Lagers to pale ales: Australian brewers look to classic beer styles

Champion brew: 4 Pines brewer Andrew Tweddell with his schwarzbier.
Champion brew: 4 Pines brewer Andrew Tweddell with his schwarzbier. Photo: Supplied

Sometime in the last few years, craft beer got a bit silly. Chief among the antics was the Nitro Milkshake IPA from Sydney's One Drop Brewing Company, made in collaboration with Kellogg's.

The beer allegedly contains Corn Flakes (though I couldn't taste them) along with strawberries, passionfruit, mango, coconut, vanilla extract and lactose.

Meanwhile, Gold Coast outfit Black Hops Brewing has created the smashed avocado beer we never knew we needed, containing 17 kilograms of the stuff, along with coriander, lime juice and chilli.

I don't want to rain on the parade. These types of creations undoubtedly bring excitement to beer, and I'm just as curious as anyone to try them.

But there is no doubt that some of the world's greatest beer styles are being overlooked in favour of newness and novelty.

It's a common bugbear for brewers themselves, many of whom were inspired by the classics and recognise they can be the most challenging beers to execute.

Hemingway's head brewer Anthony Clem.
Hemingway's head brewer Anthony Clem. Photo: Supplied

"As brewers, we're forced to be as creative and on trend as possible with new hoppy beer styles," says 4 Pines brewer Andrew Tweddell.

"Any chance you can get to recreate a classic, you jump at the opportunity."

New in bottles from 4 Pines is a rarely seen schwarzbier, a German dark lager.

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Judged by his industry peers, Tweddell's interpretation was named overall champion at the 2019 Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA), highlighting the soft spot that brewers have for these classic styles.

Tweddell says drinkers should not be put off by the beer's colour, nor its exotic German name.

"It's an approachable dark beer, smooth with a nice delicate hop character," he says.

When I'm drinking a great lager, for me it's about serenity.

Brewer Scott Hargrave

"The schwarzbier style doesn't have the roasty astringency you'd associate with dark ales. It's a bit more subtle and refreshing."

The brewery founded in 2005 by David Walsh of MONA fame, Moo Brew, has championed classic beer styles from the outset.

But current head brewer Dave Macgill acknowledges that the critical praise for its pilsner and hefeweizen (a German wheat beer) has not necessarily translated to sales.

Balter Brewing has recently released a lager.
Balter Brewing has recently released a lager. Photo: Supplied

"There's breweries that have been around for a lot less time than us that are already selling much higher volumes, but it was never a volume-based decision for us," he says.

Moo Brew has recently released a Belgian Pale Ale, reprising the beer previously called "Belgo" that was cut from its core range a few years ago.

"It's sold like hotcakes down here. It was a beer that was loved by a lot of people," says Macgill.

Moo Brew's Belgian Pale Ale.
Moo Brew's Belgian Pale Ale. Photo: Mona/Jesse Hunniford

He hopes that Moo Brew's twist on the style, which is non-traditional in its use of American flavour hops, may win over drinkers who are otherwise averse to the fruity, spicy yeast-driven characters that typify Belgian beers.

"It's quite a hoppy beer, so it is definitely the yeast profile that polarises people," he says.

"I hope it's one of those beers where traditionalists, and people who are mad IPA heads, can find something to enjoy about it."

Forest For The Trees saison.
Forest For The Trees saison. Photo: Supplied

In northern NSW, Stone & Wood co-founder Brad Rogers was similarly inspired by Belgium with his recent side project, Forest For The Trees.

Its flagship beer is a classic expression of a saison; a spicy, refreshing beer style originally created by Belgian farmers to safely hydrate their workers at a time when potable water was not always easy to come by.

"Back in the day, the farmers were making it to quench the farmhands' thirst and get them back into the field. That's why the bitterness and alcohol are low," Rogers says.

In Queensland, Balter Brewing recently swapped one classic style for another in its core range, as Balter Lager took the place of Balter Pilsner.

While Balter has made its name on hop-driven ales, head brewer Scott Hargrave says he has a soft spot for the subtlety and elegance of a lager.

"When I'm drinking a great lager, for me it's about serenity. It's the opposite of an IPA, which is all about impact – it's like a bombastic rock 'n' roll show," he says.

"With a lager, you almost want to sit in a paddock with Vivaldi playing off in the distance."

The new Balter Lager is inspired by a Munich helles, which is characterised by significantly lower bitterness than the pilsner it has replaced.

Hargrave says drinkers voted with their wallets for the more approachable beer during trials on tap at Balter's Gold Coast taproom.

"There's so many hop-driven beers out there at the moment that I think people are looking for shelter or respite from that," he says.

"I think folks in Australia seem to understand the word 'lager', whereas 'pilsner' still confuses some of them – I get the feeling a lot of people think it is a completely different thing altogether."

But if "pilsner" is a turn-off for drinkers, there's been no evidence of it in Far North Queensland, where Hemingway's Brewery is based.

Hemingway's The Prospector Pilsner won the trophy for Best Pilsner at the 2019 AIBA, and head brewer Anthony Clem says it is also a solid performer in the company's Cairns and Port Douglas taprooms.

"We have tried to balance the elevated bitterness with some residual malt sweetness, so although the bitterness is noticeable it is not dominant," Clem says.

"It is always in the top three beers sold on tap at both of our venues so I think the perception is that it's not a bad drop."

Hemingway's pilsner is made in the original Czech style, which offers more richness of malt character on the palate, versus its German counterpart.

"Balancing this with subtle noble hops and prominent bitterness makes it great to pair up with food as well as everyday drinking in the tropics," Clem says.

"The intent was to show North Queenslanders how fantastic this style of beer is.”