Well, that’s that. Another decade down the bloody gurgler. Except in New South Wales’ case: if we were to make this metaphor more accurate, there isn’t enough water left to carry this ten year stretch down any kind of plughole, let alone to emit any gurgle-like sound. Oh, and the sink is also on fire and sits in the middle of a desolate hellscape.
As for the beer scene in NSW, it seems to have settled down somewhat over the last 18 months or so. Sure, there’s been a few brewery openings and roughly 900 new and almost identical hazybois released in that time, but it has definitely felt like a period of consolidation as opposed to the out and out exponential growth we’ve come to accept as the new norm.
Established breweries are opening second locations or adding tanks and the installation of new packaging lines is paving the way for greater distribution. In Sydney, some of the once hyper-local breweries now have signs hanging outside pubs all over the city. The larger regional breweries have cans in bottle-os across the state. One gets the feeling that the large crop of breweries that set up five to seven years ago are now really hitting their stride.
We’ve got established gypsy brewers who have either found a permanent home or are actively looking for one. And, finally, not only are there a couple of interstate blow-ins set to open massive taprooms in the Inner West, one of our own is making the completely sane and not at all bizarre decision to open a brewpub in far north Queensland.
Trying to nail down a shortlist of the best amid the veritable tide of new beer is a Herculean effort. We tried to get Kevin Sorbo on the blower to give us his top five but to our distress he was “unavailable” and “going to sue if you don’t stop emailing my wife". So, in lieu of the opinion of a Greek god, we’ve gone to some of the state’s finest beer slingers, writers and all round lovely people.
No less than 73 different beers brewed by 33 different breweries received at least one vote of confidence from the panelists. But, truly, no other year has been so thoroughly dominated by a couple of breweries. The two breweries in question collected almost 30 percent of all votes across their 2019 releases, despite being on opposite ends of the spectrum in size, style and resources. However, both breweries do share an equal passion for sustainability and community. Perhaps a sign of things to come?
The diverse range of beers on this list probably isn't truly reflective of what’s actually being consumed by the average punter in Surry Hills, Ballina or Wagga Wagga, but it’s a reasonable snapshot in time of the beer-loving community in NSW.
As we’ve discussed in previous years, the way we go about choosing our best of the year may not be flawless, but the results are always interesting. So let’s get stuck in, shall we?
The Top Ten
Kerbside Brewing Two Juicy Pale Ale
Kerbside sprung into life in early 2019 as the brewing offshoot of the beloved Noble Hops bar. Initially pouring only at their Redfern oasis, the first and so far only Kerbside release has since found its way in kegs throughout the Inner West of Sydney.
A 5 percent, 35 IBU pale ale isn’t usually the kind of beer that will make best of lists; however, the intense tropical fruit hop aromas and restrained malt character has more or less become the template for the sessional pale ale. Described by one venue manager as “a beer that’s always fresh because kegs barely last a day”, Two Juicy is a casual reminder that memorable beers don’t have to be complicated.
From Ben Tino Pai
Very Good! Too Much! The Best! Depending on context, tino pai is a Māori phrase that essentially means something is good and you’re a fan. Lucky then that this is an extremely good NZ hopped hazy pale ale.
Ben Miller grew up in Wellington but now finds himself in Sydney, brewing under the From Ben moniker. Although mostly brewing on his own home system, every now and then he’ll brew and package a full batch at a local brewery and send his little creation out into the world.
Although Tino Pai was first released commercially last year, it wasn’t until April 2019 that it was first put into cans and really found a following. Ben’s spent a significant amount of time with Dave Padden at Akasha and it shows. The most recent batch, brewed at Askasha, utilises a mountain of Riwaka, Wai-iti and Motueka hops to create a 5.5 percent ABV pale ale that is all lime, lychees and pillowy soft mouthfeel. A perfect accompaniment for kai with the whānau.
One Drop Blueberry Sour
So many beers are described as “fruity” nowadays that the adjective has just about lost all meaning. And that’s before we even get into the frustrating vagueness of such a descriptor. (Which fruit?! Banana tastes completely different to kiwifruit, and we’re still not sure what a yuzu is!) But One Drop Brewing take their “fruity” beers seriously – since opening twelve months ago, the Botany brewers have thrown more fruit into the fermenters than Con the Fruiterer could ever get his hands on. Bewdiful.
While head brewer Nick Calder-Scholes has made beer with mango, lime, strawberry, honeydew, grapes, guava, pineapple, redcurrant, raspberry, apricot, watermelon – and isn’t slowing down on trying new fruits any time soon – it’s still his first fruited sour that looms largest in people’s hearts.
When you’re using around 200g of fruit per litre, you want to be damn sure you’re getting a lot out of it. Like One Drop’s other fruited sours, the Blueberry Sour shines brightly – in this case, with the deep, bloody stain of squashed blueberries - and carries the powerful aroma and flavour of the fruit it uses without creating a juicy mess. It’s not easy to balance flavours when you’re adding Violet-Beauregarde-esque amounts of blueberries to a beer. But Nick manages it with finesse.
Unlike the other fruited sours, though, the Blueberry Sour won a gold medal at the 2019 AIBAs and recently topped out the sour beer category at the inaugural Drink Easy Awards, showing it’s not only a favourite of the masses, but also recognised by judges as a finely-constructed beer. Mick Wust
Frenchies La Boussole
Frenchies seem to fly under the radar a bit in the Sydney beer scene. Their venue is both a brewpub and French bistro and very likely the only place you’re able to pair a pâté en croûte with a Belgian style tripel that have both been made within metres of where you sit.
La Boussole was the first beer out of the French oak wine barrels being utilised for Frenchies' barrel-ageing program. Bières de garde don’t get much of a run in Australia. Rarer still are barrel-aged bières de garde. Which, judging by this beer alone, is a travesty.
Using their Astrolabe as the base beer, La Boussole was inoculated with Brettanomyces, pediococcus and lactobacillus, then aged in shiraz barrels and bottle conditioned for a few months. The resulting beer is paradoxically complex and yet supremely easy to drink. Despite all appearances it’s not at all some sort of barnyard funky, dental enamel-melting beast. La Boussole takes the best parts of a big, malty bière de garde and marries it with a subtle tartness and that distinct bretty aroma. It’s a wonderful beer and, hopefully, a tantalising taste of things to come.
Hope Brewery Imperial Pineapple Sour
When Elton John isn’t doing his regular afternoon gig there, the brewing wing at Hope Estate likes to get stuck into pumping out a range of lagers, pales, IPAs, stouts and sours, something they've done in impressive fashion over the last 12 months. Situated in Pokolbin and nestled amongst acres of vineyards and some of Australia’s best wineries, Hope Estate constructed a brewery within their cellar door in 2015 and quickly gained a reputation as skilled brewers.
Although for a while there it seemed as if Hope had a new NEIPA variant to release every four days, they really found favour in 2019 with a range of big fruit sours.There’s honestly not a lot to say about the Hope Imperial Pineapple Sour that couldn’t be immediately guessed by looking at the tin. It’s a drink that tastes like sour pineapple juice except drinking one for breakfast will very likely result in a meeting with Rhonda in HR.
Batch Brewing Co Campos Milk Stout
It’s been a big year for Batch Brewing Co. Co-founder Chris Sidwa started working from home (with home being the USA), they opened their second venue in Petersham and they’ve re-brewed a local favourite that combines the two things that fuel 90 percent of the brewing industry.
First brewed in 2014 as a collaboration between Campos Coffee and Batch, this coffee-infused milk stout has set the benchmark for how good a coffee beer can be. Re-released in June, Campos Milk Stout made an immediate impression on all and sundry and managed to sneak into the top five of our Best New Beers of 2019 mid-year roundup. And, unlike the rest of the NSW beers in that roundup, it has stood the test of time to make the top ten.
Making a good coffee beer isn’t as simple as bunging a jar of Blend 43 into a tank and watching the Untappd stars roll in. The coffee has got to be bringing more to the table than generic coffee flavour. Probably the reason this beer works so well is the base beer is already stumping up coffee, chocolate and roastiness through an extensive malt bill. The Campos Superior Blend simply accentuates those characteristics without unbalancing the beer.
For a lot of people the real test of a beer is: “Would you drink a pint of it?” For most coffee beers the answer to that is a resounding: “No.” For this one however, it’s more a case of: “Do they do jugs?”
You can read our feature on coffee beers here.
Since storming onto the scene and picking up a million awards for their XPA, Philter have slowly but surely been adding to their core range of beers by doing what they do best. Taking a style, fine tuning it to within an inch of its life, wrapping it in a snazzy retro can then putting it into as many hands as possible.
In May, Philter sauntered up the gangplank of the HMAS Haze Craze, plugged in the AUX cord and loaded up a playlist labelled 80s Bangers (No Michael Jackson). There’s a bit of a joke among brewers when it comes to making a NEIPA: Load it up with Mosaic, Galaxy and Citra then you’ll have bearded hordes of 25 to 40-year-old men banging down the door quicker than you can say “polymerised polyphenols reacting with proteins”.
Philter have mostly stuck with this tried and true formula but thrown in old school favourite, Simcoe. This adds a delicious dank note to offset the absolute assault of breakfast juice and soft, creamy sweetness. With a new permanent home in Marrickville on the cards for 2020, expect to see Haze return with a vengeance.
Read our recent interview with Philter brewer Sam Füss here.
Akasha Blacksmith IPA
Akasha make their unprecedented fifth consecutive Best of NSW list with a tweaking and re-release of their black IPA, Blacksmith. It’s a testament to Dave Padden and the rest of his very talented brewing team to so consistently pump out some of Australia’s most sought after hop wizardry.
Black IPAs remain a pretty divisive beer style in 2019. Depending on your point of view, they’re either a sublime blend of subtle toastiness and tropical fruit or a hideous abomination against God.
Blacksmith is just about as fine an example of a well made black IPA as it gets. Many brewers seem to fall into the trap of leaning too hard into the black side of the equation and overload the base with sweet, dark crystal malts. Where Akasha’s Blacksmith shines is the use of a drier malt body and roasted dark malt for a roasty blackness that isn’t cloying. The Citra and Amarillo hop combination provides the pine and citrus aromas that are proven winners with black malts.
Wildflower Too Easy: Galaxy
Jesus, where do you even start with Wildflower? For the third year in a row, the Marrickville brewing and blending operation has been an instant lock in our best NSW beers list. This comes on the back of Wildflower St Phoebe being judged the best drink in Australia at the inaugural Drink Easy awards. Yes, that’s correct: a team of distinguished restaurateurs, winemakers, distillers, brewers and writers decided that the raspberry-infused St Phoebe was the best thing you could drink in Australia. If it weren’t for our policy of only including one entry per brewery, St Phoebe would have made the top five here as well.
Last year, votes for WIldflower beers were so evenly split between their predominantly fruit based variants it didn’t feel quite right to name just one. This year, however, there was a clear standout in Too Easy: Galaxy. The Too Easy series of beers has been a bit of a new direction for Wildflower in 2019, a result of seeing how the house culture would interact with a hefty hopping regime throughout the brewing and fermentation stages.
There’s actually been four different Too Easy variants released this year: Motueka, Hallertau Blanc, Galaxy and a combination blend. Each of these was hopped throughout the boil, at flameout, at the beginning of fermentation and dry-hopped in the barrel.
The final beer was a revelation. On tap at the brewery it was bright, fresh and oozing with super juicy passionfruit and citrus. The elevated bitterness tempered the usual tartness associated with the house culture and created a clean, dry and easy-drinking wild ale practically gagging for a spring picnic.
Stone & Wood Counter Culture: It’d Be Rude Not To
And thus we arrive at our biggest mover and shaker for 2019. There’s very little that can be written about Stone & Wood that hasn’t been said before. Australia’s second largest independent brewer and, aided by the CUB purchase of Balter, with the gap between them and everyone else somewhat cavernous.
Despite creating a beer that started more Australians down the good beer rabbit hole than any other, in the pointier end of beer circles [I look forward to your explanation of pointiness within circles next time we catch up, Judd – Editor], Stone & Wood had begun to suffer an all too familiar fate: too big and successful to be cool, not big enough to be liked ironically.
There were all kinds of weird and wonderful pilot batches being poured at the Byron brewery and paraded on social media but, for most of us, they all remained tantalising what ifs. What if a brewery with deep reserves of both brewing experience and resources decided to make a milkshake IPA? What about a fruit sour? Maybe even a pastry stout?
The release of the Counter Culture beers felt like a substantial step in the evolution of Stone & Wood. Selling a million stubbies of Pacific Ale is one thing, completely selling out of a French toast, ice cream, cinnamon and maple syrup milk stout and starting ten thousand discussions across every single Facebook beer group is another.
Whether or not you’re the kind of person who wants their beer to taste like a lifespan-shortening breakfast treat, it’s ridiculous to deny the skill and ingenuity involved in brewing it. It'd Be Rude Not To wasn’t just some sickly sweet amalgam of vanilla and maple, every single element was identifiable and slotted perfectly into place, even down to the eggy toasted bread.
Every one of the five Counter Culture beers received at least one vote this year, but the biggest surprise was Killer Kween, the raspberry imperial Berliner Weisse that took out the top spot in the mid-year Australia wide roundup, almost didn’t make the cut despite being the firm favourite at Crafty Towers. But what do we know?
Read our recent interview with co-founder Brad Rogers here.
Don't forget you can have your say in the country's biggest public poll, the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers, by voting here.