Although I'd become rather accustomed to craft beer's charms, it wasn't until last year's Good Beer Week launch, at the Terminus Hotel in North Fitzroy, that I realised how much I had to learn.
Beer writer and educator Pete Mitcham introduced some determined, extremely passionate – and, yes, mostly bearded – industry advocates and brewers from BrewCult, Stone & Wood, Prickly Moses and Mountain Goat.
As such, we weren't short-changed on the quality of tapped brews, with Feral Brewing Company's Hop Hog and Stone & Wood's Pacific Ale (numbers one and two in the 2014 "Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers" poll) leading the amber stream.
I noticed I was setting a quicker pace than my fellow drinkers. Despite the attractions of free beer, most seemed to be doing everything but swigging. It was a strange sight: a packed room of blokes (and some women) swishing the liquid inside their pints and holding them up to the light. When they did bend the elbow their movements were slow and meticulous; a good few seconds passing between the glass hitting their lips and swallowing.
It was all very friendly and convivial; most of the chatter focused on the varied elements of beers consumed or found (and placed in cabinets at home, never to be opened). It was a world away from the high-octane atmosphere of a footy, TAB or British-themed pub, where I'd often previously found myself caught up in shouts of production-line lager.
Could this new world of beer change our nation's long-lamented bingeing mindset? Yes, according to Mitcham. "We are drinking less, but drinking better," he says. "Rather than 'sticking fat' to one particular brand we are becoming a nation of 'repertoire drinkers' with several favourites depending on the weather, the company or the occasion."
It might seem daunting, particularly if you're used to the simplicity of a green can, so Goodfood.com.au hauled in several industry experts for some pointers ahead of the fifth – and biggest – instalment of Good Beer Week.
Deciphering the jargon
According to Ben Kraus, of Beechworth's Bridge Road Brewers, the buzz word at present is "sessionable": "Session IPAs from the USA – now being branded by some as XPA – tend to be big on aroma and flavour but try to keep bitterness and ABV (alcohol by volume) to a minimum to allow people to drink more basically, which means more sales," he says. "These beers still champion flavour and hops, but are more approachable and repeatable."
Beer consultant and judge Kirrily Waldhorn aka "Beer Diva", says while the craft market lends itself to acronyms – IPAs(India Pale Ales), ESBs (Extra Special Bitters) and APAs (American Pale Ales) – and history-referencing taglines ("Imperial"), brewers' "hopping regimes" lean more to the serious side. "'Wet', 'late' and 'dry' are all descriptors of how and when hops are added within the brewing process," she explains. "Hops, like grapes, are only harvested once a year and are mostly dried and pelletised for later use, so to be able to add fresh – or 'wet' – hops is a brewer's dream."
As far as terminology goes, however, Mitcham offers the following definitions:
Mouthfeel: "The combined effects of malt sweetness, hop bitterness and carbonation; this creates the 'mouthfeel' of a beer."
And growler? "A glass 'flagon' for transporting fresh beer from a brewery (such as Spotswood's Two Birds Brewing) or bar (like Slowbeer in Richmond) to the home".
Finally, "chill haze"? "Possibly a winter music festival to which you take canned beers like Mountain Goat Fancy Pants or Mornington Brewery Pale Ale," he jokes. "Also, the cloudiness caused by proteins in beer becoming cold."
Most recommended for newbies
If in a craft-prominent pub, Kraus recommends trying a paddle or flight option: "That way you can find out what flavours and styles interest you."
Trevor Birks, Bendigo Beer co-owner, agrees. "It's loads more fun to see craft newbies discover what they like as you put options in front of them. I learnt this while running a tasting session with a group of ladies who were adamant they hated every type of beer. I poured a Holgate chocolate coffee porter and they were amazed at what was going on with their tastebuds.
"That said, I have found Mountain Goat's Summer Ale and Two Birds Taco Wheat to be reliable conversion beers."
Hamish Reed, chief brewing officer at Hawthorn Brewing, believes "mainstream" drinkers are generally best suited to styles that "don't blow their palate away with bitterness and/or flavour".
"I'd suggest a well-made Golden or Pale Ale – such as Hawthorn Pale Ale," he says.
Here's a mixed-bag, made-for-newbies sixer, courtesy of Mitcham:
Mountain Goat Summer Ale (Richmond, VIC): "A little can of carbonated smiles, this has a nice freshness. Australian-grown Galaxy hops give aroma and bitterness in gentle measure."
4 Pines Kolsch (Manly, NSW): "An Australian take on the classic Cologne staple, this German-style golden ale has the drinkability of a lager with the pleasant subtle fruitiness of an ale."
Stone & Wood Pacific Ale (Byron Bay, NSW): "A simple malt structure with a little added wheat for bite and plenty of hops for aroma and flavour. It's as if everything that makes Byron Bay special has been included in the bottle."
Feral Sly Fox Golden Ale (Swan Valley, WA): "As the name suggests, this little beauty has a sneaky side. Clean and crisp and very easy drinking, it packs a surprising hop character."
Mildura Brewery Stefano's Pilsner (Mildura, VIC): "Some beers are great for the taste or the way they leave you feeling. Others have a history and a story to tell. This has all of the above. Stefano de Pieri has captured the essence of beer as celebration."
Burleigh Brewing HEF (Burleigh Heads, QLD): "Perhaps the most 'challenging' beer of the six, the HEF is packed with Bavarian tradition as well as a fair smack of banana and clove aromas, a tight, fresh citrus body and a refreshing aftertaste."
How to best enjoy a craft beer
Most craft pubs come with boundless knowledge and passion behind the bar. These are people lucky enough to be in their dream vocation, and they're almost always keen to assist the uninitiated find a suitable beer. While they might talk your ear off, they don't bite!
Says Steve Jeffares, co-owner of The Local Taphouse in St Kilda: "When we first opened The Local Taphouse, we had a fantastic IPA from Jamieson Brewing called The Beast. Many people bought the beer based simply on the name but would then leave it almost untouched because the style was too hoppy and bitter for them. We quickly introduced a staff policy to offer a free taste to customers who ordered The Beast for the first time – a reminder of our responsibility as beer advocates to ensure people's beer experiences are matched to their palettes and expectations."
If imbibing at home, drinking from a suitable beer glass is imperative. "This will make the beer look great, and ensures you can enjoy the aroma. It will elevate any tasting experience," Jeffares says.
Waldhorn agrees: "There is so much flavour lost when your beer is drunk straight from the bottle." Waldhorn says that ales should be enjoyed just a little warmer than lagers.
"We're not talking warm beer by any means; but just taking it out of the fridge 10 minutes before you want to drink it will make all the difference to the flavour. As the weather cools, this is even more relevant and so much more enjoyable."
All agree that craft beer, for all its perceived challenges (who wants a beer they have to think too much about?), is meant to be fun. "It shouldn't be too studious and never a chore," Kraus says. "My tip is to sample with like-minded friends, be it at a pub or at home, enjoy a chat about the beer, debate it if needed, but never preach – leave that to the politicians."
What's hot and what's not
Sours and fruit beers are starting to chip into the IPA monopoly, particularly in the US, where Australia gets most of its craft cues from.
Says Birks: "Thanks to social media, overseas trends are being picked up here much more quickly and already there have been some great beers in those styles being released."
Although only one lager (Stone & Wood's Munich Helles-style lager) appeared in last year's IPA-littered Hottest 100 beers poll, Jaffares believes the market is ripe for more – despite the challenges they bring.
"Lagers are harder and more expensive to brew than ales but I think more craft breweries will rediscover traditional lager styles," he says.
Waldhorn says while most breweries have a pale ale in their core range, beer's "diversity of flavour possibility" has seen many exciting new styles hit the market. "Among those looking for something new, we are definitely seeing more of the funky, farmhouse ales like the Saisons and Biere de Gardes; these are fantastic food beers as well," she says.
"Taking that a step further are the mouth-puckering, wild-fermented sour ales, led by breweries such as the Bacchus Brewing Company in Queensland."
The more observant among frequenters to Dan Murphy's might have noticed that the treasured tinnie has found its way into the craft market, with the likes of Mountain Goat's Summer Ale (the bright orange can) leading the way. "Canned beers are making a huge impression and I don't see that slowing down any time soon," Birks says.
Cans may yet be the biggest hit in regional Victoria, which Birks says has latched, ever so slowly, on to craft beer. "Most major regional centres have their own craft brewery, so the local community is perhaps more aware of it than most would have you believe," he says.
He says Bendigo is Australia's leading regional city. "In 2011, there were three venues doing craft. Today the current count is 52 as well as the city hosting three major festivals each year. I've also noticed Castlemaine and Echuca have been really active."
Bendigo Beer's next major festival is Bendigo on the Hop, on August 15.
Waldhorn echoes the comments of her peers in observing that more and more people – including long-term guzzlers – are appreciating "good beer" for its flavourful qualities. "Bars' and pubs' tap ranges have never been larger or more varied and our general knowledge is growing day by day."
She adds that beer-and-food pairing has also rapidly gained in popularity – "It is generally accepted as a concept that works, rather than greeted with quizzical looks as it was a few years ago" – and that the "extreme" beer movement of a few years ago has been simplified as brewers chase a bigger piece of the pie. "The dial has settled around beers which are flavoursome without being too challenging or confronting."
Jaffares says the emphasis on enjoying beers fresh and from local breweries will only increase. "Beers imported from overseas travel vast distances to get here and many beers – especially hoppy beers – don't benefit from that journey," he says. "I'm all for importing the very best beers from overseas but a growing number of international beers are appearing when there are better examples made locally."
He says the revolution is here to stay – even if the backlash that inevitably accompanies popular trends exists. "I have a view that we should simply eat and drink what we enjoy and not judge others for their choices," Jaffares says.
"The growing interest in beer is not unlike what has happened with food, coffee, bread, cheese, wine, chocolate and tea. Some people are interested in exploring its diversity which is fine. Some people aren't and that's fine too. Just don't take any of it too seriously."