Craft breweries a growing business in Australia

Doug Brooke of Brookes Beer in Bendigo.
Doug Brooke of Brookes Beer in Bendigo. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

One enduring legacy of Bruce Beresford's 1972 hit film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, is that many people overseas think Australians all run around guzzling Fosters lager.

In reality, of course, the stuff in the blue can is something of a rarity in its homeland. The idea that beer can help characterise a region, or a culture, however, is increasingly finding support.

Australia, it seems, is steadily being redefined, not by its iconic draughts, nor even its wines, but by its hand-made beers.

"All of the craft breweries are doing well," said Doug Brooke, eponymous owner of Bendigo-based Brooke's Beer and board member of the peak Craft Beer Industry Association. 

"Precise figures are difficult, but we estimate the sector is growing by around 10 per cent each year, with some individual breweries growing by as much as 100 per cent a year."

Definitions of what exactly comprises a craft beer can be tricky – as we shall see – but industry commentators concur that domestically produced posh squirt is going through the roof. Business analysts Ibis World describe the craft beer sector as "robust" – at a time when over-all beer consumption is at its lowest per capita level for almost seven decades.

There are about 150 small breweries around Australia, with Victoria universally recognised as prime driver of both production and consumption. 

The state boasts around 40 craft breweries, more than half in the regions, and Melbourne's inner northern suburbs are the nation's epicentre for rare-beer drinking.

In country Victoria, however, something else is happening. Increasingly, craft breweries are functioning as tourist attractions, while their brews, in bars and restaurants around the country, serve as regional identifiers in much the same way as singe-block wines.

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Also like wine, some small brewers are starting to experiment with producing their own grains and hops, as well as adding flavours from native plants. 

While not widely accepted, the idea of "beer terroir" is starting to be mooted.

Terroir – the idea that a wine expresses the characteristics of its vineyard location, climate and soil composition – is a slippery enough concept even for vignerons. For some people, the thought of applying it to brewing is close to blasphemy.

For James Booth at Black Dog Brewery in Taminick in north-eastern Victoria, however, it's a very exciting concept. And he should know – as well as running the brewery, he is also head wine-maker at the neighbouring Taminick Cellars, a winery that has been in his family since 1902.

"Yes, I think in some senses you can talk about terroir with beer," he said. 

"For instance, I use locally grown hops, as well as commercially sourced stock. I think it's definitely happening – lots of brewers are looking to express terroir in various ways. I'm thinking of planting my own malt later on, to go with the hops."

In Australian wine-making currently, many vintners are switching to wild fermentation – the practice of using airborne yeasts, rather than adding commercially produced varieties. Wild yeasts are also traditionally used in making some Belgian beers, but only a few Australian craft brewers are experimenting with the technique.

The reason, said James Booth, is taste. "If a drinker used to the general beers and just starting to branch out into craft brews was given a wild-fermented Belgian beer, it would pretty much freak them out!" he said.

And therein lie both the challenge and the charm of craft beer. The variety of Australian produced ales and lagers is staggering, but they all share one characteristic: they taste nothing like VB or Toohey's Old. For the hipster boozers in Melbourne's Fitzroy or Sydney's Newtown that fact is an attraction – for the habituated CUB customer, it can be a bit off-putting.

"I offer two entry-level beers," said Kelly Adamo, owner of Wangaratta restaurant Buyin' Time. "If a customer hasn't tried craft beer before I suggest either a pilsner from Holgate Brewery in Woodend, or our own Kolsch, a German-style beer which I brew with James at Black Dog. Some of the others might be a bit confronting."

Adamo, a chef who worked at the popular Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth before striking out on her own, is one of an increasing number of restaurateurs finding that regional beers are good for business. She offers nine craft brews – none, she said, available in mainstream bottle-shops. 

"I decided to stock craft beers because I think they're healthier," she said. "The brewing process is a lot purer. A few years ago I switched my own drinking from mainstream to craft beers, and I felt a lot better!"

The health benefits of obscure beers are, of course, a matter for debate. So too is precisely what constitutes a craft brew. Argument rages whether the craft sector should include only independent breweries or whether brands such as James Squire, Little Creatures and Matilda Bay, all owned by behemoths CUB and Lion, should be included.

If the latter, then craft beer accounts for around three per cent of the Australian beer market. If the former, the figure drops to one per cent. Doug Brooke, on behalf of the industry association, opts for a diplomatic two per cent.

His own beer range is marketed in a way that strongly references the history of Bendigo. However, he doubts the practicality of using regionally sourced ingredients and the notion of beer terroir.

"Wine-making accepts regional variability, but brewing is much more about achieving consistency," he said.

"The raw material supply chain doesn't really allow for regional differences. Our malt stock, for instance, is co-mingled from several different sources. For me, the important thing is producing a consistent quality product."

James Smith, Melbourne-based beer blogger and organiser of the annual Good Beer Week festival, concurs with Brooke's assessment on industry health. "It's hard to find a small brewery that hasn't doubled production in the past two or three years," he said.

Unlike Brooke, however, he sees strong potential in the concept of beer terroir.

"There are quite a few breweries growing small amounts of their own hops to add to their beers," he said. 

"Big hop growers, too, are starting to plant varieties developed in Australia in place of the traditional British and European varieties. 

"There's a beer called Pacific Ale, made by Byron Bay's Stone and Wood brewery, which uses only locally developed hop variety called galaxy. It tastes very different. It feels like the most Australian beer there is."

According to Smith, however, Melbourne remains the hub of artisan beer consumption in Australia. As evidence he points to the opening in September of Forester's Hall in Collingwood, a large pub-restaurant that boasts 50 taps pouring 32 Australian craft beers.

"In Melbourne now you can find an amazing range of beers," he said. "The cultural calendar features beer festivals where you can meet all these passionate young brewers.

"Melbourne always tends to embrace new trends. The craft beer crowd has become younger over the past few years. Drinking craft beer is seen as cool – probably because it is."

Planning for the next Good Beer Week is already well under way. Scheduled for May 2015, it will feature more than 200 craft beer-themed events across Victoria. Bazza McKenzie would have a ball.