TASTE OF THE REGION
WORDS MIKE GRIBBLE
Pre-eminent master brewer Dr Charles Hahn jokes that when he arrived in Australia from the US in 1981, he was introduced to our seven-course meal – a meat pie and a six-pack.
Hahn, 70, from Colorado, is founder of Sydney’s Hahn Brewery – later becoming Lion’s Malt Shovel with its James Squire beers. His audiences always laugh at the one-liner but its sentiment, back then, was indicative of the population’s nonchalance when it came to simple expectations of food and beer. At least, in Adelaide, our wine was causing a stir.
Hahn’s still in the game and he’s helped push the industry, corporate and independent, a long way. Brewers, like chefs, now travel as heroes. And the kaleidescopic aroma and flavour spectrums of their four ingredients – malt, hops, yeast and water – are a growing source of wonderment.
Big Shed Brewing Concern’s Craig Basford and Jason Harris typify the rise to commercial ranks of the homebrewer, where the bounds of craft beer get a no-rules workout. The pair launched Big Shed with a rousing meet-the-brewer party at Thebarton’s Wheatsheaf Hotel in April 2014. In a short history punctuated with national awards, their Royal Park brewery has seen an expansion to a neighbouring site as well as a Semaphore beachside offshoot bar, Westside Massive and an annual turnover of $3 million. Their diverse ferments on tap and in bottles include a stout which emulates the flavour of a Streets Golden Gaytime ice cream, Cherry Popper cider and a true-to-style German kolsch with an Aussie name, Kol Schisel.
Basford says the modern evolution of craft beer has come in leaps and bounds, adding that one of the big hooks is a sense of consumer ownership; a fervour for family-like belonging.
“There’s a sense of evangelism on the rise – like watching Pirate Life take off, (in craft brewing) everyone’s got a cult-like status,” he says. “People want to know the stories of where the beer’s coming from and who’s making it and why they make it the way they do.
“And they want more access to people behind the scenes because they want to know that they’re doing something good with the money they’re spending – and if that means supporting a local business then that’s what they want to do. If they find the story behind the business, the people, the beer compelling enough, they take ownership of it and it becomes theirs.”
And Basford says that with drinkers’ awareness of the potential for high quality and diversity in craft comes more pressure for brewers and their industry cohorts.
“There was a time where you talked to a bloke and he’d say, ‘I drink West End Draught and my dad drank West End and that’s it’,” he says. “But now, people’s awareness and their want to try new things is more open. In some ways it’s a challenge because I want people to drink our beers all the time but, in the same way, it’s a great thing because everyone’s exploring this wave and it allows us to make new beers and keep things exciting.”
At the time Dr Hahn arrived in Australia, South Australia had two breweries – Coopers and West End (or SA Brewing) and occasionally drinkers dabbled in comparitive brands from across the border.
A century previous, the state had more than a dozen breweries, many growing their own hops. Now the state’s breweries number about 40 and rising, from micros to pub and big-scale craft brands.
Aside from good employment prospects for rapidly technical homebrewers, SA has a fair slice of the $454m national beer industry, as recorded by IBIS last year. Yet, still, just 3 per cent of sales reflect craft beer so there’s plenty of room for expansion and diversity.
At the birth of SA’s alcohol industry – with white settlement fuelled by often spurious brewers and distillers – quality was a dubious vaguery. Much of the grog was barely healthier than drinking River Torrens water downstream from a dead animal.
After many decades of basic beers, the birth of big-scale craft beer in the 1980s saw SA looking to WA for inspiration. Brewer Phil Sexton had left beer giant Swan to launch his Matilda Bay beers, widely seen as Australia’s first craft ales. His Summer Wheat, renamed Redback in 1986, among his other styles under national distribution, went off like a box of springs out of the Sail and Anchor Hotel in Fremantle. Suddenly hearing Aussie bands such as the Sunnyboys at the Old Lion Hotel became a heightened experience with a fruity Redback in hand. And it signalled an SA beer explosion to come.
Pubs followed the brew cult. Among the first were Port Adelaide’s Port Dock (famous for its Lyndon Nelsen recipe for highly awarded Black Bart Milk Stout) and North Adelaide’s Old Lion. Then, in ensuing years, Glenelg’s Holdfast Hotel poured its own credible brews under spiritual guidance from West End’s then head brewer Tony Jones.
Two years ago, Thebarton’s Wheatsheaf publican Jade Flavell launched her 600L Wheaty Brewing Corps. In her first 12 months, she brewed more than 50 wildly diverse beers for the pub, co-owned with Liz O’Dea and the late Emily Trott.
The mid-to-late 2000s saw a groundswell frothing with newcomers. Think Denham D’Silva’s Barossa Valley Brewing, now at Tanunda, and Croydon’s Brewboys – master brewer Stephen Nelsen and former baker Simon Sellick, both ex-Port Dock brewers. Brewboys were at the forefront of tongue-in-cheek beer profiles and labels, with such bottles as Seeing Double, Hoes Garden, GT Lager and the hop-heavy Hoppapotimus.
Hills gem Lobethal Bierhaus launched when Alistair Turnbull quit a solid career in European business banking. His and wife Rose’s brewery restaurant fixes smiles far and wide. Earlier engineer Darryl Trinne started Barossa Brewing by building his own kettle, pipes and tun in Greenock’s 1860s wheat store, since sold but still operating as Greenock Brewers.
Winemaker Saltram got in on the action with its terrific Pepperjack ale dashed with shiraz juice while another wine family name, Pikes of Oakbank, also one of SA’s oldest in beer, set about designs on rebirthing the family labels – the brewery is a must-see at their Clare Valley vineyard.
Another stalwart name in the Valley, Enterprise Brewery, at Knappstein winery, was recommissioned by Lion adjacent the site’s historic bluestone and brick malting tower. Its awarded sole beer Enterprise Lager uses NZ’s ever-popular Nelson Sauvin hops for a vinous tropical fruit edge. Not too far away, Burra’s Unicorn brewery saw a short-lived rebirth.
For many years, Coopers has claimed the title as SA’s first craft brewer and Lion’s West End has made James Squire beers for national distribution. And for a while it seemed new brewers announced themselves every month: Steam Exchange at Goolwa (now embracing whiskey); Kangaroo Island Brewing; Prancing Pony, now at Totness (its India Red Ale the Supreme Champion Beer at the International Beer Challenge in London last year); medalled craft brewer Jared Birbeck; Clare Valley Brewing; Mismatch; Gulf at Hahndorf; Smiling Samoyed at Myponga; Meechi with its wine pedigree at Langhorne Creek; contract brewers Croydon Brewery, and Bosun’s Whistle at Port Adelaide; Little Bang at Stepney; Rabbit & Spaghetti Brewing Co.; the beaut Woolshed at Wilkadene; and Caudo, west of Waikerie; Ministry of Beer; Mephisto; Molly Rose startup brewery; Drunken Drone Brewery on KI; restaurateur collaboration Malt Fiction (also with Jared Birbeck); Rehn Bier in the Barossa, Lady Burra in Adelaide’s CBD, the Barossa’s recent Western Ridge Collective using the Rehn brewery, Left Barrel at Balhannah; Fairweather Small Batch out of the PA Hotel at Gawler; Beer Garden Brewery at Port Lincoln …
Robe Town Brewery in the South-East made national headlines last year with its Moby Dick Ambergris Ale, brewed under ancient minimal intervention using a tincture of the unctuous byproduct of a sperm whale’s digestive system.
Former Lion brewer Jeff Goodieson’s ripper brewhouse at McLaren Vale is a welcome fixture and a point of difference for wine tourists, then, too, virtual neighbours Swell Brewing Co., and the much-awarded craft giant Vale Brewing at Willunga, including its big-alcohol cans under its subsidiary label Fox Hat.
Arriving in time for the eccentric and intoxicating beers-and-beards era are the flavour shakers, the aforementioned Big Shed and, from across WA’s deserts like a storm, Pirate Life who are making global waves from their digs at Hindmarsh in Adelaide’s west. Jack Cameron and Red Proudfoot’s team specialise in distinctive heavily hopped cans which this year won three spots in the top seven of the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular Hottest 100. Their reputation for fun and custom culture is truly engaging.
But, for now, take a quick breath because more are on the way. Sure, it’s only beer but it’s an industry fast becoming one of SA’s most-watched.
Sample with gusto but leave the wheels in the driveway
INSIDE A BEER LOVER’S DIARY
Craft Brewing Industry Association national conference
Adelaide Convention Centre, July 25-27
2017 Craft Beer Awards
Adelaide Convention Centre, July 27
Adelaide Beer & BBQ Festival
Adelaide Showgrounds, July 28-30
Royal Adelaide Beer & Cider Awards
(entries accepted from Australia and New Zealand until May 5)
Adelaide Showgrounds, July 28