It’s not fair. There are so many breweries these days that, in lieu of some sort of time machine, teleportation device or at least a completely egalitarian distribution network, it’s simply not possible to try every new beer that comes out in New South Wales. And that in turn makes it pretty difficult when trying to compile any Best Beer list that's remotely credible and considers every corner of the state.
But the beer community is renowned for being a pretty generous and balanced one, so this year we cast the net wide and invited a few dozen people, from both industry and consumer perspectives, to contribute their own picks of the year to form the list. The idea was that seeking contributions from a number of sources would cover most aspects – for example venues that deal mostly in draught, those that only stock packaged beer and brewpubs that don't distribute at all – to give a fairer snapshot of the state of the state's beer scene at year's end. It's still not entirely fair, but it's fun. And so it should be. After all, it's beer.
How beers were picked
We invited nominations from those running bottleshops, bars, pubs and hotels, beer writers, tour operators, educators, Certified Cicerones, homebrewers and several well travelled beer lovers. Each person was invited to contribute a list of ten beers (in several cases venues pooled their staff picks to contribute a single list) based on the following criteria:
- Must be from a NSW brewer, even if in collaboration with another brewer
- Must have been new in 2017, or a new vintage of a previous year’s release
- Could be packaged, draught or both
- Could have been a limited release that is no longer available
No restrictions were made on the number of beers people could nominate from a single brewery. However, in order to share the love a bit further, a brewery could only be represented once on the final list, even if they had several beers nominated.
In all, contributors voted for 89 different beers from 37 different breweries and brewing companies, which, despite a Sydney bias in the final rundown, gives some indication of the diversity on offer and the wide ranging tastes of those making the picks. Those beers with a clear majority of votes automatically went onto the short list while the longer list was whittled down by a five person panel representing a broad industry perspective who acted as tie breakers and final deliberators.
In keeping with other states, this list consists entirely of New England IPAs* and is presented in alphabetical order…
Akasha - Lupulin Fog
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when, but at some point during the year the whole New England IPA thing went from "now, this is different and fun" to pretty much uniquitous across Australia. From a New South Wales perspective, in compiling this list, the hazy type of IPA equalled "regular" IPAs as the most nominated beer style overall. That may not seem especially surprising in this moment but, for comparison’s sake, in discussions for the best of 2016 the number of times the New England IPA style was mentioned in conversation was precisely zero. It really has caught on that quickly. And, if you reckoned that one of the state’s preeminent hop-focused breweries was going to let a ballooning IPA craze simply pass it by, well, you reckoned wrong.
As something of a bellwether beer festival, GABS feels like the right kind of place to test whether new ideas have any real traction with drinkers and that’s where Akasha chose to make its play with Lupulin Fog. There, amidst all the stouts, shakes and sours, their big ol’ glass of foggy fruit juice stood tall and went mightily close to topping the festival’s People’s Choice poll.
In the year when New England IPAs truly made their mark, Lupulin Fog was, by some margin, the single version of the style most nominated by contributors across New South Wales. That also means head brewer Dave Padden can claim a perfect record of having had a beer appear in every end of year list since it became an annual tradition at Crafty Towers. As we’ve said before, the man knows his way around a hoppy beer.
Batch Brewing – Trippy Hippie’s Double Rainbow XXPA
It’s not reckless to suggest that Marrickville’s Batch Brewing Company releases twice as many different beers as most other breweries do in a calendar year. In the context of compiling this list, that prolificacy could be considered a hindrance as much as it is a help; they had almost twice as many different beers nominated as the next brewery but it also, perhaps, meant they didn’t build the kind of voting surge required to push a single beer to the top. Nevertheless, they were always comfortably in contention thanks chiefly to Elsie’s Other Udder and The Huge Kahuna – imperial versions of their milk stout and coconut brown ale respectively – and, especially, the snappily named Trippy Hippie’s Double Rainbow XXPA.
The latter is a near 9 percent ABV double IPA that’s pretty light on the malt but really, really big on the fruity hops. You might argue it lacks the bitterness to please the style purists but for those of us who couldn’t pick Galaxy from the stars it matters not one iota. Unreasonably drinkable for such a strong beer, this was the panel’s pick as the best of Batch’s batches.
Bucket Boys / Australian Brewery – If You Like Pińa Colada
If New England IPAs represented the big wave in the Australian beer world in 2017, the Bucket Boys had already ridden it to shore and were parked up on a lounger, gazing back into the sunset and sipping on a glass of this. Having released And The Hops Were Not Boiled In Their Tanks as their straight NEIPA – a beer that went a few of votes short of making the final list in its own right – they turned to their occasional collaborators at The Australian Brewery to go one step further and turn a NEIPA into what was, essentially, a cocktail milkshake in a beer can.
Looking a bit like a normal beer run through an Instagram filter, If You Like Piña Colada was a hoppy beer infused with pineapple, coconut, vanilla and lactose that did a very good job of imitating the iconic rum based cocktail. If you were partial to a bit of a sweet treat – as plenty of contributors clearly were – this came with everything you’d want to keep you happy, barring one of those little cocktail umbrellas. For its time and place it was an envelope pushing beer, a trend for which the Bucket Boys are becoming increasingly known whenever a beer carries their name.
For their part in the affair, The Australian Brewery is one that seems to fly under the radar in the realm of the beer cognoscenti, in all probability due to the fact they ply their trade making beers in more approachable, less nerdy styles. But, boy, they’ve been doing those styles well of late and have collected a Usain Bolt-esque medal haul this year to prove it. With the brewery in the midst of expansion, the venue having had a slick makeover in recent times and a young and diverse brewing team headed by Dan Shaw, the future appears very bright out in Rouse Hill.
Ekim - Upside Down
Unless you happen to know what you’re looking for, it’s quite conceivable you could drink your way around Sydney without really seeing, hearing or tasting much at all from the Ekim Brewing Company. But that’s no reflection on the beers because plenty around town have known for years know that the beers head brewer Mike Jorgensen makes in his Mount Kuring-Gai brewery are very fine indeed.
Ekim – a levidrome of Mike – is just one of those small breweries that reaches cult like level of devotion from fans but never quite seems to crack the mainstream, is not particularly active the online world and doesn’t host blockbuster events. For Mike, it really does seem a case of making and serving the best beer he can with the minimum of fuss, and, if our contributors are to be at all trusted, he came up with a winner this year.
Ekim is the kind of hop focused brewery and Mike the kind of hop focused brewer you feel would take well to the New England style, and so it proved, with the juicy Upside Down NEIPA, released only in November as a single batch for an annual out there IPA event at Bitter Phew, polling above all other versions of the style in the state with the exception of Akasha’s Lupulin Fog.
Modus Operandi - Cascadian Howl
When we ran this Best Of list around the midpoint of the year, Cascadian Howl from Modus Operandi was out of the blocks like a sprinter trying to win a marathon; that poll of well learned beer people from across the country gave the black IPA more than double the number of votes of the next ranked beer. It was a case of game over, race won, stop the competition. Then they started making New England IPAs.
From that point, Cascadian Howl almost became Cascadian Who as almost every one of their major new releases was a hazy IPA of some kind: Yeast Coast, Triple Deity, Gadzooks!, Tropical Contact High, Future Factory – and, clearly just to spite us and poke holes in the methodology, two days after the panel met to decide this list they dropped another two. Few local breweries have invested as much interest in exploring the depths and subtleties of the murk as the team in Mona Vale and they were rewarded by our contributors with votes across the board.
But that late charge still wasn’t quite enough to drown out the lingering echo of the Cascadian Howl, and rightly so. May may seem like a long time ago but the best tend to be remembered and this had a lot to be fond of; the pine of the hops, the big bitterness, the rich roast and anything else you could want from a beer of its kind. It all seems so quaint to think that just a few years ago the beer world was debating whether black IPA was even a style. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
New England Brewing Co – Single Batches
While no single beer from the New England Brewing Co ended up a clear contender for the short list, several of their beers were nominated and they represented arguably the most diverse range of styles. For that reason, the panellists felt the Uralla brewery deserved a special mention.
From the eucalyptus Australian Sahti to the Smoldering Stump bark-smoked beer to the Minutemen New England IPA and the Slice Of Rye Belgian ale made with rye bread and spices, there was evidently little that was off limits to the team headed up by brewer Reid Stratton. But, if there was one constant through these often off centre beers ,it was the way they managed to maintain a sense of balance, even when built around complex flavours that would seem more inclined to play off against each other rather than work together.
With the brewery having recently begun packaging both its core range and limited releases in cans, don’t be surprised to see and hear more from them in 2018.
Philter - XPA
Leading into this year’s Craft Beer Awards, and with the brand only a few months old, Philter brewer Sam Füss had some concerns that entering their beers into the competition so soon might have been a mistake. You can imagine any uncertainty would have evaporated approximately four-fifths of a second after their XPA was announced as Champion Pale Ale, one of the competition’s most competitive categories. For a new brewing company without its own brewery, that’s about as good an introduction to the market as you could wish for, proving instant validation for Sam and her cohorts, who have pooled their skills from across the commercial spectrum to bring the Philter brand into being.
The XPA that impressed judges, and in turn a good number of our contributors, isn’t what you’d call a particularly complex beer. It’s not barrel aged, hazy, boozy or crazy. It’s just no fuss stuff from Füss and co – a tight pale ale you’re happy reaching for at knock-off. The only asterisk is that not all Philter beers are brewed in NSW, with some batches brewed under license interstate. But, with the founders calling Sydney home and having stated they want to open a brewery there, that's where the shoe best fits.
Shenanigans - Grisette Supérieur
In the time that Sam Haldane and Dan Beers have been making beer under the Shenanigans name, they’ve produced a lot of very different beers that have been very well received for very different reasons. This beer lifted things to another level.
Based loosely on the very first beer they ever released commercially and brewed in celebration of their third birthday, Grisette Supérieur was a farmhouse ale made with NSW malt, an eclectic little mix of fruity hops and two yeast strains. After a few months of conditioning, the result was a funky, spritzy, dry, extremely complex and genuinely compelling beer. Votes duly piled in from across the state and it became the most nominated individual beer this year. One very well respected brewer and longtime beer judge commented that it was among the very best in this country and for the brewers to do have done what they did without their own brewery made it all the more impressive.
If you're keen to try it, unfortunately you're about nine months too late as any remaining bottles are sitting in private cellars or in the hands of a few retailers who held back stock. However, there’s some good news in that Sam and Dan are hoping to make more beers of its ilk on a more regular but still limited basis – get on board with the just-released Funk Wit if you’re keen on tasting the kind of territory they’re keen on exploring and which made Grisette Supérieur so highly praised.
Stockade – The Mountie
Periodically over recent years, the hype machine has whirred into action with the arrival of some obscure and obscenely decadent stout from overseas taking its inspiration from anything from creme brûlée to bacon and doughnuts. This year we got close to a local equivalent when Stockade's Mountie rode into town.
Whether you poured it from a bottle or tried it from a thimble at the GABS festival where it was launched and ultimately won the People’s Choice award, you only needed to get your nose within about a foot of this beer to know it was going to make an impact.
How could it not? There was just so much maple syrup. Or maple extract, or essence – no one but the brewers quite knows how they got so much goddamn flavour in there, but get it in they did and, most remarkably, the thing actually worked. Sure, at more than 12 percent ABV and coming on like a combination of sipping a rich imperial stout while licking the plate after you’d devoured a stack of syrupy pancakes, it’s not going to be your regular post-work refresher. But few beers this year proved as outright memorable as Stockade's ripped Canuck.
Wayward Brewing – The Wayward Son
Any time a brewer suggests a new beer is among the best they’ve done, it’s worth paying attention. Then again, sometimes you feel there might be cause for their judgement to be compromised. In this case, Wayward head brewer Shaun Blissett had just become a parent and that time of life can do all kinds of funny things to a person: sleep deprivation, euphoria, and confusion in the extreme – all plausible excuses for making bold claims that could quite reasonably be forgiven for not being met. But The Wayward Son, a fruity gem of a West Coast IPA notable for its use of lupulin powder (aka hop hash) and named in honour of the first born, felt worthy of praise.
Whether or not you personally believe that this is, or was, Wayward’s best beer will remain open to debate. But given that The Wayward Son was barely available beyond the brewery (this writer procured a growler via a well timed handoff through the doors of a train) yet still did enough to impress enough panellists tells its own story.
Wildflower – Gold
In terms of press per litre, it’s hard to think of a brewery launched in 2017 that got more coverage across all forms than Wildflower. When it opened in April, the Marrickville operation immediately brought something very different to an already varied beer market by setting up to specifically focus on blending and utilising wild yeast. Because of that, the place is not, technically, even a brewery. It’s just a warehouse full of barrels full of beer, but that’s where the art and magic comes in.
The beers at Wildflower are not simply made. They grow and change and develop with each new batch. They are alive. Founders Topher Boehm and Chris Allen are deeply invested in this project long term and a visit to their cellar door can’t help but get you emotionally invested too. It’s not so much that you’ll probably learn a bit about how beer is made, more that you learn how it used to be made and can be made still. Foreign concepts like mixed culture fermentation suddenly become very familiar and sensible. You begin to look at beer less as a commodity and more as something that ought to take its time. It’s a place where you kind of fall in love with beer.
Were we allowing brewers to have more than one beer in the top ten, based on raw votes Wildflower would have taken three spots. The most went to its delicate Gold blend, an effervescent, light, dry and citrusy saison which is so approachable for something so interesting and borne of such complexity.
Next was St Florence, the beer released in celebration of the birth of Topher’s daughter and which came about via spontaneous fermentation from wine grapes, many months and multiple rounds of blending and ageing in an array of oak vessels. Third was the Amber blend, a slightly deeper and weightier beer with more pronounced malt and yeast characters that show a funkier side. There was also Waratah, perhaps the first commercial beer to have been made entirely with NSW ingredients, which fell short of the top ten by a single vote.
Across the board, praise for Wildflower was effusive. Some contributors nominated all their beers while adding comments along the lines of: “Am I allowed to do that?” One remarked that, when recommending a single beer to represent Australia to an overseas visitor, Gold has become the new standard.
Within eight months, Wildflower has produced an array of classy beers, changed some of the the discourse around beer and launched a business with the genuine potential to inspire a new generation of brewers and drinkers. There’s little else left to say except that in 2017 Wildflower was, quite simply, the best.
You can check out end of year 'Best Of' lists from other states here. And, if you're feeling suitably inspired, you can vote in this year's GABS Hottest 100 Aussie craft beers.
Thanks to all those that took time to nominate their best of 2017, including Crafty Pint contributors and beer writers across the state, the people putting good beer in people’s hands at The Oak Barrel, Oldfield Cellars, Warners at the Bay, Platinum Liquor, Hotel Sweeney’s, Beer Cartel, Bucket Boys, International Convention Centre Sydney, Bitter Phew, Grain Store, The Union Hotel, Royal Albert Hotel, The Noble Hops, Dave’s Brewery Tours plus several hardcore beer lovers from across the state without whom the beer world would be far less opinionated and interesting.
You’ll find details on many similarly excellent beer businesses across the country here.