Brewing's latest odd couple: Vegan food and beer matching

Vegan southwest 'chicken' burger with chipotle mayo (vegan), lettuce, pickles and vegan cheese at the Bad Shepherd ...
Vegan southwest 'chicken' burger with chipotle mayo (vegan), lettuce, pickles and vegan cheese at the Bad Shepherd brewpub in Cheltenham, Victoria. Photo: Supplied

A few years back, Karl Cooney served vegan food at a beer festival. It didn't go well.

"It was a bit of a chore," says the founder and owner of Yulli's Brews in Alexandria, NSW. "We tried to do all these very beery things – we used our red ale to make a gravy, we caramelised onions in our English IPA, we pickled cucumbers in our Pale Ale – but the fact that there was no smoked brisket meant that people weren't really interested."

Smoked brisket, hamburgers, pork knuckle: these are the foods that, in the popular imagination, go best with beer.

Inside Yulli's Brewery in Alexandria, NSW.
Inside Yulli's Brewery in Alexandria, NSW. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Vegies? No thank you. For confirmation, take a look at the food events scheduled for Australia's biggest beer celebration, Good Beer Week (May 10 and 19) – plenty of barbecue, grass-fed beef and nose-to-tail eating, and not too much vegan food.

But things are beginning to change.

Among a sprinkling of meat-free events is Vegan Beer Tasting with Thornbury's 3 Ravens at Beer Deluxe in Melbourne's Federation Square.

Dereck and Diti Hales operate the Bad Shepherd Brewing Co, Victoria.
Dereck and Diti Hales operate the Bad Shepherd Brewing Co, Victoria. Photo: Supplied

Head brewer Brendan O'Sullivan, who has been vegetarian for the past 13 years, has worked with Beer Deluxe's Jarrod Nash on the menu, which will match small plates (such as beetroot with coconut and yoghurt, or vegan "meatballs" made with mushroom and walnut) with a range of 3 Ravens beers.

"People want to try something new, to have an experience that they haven't had before, and vegan food does appeal to a wider audience than it used to," O'Sullivan says. "Historically, it has been quite a challenge to convince people to try something other than meat. A lot of beer drinkers, and even a lot of brewers I know, are still focused on barbecue and on meat. But we want to reach a broader audience, and to introduce more of the Australian drinking public to beer."

The Thornbury brewery is not alone in aiming to close the divide between beer and vegan food.

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In Melbourne, for example, there's Sibling, a vegan bottle shop, and Bad Shepherd, a brewery in Cheltenham, where a vegan menu has been offered alongside their barbecue menu since March last year.

Diti Hales, who owns the brewery with husband Dereck, says it's proving popular. "I would say that 20 to 30 per cent [of people ordering food] are vegan," she says, "and the majority of our Uber Eats orders are for vegan food."

Bad Shepherd will host a vegan event for Good Beer Week with the sort of barbecue food (vegan pulled-pork sliders, nachos, vegan "chicken" salad, hot dogs and burgers) that meets beer culture halfway.

Brendan O'Sullivan from 3 Ravens is always in food-matching mode.
Brendan O'Sullivan from 3 Ravens is always in food-matching mode. Photo: Robin Foster

"When the opportunity came to be able to put forward and argue for events for Good Beer Week, we just felt it was important to do a vegan event," says Hales. "Traditionally in Good Beer Week, there are very few vegan events. Ninety-nine per cent of our beers are vegan, so there's kind of a natural synergy there."

Bad Shepherd's beer is not unusual in being vegan-friendly, though: most beer is. The four key ingredients – malt, hops, water and yeast – all pass the test. Although some brewers use animal-derived products for clarity (Guinness, for example, used a fish-derived product called finings until 2015) or texture (lactose, which is derived from cow's milk, is increasingly popular), most Australian craft beer is vegan-friendly.

Not that drinkers necessarily know about this. "I think there's those with a level of awareness [who] already know that it's potentially an issue," says Cooney. "And then there's those – and this is the majority of people – who wouldn't even think of it as a possibility. It's just like with cheese: people don't realise what goes into rennet."

Yulli's Brews grew out of a vegan restaurant, also called Yulli's, in Sydney's Surry Hills. It's given Cooney a unique perspective on the divide between craft-beer culture and veganism. "I think they're very different groups," he says. "I do think there's an intersection, but it's a very small intersection.

"When we look at our restaurant, the customers are 70 to 80 per cent female. But the beer's very different. With the beer we try not to go on about it being vegan: we try to make it more about the quality of the products than about the veganism."

Nonetheless, there are interesting similarities between veganism and an appreciation for good beer. Both have been on the rise in recent years, and both attract people who want to try something a little different from the norm – often socially liberal people. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the two cultures become a lot closer over the next few years.

"People who might possibly choose a vegan lifestyle are also the type of people who are more inclined to try something new, and to eat and drink outside the norm," says Cooney. "The two worlds are coming together slowly."

Three vegan/beer matches

Korean-fried broccolini, with Berliner Weisse

Karl Cooney: "Berliner Weisse is my personal go-to beer, and it is such a good match with the type of food that we do: Southern European and South-East Asian fusion. With our Korean fried broccolini, you get the big bold crunch, and robust broccolini, the sweetness of the sauce, and then you get the acidity of the Berliner Weisse, which will cut through the oiliness and the fattiness. It's amazing!"

Vegan 'pulled pork' sandwich made with jackfruit, with a session pale ale

Diti Hales: "I believe that barbecue, with those sort of caramelised umami flavours, just goes so well with beer in general. Those characteristics lend themselves beautifully to both light and dark beers, but particularly Session IPAs."

Corn custard and silken tofu, with a New England IPA

Brendan O'Sullivan: "A New England-style IPA works really well with grainy, starchy, earthy stuff. Something like a corn custard with silken tofu, which is light and textural but also has some earthiness and sweetness, which we'll be serving at our GBW event. The earthiness and texture of the beer complements that."

Details

Two Birds Veg Out: Footscray cafe Small Graces serves up a plant-based feast matched to Two Birds Brewing beers. Sat, May 11, 7pm. $80 a head.

3 Ravens Vegan Beer Tasting: Taste five 3 Ravens brews alongside vegan canapes. Beer DeLuxe, Melbourne. Wed, May 15, 7pm. $45 a head.

Vegan Eats and Treats: Five-course vegan degustation and matched beers at Left Bank Melbourne, Southbank. Thu, May 16, 6pm. $79 a head.

Eat. Drink. Vegan: All-day event with Bad Shepherd Brewing Co's beer, barbecue-inspired vegan food and live music. Sun, May 19 noon-10pm. Free entry; lunch $49 a head; dinner $59 a head.

Tickets: goodbeerweek.com.au