With Christmas just days away, and with WA, Tasmania, NSW and Queensland under our collective belt, we head to Victoria for the fifth instalment of our look back at the best of beer in 2021.
Call us naive or optimistic, but looking back at our review of the year in beer in Victoria from 12 months ago, there was definitely something of a “the worst is over” vibe. Perhaps even an element of congratulatory pat-on-back at having done the hard yards to crush COVID (at least its early versions) and being able to look forward to a return to normality, even if the casual aside, “you keep a lid on things now, Sydney!” causes a hindsight-sharpened twinge.
Depending where you live in Victoria, you’ve been through up to four more lockdowns in 2021, including another lengthy one, especially if you roll five into six, which, let’s face it, you may as well given the briefest glimmer of hope that separated the two. It’s created another painful year for everyone involved in hospitality and events, not least due to the ongoing legacy of massive staff and skills shortages.
It’s also a sign of how fast things can change that had this article been written a fortnight ago it would have been against a much brighter background; as a state, we’d done what was asked of us in terms of vaccinations, isolation and mask-wearing, so life was returning to the new normal, with the simple pleasures of a pint at the pub, a meal with mates, a singalong in the Sidney Myer Bowl, all flooding back. Now, with Christmas days away and the booze and hospo industries looking forward to their busiest time of the year, that bastard called Uncertainty is looming large again, cancellations are skyrocketing, and fingers are being crossed that the hard work done over the past 21 months will prevent the sort of disaster seemingly unfolding in much of the Northern Hemisphere from happening here.
Remarkably, there haven’t been too many casualties in the craft beer industry. But there sure are a lot of exhausted people, especially those who’ve carried their businesses and staff through the tribulations of the pandemic, and who would dearly like a lucky break or two. Sadly, we’re pretty sure viruses don’t deal in luck so it’s heartening to have been able to write about the new Mind And Strength Support this week – a project designed to support small business owners and their teams in the hospo world when it comes to dealing with mental health issues and wellbeing.
When it comes to the support we can offer as consumers, it’s not just a case of spending generously with our favourite local businesses (if we can afford to), but also treating everyone in our local pubs, bars, restaurants and taprooms with kindness and understanding as they deal with ever-changing and ever-challenging circumstances. Which, of course, is a pretty good way to approach life as a whole right now; who knows what the next person you encounter in the street is going through, but chances are they’ve been better.
For the first decade of The Crafty Pint, these end of year features were mostly cause for celebration, a time to mark the high points and advances made by the craft beer industry. Reassuringly, for all the shite that’s been hurled in its general direction, there’s no denying there have been high points and advances aplenty in the Victorian beer community this year too.
Somehow, Good Beer Week and GABS happened, giving beer folks from around the country a first chance to get together en masse in person in the best part of two years (even if our Pint of Origin Blind Tasting Championship did end up with people in four states and one territory enduring two weeks of quarantine…), while last summer’s beer festivals also dodged the lockdowns.
The brewers of Collingwood (and Abbotsford) joined forces to create a trail for punters, many Victorian breweries starred at the country’s major beer awards, and new breweries continued to pop up across the state while existing operations unveiled major expansions or opened new venues. Indeed, it’s ever harder to find a part of the state where there isn’t a local beer offering close at hand.
Two Birds enjoyed a year that would qualify as a roller-coaster even without the unique challenges of the world today: acquired by the Fermentum Group in January; marking ten years of beers with the excellent New Heights IPA in June; becoming part of Lion / Kirin in August when Stone & Wood’s founders agreed to sell Fermentum, with Collingwood-based Fixation also part of the deal.
Two Birds’ co-founder Jayne Lewis was also one of five women from the Victorian beer world to take a lead pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity in the industry, as well as action against the discrimination and abuse that is as much part of the craft beer world as it is society as a whole. On the back of the outpouring of stories in the states sparked by Brienne Allan and articles addressing sexual assault and harassment on this site, alongside Jessie Jungalwalla, Kirrily Waldhorn, Tiffany Waldron and Roxy Boubis, Jayne launched Beer Agents For Change.
They compiled the industry’s first diversity survey, with genuinely sobering results, one of a number of ways in which they’re looking to encourage often difficult but essential conversations. With the Independent Brewers Association launching a Code Of Conduct and conversations continuing behind the scenes on many levels, expect to see more progress in 2022.
Of course, little of the above concerns actual beers, and where would the beer industry be without them? Best get to that part of the article then, hey...
*insert usual caveat about too many breweries and beers to taste them all here* and, hey presto, here are ten standouts from the Victorian beer industry in 2021.
3 Ravens – BAPIOS
You can’t really compile a Best Of list these days if it doesn’t include at least one massive beer, so why not start with one of the most massive in Australian history, even if Tallboy & Moose went bigger with their 20 percent ABV fifth birthday beer? There wasn’t much of the mere 18 percent ABV BAPIOS – or Barrel-Aged Peated Imperial Oatmeal Stout to its mother – around but wherever it landed it caused a ripple of excitement: all barrels, booze, molasses, peat, leather and sozzled dark fruits. The beer aged in ex-rye whisky barrels from Gospel also looks set to become one of those Ravens beers that spawns offshoots too, with BAPIOS Conspiracy appearing in a four-beer collab with Carwyn Cellars later in the year.
To be honest, there were other sizeable and delicious barrel-aged beers we weighed up for this slot – Moon Dog’s Duke Of Chifley barleywine and Jumping The Shark 2013 Rebrew (both as far from their hard seltzer dispensing systems as one can get) and Boatrocker’s returning Gaston among them – but going with 3 Ravens in an alphabetical list ensures we kick things off with a whopper.
Burnley Brewing – Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl Packs
OK, so even by our own standards this might be bending the “best of” rules a little but there’s a good reason we’ve included more than a dozen beers brewed for multiple packs from one brewery.
A normal year’s springtime typically sees Burnley Brewing’s Richmond home transformed for Oktoberfest to celebrate the best of German beer. And while many breweries host Oktoberfest celebrations, the Melbourne brewery’s connection runs deeper than most. Before becoming involved with Burnley, head brewer Michael Stanzel and head of sales Chloe Hoiberg (pictured above in lederhosen) both lived in Germany, with Michael learning to brew in his parents’ homeland before he and Chloe launched a tiny brewery named Wild Animal Brewing.
Thanks to COVID, Burnley were unable to turning their brewpub into a slice of Bavaria so responded with a series of Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl packs. The term roughly translates to “the feeling of togetherness" and in a rare moment for the brewery (which has only ever really focused on selling beer in Victoria), those packs of togetherness sold out almost immediately and were shipped to adoring lager fans and hefe hunters across the country. As for the beers inside, most of the love seemed to be directed towards Dunkles and the rarely seen Lichtenhainer (a smoky sour beer).
Deeds Brewing – Lagers
Let's start with an admission. Of all the best new Victorian beer submissions we received from industry folks, readers and Crafty Cabal members for 2021, there wasn’t a single mention of any of Deeds’ lagers. Sure, there were mentions for the likes of Once More Into The Fray BA imperial stout and Cheat Code hazy TIPA, but this is our party and we’ll cry “Lager! Lager! Lager!” if we want to.
In 2020, the Glen Iris brewers enjoyed arguably their hypiest moment in the sun, shooting into the top five of the Beer Cartel Australian Craft Beer Survey’s Best Australian Breweries, yet I’d suggest the quality and consistency of their releases in 2021 has been higher than ever. And while I haven’t tried all of their lagers due to an extended period of lockdown-dodging in places where craft beer still doesn’t reach, those I have tried, such as Fiery Gates Of Helles and Lexicon, have been gems that picked up where Na Zdravi left off in late 2020.
With their unique and spectacular taproom now open and a mixed culture program up and running, there’s plenty of reason to make a noise about the brewery formerly known as Quiet Deeds.
Dollar Bill – Gold Teeth
A bit like BAPIOS, but even more so, there wasn’t a lot of Gold Teeth around. In fact, by the time most of the Crafty team shared a bottle at the Dollar Bill barrel room (where Ballarat’s councillors still won’t allow them to welcome just ten paying guests on a handful of days each year), much of the peach character was fading, meaning it was more a reminder of the delightfully subtle and satisfying character Ed Nolle has developed within his barrel-aged mixed culture beers.
Even though hardly anyone tried it, the beer is worthy of its spot thanks to what it achieved in May, when it became the first such beer to take out Champion Australian Beer at the Australian International Beer Awards – one of the biggest such competitions in the world. It felt like something of a watershed moment for the local beer industry; the reception Ed and Fiona received as they crossed the room to the stage was unlike any I’ve witnessed at the event in more than a decade of attendance.
Hawkers – Take Your Pick
A little like Wildflower’s entry in the NSW article, Hawkers earn their place here on the back of too many excellent beers to pick just one. When it comes to hops, there was much to enjoy in their Double West Coast IPA, while Will Ziebell of this parish pushed hard for their Hazy IPA too and I loved the lean, clean and plentiful delights of Three Weavers collab Kylie.
As brewery founder Mazen Hajjar likes to put it, their Bourbon Barrel-Aged White Stout “broke the internet”, while there were cracking barrel-aged imperial stouts and Baltic porter variants, a barleywine that shouldn’t have tasted as good as it did that young, and big IPAs aplenty.
They might not attract the hype in Facebook beer groups and Beerstagram circles of others, but the Reservoir operation is comfortably one of the best and most consistent breweries in Australia right now.
Hop Nation – Rattenhund
In a year in which the long-trailed Lager Renaissance has finally started to flex its muscles, Rattenhund stood tall even amid strong competition. For every mainstream-targeting cerveza and “draught”, there was a lengthily-lagered pilsner or double-decoction bock being brewed with the standards of Europe’s brewmasters in mind.
For Hop Nation, their pilsner was also made with their brew team in mind: they wanted to create as classic a lager as they could through a mix of floor-malted Bohemian pilsner malt, precise water manipulation, Perle and Spalt Select hops, and Pilsen yeast from the locally-based Bluestone Yeast.
Fittingly for a beer lagered for some eight weeks, the love for Rattenhund slowly built and spread throughout Victoria, with reps from other breweries appearing to work as hard at selling the beer as Hop Nation’s own. That hype boiled over when Rattenhund won Best Pilsner Trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards in May – just one of many trophies the brewery took home that night. The next batch of Rattenhund sold out within 24 hours and it’s since spawned its own range of merch and a devoted fan club.
Molly Rose – Strawberry Sublime and Citra Citra
We weren’t sure how much gas non-alcoholic beers had in the tank when we were writing about them a year ago, but they appear to have every intention of lasting as long as a teetotal ultra-marathon runner. That many of those making them have learned to do so better has certainly helped, but it seems any of the conniptions drinkers used to experience at the thought of being seen with a light beer have been consigned to the past in our maturing market.
Victoria is home to some of the finest: both UpFlow and Bridge Road Brewers landed Indies golds for theirs and Brick Lane’s Sidewinder series has a growing legion of fans. But in terms of crafty credentials and quality, the always-impressive Molly Rose’s first two non-alc offerings take some beating.
Both Citra Citra and Strawberry Sublime contain unmistakably Molly Rose spins, with the former hopped with Citra and featuring fresh oranges, the latter a gose brewed with strawberries and limes sourced from founder Nic Sandery’s parents’ farm in Humpty Doo. Strawberry Sublime in particular is a rarity in the growing alcohol-free market and, in the words of one beer retailer, the fact it's co-fermented with lactobacillus over a period days rather than hours means it comfortably holds its own in regards to complexity compared with many booze-containing kettle sours.
(Mr) Banks & Mountain Culture – Where Dreams Go To Die
Putting the artist formerly known as Mr Banks into a recording booth with the Katoomba kings at Mountain Culture was always going to send knees a-trembling among the country’s craftiest beer-chasers. Just as well the beer – a DDH DIPA – lived up to the promise in all its luscious, fruity deliciousness.
There was plenty of love for Banks' more recent superstar collab with Range and Mr West, Participation Award II, but we figured the beer that made our mid-year Best So Far shouldn’t be forgotten so soon.
On a completely different note, the Seaford crew continue to knock out top notch lagers too, with Foam a real standout. But having ignored contributors in favour of Deeds’ lagers and included Rattenhund here too, we figured we’d best get something big, hoppy and hazy in this list before the ramparts of Crafty Towers are stormed.
You don’t see them around too often, they’re typically a tough enough sell to ensure brewers only release them in single batches, and if you described them as bridging beers suited for the seasonal transition either side of winter they wouldn’t take offence. But, boy, when done well, aren’t red IPAs delicious? The sort of coming together of rich malts, heaps of hops, and firm bitterness that baby beers probably look at and go: “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
We sampled a fair few crackers from Victorian brewers this year too. Holgate’s Campfire Red IPA was as spot on a take on the style as you could wish for (from a brewery that quietly carries on releasing spot on beers as it approaches its quarter century); Fixation’s rather larger 30666 approached 10 percent ABV without losing its drinkability; Exit’s #025 Red IPA was another showcase of their ability to hit the sweet spot; Bridge Road’s leaner-than-previous-years Fat Man, Red Suit, Big Sack was a fine end to a year in which the Beechworth crew launched their employee ownership scheme.
Maybe it’s just a sign of growing quality throughout the state (Hop Nation’s longstanding The Buzz claimed an AIBA trophy as part of their epic haul in May too) rather than a ripper year for RIPAs. Either way, more like these, please!
Stomping Ground – Into The 'Wood Series
With three brewpubs throughout Greater Melbourne, a popular sour series, and a runaway flagship beer in Gipps St Pale, there’s a lot about Stomping Ground which makes the brewery an exciting one to watch.
But while the Smash sours or their hoppy releases might have more widespread appeal, we think some of the best beers coming out of the brewery are found in their barrel-aged Into The ‘Wood series. The sours in the shape of Gose with Lemon Myrtle and Cherry Saison match enthralling complexity with drinkability, while their most recent whisky barrel-aged stout and barleywine were rich but held onto as much balance as such beers ever do.
Given their local peers in this realm include the likes of La Sirène (and their growing single barrel series), Boatrocker, Black Arts, Dollar Bill, Deeds, 3 Ravens and Future Mountain, it takes something special to stand out, but the Into The 'Wood beers are just that.
It says much for the strength in depth of the Victorian craft beer industry that we could make compelling cases for so many breweries here, but we decided to plump for one that has managed to encapsulate so much of what makes the craft beer world what it is beyond great beer.
Future Mountain Brewing & Blending most certainly make great beer – they have done ever since Ian Jones and Shane Ferguson and their families launched the Reservoir brewery and blendery in 2019. They also make great beer that tells stories, such as their collabs with the farmers at Rayners Orchard in the Yarra Valley.
If you wound the clock back to March 2020 and wondered which of Melbourne’s independent breweries might be least able to weather the storm gathering on the horizon, Future Mountain may well be one you'd have feared for. The Reservoir brewery focused on barrel-aged beers and fruited sours had only been open for a year and had barely started packaging when COVID arrived; and they were too small (and arguably too stubborn) to switch their focus to mobile canning or chase the market for unlimited limiteds.
Instead they remained focused on their brewing DNA: traditional farmhouse-inspired beers brought to life over many months, getting their beers into customers' hands through their refillable, one-litre “howlers”. Their community rallied around them too, with Friday and Saturday nights attracting queues of people after said refills, and the brewing team chose to repay that support by inviting some of their keenest lockdown customers to brew their Anniversary Ale.
Add in their impressive showing at The Indies – Champion Brewpub and Champion Victorian Brewery (after the awards were audited), plus the installation of a kitchen during the most recent lockdown, and the release of their first can, Hands of Gold, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Future Mountain.
One Week In May
Will it, won’t it? As with most things in life for Victorians since the bushfires of summer 2019/20, uncertainty was ever-present in the lead up to Good Beer Week 2021. The festival was supposed to turn ten in 2020, and it looked like it may not even mark that milestone in 2021 as the walls closed in. But make it it did, bringing some much-needed joy to beer lovers, cash to venue coffers, and welcome reminders of just how marvellous it can be to hang out with likeminded people over a week of innovative events.
How GABS escaped becoming a tier one exposure site given the cases cropping up in venues over that weekend as lockdown four approached I’ll never know, but for once the beer gods retained the upper hand just long enough.
Denis Villeneuve’s remake of the unfilmable book wasn’t the only Dune making waves in 2021. As if Sailors Grave’s founders Gab and Chris Moore (pictured above) hadn’t achieved enough with their unique East Gippsland brewery in a few short years (including opening their cellar door bar in Orbost this year), in June they announced they’d secured a $2.35m government grant to help them realise a dream to create Dunetown, a brewery destination and hospitality hub in their spiritual home of Cape Conran.
Free To Do Whatever We Want
When it comes to niches within the craft beer sector, alcohol-free beers might have hogged most of the headlines, but two of Victoria’s gluten free brewers enjoyed fine years too. Now close to 20 years on from their first beer, O’Brien Beer landed a staggering six gold medals in their category at the AIBAs then backed that up with more gold at the Indies plus World’s Best Specialty Gluten Free Beer at the World Beer Awards and secured more than $700,000 via crowdfunding.
Meanwhile, TWØBAYS looked to push into new markets via partnerships with Ball Park Music and Olympic long jumper Brooke Stratton at the same time as showcasing just how crafty GF beers can be, with a margarita sour, hazy pale ale and red IPA among the beers appearing as limited release cans in 2021. Australia's first GF beer retailer launched too.
ALLIES FOR CHANGE
It takes something to stand up for what you believe in, for what you believe is right, in the knowledge you’re likely to become a target for abuse. But that’s just what the women behind Beer Agents For Change did in 2021. Yet, for all their efforts to promote discussion about equality, discrimination and inclusivity in the beer world – not to mention the coverage of harassment, abuse and assault in the industry here and abroad – their efforts too often seemed to be met with silence. Where were the industry leaders or business owners speaking out in support?
Thankfully, behind the scenes conversations are taking place, people are working out how to address existing issues and reduce the risk of future issues arising. For the most part, it also seems the silence is less a result of the industry being a cesspit of misogynists and bigotry, more a case of people not knowing how to show support or say the right thing (which, again, is something the Agents are working on).
It makes the decision of Stomping Ground co-owner Justin Joiner to dedicate arguably the greatest moment of the brewing company’s existence to date – winning Champion Large Brewery at the Indies – to the Beer Agents For Change and their fight for equality in the beer and hospitality industry even more impressive. In planning for the event, I’d asked my Indies co-host Kirrily if she wanted to talk about their mission on the night, and the conclusion was that this was a night for celebration rather than politics. In the end, JJ’s words were as powerful a statement as the Agents could have wished for, and hopefully act to embolden more industry leaders to become vocal, visible allies.
Our Victorian readers showcased broad tastes when it came to their beers of 2021, with much common ground with the lineup above. Hawkers’ Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout represented “the pinnacle of beer” for Markus Tschech, while Burnley’s Lichtenhainer was an introduction to the style for Lisa Ethe that “simply blew me away!”
Adam Davidson had been begging Hargreaves Hill for another barrel-aged version of their R.I.S., a perennial favourite at Crafty Towers, and this year's version was “well worth the wait”, while at the opposite end of the booze scale, there was love for Urban Alley’s non-alc Urban Myth, and for Dylan Hunt 3 Ravens’ Freya Red Rye IPA in support of Pink Boots Society was “a total banger for any season”.
When it comes to newer breweries catching drinkers’ eyes, Good Land in Traralgon (pictured above) are off to a flier, while there’s plenty of support for Castlemaine’s Love Shack, Golden Hills in Diamond Creek, and Noodledoof, the Koroit brewers and distillers. On the venue and retailer front, praise was directed at stalwarts like the Hopheads trio of venues and Armadale's Otter's Promise, as well as Tiny's Bar & Bottleshop in Scoresby and The Hop Shop in Frankston.
Unsurprisingly, most of the year’s highlights relate in some way to the lockdowns, from being able to attend GBW and GABS, the #emptythekegs campaign launched by Jules Armstrong, “that first pint in a pub with friends after lockdown 6”, and for Daniel Gottliebsen, “getting out of Melbourne after months of lockdown out to Holgate for a glass of Temptress Porter then discovering the barrel-aged wild and Brett beers they had made since last time I could visit them.”
Virtual events that helped get people through the time stuck at home, including the online tasting with Blackman’s at their new Grovedale brewery and “Have A Beer, Guess The Year”, where Stuart Dalgliesh says: “Ian [McNally] and [Nick] Capper created a space on Thursday nights that got filled with an awesome little community.”
As for the winner of the NZ Hops pack and year’s Crafty Cabal membership, they’re going to Damien Anderson. Congrats!
IN 2022, LOOK OUT FOR…
The Return of Niche Festivals
Pre-COVID, a number of beer businesses were working on smaller, more niche beer festivals. Hop Nation’s Blobfish championed sour and wild beer in 2019 and, while it’s been unable to run since, 2021 will (touch wood) see its triumphant return in July next year. COVID also put a stop to the Carwyn Collaborational, which moved online later in 2020, while Bodriggy’s Electric Kool-Aid was set to combine local music and art with ten breweries before it was postponed twice this year and is now set to run in February.
Bridge Road Brewers’ High Country Hop (pictured above) might remain sharply focused on the hop harvest but expanded its horizons in 2021, moving from the brewery’s carpark to its own festival site in Beechworth and showcasing more music, along with an additional educational element in its panel discussions. The 2022 festival is set to be bigger again.
It goes without saying we'll see more new breweries open their doors across the state, but there's action from some of the more established players too. CoConspirators' Brunswick brewpub opened last week, KAIJU!'s long-mooted venue should open its doors at the start of 2022, while Bridge Road are set to bring their High Country flavours to Brunswick later in the year.
Having shelved plans for more Moon Dog Worlds (and seemingly put that energy into seltzers) due to the pandemic, presumably an end to COVID lockdowns will see said plans fired up again too.
Sure, we addressed it to an extent above, but given just how far and fast the non-alc sector has grown – Melbourne has its own alcohol-free bar and there are dedicated online retailers too – it's going to be fascinating to see where it ends up in 2022. Heaps Normal have been making headlines following their epic fundraise, while Modus spin-off NORT has been enjoying rapid growth, but we're sure there will be Victorians eyeing up a slice of the booze-free pie too.
Thanks to everyone who assisted in the compilation of this article, and to Will Ziebell for helping write it too. You can find other entries in the series here.