Amidst the cheers and backslapping, it was the question on everyone’s mind at the recent Australian International Beer Awards in Melbourne: how much longer can the craft beer gold rush go on?
With many first-timers taking out major trophies and countless newcomers racking up impressive medal counts, the industry has never looked more thrilling. Yet, the frosty reality of ever-shrinking retail shelf space and the continued acquisitions by big beer within the ‘craft’ sector has many predicting the party may be set for an epic crash, followed by a stonking hangover.
On average, 70 new craft breweries have opened in Australia each year since 2014 – staggering figures for a country in which beer consumption has long been in a free fall and, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, recently hit its lowest levels since 1961-62.
While this may spell disaster for many small- to mid-sized breweries reliant on packaged sales, brewpubs are bucking the trend. Consumers are, it seems, seeking out a more localised experience.
While to some ‘local’ may be tangible it’s also, in many ways, beyond the physical; encompassing the base fabrics and adhering to the needs of community. The beer is brewed on-site to local tastes, is exclusive to the community and has a transparent supply chain that satiates environmental, consumer and ethical concerns.
Stomping Ground (stompingground.beer) in Collingwood has set the formula for a wave of brewpubs and urban microbreweries that have popped up around the country since 2016. Created by the founders of GABS Beer, Cider & Food Fest and inspired by the grand beer halls of central Europe (where fresh pulled beer is often the norm, and kegs are tapped to great fanfare), Stomping Ground has rapidly emerged as the ‘village pub’ – a place where locals, families and craft beer zealots can come to enjoy a beer knowing it’s the utter definition of ‘local’, right down to the hand-filled growler at the end of the night.
While Stomping Ground has transitioned into packaging, the business model is very much fixated on providing an exclusive experience within the venue itself. A number of beers are available only at the brewpub, including the legendary Bad Seed Berliner Weisse (named in honour of one-time Berlin resident, Nick Cave), served with an optional dash of woodruff.
The Wheatsheaf Hotel (wheatsheafhotel.com.au) in Adelaide is another such haunt – a name that may be foreign to many Australians, but which has garnered a feverish local following thanks to its focus on crafting beers from a 600-litre kit under the Wheaty Brewing Corps label. Most of the beers are one-offs – a foreign concept in a city where the Coopers brand remains ubiquitous. The Russian imperial stout – despite registering in at a whopping 7.5% – is supple and enigmatic: with dark rum-soaked Lapsang souchong tea added to the whirlpool and dry hopped with cascade flowers for an invigorating citrus burst.
While Sydney has many well-grafted brewpubs, such as the eternally dependable Lord Nelson, The Grifter (thegrifter.com.au) in Marrickville has gifted the city a contemporary shot in the arm: where progressive international beer styles such as sours, IPAs, gose and kolsch are complemented by a localised outlook with few pretensions and a communal vibe. Despite their global pedigree, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of these outstanding beers at your bottle-o: including the utterly refreshing C-Boogie Cucumber Kolsch.
Perth has long lagged in the shadow of its southern counterpart Fremantle when it comes to localised brewpubs (with the latter having produced such national icons as Sail & Anchor, Matilda Bay, Little Creatures and Gage Roads), but Nowhereman Brewing Co. (nowhereman.com.au) just to the north of the city centre has finally bridged the gap with a focus on freshness, local knowledge and micro-scale production. The brewery is wholly dedicated to the in-house taps, producing an ever-evolving range of brews including the spectacularly sessionable Rhapsody XPA and Crate Digger Pale Ale.
While craft beer remains in the sight of ‘big beer’, community brewpubs offer an alternate model of sustainability that may just survive and renew the industry.