As the sun sets on 2019 and we reflect on the year in beer, us beer drinkers in the Great Southern state have come to a realisation: we're punching above our weight. Almost 70 craft brewing companies now call South Australia home, while more than 240 new beers hit taps and shelves in 2019, of which more than 50 were nominated for the long list from which we worked towards the ten below.
Quality and consistency are positive talking points for the year too. Looking back at previous year’s top tens, many of the better beers came from just a handful of breweries; now, however, the honour is spread wider, making the finalising of such a selection ever more difficult while showcasing the fact SA's brewers are cranking out top notch beers more often.
The opening of new breweries in the state has slowed this year, with just four to mention. Loophole started brewing just before the Royal Adelaide Beer & Cider awards, picking up Champion Traditional/Australasian Ale with the very first beer they pushed through their system. Spearheaded by Tom O’Reilly, formerly of Stone & Wood and Barossa Valley Brewing (and a maker of mead to boot), the brewery is located at Cape Jaffa Wines on the Limestone Coast.
Coorong Brewery is a small outfit run out of a restaurant in Meningie, so far producing two beers that pour onsite only, alongside those from a few other locals. Shapeshifter launched early in the year as a gypsy operation, largely brewing out of Big Shed and contributing no less than nine different beers at time of writing. Finally, just this month Bond Store Wallaroo opened their new microbrewery / distillery / restaurant in an historic 1864 building located in the centre of the town.
Apart from the new breweries, there have been a few expansions on the venue front, notably from Swell, Pirate Life, Big Shed, Robe Town, Sweet Amber and Sparkke. Swell opened their doors earlier in the year and were instantly swamped with reservations and, just before Christmas, owner Dan Wright finally fired up his brewhouse and christened it with an IIPA.
Pirate Life moved into their new digs in Port Adelaide, taking over the Dalgety Woolstore building, a vast space they've wasted little time filling with, among other things, a much larger and faster canning line, towering new tanks, an industrial feel taproom, a couple of shuffleboard tables and, of course, a much bigger brewhouse. They'll be opening another sizable venue in Perth in 2020 too.
Big Shed’s second venue opened in early December meaning owners Jason Harris and Craig Basford can claim they really do have a big shed. It's one that houses a larger, four vessel brewhouse and new tanks, plus 20 taps, plenty of seating and a beer garden; their former home has been taken over by the Westside Massive and will be hosting regular gigs.
Robe Town moved to a new and larger home within the popular coastal town (and we'll have a story on that in the new year), while Sweet Amber have gone from running a beer café and brewery to owning a third venue, this one located in a shopping mall.
Meanwhile, Sparkke enjoyed a highly successful year, opening their first venue in Whitmore Square, aptly named Sparkke at the Whitmore. Their conversion of the second oldest licensed hotel in the city is nothing short of stunning, complete with rooftop bar, award-winning chef, and a brewery that allows Agi Gajic and Carla Naismith to keep the taps filled with a rotating lineup of beers. They closed the year with the announcements that Founders First are investing in the business and that they're opening a second brewpub in Melbourne; we'll have the full story on that in the new year too.
Several South Australian breweries rolled in canning lines, while Al Turnbull at Lobethal Bierhaus continues to tinker with his malting equipment, this year putting out a 100 percent oat beer and a triticale beer, and not too far away, Mismatch are gearing up to make a big noise about their sustainable approach to brewing at their Adelaide Hills home.
Of the 250 new releases, almost 50 were fruited, around 30 contained the word "hazy" or "NEIPA", and there were close to 35 sours of one form or another, plus a kvass. There were a few other quirky releases too: an imperial Brett pilsner, a whisky sour, a beer that used horny goat weed, a vegemite gose, a semillon sour saison,and a few kveik beers. Surprisingly, considering we reside in wine country, only around ten of the new releases were barrel-aged.
But which were judged the best examples of SA beer in 2019?
The Top Ten
Uraidla have absolutely killed it this year, with a whole array of different styles in their repertoire. It seems like pretty much everyone in the beer community has mentioned how much they're enjoying the quality head brewer Oscar Matthews is producing, from juicy, balanced pales and IPAs to super clean lagers and silky smooth stouts. As such, the brewery rather than a particular beer gets a spot this year as five of their nine new releases received a significant number of votes.
In particular, two beers shone above the rest: Forgotten Ritual Pale Ale and Wizard Wrath West Coast IPA. Other Uraidla beers to receive votes were the Higher Self Pale Ale, Psychic Mind IPA and Perpetual Purgatory, which is a dry-hopped pilsner.
Pirate Life Acai and Passionfruit Sour
Pirate Life's brewers were unleashed in 2019, pumping out more than 50 new beers. The beer that topped the votes for them was their Acai and Passionfruit Sour, an approachable affair designed to persuade cider drinkers or other non-beer drinkers to venture into beer territory.
Originally brewed for their fourth birthday celebrations, it proved so popular it's now been canned and added to their regular rotation.
Read our interview with Pirate Life co-founder Mick Cameron here.
Fox Hat Bearded Mongrel Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
Fox Hat already make two excellent stouts: the Phat Mongrel Oatmeal Stout and the Full Mongrel Russian Imperial Stout and, in 2019, head brewer Jeff Wright and the team decided to take it up another step. They introduced us to the Bearded Mongrel, a 10 percent ABV bourbon barrel-aged version of their RIS.
Using Bearded Lady barrels (pictured above), the Full Mongrel base beer was aged for ten months, producing just six kegs. The end result is big and bold, silky, rich and decadent, with lashings of dark chocolate that blend brilliantly with the rich bourbon and gentle oak.
Big Shed Indie IPA
In the lead up to BrewCon 2019 in Melbourne, several breweries were approached by Hopco to see if they'd like to experiment with new hop varieties. The Big Shed crew said: “Yes, please!” and decided to play with new Kiwi hop HORT 4337. The end result is an absolute cracker of an beer named Indie IPA.
It's a well-balanced take on the style that allows the hops to shine bright, giving off peach, lychee and passionfruit flavours. Ask owners Jason and Craig what they think of the beer and they'll tell you it's their favourite of all those they've brewed to date; little wonder they quickly made contact with Hopco asking for more hops.
Mismatch New England Lager
In a year in which hoppy juice bombs have been all the rage and nearly every brewery makes at least one, Mismatch’s stood out from the crowd. Instead of releasing a New England IPA, they juiced up a lager for their spring limited release.
The lager provides a clean body, while the New England side of the beer produces an explosion of pineapple and mango. It’s light, tropical and very summery – and it's very easy to work through a few. Old World lager meets New World juiciness makes for a triumphant combination.
Little Bang Schwangermelon
After settling into their new place in Henry Street, Stepney, the Little Bang team quickly diverted their attention back to releasing heaps of new beers, including many within their Schwang range of 3 percent ABV sours. Each time one is made, a new fruit is added, with Schwangermelon the pick of most.
In this iteration of Schwang, the pH has been dialled down a little, with the sour character working well with the sweetness of the watermelon. It’s not just the juice that the watermelon brings to the table, however, with the rind hanging around in the flavour profile and providing a solid earthiness to make Schwangermelon their best Schwang yet.
Prancing Pony Piper West Coast IPA
The past year witnessed some changes at Prancing Pony. They adding a canning wing to their packaging line and moved several of their core beers into cans as well as bottles, while adding a mid-strength and cider to their offering too. Their first can, however, was The Piper, a West Coast IPA.
It's a beer that shows the benefits of taking time to perfect a beer in an era when many brewers are releasing beers that brew once and never again. Three trial batches were tapped, with customer feedback taken on board each time before this final version appeared. It's a cracking West Coast IPA, with a biscuit and caramel malt base that supports citrus aromas followed by a decent whack of pine and a firm bitterness.
Wheaty Can Can Passionfruit Gose
The Wheaty Brewing Corps brewers are no strangers to our Top Ten lists and, in 2019, several of their beers that received votes, such as the Funky Menace, Da Big Lerv and this year’s Yeast Coast, but it was the passionfruit gose that won most hearts.
Feeling rundown and under the weather? The Can Can can help with its hit of straight up Vitamin C. Dripping with juicy passionfruit, and packing a decent pucker, it's another fine gose from the Thebarton crew.
Read our recent interview with Wheaty owner Jade Flavell (pictured top centre pouring a Can Can) here.
Clare Valley Double NEIPA
The hoppy tropical theme continues with one of Clare Valley’s limited releases, the Double NEIPA. They put out several short run beers in 2019, but it was this yellow and black labelled offering that got people talking the most.
Cryo hops were used to concentrate tropical vibes – pineapple, mango and passionfruit flavours and aromas absolutely popped from the can. The body was light and fluffy, with a touch of sweetness and a restrained bitterness.
Woolshed Double Black IPA
The Woolshed crew encouraged drinkers to expend all their rage and aggression with the Great Southern Trend Killer Double Black IPA. Armed with Pantera style artwork on the can, head brewer Jackson Beavis wanted something bold, black and aggressive; and he nailed it.
A 7.2 percent ABV, 100 IBU beer, this black IPA was the punchy darkness that we all needed in the depths of winter. A certain grassiness and pine rose forth as a touch of smokiness lingered as well. Roasty malts intertwined with the hop assault, creating a balance between hoppy, dark and bitter.
And because there were so many great new beers released, the panel we brought together to whittle our long list down to ten thought there should be a few honourable mentions.
- Pikes IPA – Clean, balanced and piney.
- Barossa Valley Brewing Peanut Butter Chocolate Milkshake – Matched the description to the letter: so much peanut butter served in milk stout form.
- Vale Tropical Ale – A summer smasher low in ABV, high in hops.
- Shapeshifter New World Pilsner – Clean and crisp yet offering something different with its New World hop punch.
- Ministry of Beer Barrel-Aged Saison – Super complex saison, with pleasant yeast-derived esters balanced with the beer's barrel character.
So, there you have it: our thoughts on the best new SA beers for 2019. Once again the state's brewers lifted the bar, with improved consistency and quality all round. Thank you to everyone who voted this year and thanks to the discussion panel who helped make sense of all the votes. Cheers for a great year – see you again in 2020.
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.