UPDATE: The Best Of Beer 2022 series of features – this national overview and seven other state by state by territories articles – is now complete. You can check them all out here.
So here we are: another spin around the sun almost complete, the last digit on the Gregorian calendar set to rise by one again. Not everyone in the beer world has made it this far, a few more aren’t in the same shape they were 12 months ago, and it’s questionable how much anyone – beer and hospo industry or otherwise – has left in the tank after another weird old year.
In short, the festive period probably can’t come soon enough – at least for those able to take some downtime.
Before we get to that point, however, we’re kicking off our annual roundup of the year in beer: the highs and lows, the exciting and unexpected, the delicious and inspirational. We’re doing it a little differently this year too, launching with a look at the national picture before going around the country, and also adding a new feature to those regional wraps: Q&As with some of the people who’ve enjoyed notable years. (You'll find all the articles here.)
As for the national picture, well, it’s fair to say 2022 probably hasn’t panned out quite as most were hoping after the challenges of the previous years.
With lockdowns a thing of the past, brewers, venue operators, retailers and enjoyers of a bevy or two at the bar would have been looking forward to a bounce back year. However, as we addressed in our 2022: Craft Beer’s Strangest Year Yet? feature in August, there was plenty else to contend with: the rise of Omicron (which has decided to give us another wave in time for summer); the impact of the war in Ukraine; more devastating floods; staff shortages; ongoing logistical challenges; rising energy prices; inflationary pressures; OK, that’s enough – Christmas is coming, after all.
And yet, for all of the challenges, for all the businesses that have fallen by the wayside or are crossing fingers and toes for a bumper few months ahead so they can start looking forward once more in hope rather than fear, there’s been much to celebrate. The spirit that has always infused the craft beer community lives on – dimmed in many cases, no doubt, but even embers can be encouraged to become roaring infernos once more.
Innovation and creativity can be found in every corner of that community, with new styles, new techniques, new ingredients, new ideas coming faster than the latest celebrity-endorsed low carb lager (of which more later). Breweries continue to pop up in new pockets of the country – indeed the rate of new openings doesn't appear to be slowing at all – as do venues and bottleshops with a crafty focus. And while they might not be drinking indie beer thanks to the ever-growing range of multinational- and major retailer-owned craft brands and non-beer alcoholic beverages on offer, drinkers continue to diversify.
Given the complexity and fluidity of the drinks world, who can say with any confidence what lies ahead on a macro scale? Certainly, it feels that we’re currently in something of a holding pattern – a pause, if you like – as those with their hands on the tiller in their business hope they’ve got it pointed in the right direction, and that a summer and autumn of plain-sailing lies ahead, before making their next big moves.
On a more granular level, however, there’s plenty to reflect on – much of it representing an ongoing evolution of the trends we’ve highlighted at this time of the year before – and much upon which we can speculate. So let’s do just that, shall we?
CRAFTY’S 12 THEMES OF CHRISTMAS
1. New, New, New
For once, I'm not talking referring to unlimited limiteds here – the frequency of new releases from some breweries has even slowed as the year has progressed. No, this is the new, new, new that can be found pretty much everywhere you look in the industry.
There’s been plenty of coverage of the race to create appealing and distinctive new hop varieties over the years, but that’s just one way in which those operating in the world of hops are innovating. Hop growers have been bringing new hop products to the market – Cryo, Spectrum, Incognito, LUPOMAX; this might be infused with a fair amount of marketing, but they're looking to give brewers tools to create beers that appeal to the planet's growing horde of hop fiends.
Increasingly, they’re looking to promote their wares outside the industry and to consumers too, hence the arrival of mixed packs showcasing Hop Products Australia’s jazzily-rebranded hops or NZ Hops’ key varieties, and ventures like the Bract Brewing Programme, in which brewers across the world are experimenting with new Kiwi varieties and letting drinkers know via their labels.
How and when they’re added to beer, the way in which they interact differently with different yeast strains and in different conditions, Clean Fusion™, macrodosing, microdosing – and that’s without getting onto Phantasm and the world of thiols. Or, indeed, the smaller growers dotted around the country working with local brewers.
It’s not just the world of hops where innovation is rife. Established suppliers of yeast and cultures keep a steady stream of new strains and varieties coming, both to assist brewers in creating certain styles of beer and, in some cases, cut corners or save time in reaching a desired endpoint. And there are local players too: Bluestone launched in Melbourne back in 2019; a few months back, we wrote about Mogwai Yeast, who train some of their focus on finding and developing foraged strains arrival; and even since then there’s been another new project come to life, Wild Yeast Zoo in Newcastle.
When it comes to malt, Voyager – who we’ll talk about more in the New South Wales leg of this series – have spent the year building and commissioning a $10m malting facility on their farm in the Riverina at which they’re playing around with all manner of rare, ancient and smoked grains. On the smaller side, there are other businesses, such as WA’s Mortlock Malt, closer to the start of their journey, while those operating on a far larger scale are training ever greater focus on provenance and sustainability (of which more later).
Sure, none of this might excite a beer geek as much as being faced with a wall of fridges filled with 400 limited releases, but it’s living proof that the wider beer industry is a hotbed of innovation.
2. Core Blimey!
Staying on the topic of limited releases – or, more accurately, the complete opposite – one way in which post-lockdown buying habits has impacted the industry is the decision of some notoriously core-phobic to introduce year-round beers at session-friendly ABVs to their offering.
It’s arguably of a piece with those breweries deciding to ditch the new-beer-a-week policy for one a month or quarter, and of a piece with breweries adding more affordable “value” beers to their lineup, and perhaps a desire to have something appealing to offer the larger retail chains.
The most high profile example here would be Range’s first “Forever” beer – the hazy pale Disco – but they’re far from alone. Adelaide-based Shapeshifter keep firing out new one-offs, but now have a core offering too. The Tasmanian brewery that’s been talked about more than any other on the mainland in recent years, Fox Friday, introduced an excellent core range with their rebrand (while still releasing multiple new beers every week), and CoConspirators ended the year with a new year-round hazy.
At the same time, there are some redefining what it means to be core range, suggesting that it might only be a moment in time that could be impacted by a drop in sales, rise in the cost of goods or change in consumer mood. And there are some who might have a "core" beer in their lineup that changes every few months, for examples Uraidla and their seasonally-altering pale ale.
3. Lager, Lager, Lager
Talking of approachable, broader appeal beers, the lager renaissance we’ve written about in recent years has continued to flourish. It’s an area in which there’s ever more diversity too; heck, there’s even a steady trade in “side-pour” taps (pictured above) for venues and breweries looking to give their lager-loving punters that perfect pour.
Sure, for the most part, if you find a core range lager in an indie brewer’s lineup it’s going to be their approximation of an Aussie lager (maybe called Draught) or a Euro-inspired pale lager. Maybe, it will also be their low-cal or low-carb option too.
Elsewhere, with the door to craft beer drinkers’ hearts given a good nudge by Hop Nation’s Rattenhund, pilsners into which much love, time, and hopping are poured seem to be enjoying their time in the sun. Take White Bay: a few weeks before they won Champion Indie Beer for their core range Lager, we held a bar about for industry mates in NSW at their brewery venue and on tap were no less than seven different lagers of multiple shades, with the Gantry Crane pilsner the shining star of the lineup.
They’re far from the only brewery releasing dark lagers, amber lagers, IPLs and the like either – and we’re not even referring to the lager-centric breweries like The Albert in Hobart or Heads of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast either. Indeed, one suspects the differentiation will become less important as a wider array of lagers – even American style “lite” lagers – becomes part of the scene: they’ll just be another option for those drinkers looking either for a new experience or one suited to a particular situation.
The huge explosion of Oktoberfests could be seen as symptom and cause of this too. Whether it was businesses looking for hooks to draw punters changed by two-plus years of the pandemic back into their venues or a genuine desire to celebrate one of the world’s oldest beery traditions, it was noticeable just how big Oztoberfest grew in 2022 – again, something explored at greater length elsewhere in this series.
4. An IPA A Day
You could argue that, given a choice between focusing on pale ales or India pale ales (remember when people still used their full name?) – still the categories that in their various forms dominate much of the craft beer market – we should plump for the former. Not least as, for a third summer running, there’s been a flurry of hazy pales making their debut from the brewers who’d not already jumped on board in 2020 or 2021.
Yet the world of IPAs remains relentlessly fascinating. Even if we ignore some of the more extreme examples for which the only obvious factor linking them to the style is the letters IPA on the can, there’s plenty going on.
We witnessed something of a swing back from the sweet ’n’ fruity charms of hazies to more old school ’n’ bitter* West Coasts, but arguably much more in the way of taking the best of each and working out how to combine them in the one beer. Meanwhile, cold IPAs look like they may possess a longevity that escaped their Brut predecessors, NZ IPA really seems to have become a distinct sub-category, and on a more granular level brewers are looking to fashion IPAs inspired by locations rather more specific than an entire coast (see: California IPA).
*OK, in most cases such beers might profess a sizeable IBU (International Bitterness Units) count but they rarely delivered the perceived bitterness of old.
5. No-Lo FOMO
When asked to pen a first cover piece in years for Good Food in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, one of the trends to feature was non-alc beers. There was a feeling from those spoken to for the article that sales might not reflect the noise around the category, yet there’s no denying they – and their ultra-low compatriots – have confounded plenty of expectations.
Aside from the fact more breweries are releasing them, or releasing more varieties, there are dedicated retailers (selling more than just beer, of course) both online and in bricks and mortar, as well as awards categories that recognise the significant role they play today. Heck, the ABC even ran a piece on a campaign to have non-alc drinks treated the same way as alcoholic beverages just last week.
Adjacent to this growing niche are the low-cal and low-carb offerings starting to appear in the oeuvre of small brewers. Sure, they’re hardly new – Burleigh’s Big Head has been shifting serious volume for more than a decade – but more business owners are clearly viewing it as a viable space in which to play. The success of some indie brewers’ seltzer brands – where the appeal is often equal parts “fun” and “healthier option” – hints at why.
Interestingly, after crossing the Rubicon and embracing hard seltzers, 2022 has seen even more take another step into the world of RTDs, but that feels like a story for another day.
6. Celebrity Beers
Celebrity endorsements are hardly new: would Balter have got off to their flying start without the four famous surfers emerging from the Oceans Mist to be the Gold Coast brewery’s face(s)? And why would brewers collaborate on beers and events with people outside the beer world – musicians, artists, chefs, you name it – if they weren’t hoping to gain from the exposure?
Yet the runaway success of The Inspired Unemployed tie-in Better Beer (available exclusively through Endeavour Group stores), in particular, only seems to have pushed the door to the green room open wider than ever. From the Coles Liquor equivalent Travla, with its Vikings and Masterchef connections to the Abbie Chatfield-endorsed Asahi release Spill, and from Denan Kemp’s Bloke In A Bar to Drink West’s UFC partnership it’s like a mini-industry of its own.
You could argue it’s one we shouldn’t be featuring in a craft beer magazine either, given pretty much every beer within this space is a middle-of-the-road lager, and they’re typically brewed under licence rather than by businesses that have invested in their own stainless. But that itself poses another thought.
Go back a decade or so and there was much discussion about the validity of contract brands – built by those who hadn’t built their own breweries. Over time, as the industry diversified in every way imaginable and even those who had invested in their own production found themselves either needing to borrow tank space or happy to take the money of those wanting to fill their empty tanks, this, for the most part, subsided. Now, however, with contract brands – including some from well-known beer reps / distributors making beers far craftier than the examples above – seemingly greater in number than ever, it’s a conversation that’s starting again.
It seems liquid is a fluid thing.
7. Fruity Beer
In recent years, at this time of year we’d expect to see all manner of easy-going, lower ABV, fruited sours hitting the market. They’re still around, but it appears the appetite among many is to go bigger and, well, fruitier.
Our deep dive into the realm of pastry beers included a look at pastry and smoothie sours and, just judging by the beers coming our way to sample in recent months, they’re more commonplace than the simpler ones of years gone by. You could argue it’s merely a case of taking those original fruit sours and fruit cream sours and turning everything up to 11, but it’s noticeable just how prevalent they’ve become in the local craft beer scene.
Indeed, they’re arguably the epicentre of the debate over whether the craft beer scene has lost its way / mind. And while we’ve come across some dross, there are brewers out there putting serious time, thought and technique into the creation and refinement of such beers. There’s a strong streak of the traditionalist running through many of us at The Crafty Pint and the number of times a writer has picked up an imperial bag-of-nonsense, fruit-and-veged lactose sour, shaken their head at the stupidity, only to take a sip and begrudgingly admit it’s quite delicious is notable.
The fact there are beers on the market with 420 grams per litre of fruit also helps make a mockery of the new “fruity beer” category cooked up by the country’s bigger players. And anything that helps shine a light on the ludicrous nature of the claims that accompanied the launch of these products is fine by us.
On the flipside, however, it’s worth mentioning the pretty regular stream of product recalls over the past 12 months, as most have been due to re-fermentation within the can of beers containing fruit in some form. It’s a reminder that beer is a food product and that heightened legislation / HACCP programs may not be far off. As one writer points out, the FSANZ proposal for nutritional labelling hasn’t moved much recently but may well do in 2023. Everyone should be watching and waiting for the call for submissions.
The ten-year celebrations of the Pink Boots Society, complete with a series of collab brew days across the country, was a vibrant reminder of the diversity that exists within the local beer community, and of the desire to see it become safer, more welcoming and more inclusive for all.
Similarly, we find ourselves regularly engaged in conversations about what is – or isn’t – happening in this space, and it was encouraging to see the manner in which Emma Locke’s naming as Indies Young Gun of 2022 – and her desire "to spend all of my spare time shouting from the rooftops about the opportunities available to women in our industry if they believe in themselves and grab them" – was received, not least as her nomination was in part down to the work she does in this area within the WA beer scene.
Yet one can also look back to May 2021 – craft beer’s #MeToo moment – and the impetus for change that followed, then look around and ask what, really, has changed? Or whether, for the most part, the whisper network is still shouldering much of the burden here.
9. Who Owns Your Beer?
On an ownership level, it’s been another fascinating 12 months. We’ve covered the acquisitions, coming togethers and proposed sales, while more businesses than ever have looked to crowdfunding, with mixed results that range from Your Mates’ record-breaker to cases where the EOI phase has been followed by tumbleweed.
Given how tough the past year has been on top of the preceding two tough years, how much uncertainty remains, and how competitive much of the beer (and wider drinks) landscape has become, expect to see more of it all in 2023.
10. Changing Buying Habits
In the Strangest Year? article, we looked at how the insatiable demand for $15 tallboy tinnies that persisted through the first couple of years of the pandemic had fallen away. But some habits brought about or enhanced by COVID pivots are here to stay.
Direct to consumer sales remain a key part of many breweries’ operations, offering a chance to make larger profit margins and strengthen brand connections but it can come at the expense of the bricks and mortar businesses (read: bottleshops) that have helped many of them get where they are now. The next few years will be telling as it’s a similar situation to that for Australian wine 20 years ago, and the tightrope of commercial realities may well play out in a similar way.
More brewers are launching subscription models too, often with very appealing offers in terms of exclusivity, but others have fallen by the wayside, and you wonder how sustainable they might be, especially in a climate of tightened belts on the one hand and the freedom to head out and spend money in bars and pubs on the other.
11. Going Green
As with a number of the topics above, the beer world’s focus on sustainability – both in a business and environmental sense – is one that’s been a regular presence either in our year-end roundups or our occasional moments spent gazing into the crystal ball. Yet it’s an area – particularly in the environmental sense – where momentum is growing apace. As it needs to, of course.
A few years ago, Young Henrys brewed a beer to highlight the impact a degradation of the environment could have on beer, and in 2019 we ran the No Beer On A Dead Planet campaign. Both were as much about raising awareness of an urgent matter than saying: “Here’s the solution.” Now, however, it feels like we’re moving towards solutions.
On a practical level, more businesses are working towards accreditations such as B Corp, Certified Sustainable or Climate Active, and showing a willingness to share their experiences and learnings with others. Chat to those who’ve attended major conferences and expos around the world and they’ll tell you that what brewers are seeking as much as anything are new tools to help improve their efficiency and reduce their water and energy usage.
On a recent trip to Stone & Wood's Byron Bay for a preview screening of a documentary focused on producers using regenerative farming techniques, it was eye-opening to witness just how enthused the brewing team is to be moving in this direction. Head brewer Caolan Vaughan was like an evangelist, describing their plans – a small percentage of every batch of Pacific Ale now contains regeneratively-farmed malt and they’re aiming to transition two of their other products to 70 percent regen grain. They’re not the first to head in this direction, but their size gives them a hefty soapbox from which to spread the message.
If we as drinkers then get behind such products wherever we find them – whether in beer or elsewhere – it will create a greater market for such primary produce, thus making it more feasible for farmers to explore more planet-friendly practices.
12. And There's More...
But we'll leave them for the upcoming articles from our writers around the country when this series hits the road. Look out for analysis of the continued evolution of beer festivals, the impact of the declining reach of social media platforms on beer businesses, just who's going to drink all the beers, and more between now and the end of the year.
One last link, however, as I can't think where else to run our feature on Cryer Malt founder David Cryer's retirement after 30 years and figure he deserves another metaphorical high five on a job well done.
The rest of the series can be explored here.