Taste test: How to get your craft beer fix for less

More and more punters are happy to pay a premium for craft beer. We compare some of the pricier drops and find some of the best budget brews, too.

1. Nail Brewing Clout Stout – $70, 750ml

This annual release ticks most of the boxes: it always weighs in above 10 per cent ABV; only a few hundred individually numbered bottled are released, each in its own box; and it tastes incredible. Imperial stouts are bold, black, powerful beasts, with this arguably Australia's finest, typically delivering velvety layers ranging from caramel and figs to chocolate, vanilla and sweet licorice.

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Courage Imperial Russian Stout – $9, 275ml

When I held a blind tasting of 19 of the best imperial stouts available in Australia with a panel of beer experts, an aged Clout and this British brew finished clear at the top. Courage claims direct lineage from the first imperial stout brewed for Catherine the Great in 1795 for a beer that suggests sometimes the originals are the best.

2. Stone Brewing Enjoy By IPA – $45, 650ml

India pale ales (IPAs) are all the rage, with many Australians inspired by those coming out of the west coast of the United States. San Diego's Stone brews some of the best and uses its Enjoy By series of 9.4 percent ABV double IPAs to highlight the importance of drinking such beers as fresh as possible. The reason, other than hype and rarity, for the price hike: the bottles are air-freighted to ensure you can enjoy them in time.


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Fixation Brewing IPA – $5, 330ml

Regularly brewed double IPAs are few and far between in Australia, but if you're after a fresh taste of West Coast hops, then you won't find much fresher than this 6.4 per cent drop as Fixation itself – a joint venture between Stone & Wood and IPA-loving former Mountain Goat rep Tom Delmont – is only one beer and a few months old, with bottles launching on the East Coast late March.

3. Hargreaves Hill Phoenix 2015 – $48, 750ml

The Yarra Valley brewers first created Phoenix to mark their rebirth after the first brewery was destroyed in the Black Saturday fires. The latest release is just out, with only 500 individually numbered, wax-sealed, heavyweight bottles of this luscious, malt led 9.6 per cent imperial red ale available.

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Six String Dark Red IPA – $5, 330ml

There's really nothing quite like the Phoenix released locally, but there are plenty of red ales, many of them hoppier than the Hargreaves Hill brew. This minor canned classic from Central Coast's Six String packs heaps of intense piney, citrusy hops and toffee and biscuit malts into its 6 per cent ABV.

4. Mountain Goat Barrel Breed Christmas Ale 2015 ($40, 750ml)
Mountain Goat's first release aged in Lark Distillery barrels, a barley wine, won champion Australian beer in 2015. Its third was another seriously limited release – 900 bottles in total and one keg per state. Wax-sealed twice, weighing 10 per cent ABV and with the barrels adding vanilla and whisky to the fruity, spicy base beer.

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St Bernadus Abt 12 ($9, 330ml)
Bernadus was founded in 1946 by the monks of nearby St Sixtus in Westvleteren to brew its beers. They included Westvleteren 12, often tagged the best in the world. Since 1992, the monks have been brewing in-house but St Bernadus kept brewing too, with its Abt 12 using the same recipe as it did when it was branded Westvleteren. Amazingly rich, full and smooth, awash with dark fruits, caramel malts and soft spices. 

5. La Sirene Imperial Praline – $28, 750ml

The original Praline debuted at the GABS festival during Good Beer Week 2014, winning the people's choice award and becoming one of the most talked-about beers of the year. This new, 8 per cent imperial version doubles the amount of vanilla and adds more cacao alongside hazelnuts to create a decadent, dessert-like affair.

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Bad Shepherd Hazelnut Brown Ale – $6, 330ml

​Dereck and Diti Hales opened their Bad Shepherd brewpub in Cheltenham late last year and have enticed big crowds with their beers and US-style comfort food ever since. Gaining a following already is this nutty brown ale featuring hazelnuts, hazelnut extract, vanilla and a splash of Frangelico.

6. Redoak Special Reserve – $75, 250ml

This rare barley wine clocks in at 12 per cent ABV, undergoes three different fermentations and is matured on various types of oak. It's won several major trophies and you can only drink it at Redoak's Sydney venue. Close your eyes, sniff and sip and you'd be forgiven for thinking you had a fine Pedro Ximenez sherry in your glass.

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Grand Ridge Moonshine – $7.50, 330ml

It's only two-thirds the strength and hasn't spent time on oak, but if you're wanting to see whether luscious, creamy, malty ales are your thing, this strong Scotch ale from Gippsland's Grand Ridge is a great starting point.

7. Le Trou de Diable Le Coq – $42, 750ml

This award-winning import from Canadians Le Trou de Diable started out as a rye ale that was aged for two years in wine barrels before having 200 kilograms  of cherries added. The result is a complex sour ale that proffers cherry, oak, balsamic vinegar and even parma violet-like characters.

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Rodenbach Grand Cru – $7, 330ml

The flagship beer for Belgian masters Rodenbach sees them blend a rich, toffee-led malty ale aged for two years in giant oak foudres with a younger, unoaked version to create a vinous, acidic classic admired the world over. Their Caractere Rouge, made with cherries, cranberries and raspberries, will win over even the most ardent beer-hating oenophile.