When kicking off this article last year, we talked about the Melbourne scene becoming a bloodbath for brewers looking to get their beers onto taps and into fridges – and then keep them there. It remains a challenging market, with many in the hospo world also doing it tough.
There are breweries that continue on a solid upward trajectory, however, some of them upgrading to larger breweries or building new ones entirely. But there are plenty playing within the wholesale market that are adjusting to either slowing growth or working out how to hold onto what they already have.
With so many consumers – particularly those that have joined the party in the last few years – driven by a continual chase for the new (which, of course, is what this series of features focuses on as well), it can pose a particular challenge for breweries that have been around longer than most. They might have the runs on the board, plus the equipment and skills in house to make consistently top notch beers, yet there are plenty of drinkers out there who would rather take a chance on something new and outlandish from a startup.
That established breweries can capture the attention of a new audience is evidenced by the 3 Ravens renaissance of the past few years. A series of excellent beers in a diverse range of styles – from hazy IPAs to session sours to barrel-aged blends and now the Nat Rav range that blurs the lines between beer and wine – plus an evolving and radical rebrand have turned the elder statesman of Thornbury into one of the cool kids again. Winning Champion Small/Medium Brewery at this year's Indies is a sign the beers pass muster too.
The arch marketer Ben Kraus ensures there's always something worth talking about at Bridge Road; before heading to Austria for a year with his wife's family, he even declared his brewery an independent nation. Meanwhile, 2019 also saw Holgate fire up their state-of-the-art German brewery and open a contemporary taproom and visitor centre that contrasts with the historic pub they've inhabited for most of the two decades they celebrated with a series of fine Double Decade beers this year.
Add in the new look launched by Red Hill this time last year, the focus on the Beatnik offshoot and other limited release cans exploring everything from heavy hopping rates to cocktail beers from Hargreaves Hill, Two Birds' colourful Brew Tang Can trio, and a cascade of new beers in all sorts of styles – including a Mystery Beer project – from Bright under new head brewer Reid Stratton and it's clear the more established local brewers are eager to move with the times.
When it comes to the new, there are still breweries and brewing companies opening, but it does seem there's been an acceptance that small and hyperlocal is the way to go. From Paper, Scissors, Rock in the Grampians to the likes of BoJaK and Two Rupees in Melbourne's south-east or Red Bluff in Lakes Entrance, winning over your local community first – then maybe looking at some small packaging runs – appears to be the favoured approach.
Above all else, the story of the year in Victoria is arguably the rise of brewery venues – both breweries looking to open more than one and the quality of many of them. Stomping Ground fit into both categories here: within a few months, they'll have three brewpubs in the state, with their OG home in Collingwood one that helped raised the bar for brewery venues.
A short walk away you have Bodriggy, another remarkable warehouse reinvention where their beers are joined by natural wines and cocktails on tap and there's a bloody great big glitter ball for good measure too. The most attention was paid to Moon Dog World's opening in Preston (there's a lagoon, waterfall and Wall of Warnie, after all), but there's plenty to be enjoyed at smaller brewery venues that opened to far less fanfare in 2019, such as those of Molly Rose and Future Mountain.
Some of the city's most pointy end venues seem to be egging each other on to ever greater / more ridiculous heights with their events, while it will be interesting to see which interstate operations follow 4 Pines (with Welcome to Brunswick and a new Torquay venue) into the state, what with Pirate Life opening in Perth, Gage Roads' offshoot Atomic Beer Project coming to Redfern, and Mountain Goat looking at Sydney too.
As for the best new beers, well, would you be surprised if I told you the long list we ended up with after seeking input from gurus around the state was dominated by hazy IPAs and sours of one form or another? Of course you wouldn't. While there might not be as much noise generated by the state's brewers as some elsewhere, the quality has never been higher.
Alongside 3 Ravens, Fixation claimed Champion Large Brewery title and Dainton the Champion Independent Beer at the 2019 Indies. Meanwhile, back in May, Blackman's – who opened a third venue of their own in 2019 – took out Champion Small Australian Brewery.
When you consider some of the breweries who missed out on this year's list you know things must be good. Before we get to the dozen below (presented in alphabetical order by brewery), it's also worth pointing out just how widely loved some breweries' beers appear to be.
Just shy of a hundred beers were nominated from 32 brewing companies. Of those beers, nine came from Molly Rose, eight each from Boatrocker and Mr Banks (all but one of theirs a hazy IPA of some form), and seven from 3 Ravens. But which made the final cut...?
The Top Twelve
3 Ravens Nat Rav Yarra Glen Riesling
It's a sign of not just the diversity of beers coming out of 3 Ravens but also the quality that they landed NEIPAs, milkshake IPAs, a mid-strength fruit cream sour, and a couple of barrel-aged and blended beer-wine hybrids in this year's long list. Of those, the beer deemed to stand out from the crowd was the Nat Rav hybrid featuring riesling skins we described as "one to satisfy adventurous palates".
Years in the making and featuring two separate bouts of barrel-ageing, it was intense and complex yet utterly refreshing too. The responses of the head brewer and brewery manager to a photo of a Crafty team member finishing one off straight from the bottle when we gathered for a picnic in Edinburgh Gardens last month were: "Drinking it as intended" and "That's the spirit. Old school. Smashing longies in the park." They’re responses which indicate that, for all the technique and nerdery involved, the aim is to create beers that remain delicious and drinkable - while not taking themselves too seriously.
Black Arts Golden Wild Ale
Their output is tiny, the hours they open their Williamstown brewery to the public tinier still, yet if you wanted an example of a brewery punching above its weight in 2019, look no further than Black Arts. Five years after meeting in a homebrew store and bonding over a love of sour beers, Josh Murnane (who would go on to open Fox In The Corn) and Michael Leslie (who has worked for other breweries around Melbourne) launched their operation in April of this year.
Brewing beers offsite before ageing them in a variety of barrels, hogsheads and puncheons, they kicked off with two beers: Golden Wild Ale and Red Wild Ale. Both attracted multiple votes, but the favourite proved to be the former. Both were built upon liquids they'd been working with since 2016 and offered depth and complexity. Golden takes Cantillon Gueuze as inspiration; clearly aiming high has done them no harm.
Boatrocker Nexus IPA
When you think about Boatrocker as a brewery, chances are it will be as a brewer of barrel-aged Belgian styles, big stouts like Ramjet, or maybe the trailblazing Miss Pinky raspberry Berliner Weisse. Up until 2019, we're pretty sure it wouldn't have been IPAs that came to mind first. Yet, while several of the brewery's barrel-aged sour and wild ales were nominated, it was a couple of IPAs that proved most popular.
Nexus IPA was the Braeside operation's first hazy, one that packed a punch while delivering what we said was a spot on take on the style that "looks like a golden sunset in your glass". A more recent hazy – Dank & Juicy – was up there too, although one panellist did point out that if you're going to call a beer such a thing, it should be both, and this one was firmly in the juicy camp. Add the on point DDH IIPA and an enjoyable sour NEIPA and you've got a brewery now producing excellent beers across the entire beer sphere.
Burnley Brewing Helles
Any list of best new beers tends to be dominated by less-than-traditional styles these days, but there are other reasons why a simple lager or pale ale brewed in 2019 can struggle to capture the attention of beer fans. For one, not that many breweries are actually making limited release lagers and giving them a serious push into bars and bottleshops throughout the state. Sure, more straightforward lagers might be turning up in more core ranges but they don't make a splash like a NEIPA or barrel-aged beer. Yet, make a lager with German hops, let it sit in a tank for five weeks or more, then whack it in a blue and white Bavarian-inspired tinnie and you've got a beer that can still stand out amid a sea of haze, fruit, funk and acid.
Burnley Helles was launched for the brewery's month-long Oktoberfest celebrations, which saw head brewer Michael Stanzel brew twelve German-inspired beers to pour at the Richmond brewpub as it was transformed into a German beer hall. The beer itself seemed to have transformative qualities too: the soft, grainy sweetness, spice, a soft bitterness and a hint of sulphur had the ability to lift you from the bars of Melbourne and straight into Munich's Englischer Garten. Will Ziebell
Deeds Brewing & Carwyn Cellars The Traveller
When I first caught up with Patrick Alé and Dave Milstein as they were introducing Quiet Deeds to the market, you would never in a million years have imagined they'd end up where they are now. Sure, they always planned to build their own sizeable brewery, but their launch beers were a long way from those getting beer geeks hot under the collar today – restrained and very much at the safe end of the craft beer spectrum as it was then.
Roll forward to 2019 and they've finally got their brewery up and running (although remain in a battle to open a proposed taproom within the building) and have put themselves amid the band of brewers best known for highly hopped hazy IPAs. Five of their beers were nominated – plus a collab with Venom – and only one wasn't a hazy double or triple IPA of some form. The one to find most favour was Carwyn Cellars collab The Traveller, which makes the recent appearance of a fresh batch of the beer well-timed.
When sampling the first batch while I was in the UK, Will Ziebell was moved to text me announcing just how good it was: "It's a holiday to Vermont packed inside a 440ml can." is how he signed off his write up.
Dollar Bill Learning To Breathe
Ballarat's Dollar Bill are another operation yet to open their taproom, although theirs is at least on the way. They're another brewery that saw multiple beers nominated this year too, as their ability to sculpt high quality, complex farmhouse ales and barrel-aged blends one after the other shows no sign of slowing.
The one that won the most admiration was the beer that's technically their first core range release – surely the only brewery in Australian history whose first core range beer is a blended sour in 750ml bottles... Learning To Breathe – a subtly complex, barrel-aged golden sour on lees – was deemed a killer beer by the country's beer judges too, collecting a trophy at The Indies in September.
That the operation launched by Fiona and Ed Nolle just a couple of years back (with a little help from a leading winemaker going by the pseudonym Miguel Sanchez) has rapidly placed itself among the nation's small coterie of expert barrel-ageing and blending brewers is one thing. What they've also brought is their personality, with their presence liable to elevate any event; Ed might like to stay in the background, as keen to chat about hip hop or German techno as the differences in beer aged in oak or concrete, while Fiona will be the livewire bouncing off the walls. With 2020 set to bring about the opening of their cellar door outside Ballarat, expect to hear much more about them in the future.
Exit Brewing Double Milk Stout
Very few brewing companies win a trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards. It's one of the biggest of its kind on the planet, attracting well over two thousand entries from across the planet in 2019. With a growing number of brewers year-on-year, it means the chances of rising above your peers only gets harder too. Yet Exit, the Melbourne-based operation launched by two mates from IT backgrounds (Ex-IT) that brews at KAIJU!, have won two of them in three years.
In May, their Milk Stout – the third beer they ever released before becoming part of their core range – joined Amber on the honours board; to mark the occasion, they returned to another old recipe and created a new version of their Double Milk Stout. They took all the elements of the trophy-winner and ramped them up to create what we dubbed "a stout spider in waiting". Six months on, enough drinkers recalled enjoying its rich delights to see the beer make our end of year list, joined on the long list by fellow imperial stouts from Red Hill and Hawkers.
Fixation The 86
It's been a story of unrelenting success for Fixation since the partnership between Stone & Wood and former Mountain Goat rep Tom Delmont launched with their marvellous take on West Coast IPAs. Trophy after trophy has followed and the addition of their taproom, The Incubator in Collingwood, has allowed them to spread their wings in terms of exploring new beer styles (including the odd one or two outside their "IPAs only" mantra) while giving them a platform for educating the public too.
While there are new beers hitting taps at The Incubator every week, they've resisted the temptation to send many into the market in cans. Of those that did get such treatment in 2019, one was The 86, the hazy IPA named after the tram route upon which they sit. It has been pouring at the taproom since last year but only made it into the wider market as Fixation's first Freshly Hatched can release in September. They've since followed that with another hazy IPA in cans, Little Ray, which arrived too late for consideration by our contributors but would likely have fared well too.
Future Mountain Alameda
They met and bonded over shared passions for similar beers while brewing at Boatrocker and went on to hold brewing jobs at other Victorian breweries before launching Future Mountain in March (also on the 86 tram line – surely the world's craftiest PT route). And Ian Jones and Shane Ferguson wasted little time making a mark on the city's beer scene – and not just because they'd opened a brewing and blending operation specialising in farmhouse ales and fruited sours in Reservoir, of all places.
Their venue, featuring rows of barrels, an open fermentation vessel and the "Culture Club" – the place where they work on the communities of yeasts and bugs they've been harvesting and evolving for years – is as elegant as the beers pouring through the taps. Of those beers – all of which are named after songs, albums or lines from songs – it was Alameda, their blended golden sour, that delighted most palates in 2019.
It's a beer designed to evolve over time, from batch to batch, while retaining certain core characteristics; as Will Ziebell put it: "...like the Elliott Smith song with which the beer shares a name, on each encounter you can expect to be met with a delicate, soft balance."
La Sirène The Beginning
It might seem a little odd to call a beer The Beginning when you're not far off a decade of brewing, but Costa Nikias and his team at Alphington's urban farmhouse brewery La Sirène clearly felt this beer marked a fresh start. They'd created 100 percent spontaneously-fermented ales before using an open tank they'd leave outside the brewery, but this was the first to come from the koelschip they'd bought back in 2015, one that currently sits underneath a wonderfully characterful, homemade wooden structure in the middle of the brewery.
The aim was to allow nature to take control, letting the microflora of the neighbouring Darebin Parklands and associated creek go to work on a simple barley and raw wheat wort. Once it had cooled overnight, the liquid spent twelve months in French oak before bottling, creating a delightful beer that keeps on giving.
La Sirène's story has been fascinating to follow from the off; releases like this suggest the most fascinating chapters may yet still lie ahead.
Molly Rose Kuro
It's fair to say 2019 has been a momentous one for Nic Sandery. While he'd been steadily releasing beers under the Molly Rose banner for a couple of years, this was the year he opened his brewpub (a block away from Fixation's Incubator), one he'd built as much as possible with his own hands, leading one member of the Crafty team to dub him "The Most Tired Man In Brewing" back in March. With the venue open, he's vastly increased the output of new beers released on tap, in cans and 750ml bottles (all brewed offsite and fermented / aged / blended onsite). And he's set to end it by becoming a first time parent with partner Callie Jemmeson, herself an award-winning winemaker.
It says a lot about what he's brought to the local beer world that the nine (yes, nine) Molly Rose beers to be nominated included farmhouse ales, a coffee sour, a West Coast IPA and a beer-wine hybrid. The one we've included here actually first appeared in miniscule amounts – 120 750ml bottles, I believe – when Nic was first getting Molly Rose off the ground but returned in cans this year.
Designed as a tribute to the use of umami and the "quest for balance" in Japanese cuisine, this dark lager featured cherrywood smoked malts and kombu, a type of seaweed popular in Japanese cuisine, to create something both unique and delicious.
Mr Banks Cake Eater v1
In last year's list, Mr Banks appeared in a slightly unusual manner. Their entry was a combined nod for the very many IPAs people had enjoyed in 2018. This year, we could have made it another catch-all entry of sorts, but narrower in focus: almost all of the Seaford brewery's beers to receive at least one vote were, like those of Deeds Brewing, big and hazy IPAs.
But there was one that stood head and shoulders above the others: Cake Eater. It's a beer that's as of its time as you could wish for: a double dry-hopped, cream double IPA with oats and a Cloudwater-esque dry-hopping rate of 24 grams per litre. The first release of three to date – brewed with Mosaic and Ekuanot hops – is regarded as the best so far: rich, pillowy, fruity, sweet and decadent.
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.