Victoria has long been the state with the greatest number of microbreweries and, in Melbourne especially, has led the way in terms of craft beer in venues too. Yet recent years have seen other cities and states creating quite the buzz while Victoria, Good Beer Week's global appeal notwithstanding, has grown steadily without the state's beer scene necessarily being as eye-catching as, say, Brewsvegas' explosion, the incredible change in Sydney's inner west or the awakening of South Australia's previously sleepy scene.
However, the happenings of 2015 suggest things are ramping up again. A number of established breweries have been embarking on fascinating ventures. Heaps of new brewing companies and breweries have opened while some that were operating as gypsy or contract brewers have built (or are building) their own homes. The number of venues pouring great beer has not only grown fast but, perhaps most promisingly, many are appearing with greater regularity further and further from craft beer's traditional heartlands, be that the Public Brewery and new Cellar Door outlet in Melbourne's outer eastern suburbs, a spreading of tentacles further west or great regional venues like the Mount Macedon Hotel, the Mill in Echuca or Big Little Baby in Macedon.
It's perhaps little wonder that on the back of this year's Good Beer Week, London-based journalist Will Hawkes wrote an article for prestigious American magazine All About Beer on the growing stature of Melbourne as a global beer city.
With so many breweries – old and new – and so many new beers coming from them, it was quite the task selecting ten of the best. It was a task carried out a little differently to the other states too. With The Crafty Pint's Melbourne-based founder overseas for December, we were unable to pull together a physical panel to hammer out the list over a few beers. Instead, five contributors to the site based in the state put their best ten beers together, the votes were compiled, some discussion followed by email to agree on the final spots, and the result is the list below.
You can read the other Best of articles published to date by following the links to Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania and look out for the remainder to come by the end of the year. They may help those of you struggling to finalise your top five beers for this year's GABS (née Local Taphouse) Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll come to a conclusion; if so, you can enter here.
And, as with the others, we're not claiming its definitive, but an attempt by people who have sampled a lot and often written about a lot of beers throughout 2015 to encapsulate much of what was best about the year in beer form. The list is presented in no particular order, although we can say that the first two beers listed below – despite their limited availability – posted more votes in the initial round than the remainder.
Mountain Goat – Barrel Breed Barley Wine (12.9 percent ABV)
It's fair to say 2015 was a big year for Mountain Goat. Melbourne's longest-established microbrewery – the one that did more than any other to bring craft beer to the city – turned 18 and, while still 17, picked up the Champion Australian Beer trophy for this Barley Wine at the Australian International Beer Awards. It was their biggest ever beer, a luscious beast of incredible depth and character aged in whisky barrels from Lark Distillery. For many, however, Mountain Goat's 2015 will be remembered as the year when, just short of its 18th birthday, co-founders Cam Hines and Dave Bonighton sold the business to Asahi, joining Cricketers Arms as the Japanese company's Australian brands. The pair have stayed on as employees of the new business – and a third Barrel Breed has followed the sale – which hopefully bodes well for Goat in the future.
7 cent – Glass Case of Emotion (5.0 percent ABV)
It's got Ron Burgundy on the label and was 18 months in the making, yet the most impressive thing about Glass Case of Emotion was the beer itself. 7 cent remain a tiny operation, releasing bugger all beer throughout the year, but within that bugger all is always a handful of often ludicrously convoluted experimental releases, some better than others. Glass Case of Emotion is a sour cherry porter that spent 15 months in former Shiraz barrels that we were moved to declare "a mini-symphony in three parts" and which has been spoken of in gilded tones by sour lovers – at least those who managed to get their hands on a caged and corked bottle.
Hawkers Beer – IPA (6.5 percent ABV)
What a start to life for this Reservoir brewery. The brainchild of Mazen Hajjar, who founded 961 Beer in Beirut – the Middle East's first craft brewery – and chef Joseph Abboud of Rumi and Moor's Head, it is already on track to become one of the biggest independent Australian microbreweries having only poured its first beers in February 2015 (promptly winning People's Choice Beer for its Pale Ale at the Great Australian Beer Festival in Geelong two days later). All four of its core beers have been well received, it hosted the Good Beer Week Masterclass with Evil Twin, Baird Beer, Kaiju! and Edge (which now brews most of its beer there) and, were we not limiting this list to one beer per brewery given how many there are in Victoria, could have had two in the top ten. Its IPA and Pale both received two votes in the first round, with the IPA gaining a supplementary in later discussions and thus appearing here. Look out for Hawkers continuing to shake things up in 2016.
Venom – Golden Ale (4.8 percent ABV)
The most "normal" of the beers to make the Victorian top ten (which features a rather silly five stouts of one shape or form, but that's how it panned out...) is one also brewed at Hawkers, under the business' Australian Brewers Guild guise. Venom's Golden Ale is a beer that may well have attracted as much attention for its eye-catching, love it-hate it label design as the beer inside, but wherever you stand on the way Venom has chosen to present its launch beer, there was no denying the quality of the beer inside. Highly hopped for a golden ale and highly reminiscent of the Mountain Goat Skipping Girl that was toned down for its summer ale – using the same Kiwi hops and a high proportion of wheat too – if founder Joel Drysdale can gain traction for his new baby (he was previously with Moo Brew and Tooborac in sales roles) then it could well become one of the session beers of summer.
BrewCult – Milk & Two Sugars (7.2 percent ABV)
While both Mountain Goat and 7 cent could probably never repeat their entries in this list, repeating Milk & Two Sugars was no mean feat for BrewCult. The Melbourne brewing company founded by beer world character Hendo took out the People's Choice title at this year's GABS for this sweet coffee stout. Each batch of the beer featured 3,000 espresso shots and 120 litres of cold press coffee from award-winning roasters Axil Coffee, meaning there would have had to be some very kind and persuasive words when the beer's success demanded it was brewed again. Aside from impressing the punters at GABS, it also helped put craft beer in front of a new audience as it gained traction in the country's coffee circles too.
Moon Dog – Ogden Nash's Pash Rash (8.8 percent ABV)
A fascinating year for Melbourne's Moon Dog. They ended it with their Love Tap no longer a double lager but a 5.0 percent ABV hoppy lager and with two more beers of the same ABV – a pale and a dark – joining it in their roster, suggesting a mellowing with age. At the same time, they released some of their most outrageous beers (and that's saying something) and did so with a greater consistency of quality than in any previous year.
Indeed, three other limited release beers appeared in the Victorian long list – the champagne-mimicking Bad Boy Bubbly, Splice of Heaven lactose IPA and Black Lung V. But this imperial Redskins stout, which required several staff members spending several evenings peeling 5,800 lollies to go into the brew, got the nod. A daft approach to creating a fruity stout that worked in spades, and one that evolved over time too, with the raspberry character becoming more pervasive the last time we tried it compared to its early days when we posted the linked write up.
Boatrocker Brewery – Ramjet 2014 (10.4 percent ABV)
No one could seriously have expected this list to end without a beer from Boatrocker, one of the most talked about breweries in 2015. They opened a Barrel Room in Braeside, took investment from the guys behind Little Creatures, and released many innovative and frequently delicious beers. There was little we sampled from Boatrocker this year that wasn't enjoyed, with its lambic style ale Brambic, barrel-aged barley wine Banshee and fruit Berliner Weisse Miss Pinky also making the long list. But the latest version of the beer that first really got Australian beer aficionados talking about Boatrocker found most favour. Ramjet was joined by Roger Ramjet in 2015 – a beer that swapped the former's whisky barrels for bourbon – and the first Ramjet barrels are already back at Starward making more whisky with the intention being to send them back to Boatrocker for a kind of Ramjet squared in the future.
Bridge Road / 8 Wired – Nieuw Bruin Giaconda (8.3 percent ABV)
There was love among the panel for the latest Dark Harvest from Bridge Road, the wet hop black IPA featuring heaps of experimental hop variety 016 that was originally brewed with Mikkeller overnight in 2012. Yet with the hop variety remaining steady from 2014, we're not sure it qualifies for the list. What's more, this other collaboration by the Beechworth brewer with New Zealand's 8 Wired is worthy of attention and a place in this list. It's one of the best sour ales to have been released in Australia to date and came with an educational slant as well: it was released in a pair, with both beers starting out the same then fermented with wild Chardonnay yeast in two 500 litre Cognac barrels, one with yeast from Sorrenberg, one from Giaconda. They developed remarkably different characteristics, with the Giaconda winning our hearts, although we imagine some might disagree, which is part of what makes this whole thing such fun.
Dainton Family Brewing – Skeletor's Stout (6.4 percent ABV)
Democracy in action here as had this list been compiled solely by the occupants of Crafty Towers this beer wouldn't have featured in the ten. Not that we didn't enjoy it, but because in spending "millennia" inside former Shiraz barrels the oak character felt a little out of whack, dominating the other elements of the beer. However, that's probably what was intended and others on the panel loved its leathery, tannic qualities. What's more, Dainton was another brewery to see other beers appear in our long list and, with both a new brewery coming online in 2016 and a champion head brewer joining the team, we expect big things of them in the future.
OK, so this makes it five stouts in the list, something that would have probably been avoided had the panel made its selection around a table in a bar. But they are five very different stouts, highlighting both the style's versatility and, perhaps, just how much local brewers are playing around with traditional beer styles across the board. Geelong's Southern Bay still brews far more beer for others as a contract brewery and still operates some of the oldest and most idiosyncratic machinery in the country too, yet they have squeezed out some fine specialties in recent years. The White IPA that appeared in the latter half of the year was a fine take on the style, but this Vanilla Oatmeal Stout was better still: a truly luscious, creamy treat that possessed enough balancing roasty bitterness to ensure it didn't disappear into cloying territory. Good luck to head brewer Phil and his team for their limited releases in 2016.
So there you have it: a rather dark, sour, experimental and only occasionally hoppy list for Victoria in 2015. It's worth mentioning some others that narrowly missed out too.
For some breweries, it may have been a case of votes being split by virtue of so many new releases: Exit Brewing's #006 (Saison), #008 (Double Session XXXPA) and #010 (West Coast IPA) all appeared on the long list as did three from Two Birds (Rice Rice Baby, Hop Harvest and Neneh Cherry Saison), while 3 Ravens (Imperial Stout and Druid 2015) and La Sirene (Cuvee Blanc and Botanique Blood Orange & Sage) received two mentions as well. Showing that there was love for hops and lighter styles too, other beers that narrowly missed out included Kaiju!'s Betelgeuse, Barrow Boys India Amber Ale, Brookes Beer's new IPA and a couple of lagers, Blackman's Unfiltered Lager (which we expect to see do well once its packaged version is brought in house) and Temple's Powerstance Pilsner, which will be out in bottles soon.