If there were one thing that evoked the sense of Aussie lifestyle and spirit, even more effectively than sunshine, surfboards and shrimps on the barbie it’s surely the drink referred to as “grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption… “.
Friar Tuck was of course speaking of the enigma that is beer, and in the wake of last month’s Australian International Beer Awards in Melbourne, Aussie brews went away with the majority of the 15 Championship trophies awarded. But what makes such a drink so compatible with the Australian way of life? And what does the future have in store for beer?
As an Englishman totally immersed in the world of this Australian icon, questions such as these have fascinated me for some time. More than any other aspect of Australian life, their obsession with beer was something I wanted to unearth. Back home beer had been part of my lifestyle certainly, but until I by chance landed myself a job at Red Oak Boutique Beer Café; Australia’s most awarded brewery, I had not realised the importance of fine beer.
Australia is beginning to thrive with microbreweries, with beers a world away from what I had been exposed to in the UK: the tasteless European exports such as Carlsberg and Becks. Needless to say however that many Australians are still getting to grips with the concept of good beer over bad; the following conversation typical of many I have had with customers all in the name of our wide range of brews:
‘G’day mate, just a schooner of VB please’
‘Sorry sir, we don’t sell VB, all of our beers are brewed by us’
‘Oh OK mate…erm…just a Carlton Draught then please’
‘No Carlton Draught either I’m afraid. We’re a Boutique Beer Café, all of the beers we sell are brewed by our own brewer.’ I hand him our beer menu.
‘Oh I get you now! Right, Ok…I’ll just take a pint of Red Oak’
‘This Special Reserve stuff…do you sell it by the litre?’
I close my eyes in frustration. He refers to our speciality barley wine, a thrice fermented English style ale, matured on various types of oak for two years and only sold in a 250ml measurement for $75. Evidently for many, there is still much to discover beyond ten dollar jugs on Tuesday nights.
In fact, it is this side of Australian beer drinking culture that venues like Red Oak are distancing themselves from. It focuses on the finer detail of beer, putting it “on the pedestal it deserves” and adding a touch of class with its wooden floorboards, marble bar top and plush burgundy hangings.
Speaking to Red Oak’s beer sommelier Simon Beveridge, he commented: ‘In seven years as a venue, we have never had a reportable incident. This is because there are better attitudes to drinking now and the new beer culture of micro brews has been embraced.’
It seems a beer where so much flavour and complexity can be taken from every sip is slowing down the process of drinking. Could it be this that heralds the end of the Australia’s binge drinking issue?
Beveridge also highlighted the main reason for why so many of the world biggest and most accessible brands of beer are not of the best quality: ‘The smaller breweries produce a higher quality beer because they have the time to make every batch they produce magnificent. They are able to focus on the detail that goes into brewing a fine beer. As a brand gets more popular and the production gets larger the quality gets worse; production has to be quicker for the purpose of consumption.’
It seems the best breweries are the ones able to keep their beer to a high standard whilst achieving an impressive scale of distribution. One of my later discoveries whilst living in Sydney, Darlinghurst’s the Local Taphouse is a perfect foundation of this wonderful achievement; around 20 taps out of which come the most incredible and delicious beers from all around the world, some highly unusual.
It was there that I recently I sampled the Rex Attitude from New Zealand’s Yeastie Boys, a Peat Smoked Strong Ale with an intense smoky aroma and slightly sour flavour. (My favourite I’ve had there was True South’s Cherry Bomb: a Porter infused with cherry and coconut).
Accompanying their ever changing beer taps are a huge range of bottled beers and all can be enjoyed in comfy old armchairs in a brooding ambiance. Venues like this seem to be discreetly dotted around Sydney’s suburbs, and personally I anticipate this cult scene growing into an unmistakeable part of Australian culture.
Unlike yesteryears Red Oak didn’t take any Championship trophies at the AIBA’s this time. Along with other local breweries including 4 Pines in Manly and Lord Nelson at the Rocks we did however take a handful of runners-up medals: Silver for our Special Strong Bitter in the Ale Draught class and Bronze for both the Porter and Bitter in the Porter Draught and Reduced Alcohol Draught categories respectively .
But I think I’ve learnt that it’s not all about winning every year. Competitions such as the AIBA’s are simply an opportunity for brewers and experts alike to come together and discover some of the most astonishing brews.
Our head brewer once commented back in 2004 ‘I’ve always loved beer and loved brewing beer…every step is exciting. It is both an art and a mystery.’ And beer is mysterious; little is known about its origins thousands of years ago. In essence it is just grainy water with the addition of yeast and hops: an unlikely combination. But we should feel indulged that in modern day Australia good beer is plentiful and beneficial to us physically and spiritually.
The revolution is here, and beer has a bright future.