Best-seller ... Manly-made 4 Pines Kolsch sits well with a serving of salt-and-pepper squid. Photo: James Brickwood
BLAME IT ON CHEAP AIRFARES, a flood of designer imports, or those pesky Gen X-ers, but somehow Australia has gone from being the world's most boring beer nation to one of the most daring.
Australians have always had a wide choice of beer: lager. It was cold, wet and devoid of any personality - and cheap to produce. But there was mutiny afoot. In back sheds all over this brown land, blokes began brewing their own. Some of them built really big sheds called microbreweries.
Today, insipid Aussie lagers are being elbowed out by interesting, often quirky, brews - pale ales, India pale ales (IPAs), hefeweizens, porters, stouts and saisons. Brewers are adding juniper berries, vanilla and spices to their creations, or ageing them in oak barrels. One brewer adds a dash of shiraz to his ale.
Murray's Anniversary Ale is an ambitious beer.
Craft breweries are springing up everywhere, attracting drinkers who would never step inside a brewery; yes, women are now making and drinking beer. Once regarded as the poor relation of wine, craft beer can be found in smart restaurants and cool bars. Enthusiasts attend beer-and-food-matching classes; pale ale and Asian cuisine is a wicked combination.
Today's home-grown microbrews are a million miles from the traditional ''lawnmower lagers'' that once dominated our palates. Faced with declining sales, the big brewers are busily buying up boutique brands or trying to reinvigorate their own - hence the release of full-strength VB. Passing fad? Wander down the beer aisle in your local bottle shop or prop up the bar in the nearest brew pub. The journey has just begun.
1. Vale Ale IPA, 5.5%
Place of origin: McLaren Vale, South Australia
Little Creatures' Rogers is a brilliant 'session beer'.
This is my favourite fridge beer. A big-hearted American IPA that pours pale and coppery with a luscious creamy head. A robust blend of hops and malt, with a zingy, slightly acidic, finish. For me, this is more of an English bitter than a classic American IPA, with the big hop flavours always kept under a tight leash. Either way, you'll want another. And another.
Food match: Beef pie, mash and mushy peas.
Stone & Wood's Pacific Ale is neither filtered or pasteurised.
2. Two Birds Golden Ale, 4.4%
Place of origin: Geelong, Victoria
Even the Golden Ale name makes you feel warm and gooey. The process is further accelerated when you get your chops around a pint glass of this gift from Two Birds - a silky smooth, honeyed ale with a slight perfumed aroma. I love this beer - it's rich and hoppy but so well mannered; like the perfect dinner companion. Drink all year round, even when the weather turns cold and blustery; it will remind you of your salad days, and summer.
Food match: Grilled scampi that's hot off the barbecue.
3. Coopers Celebration Ale, 5.2%
Place of origin: Adelaide, South Australia
After its forays into low-cal ''light'' beer territory, the country's last major brewery in Australian hands has come up trumps. Originally released to celebrate the brewery's 150th anniversary (last year), this nut-brown brew is now a permanent team player. Three types of hops (American, New Zealand and Australian) have been used to create this strong red ale, which pours typically cloudy with a strong firm head. Expect a cavalcade of flavours - caramel, coffee and cloves - and a pleasingly bitter aftertaste. This is one celebration that should never end.
Food match: Barossa Valley cheese.
4. Murray's Anniversary Ale, 15%
Place of origin: Port Stephens, NSW
Shawn Sherlock is one of Australia's most prolific brewers, creating a galaxy of curious and usually wonderful brews. Drinkers are familiar with his full-flavoured pilsners, ales and stouts. Every year, Murray's celebrates its good fortune by releasing an Anniversary Ale - packaged in 750-millilitre champagne bottles. Sherlock's seventh release is a Belgian-inspired barley wine. The use of cherry wood-infused malt provides its distinctive smoky aroma. This is an ambitious beer from a brewer at the top of his game. Keep for a special occasion.
Food match: Mum's Christmas pudding.
5. Little Creatures Rogers', 3.8%
Place of origin: Fremantle, WA
Little Creatures made its name by brewing a fragrant, citrusy pale ale, but more serious hopheads usually plump for a Rogers' - a manly ale in the English tradition, but one that's surprisingly light on the alcohol. A brilliant ''session beer'', Rogers' doesn't easily fit into any category. Older drinkers may classify it as a traditional brown ale; younger ones may see some American craft-brewing influences. Either way, this is a frisky mid-strength beer with plenty of malt, toffee, caramel and zesty character. Available in 568-millilitre bottles.
Food match: Sticky-date pudding and butterscotch sauce.
6. Thirsty Crow Vanilla Milk Stout, 5.2%
Place of origin: Wagga Wagga, NSW
Legend has it that Thirsty Crow began making stout during a cricket plague in 2011 so customers wouldn't notice the blighters landing in their beer. Since then, this novelty beer - who adds vanilla to stout? - has gone on to conquer the nation. At its heart, however, this is a fairly conventional stout made with English (East Kent Goldings) hops and lashings of rich, aromatic malts. The result is a layer-cake of flavours (chocolate, nutmeg, vanilla, coffee, caramel) that pour black and mysterious in the glass, with a sweet cappuccino head.
Food match: A dozen freshly shucked oysters.
7. Mildura Brewery Mallee Bull Strong Ale, 5.6%
Place of origin: Mildura, Victoria
When a celebrated chef such as Stefano de Pieri invests in a microbrewery, the traditional gap between fine dining and beer drinking starts to narrow. The brewery produces six regular beers and some interesting seasonal brews. Despite its outback iconography, Mallee Bull Strong Ale is a straight-up English bitter, brewed with Maris Otter hops and crystal and chocolate malts from Berwick-on-Tweed. This is a well-balanced beer, which pours coppery in the glass with plenty of thick foamy head. Expect flashes of burnt toffee and dark chocolate flavours. A handsome, grown-up beer.
Food match: Braised beef cheek in red wine reduction.
8. Temple Brewery Scarlet Sour, 4%
Place of origin: Brunswick East, Victoria
Is this a beer or a Campari gone troppo? Scarlet Sour may look like raspberry soft drink and, on one level, tastes like it. But then, without warning, it thumps you between the eyes like a fur-lined brick. The sweet and sour palate is achieved using something called the ''Berliner Weisse sour mash technique'', creating the beer's distinctive and complex acidity. The wort, or unfermented beer, is then run through a bed of hibiscus flowers. Fresh cranberries are added for colour and extra tartness. Real men drink pink.
Food match: Ceviche of tuna with chilli and lime.
9. Mountain Goat Organic Steam Ale, 4.5%
Place of origin: Richmond, Victoria
This all-natural steam ale is as pale and bubbly as champagne, but don't be fooled - it's packed with flavour. The delicate citrus and grassy notes derive from an infusion of wheat malt into the brew. Behind the cool, sophisticated facade, this beer is packed with Cascade and Citra hops and lashings of malt flavour. A clever twist on an American classic, serve this Australian version chilled in a tall pilsner glass for maximum enjoyment.
Food match: Kung pao chicken.
10. Feral Brewing Hop Hog IPA, 5.8%
Place of origin: Swan Valley, WA
Opinion is strongly divided about the respective merits of English and American India pale ale. According to the stereotype, it's a case of E-Type Jaguar versus Ford Mustang. This Swan Valley brew is definitely more 50 Cent than Downton Abbey - an American IPA with gobfuls of flavour (hints of pine needle and lemon peel) and an aftertaste like wet hessian. Bitter, aggressive and a little bit rude, this is a beer best drunk from the tap.
Food match: Pepperoni pizza.
11. Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, 4.4%
Place of origin: Byron Bay, NSW
Stone & Wood makes highly drinkable beers while adhering to strict organic principles. Pacific Ale, the cornerstone of its range, is neither filtered nor pasteurised - hence the cloudy appearance. Made from the finest Australian barley, wheat and Galaxy hops, this beer is deliciously smooth and refreshing, with plenty of fruit action (apricots, cherries and citrus) on the nose. This beer is still fermenting, so gently invert the bottle to dislodge the yeast before pouring.
Food match: Vietnamese duck braised in a preserved bean-curd sauce with lemongrass and chilli.
12. 4 Pines Kolsch, 4.6%
Place of origin: Manly, NSW
This is one of 4 Pines' best-selling beers. Kolsch is a German beer style known for its hoppiness, and this one should appeal to anyone ready to move on from insipid commercial lagers. Verdict: a pleasing, sweetish pale beer with hints of lemon, lime and passionfruit. Ideal for quaffing on a sunny afternoon.
Food match: Salt-and-pepper squid.