In 2008 winemaker-turned-brewer Ashley Huntington proudly shipped off a few pallets of his first commercial beer – the Cleansing Ale – to bars and bottle shops around the country…and waited. Brewed from produce sourced directly from or nearby his Two Metre Tall farm and brewery (2mt.com.au) on the Derwent River in southern Tasmania, the beer realised Huntington’s ambition of fashioning Australia’s only estate-grown, or ‘farmhouse’, beer utilising only local ingredients: right down to the wild yeast in his barn.
However, a week or two later the beers started returning, all labelled ‘spoiled’ or ‘faulty’. “It was the worst week of my life,” Huntington exclaims. “No one understood me, no one understood the idea of soured or farmhouse beers. I received hate mail.
”Utterly despondent, the ex-BRL Hardy winemaker – who once headed up the label’s concerns in the Languedoc – stowed the beer in a barn and tried his best not to weep every time he ventured past to tend to his cattle. A few years later he resolved to drink the whole barn’s worth himself but, uncapping a bottle, was flummoxed by its development: a luring tartness and indecipherable complexity piqued his oenological nose to the potential of further cellaring. Huntington decanted it into barrels to further mature and re-released it in 2015 under the cheeky moniker ‘A Farmer’s Resilience & The 7 Year Itch’ (a cellaring beer that now retails on trading sites for around A$50 a pop). Australia was now ready.
Much like what we refer to as natural – or minimal intervention – wine, sour beer is a sprawling designation whose style is as antediluvian as the elixir itself. Before the advent of cultured yeast and controlled fermentation, all beers would have been sour to a degree – a result of the fruit additions (often cherries or plums), botanicals and, more often, the localised bacteria and yeast that thrived in the open vats of soused cereal, such as lactobacillus, pediococcus and (the winemaker’s nemesis) brettanomyces.
Australia’s craft beer revolution unravelled fast and ferocious, from humdrum tinned lager to hop hysteria in just a decade. And, while the dust continues to settle from the mass stampede, what’s clear is Australian palates have drastically evolved. What once caused beer drinkers to recoil in disgust now invites deep rumination, driven by a thirst for intrigue, complexity and – for the most fervent epicurean – provenance.
While the Belgian Lambic remains the grandfather of sour beers, the field is morphic and disorderly – with many interrelated genres that include farmhouse (single origin ingredients), wild (spontaneous fermentation) and saison (unrefined and bottle-conditioned), amongst others. Founded in 2010 and operating from Melbourne’s Darebin Parklands, La Sirène (lasirene.com.au) has emerged, alongside New Zealand’s Garage Project, as the most visible protagonist of the style in the Antipodes.
Unlike most commercial beers, yeast plays a starring role in the extraction of these brews, as with Collingwood’s Molly Rose (mollyrosebrewing.com) and its La Forge Saison. Two other labels leading this charge include Sydney’s Wildflower (wildflowerbeer.com) and Victoria’s Prickly Moses (pricklymoses.com.au), whose respective Waratah 2018 and Farmhouse Ale have been beguiling pundits nationwide with their exotic allure.
And Stone & Wood co-founder Brad Rogers has sounded the clarion call with his own new label Forest For The Trees (forestforthetrees.com.au), which promises yeast-centric and laboriously-conditioned beers.
As Australia’s sour brewing scene continues to evolve, so will questions of provenance, and the true definition of monikers such as ‘saison’, ‘farmhouse’ and ‘wild’. As Huntington concludes: “If beer is about control, sour beers are about ceding all control and waiting to see what nature brings. That’s the magic.”