Boutique beers ... Co-owner Benjamin Nichols on the job at Scratch Bar in Milton. Photo: Michelle Smith
Brisbane has always been a stronghold of big brewery power - the neon red and yellow XXXX sign and the "amber nectar" part of the fabric of the city for decades. But Brisbane beer drinkers are finally peering over their frosty pots of lager to see what else is out there - just witness the growth over two years of around a dozen craft beer bars and micro-breweries in Queensland.
It has to be asked, though, what has taken us so long? Why are we frantically scrabbling to play catch up while other states have been enjoying a huge range of craft beer for years? It's complicated, says craft beer educator Matt Kirkegaard.
"At a state level the government has been really supportive of the wine industry, including making licensing concessions that have seen our local industry flourish. Craft brewers have not seen that and are unable to sell their product themselves to the public or even hold tastings, which makes it very hard for the industry to promote itself and kick-start the growth of craft beer up here."
Top taps ... Freya Simmons works the bar at Archive Beer Boutique in West End. Photo: Michelle Smith
Climate too plays a part, Kirkegaard says, with what big brewers like to describe as "crisp and refreshing" dominating the market.
"Because it's so hot, beer is seen as a source of refreshment rather than a source of flavour," he says. Craft beer is seen as boasting more flavour and complexity. It's produced in small batches and often released seasonally.
But there remains a lot of confusion about what a craft beer actually is, particularly with large brewers seeing it as marketing opportunity and jumping on the bandwagon by labelling their beers as "craft". Kirkegaard, who runs beer education and tasting classes in Brisbane, is keen to see change in the beer industry as a whole.
A growing range ... Holgate Hopinator, Feral Hop Hog, Sierra Nevada Narwhal and Sierra Nevada Celebration 2012. Photo: Michelle Smith
"As Australia's national drink, beer really needs to sack its current agent and publicist if it's going to achieve the respect that it deserves as the equal of wine, although without the stuffiness," he says. The opening of more craft beer bars and promotion of craft beer in some pubs is a step towards educating a public thirsty for knowledge. Three years ago Brisbane had pretty much nothing, today there are more than a dozen bars who actively promote craft beer.
One of the pivotal changes, while not aimed specifically at the craft beer industry, has been revision of the bar licensing laws, allowing small and often suburban bars to be viable.
"Five years ago it wasn't possible to do a bar like ours," says Benjamin Nichols, one of the owners of The Scratch Bar at Milton.
"The new licence gave us the opportunity to do something of this size without blowing the budget."
Nicols, along with partners Patrick Shevlin and Kieran Ryan, opened The Scratch a year ago in an inner-city cafe strip. Their idea, Nicols says, was to make a bar they themselves would want to go to. "We were interested in having a small selection of taps that rotated quickly so that every time people came in, there'd be something new. We also insisted on doing tasters of anything on tap people wanted and ended up with the 'tour' by evolution. If people come into the venue, they first get a tour of the taps and try everything before they buy."
So what's their best-selling beer?
"The taps change weekly, so it's hard to say, but in the bottle that title goes straight to Two Birds Golden Ale, a small brewing operation run by two of the nicest ladies we've encountered. We have people coming to the bar who ignore the taps and stay purely with the Two Birds, which is rare for this joint."
The drop that causes the most discussion at Scratch is Yeastie Boys' Rex Attitude, Nicols says.
"Hands down it's the biggest divider we've ever had. It's a New Zealand beer made with 100 per cent peated malt, and for some people it's a heavenly concoction, for others, it's like drinking a two-day old campfire."
A success story from its opening, Brisbane has taken the comfy hole-in-the wall "dive bar" to its collective bosom, enveloping it in a warm beery hug.
"We've received an incredible amount of support and kind words and we're pretty insistent on making sure we maintain people's trust," Nichols says.
Less than three years old but already practically a granddaddy in the evolution of the craft beer industry is Archive Beer Boutique in West End. They sell close to 400 different craft beers, with about 18 on tap. Operations manager Kris Kempnich says that being there from the start, they've been able to witness a real change in Brisbane drinkers' habits.
"It used to be that people would drink a lot more and at closing time rush to get a vodka, lime and soda or some other spirit. Now they tend to sit on the same beer for a lot longer. Craft beer drinkers don't go out to drink to get blind drunk."
Though beer is traditionally seen as a male drink, women are just as likely to drink craft beer as men. Kempnich says that around half of Archive's beer drinkers are women.
"We've found women are much more open to trying new beers than men are," he says.
Archive, who also have a bottle shop, imports beer from countries with strong craft beer cultures such as the US (although Kempnich says not enough of it is exported), Norway, Belgium and Denmark. Best sellers, he says include anything from the Sierra Nevada Brewery.
Compared with these big craft brewing countries, Australia is in its infancy, with about 120 craft breweries countrywide. At least three are local - Sunshine Coast Brewing, Burleigh Brewing and Bacchus. The latter, based in Capalaba, is gaining a reputation for its ever-changing and experimental styles, releasing new beers at around three per week. Recent brews include Celtic Red Ale (a malty Scottish ale spiced with heather flowers) and the now almost-famous "cock ale" (a medieval recipe made with crushed chicken and spices).
"Craft beer gives the flexibility to try new flavours. There is more diversity in beer than in any other drink," says Bacchus owner and brewer Ross Kenrick.
The next big thing in beer, Kenrick reckons, is "sour beer".
"We completely sold out of one we made called 'Atomic Blackberry' - it was like sucking on a Warhead lolly but people loved it," he said. "People are just wanting to experience new things."
Queensland's latest microbrewery is in inner-city Teneriffe. Slated to open Australia Day, Green Beacon will offer a range of six beers that can be enjoyed on the premises, matched with a short bar menu, or as take-home. Australia Day will also see Brisbane celebrate craft beer with the inaugural Fluid Festival at the Pig 'n' Whistle on the Eagle Street Pier, featuring 70 taps of craft beer and cider, as well as education and food matching sessions.
Events include a beer-matched dinner with expert Peter Mitcham and a masterclass called "The Beer Lover's Guide to Extreme Beer" for those who want to drink on the wild side.
It seems the future is looking rosy for Queensland's craft beer industry, but is it just a temporary state as drinkers rush to try the next big thing before moving on? Matt Kirkegaard is cautiously optimistic.
"It's an interesting time and there's a little bit of a gold rush mindset creeping in as people rush to set up breweries or become craft beer importers," Kirkegaard said.
"It's still a market dominated by two very big players and Woolworths and Coles are both entering the market aggressively with their own beers and imports and owning lots of hotels and bottle shops, so it's highly competitive, making it a tough game for the crafties.
"That said, our approach to eating generally has changed over a generation and the changes taking place with craft beer are a reflection of that. Craft beer is still growing rapidly and so we are going to see a lot of genuine innovation and a lot more people trying it."
Where to taste craft beer
The Scratch Bar
8/1 Park Rd, Milton 3107 9910
Archive Beer Boutique
100 Boundary Street, West End, 3844 3419
75 Welsby St, New Farm 3254 4426
22 Masters St, Newstead
502 Warwick St Yamanto, Ipswich 3294 4400
Yard Bird Ale House
6/24 Martin St, Fortitude Valley; 07 3852 6413
Restaurants/bars with good craft beer offerings
48 Burnett Lane, Brisbane 3210 2343
185 George Street, Brisbane 3211 1300
Cnr Ann & Constance Street, Fortitude Valley 3252 9833
37 Mollison Street, West End 3846 0030
73 Vulture St, West End 3395 3774
Stones Corner Hotel
346 Logan Rd, Stones Corner 3397 3727
Breweries and bottle shops
Mt Tamborine Brewery
165 Long Road, Eagle Heights 5545 2032
1/2 Christine Place, Capalaba 3823 5252
252 Flinders Street, Townsville 4724 2999
Granite Belt Brewery
Happy Valley Retreat Glenlyon Drive, Stanthorpe 4681 1370
Castle Glen Brewery
"The Castle", 3184 Amiens Road, The Summit 4683 2363
Green Beacon (opening late January)
26 Helen St, Teneriffe
Archive Beer Boutique
100 Boundary Street, West End 3844 3419
196 Musgrave Road, Red Hill 3367 1383