How good are pubs? And bars. And taprooms. And beer gardens. And... well, you get the point.
Among the many emotions Victorians experienced in 2020, there will be plenty who realised just how much they enjoyed the simple pleasure of a beer with mates at their local – or not so local – venue when the opportunity to do so was taken away for more than half the year. The importance of pubs and, increasingly, local breweries as community hubs as much as places to be fed and watered will no doubt be cherished more than ever.
With the pandemic continuing to spread across much of the planet, it might seem churlish to celebrate the return of such luxuries, yet no little sacrifice went into reaching this point. Two months-long lockdowns. A curfew. Tight travel restrictions. A so-called Ring Of Steel. Little wonder that, whatever your thoughts on the rights and wrongs of the approach, any sense of pride* Melburnians and Victorians had in their home pre-COVID has only grown as we all acknowledge the role almost every individual, family, and business played in defeating the second wave.
The human mind has a remarkable capability for adaptation; for me and many others I've spoken to it wasn't just the ability to adjust to a reduced life in order to get through lockdown 2.0 in particular that proved crucial, but what came afterwards. Within just a few days of the restrictions easing, after each rediscovery of something simple – going to a friend's house, walking down the street without a mask, a first meal in a pub, seeing the ocean again – the hardships, at least for those of us lucky enough not to lose a loved one, faded from memory; "Did we really live under a curfew? Christ, we really did."
And that adaptability was key for the beer and hospo industries as a whole in 2020. While local venues and breweries twisted themselves into new shapes all over Australia, what we witnessed in Victoria was often spectacular, from The Cherry Tree crew becoming a borderline superhuman bringer of good times and relief to the people (and schools) of Cremorne and Richmond, to the colourful drive-thrus that popped up everywhere, the brewers, bar staff, and dogs repurposed as delivery drivers, the fundraising, the feeding of those in need. Sure, nobody wants to do 2020 again (you keep a lid on things now, Sydney!), but there was much to admire and warm the soul amid the misery.
Of course, this all came on the back of bushfires that wiped out trade for many regional businesses at the start of the year; restrictions went up and down faster than a yo-yo for those in the High Country, while there were terrifying moments aplenty for our beer industry friends in East Gippsland.
Yet, here we are, a year on from the mounting realisation that the 2019/20 bushfire season was going to be horrendous and that we should probably keep an eye on what was happening in Wuhan, with the sun shining (OK, it's set to tip it down in the new year), pop-up beer gardens and street side dining spots busy and buzzing, beaches and regional towns overflowing with tourists, and hope – tempered with realism, of which more later – for what lies ahead. Even in the dark times, businesses were hatching plans; within weeks of the state opening up again, Blackman's had announced a new brewery, Jetty Road had opened a taproom on the Great Ocean Road, and Hop Nation were launching a new venue too, for example.
And, through it all, we've had beer, or should that be beers. More of them in more forms than ever before – arguably more forms than were strictly necessary! – and from more brewing companies. Selfishly, I'd hoped the lockdown might lead to a slowdown in the volume of new releases we'd need to keep on top of at Crafty Towers; after a temporary pause, the need to sell more beer in pack and keep catching the eyes of a ravenous horde of consumers stuck at home meant they kept on coming ever faster.
A combination of the above factors – so much time stuck indoors, much of it spent supporting the Beer For Bushfire Relief / Resilience Beer and Keeping Local Alive campaigns, and so many new releases – meant it was the gang here in Victoria that suggested the alternate approach we've taken to these end of year roundups. We didn't feel we could lay down a simple Best New Beers roundup with the confidence we have in past years, even though some in other states did. And, as you'll see from the next section on, we didn't even end up attempting to single out just five.
But, given the twelve months everyone in the state has had, maybe it's only right to spread the glory wider. That so many are still standing, at least for now, after much of the industry was switched off for so long, is a worthy achievement in itself. Well done, all of you.
Five Standouts Victorians
The Modern IPAs
I'm not even sure "modern IPAs" is the right term, but hopefully it will make sense soon enough. What we're on about here are those IPA variants that have come to dominate much of the craft beer world, and some breweries' entire output: hazy IPAs, NEIPAs, oat cream IPAs, DDH and TDH double and triple hazies.
As with pretty much every corner of Australia, they've made a mockery of those who wondered whether NEIPAs would prove to be a fad only two or three years ago. And there have been plenty of crackers from Victorian brewers in 2020.
It's an area full of potential pitfalls, although things such as hop burn, lack of balance, and overt sweetness don't seem to concern many of the more vociferous online beer drinkers, as long as there's more than 20 grams per litre of hops and close to double figures when it comes to alcohol content. But it's also an area filled with tasty treats.
Victoria is home to some of the most active participants in this area too. Mr Banks have excelled often, notably within their Feels and Cake Eater series. Deeds seem to be on a one-brewery mission to fill the entire Top 50 Australian beers on Untappd with big IPAs of one sort or another. Dainton's Champion Large Brewery title at the Indies was aided in large part by the success of their Super Trooper double NEIPA and Apocalypso II NEIPA.
Yet there were gems to be found elsewhere too. For me, the highlight of Hargreaves Hill's Pursuit Of Hoppiness series to date was entry seven, Cryo Oat Cream IPA. Hawkers judged the lactose addition in their Dreaming Of Oats just right. Hop Nation, one of the first breweries to play in this space, continued to do so with success.
That said, of all the Victorian hazies and creamies and TDHies to hit my palate in 2020, it was actually Brick Lane's first entry in Other Half's All Together global hospo fundraising effort that really stood out. As soon as it hit my taste buds, I was texting a colleague to proclaim its brilliance.
The Old School IPAs
And no, we're not talking traditional English IPA here. It feels like the beer world is going to have to go through some really weird mutations for such beers make a comeback (as we addressed in our Changing Tastes entry in the Ten Years Of Crafty series). We're not even talking the OG American IPAs either, with their weightier malt and barrelling bitterness. No, so fast do things change nowadays that beers inspired by the brewers of America's West Coast already feel established enough to be making a comeback in the face of all the fluffiness, oats, and negligible bitterness.
As has been mentioned already in other Year In Beer articles, 2020 has seen a growing demand for such beers from drinkers pining for the bitterness – and, presumably in some cases, balance – typically missing from the world of NEIPAs and oat cream IPAs. And brewers have been happy to meet such demands. (Of course, some have never stopped making them; KAIJU! have enjoyed their best year yet without doing much in the way of pivoting or succumbing to trends, for example.)
You wouldn't expect such a section to omit IPA specialists Fixation and their You're On Mute West Coast IPA impressed many a palate. And, while they didn't match Fixation's 28 limited release cans from March onwards, CoConspirators played in many an IPA space with their usual aplomb. Although it was Blackman's Needs More... series that arguably brought most regular joy to the palates of the Crafty team in 2020. Their (almost always) single hop IPA evolution of the Same Day IPA concept produced a series of hugely enjoyable IPAs throughout the year.
There are brewers and blenders elsewhere in Australia who, for good reason, garner much of the attention when it comes to the fascinating and diverse realm of mixed ferment, barrel-aged and blended, sometimes spontaneously-fermented beers. Yet, when you look at how many brewers are operating in this space in Victoria – either as their main gig or part-time but with earnestness – it's quite remarkable.
La Sirène, Future Mountain, Black Arts, Dollar Bill, Boatrocker, Molly Rose, Bridge Road, 3 Ravens, Hop Nation under their Site Fermentation Project banner, Stomping Ground, Watts River, Westside Ale Works, newcomers Sobremesa – the list goes on. Given we're suckers for such beers done well at Crafty Towers, long may it continue.
The Dark Side
It used to be that the sort of hype lavished on opaque DIPAs today was reserved for the annual winter arrival of imperial stouts and barleywines, barrel-aged and otherwise. It wasn't that long ago there were still enough brown and dark ales around for us to feature them in a blind tasting too. Yet, just as there's never been more variety on offer in craft beer circles, in other ways there's rather less as we move, as a whole, towards pale, hoppy, fruity.**
That said, there's plenty of enjoyment to be found in a well made, malt driven darker beer (if you can find one). Two of the best beers in the Carwyn Collaborational packs were Mr Banks and Interboro's Making Me Thirsty and Boatrocker's De Molen collab Windmills & Weathervanes. The latter Aussie also added another excellent entry to their Ramjet family in the tiny volume, huge character Jackjet.
Wolf of the Willows released the best in their Lark Distillery Barrel Exchange series of Imperial JSP beers this year, then blew that out the water with their barrel-aged imperial stout joint venture with Gospel. Moon Dog's collab with To Øl, Dream Cake, was one of the most over the top of all dark dessert beers to come our way this year, but could I put it down...? Deeds' Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse wreaked welcome damage across many a palate, while Bridge Road hit ten years of their birthday beer B2 Bomber.
Hargreaves Hill's R.I.S. was as good as ever, Hop Nation's Kalash double-header rich and lush, Dollar Bill's soured stout for the Black Is Beautiful project a rarity, and Molly Rose's Crowd Goes Mild a fine exhibition of hops and darker malts at a much lower ABV.
Let Me Tell You A Story
The craft beer world is a place full of characters and stories. Indeed, for small businesses, often the best way they can stand out from the crowd – and certainly from the bigger operations – is the uniqueness of their stories.
But beers can tell stories too, whether marking a birthday or an occasion, such as the collab we created for the relaunch of The Crafty Cabal, celebrating a milestone in a brewery's life, highlighting a cause, and much more besides. In a year like 2020, there were plenty of stories to be told.
It's something at which Sailors Grave have long excelled and, while their Dark Emu collab with Bruce Pascoe is almost a meta story-telling beer, their Embers IPA stands out for me. Not only was it a cracking red IPA, but it was brewed as a reflection on the bushfires and to raise money for the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund. A photo they posted of the damage the fires caused to their "spiritual home", Cape Conran, is the one image from the beer world that stuck with me more than any other in the wake of the fires, and this beer felt like a positive closing chapter to their part of a terrible story.
There were other beers with COVID-related tales too, such as Pandemic Punch and Rye-solation from Dainton for which they blended a load of leftover kegs into two new beers, 3 Ravens' Espresso Quarantini – originally destined to debut at a cancelled Good Beer Week event, Stomping Ground's Tip Jar, Boatrocker's Local Lager.
We love a good story and a good beer at The Crafty Pint, so when you get two-for-one, well...
Breakthrough Brewery: Can We Pick Three?
If we can't stick to five beers for the state, why stick to one brewery? We enjoyed some good discussion around this, mostly centred on those who've been operating a fair few years too, rather than newcomers, and ended with three we couldn't split.
Hop Nation's ascension has continued despite COVID-19. They've been selling heaps of beer, took the former Mornington Peninsula Brewery production site off the hands of Tribe Breweries, and opened Zymurgy in conjunction with the team behind Navi.
You could argue 2019 was Blackman's breakthrough year given the Torquay operation claimed Champion Small Australian Brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards, yet 2020 has felt like a year in which momentum has only grown. Renn Blackman and his team of brewers rarely fail to hit bullseye with their beers – whatever the style – and, while they closed their Good Beer Bar in Geelong after four years, that was in part because they're launching a second brewery and venue in Grovedale to go with their OG home in Torquay and their Burger & Beer Bar in OG (Ocean Grove).
As for Wolf Of The Willows, they arguably could have featured under things to look out for in 2021 given they've only just opened their Mordialloc brewpub, which was originally slated to welcome patrons in March. But they're here instead on the back of some banging limited releases, particularly in the second half of the year. It's not like it's a revelation to pick up a Wolf beer and find it's good, but the regularity with which I was moved to shoot them a personal "Congrats!" message after sampling beer after beer stood out.
Special mention here to Bright Brewery too, who continued their reinvention and reemergence into the wider wholesale market in 2020 with some cracking beers and fun marketing gambits to boot.
The Second Wave
On June 1, Victoria's first wave restrictions started to ease, later than any other state. While this was cause for celebration, we chose the day to run a story examining what the future might look like for beer and hospo in the new COVID reality. It was a warning of sorts, ending on a cautious note from Iain Ling at The Lincoln in Carlton: “We need people to act responsibly and be grown up and understand that one wrong move by one person could have enormous repercussions.”
Of course, we never thought a second wave would hit Australia – or certainly hoped it wouldn't. And how wrong we were.
When Melbourne entered lockdown 2.0 there was a very different mood to March. This time, there was no novelty factor, people were already exhausted from the first one, and, in the world of hospo, just getting back up and running again. The spike in booze and home delivery orders from the first lockdown didn't immediately transpire and, to be honest, it all felt really shit, especially as the rest of Australia was continuing on an upwards trajectory.
Yet, once again, the human spirit prevailed (and, once we hit stage 4 and a curfew, so did the desire to drink a little more), meaning people got on with it again, doing the best they could to survive. (OK, there were plenty of people who spent that period railing at the state government and doing their best to make the mental health impact even worse, but let's focus on the positives.)
Nobody wants to countenance a third lockdown, but the ability of small beer and hospo businesses to survive two lockdowns and emerge into a summer season should hopefully stand them in good stead for the future.
There were many shining examples of people wanting to help others in 2020, many of them already referenced above. The Melbourne hospo community rallied in support of those impacted by the pandemic in impressive fashion, from the actions of individuals like Deb Lieu and James Balboni, and businesses like Otter's Promise, to the wider effort going by the CoVid-19 EAD (Employee Assistance Directive) banner that repurposed venues across the city and has helped feed thousands.
Hepburn Springs Eternal
In terms of moments of sheer joy, there's been little to match the moment the family behind Hepburn Springs Brewing Co realised they'd won a trophy at The Indies. It was a wonderful reminder of so much of what makes the craft beer industry what it is, a ray of light at a time the state was getting back on its feet.
In 2021, Look Out For...
- The true picture following the damage wrought by the double lockdowns. While more businesses have survived this far than might have been expected, how much of a toll has it taken on owners, how will they cope when bills become due again, and how long will restrictions on numbers remain in place?
- More openings. We mentioned a few above, what with some business owners using the lockdowns to plan new ventures, but with CoConspirators finally set to open their brewpub in 2021, Moon Dog still eyeing up more big venues, Stomping Ground back at work on their Moorabbin brewpub, Range just opened in Abbotsford, and some indie retailers eyeing up new sites, barring disaster, options are only set to grow.
- On a broader scale, the next moves for the country's Japanese-owned duopoly will be fascinating, especially as we fully expect the transition to local and craftier drinks to continue apace. Lion / Kirin seem set on developing brewpub-based brands, while CUB / Asahi have been looking to tap into nostalgia (and aftershave) with Resch's and Foster's. One has to wonder what the latter makes of having so many acquired craft brands in the one stable too.
- And, also on a national scale, how will the "battle" between beer and newer alcohol categories, such as hard seltzer, play out?
- The return a more "normal" end of year series on The Crafty Pint, given the approach to beers means we didn't even touch upon the world of session / low alcohol beers, fruited / imperial sours, hazy pales / XPAs...
You can read our look back at 2020 from a national perspective here, check out our thoughts on the year in beer in Tasmania, NSW, Queensland, WA and SA, and look out for more in the series over the coming days.
* I've long avoided the use of the word "pride", possibly a result of being a Scot growing up in England where national pride tends to be barely distinguishable from chest-beating and arrogance. But, despite trying to find a better word to describe how I felt about my fellow Victorians once we saw off the second wave, I've yet to do so. So pride it is.
** At this week's Christmas gathering of Victorian-based Crafty Pinters, there were three eskies – "Normal & Hoppy", "Sour & Funky", and "Big & Dark". By the end of the evening, the first was the only one to be empty – and the only one that had needed topping up – so even we're guilty on that front, it seems.