It is 1986, and John Farnham has turned to the most unlikely of instruments (that being the bagpipes) in a last-ditch attempt to resurrect his long-stalled career with a ditty called ‘You’re The Voice’. Similarly, small-screen jester Paul Hogan has rolled the dice on his fortunes with a flick peculiarly named Crocodile Dundee. And in Western Australia, a tiny brewery born in a Fremantle pub has thrown caution to the furious Indian Ocean mistral and is about to keg a beer unlike anything Australia has ever seen.
That brewery was Matilda Bay (
matildabay.com) and the beer Redback, an opus that – like its fellow 1986 alumni ‘You’re The Voice’ and Crocodile Dundee – would change the tenor of Australian culture forever. Giddy with the sun-drenched banana aroma of wheat malt and gripping clove and star anise like phenolics (back before we even knew what phenolics in beer were), it was a brew that divided a nation of drinkers reared on steely tasting lagers with the aromatic promise of stale bread.
But like the TV soapie Neighbours, which had also kicked off that very year, Redback would slowly charm its way into homes Australia-wide, before further challenging the nation’s moral fortitude with suggestions it could even be served with a wedge of lemon (surely the zaniest proposition of 1986! Well, that was until Red Symons joined the cast of Hey Hey It’s Saturday).
Founded in 1983 by a bunch of West Aussie mates, by 1990, Matilda Bay had been sold to the Fosters Group (now CUB), and co-founder, brewer and Redback creator Phil Sexton would go off to dream up his next creation: Little Creatures, before relocating to the Yarra Valley to further establish himself as a titan of the drinks industry in founding Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps (plus Devil’s Lair in Margaret River): all since sold to major conglomerates.
So most were taken aback by 2019’s announcement that Phil Sexton was coming home to Matilda Bay – well, more accurately, bringing Matilda Bay to his home in Healesville, with a full cellar door experience. And the first act of Sexton’s self-declared “unfinished business” was resurrecting the icon that is Redback. Since its change of custodianship to CUB, Matilda Bay has endured a chequered history, shadowed by Little Creatures and the contemporary beer revolution that brewery set in motion. For a time it even appeared Matilda Bay may indeed be mothballed. This unlikely partnership between CUB and Sexton now puts Redback – and no doubt a growing core range of Matilda Bay beers, both old and new – back into the capable hands of one of the country’s most consequential beer innovators.
First trialled on tap in its heartland of WA in late 2021 and now available in can, Redback Summer (as it is now branded) may have original devotees questioning how much carnage they have wrecked on their palates with dank double IPAs and imperial stouts in recent years.
But Sexton (in partnership with his brewer son Harry) has called this contemporary iteration a “riff” on the original recipe, and the gregariousness of the original Redback has been dialled right back into a tight, sessionable beer where the wheat joins a chorus of lager-like biscuit malt (both wheat and barley) and a faint mandarin hop aroma (a temperate new/old world mash-up of Hersbrucker and Vic Secret), finishing steely sharp and clean.
Many may lament the restraint, but the wheat beer sector remains a prickly one in Australia, with few signs of growth potential as craft drinkers are increasingly driven by headline hop profile (and thus subtle malt). But as a light, refreshing wheat-based ale clocking in at 4.7% ABV, Redback Summer will likely garner new momentum beyond the nostalgia set and help revive Australia’s pioneering craft beer label for an entirely new generation – with or without a slice of lemon.