Street. The combination of American yeast and cascade and liberty hops provides its distinctive citrus zing on the nose. A truly satisfying beer, with a lovely golden colour and firm head.
3. Surry Hills Pils (5% ABV), Sydney Brewhouse
Brewer Michael Capaldo produces some fiendishly good beers from a tiny space below the old Macquarie Hotel (renamed the Sydney Brewhouse) on Wentworth Avenue in Surry Hills. Pilsner is the thinking person's lager and this one is a triumph: aromatic and packed with big malt flavour. Expect plenty of grassy and citrus notes and a good clean finish. Like all great pilsners, this one is very food-friendly. Pick up a six-pack at the bottle shop and head to your favourite Vietnamese, Thai or Indian restaurant.
4. 2011 Reserve Pale Ale (4.5% ABV), Endeavour Beverages
If you apply the principles of the slow food movement to craft beer, you come up with Endeavour, Sydney's own vintage beer brand. The company produces only two styles of beer, amber and pale ale. Each is handcrafted using the finest hops, barley and wheat. The pale ale is bottle-conditioned and uses three types of hops (galaxy, cascade and summer) to produce a lovely dark golden ale with a floral and spicy nose; you'll find a cornucopia of aromas, such as lime, passionfruit, apricot and tropical fruit. A beer for grown-ups.
5. Kolsch (4.6% ABV), 4 Pines Brewing Company
Manly's favourite brew-pub may have started out as a home-away-from-home for visiting ale-thirsty British and Irish tourists, but it's now recognised as one of Australia's most innovative brewers. While 4 Pines' ESB (Extra Special Bitter) takes some beating, its smoother and less alcoholic Kolsch is an excellent choice for summer.
If you enjoy a fresh, lemony brew with strong malt backbone, this hoppy Cologne-style pale ale is perfect. Coincidentally, this just happens to be the brewery's best-selling beer.
6. Sixty Nine Summer Ale (4.6% ABV), Riverside Brewing Company
This summery offering comes from Sydney's (more precisely Parramatta's) newest microbrewery. Designed for the Australian palette, this modern-style pale ale is a worthy alternative to lager, but offers stronger hop flavours and a distinctly fruity aroma (think passionfruit, cloves or marmalade). A great barbecue beer, which its makers hope will evoke memories of Sydney summers in the 1960s, it is made with 100 per cent Australian barley and hops.
7. Redoak Bitter (3.4% ABV), Redoak Brewery
Redoak's David Hollyoak is one of the superstars of the Sydney brewing scene and over the past few years, Redoak has picked up more bling than Ian Thorpe. This English-style bitter is one its most popular brews and recently took gold at the World Beer Cup in the US. Pouring amber in the glass, Redoak Bitter is a surprisingly robust ale (despite its low alcohol content), with a nutty, hop finish and pleasant notes of citrus, tropical fruit, caramel and burnt toffee.
8. Three Sheets (4.9% ABV), Lord Nelson Brewery
The brewer calls Three Sheets an "Australian pale ale" but it leans very much in the direction of a modern India Pale Ale (IPA) with a strong, hoppy taste and distinct malt characters of caramel and toasted bread. Expect quite a fruity beer, with hints of citrus, apricot and peach. Three Sheets pours a dark amber colour, with a good creamy head. This ale is now widely available in 330ml bottles, but nothing beats a lovingly poured pint at the Lord Nelson, Sydney's oldest and most atmospheric brew-pub.
9. Thunder Bolt Strong Ale (6.4% ABV), St Peters Brewery
This hard-hitting ale is named in honour of the infamous 19th-century bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, a man who had a taste for holding up pubs as well as stagecoaches. The use of fuggles and goldings hops guarantees a rich, complex flavour profile, with hints of banana, orange and caramel. Thunder Bolt pours dark and coppery in the glass, with a strong white head. The ale is a long-standing favourite at the Pumphouse in Darling Harbour, where it is sold exclusively, and is produced at an artisan brewery in Sydney's inner-west.
10. One Fifty Lashes Pale Ale (4.2% ABV), James Squire
The latest addition to the James Squire portfolio is aimed squarely at the craft beer virgin. One Fifty Lashes (the name refers to the sentence handed out to the convict/brewer James Squire in 1789) is a classic "session beer", with a fruity nose and crisp, clean finish. This is an elegant, easy-drinking beer - and a pleasant change to all those citrusy Australian pale ales. Created at the Malt Shovel Brewery in Camperdown, One Fifty Lashes is now brewed in South Australia. Available as a draught beer or in 345ml stubbies from the bottle shop.
Source: the (sydney) magazine