Summer in Australia naturally conjures up images of the beach, the cricket and, yes, drinking cold beer with your mates. The colder the better.
For best part of 100 years our summer beer menu has consisted of just one choice: lager. Not a special summer brew, of course, but exactly the same lager that we had been drinking all winter.
But those monochrome, hop-challenged days now seem as distant and faded as Robert Menzies or Bodyline. Today, the start of summer unleashes an influx of dazzling new imports and a raft of one-off seasonal releases from local craft brewers.
As the mercury rises, microbreweries across this dry, brown continent are cranking up production of pale ales, wheat beers (hefeweizens), golden ales, Belgian-style saisons and dark spicy Christmas ales laced with cinnamon, plums and nutmeg.
Even lager, once the most derided of the beer species, is being given a being a make-over. Both Stone & Wood in Byron Bay and Vale Ale in South Australia are making excellent, full-flavoured lagers, while Kiwi brewer Epic has given us a turbo-driven Arnold Schwarzenegger of a lager (see below).
Moa Brewing, another New Zealand brewer, has brought together beer and cricket in the shape of 99 Not Out SKW Pale Ale, a joint venture with cricket legend Shane Warne who helped design the beer.
Josh Scott, the founder of Moa, describes 99 Not Out as a “sessionable New World style pale ale” displaying hoppy notes and a strong malt backbone, with a nicely balanced bitterness.
While the Warne connection is a great marketing coup for Moa, most craft brewers now release a special pale ale, golden ale or pilsener for the summer. Others, like Bridge Road Brewers in Victoria, are embracing the growing popularity of saisons, a strong but fragrant Belgian farmhouse style once served to thirsty agricultural workers.
“Saisons are really the perfect summer drink because they're both complex and refreshing,” said Ryan Davidson from Palais Imports, which ships saisons and other traditional ales from the US, Canada and Japan. “It's really interesting watching people taste them for the first time and being totally won over. Saisons are the big new this summer.”
While the major retail chains now carry an impressive range of imported saisons, Abbey beers and extra strong IPAs, some of Australia's most interesting seasonal brews will never find their way to the bottle shop or a tap at your local hotel. Smaller players such as Lobethal Bierhaus in the Adelaide Hills or the Hunter Beer Co in NSW rarely bottle their best seasonal beers.
Others have limited, regional distribution. Another excuse to search out your nearest microbrewery and see what they have on tap over the long, hot summer.
Top 10 summer drops
1. Glamarama Summer Ale 4.6%ABV
Place of origin: Surry Hills, NSW
From the heart of the city comes this clever little dig at Sydney's most talked-about beach. Sydney (formerly Schwartz) Brewery knocks out some impressive pale ales, pilsners, porters and wheat beers, but head brewer Michael Capaldo is clearly having some fun with this more-ish summer brew. The brewer has used a combination of New Zealand, Japanese and American hops to create this pale, muscular and fragrant ale. There's plenty of tastebud complexity here, with hints of tropical fruit and pineapple lingering on the palette.
2. Budweiser Budvar 5%ABV
Place of origin: Czech Republic
One of the world's oldest beer brands Budweiser Budvar has been brewed since 1265 and has spawned many imitators. But this full-bodied Czech pilsner is a million miles from American Bud, delivering a manly flavour and an exotic nose redolent of cloves, fennel and aniseed. The colour is darker than most commercial lagers. After 700 years you'd expect these Czech brewers to get it right and they have. This is highly drinkable summer beer, but is also very food-friendly.
3. Mountain Goat India Pale Ale 6.2%ABV
Place of origin: Richmond, Victoria
If I could only choose one beer for summer, it would be this one. The experience begins with a delicious coppery colour in the glass and an intense hoppy aroma, with a hint of citrus and toffee. Made with three types of malt and two hop varieties (Citra and Galaxy), this is a gutsy IPA in the American style: bold, fresh and intensely hop-driven. For something less challenging, but equally lovely check out Mountain Goat Summer Ale – now in 375ml cans.
4. Prickly Moses Summer Ale 4.5%ABV
Place of origin: Otway Ranges, Victoria
Golden ale has a strong foothold in Australia thanks to the efforts of James Squire. Made with pale malts, golden ales are eating into the traditional lager market but are less intimidating than some of the new-wave IPAs. This one comes from a small country brewery in southern Victoria. It pours a lovely straw colour – and is quite cloudy. There's a bagful of flavours here: cinnamon, tropical fruit and citrus. A big, satisfying blonde ale which can be enjoyed long after the cricket season ends.
5. Epic Lager 5%ABV
Place of origin: Auckland, New Zealand
Trust the Kiwis to tinker with a great European formula and come up with something, well, epic. This lager has been pimped big time thanks to the lavish use of German and Czech pilsner malts and two types of American hops (Santiam and Liberty). While it might look pale and inoffensive in the glass, the aroma of cut grass and tropical fruit soon gives the game away. The flavour is explosive, with hops, yeast and caramel all jostling for attention. A great session beer for summer – serve in a pint glass.
6. Bridge Road India Saison 7.5 %ABV
Place of origin: Beechworth, Victoria
A joint venture between Australian brewer Ben Kraus and Norwegian counterpart Kjetil Jikiun, this farmhouse ale is made in the Belgian tradition using two Australian hop varieties. The result is unlike anything you're likely to have experienced before – a beer packed with fruity flavours (hops, dandelion, grapefruit and pineapple) but still restrained and highly refreshing thanks to its pale ale influence. If you enjoy this make sure you try Bridge Road's Chevalier Saison in the 750ml long neck bottles.
7. Stefano's Pilsner 5%ABV
Place of origin: Mildura, Victoria
If there are still any one-eyed lager fans out there, then hand them a glass of Stefano's Pilsner, a clean-tasting beer with a complex flavour profile and spicy, bitter aftertaste. The beer is very pale in the glass, but offers up intense citrus and biscuit aromas. The brewer has used a combination of Australian and German speciality malts, plus a generous dash of Saaz hops. Stefano De Pieri says this pilsner reminds him of the beers of northern Italy which he enjoyed as a boy. Simply brilliant.
8. Vale Ale New World Lager 4.5%ABV
Place of origin: McLaren Vale, South Australia
Craft brewers run a mile from lager, a style of beer which they believe limits their creativity. Vale Ale has tossed such inhibitions aside and come up with a really likeable lager – it's like rekindling a friendship with a long-forgotten school buddy. Head brewer Jeff Wright has thrown a barrage of German, Australian and New Zealand hops into this brew – and the results are impressive. This lager is packed with earthy, citrus and floral flavours, nicely balanced by its sweetish malt backbone.
9. Hitachino Nest White 5.5% ABV
Place of origin: Kiuchi, Japan
Apart from making a range of traditional sakes, the Kiuchi Brewery is also one of Japan's most successful (and ambitious) craft brewers, with a cult following in the US. This Belgian-style wheat beer is one of the company's biggest sellers, a truly astonishing white beer brewed with coriander, nutmeg, orange peel and orange juice. While this may sound like a special occasion beer, Nest White is highly approachable with an intensely aromatic nose and complex layers of fruit, honey and yeast flavours. Match with your favourite spicy Asian dish.
10. 8 Wired Saison Sauvin 7%ABV
Place of origin: Blenheim, New Zealand
Danish-born brewer Søren Eriksen is a legend in his adopted land of New Zealand. Apart from his skills in the brewery, he is also a great poker player. This side of his personality is evident in the creation of this Saison Sauvin. Eriksen's interpretation marries French saison yeast and Sauvin hops from the Nelson region. Unlike some European saisons, which can taste dank and overblown, this New World version is surprisingly light, clean and fresh, offering a smorgasbord of fruit and spice flavours but with a distinctly peppery, almost tart finish.
What's your favourite beer for the warmer months? Jump on the comments and share your recommendations.