It was on separate trips along the West Coast of the US that schoolmates Al Carragher and Brendan Varis hatched their plan for a brewery on the West Coast of Australia. It took a number of years for the plan to come together, during which Brendan project managed brewery installations and start-ups across Australia while Al worked in beer sales and identified the future site, but since opening its doors in Swan Valley in October 2002, Feral has gained a reputation for its beers that places it at the very pinnacle of the Australian brewing industry.
Al’s now in Melbourne running the Great Northern Hotel, the pub with the only two permanent Feral taps in the East, while Brendan and fellow brewer Will Irving are intent on taking Aussie-brewed beer to new places. Since buying out his partners a few years back, Brendan’s let his imagination run wild – literally – creating a number of sour beers, including one fermented with wild Swan Valley yeasts. His love of sour, funky styles is such that Feral will soon be home to a shed housing almost 200 barrels dedicated to their development.
He’s anything but a one-trick pony, however. In 2009, Feral was named Champion Exhibitor at the Australian International Beer Awards, also picking up top gongs for its Hop Hog US IPA, Razorback Barleywine and Feral White, a Belgian witbier that was the brewery’s first release and remains its bestseller to this day. The Hop Hog continues to be named Australia’s Champion Ale while in 2012 Feral was named AIBA Champion Large Australian Brewery.
The original brewery’s tucked in the corner of what’s little more than an oversized wooden shed they built themselves. It’s an unprepossessing home for such excellent beers, one that also houses a kitchen and bar pouring 16 Feral beers and local wines. Visit any time of year and you’re likely to find their award-winners lined up alongside anything from Boris, the Russian Imperial Stout, to a Farmhouse Ale, Double Witbier or Black IPA – plus of course the Funky Junky and Dark Funk. As of June 2012, Brendan and fellow brewer Will have been brewing at a new 5,000 litre setup established with another WA brewery, Nail. The original brewery is set to be used for wild, sour and funky beers.
Just a short trip from Perth, it’s a criminal offence for anyone touring the region to miss out. For anyone who can’t make the trip, it’s getting easier to find Feral beers elsewhere. In 2011, they became the first brewery invited to take over all 20 taps at The Local Taphouses while the full awesomeness of their Hop Hog was captured in 330ml bottles after they installed a bottling line onsite. Even UK drinkers are to get a taste after Brendan was invited to brew 100,000 litres of Runt, the 2010 AIBA Champion Ale, for the JD Wetherspoon chain’s nationwide Real Ale Festival. It’s one of many invites to travel overseas for the brewer – and as Australia starts to develop a reputation for craft beer, it couldn’t ask for a better representative.
Feral (WA) Beers
Feral Hop Hog
A beer that needs no introduction to lovers of Aussie craft beer. Champion Ale at the 2009 Australian International Beer Awards, the Hop Hog is a superb recreation of the IPAs that originate in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Massive pine needle and citrus aromas waft from its glowing copper-orange body, with the hops also supplying a seriously impressive bitterness, all kept in check by the perfect malt backbone. Finally put into bottles in 2010, it’s becoming ever more widely available for Aussies in search of a big but balanced hop hit.
Style: US IPA
The brewery’s first beer and still its best seller, the Feral White is a beautifully clean and balanced take on the Belgian witbier style. It’s so established in WA that you’re likely to find it on taps in places you’d never dream of finding a microbrewed beer. What’s more, after issues with the brewery that was producing the bottled version of the beer, bottling is being moved in-house onto Feral’s recently installed bottling line. As for the beer itself, it’s made with 50% barley and 50% wheat and an imported Belgian yeast strain. It’s cloudy and unfiltered with coriander and orange peel added during the boil to contribute a spicy citrus flavour.
Style: Belgian witbier
Taking the mantle of Australia’s Champion Ale from its biggest brother, the Hop Hog, in 2010, this American Pale Ale showcases once more brewer Brendan Varis' skill at balancing big hop flavours with the perfect malt backbone. A more delicate, dry and lightly hopped version of the Hog, it won Brendan an invite to the UK to brew 100,000l of it in cask-conditioned form to be served across the country for the pub chain JP Wetherspoon’s Real Ale Festival. Hopefully, he’ll be bringing some casks back with him…
Style: American Pale Ale
BFH (Barrel Fermented Hop Hog)
How do you improve on one of the best beers in the land? In the case of the Hop Hog, Brendan Varis stuck his award-winner into new French oak barriques for its primary fermentation before switching it to stainless steel for final processing and carbonation. He says: “Think of all the great pine needle and grapefruit you associate with Hop Hog with an added vanilla aroma and softened mouthfeel.” We say, try it wherever you can find it – it’s marvellous.
Style: Barrel Fermented IPA
Feral Dark Funk 2.0
Part of Feral’s mission to introduce Aussie beer drinkers to the wonders of sour beer styles, the Dark Funk is a no-holds-barred mother that incorporates into its blend 20% of Feral’s high alcohol Boris Imperial Stout that had spent 18 months being worked over by dediococus.
Style: Dark Sour
Feral Funky Junkie
A first in Australian commercial brewing, this beer uses as part of its blend a beer that was allowed to spontaneously ferment with microflora from the Swan Valley region. The resulting beer was rather too funky to be sold untouched, but blended with other Feral beers, it’s helped create an intensely sour beer unlike any other.
Style: Australian Sour
Feral Smoked Porter
Feral has had its Smoked Porter around for a while, a brewed-occasionally number you’d regularly find at the brewery in the Swan Valley and occasionally further afield. With the large new brewery now up to speed and plenty more beer to offer up to eager mouths, it’s the beer that’s been chosen as the fourth member of their permanent range. It’s a beer in which the smoke is rather subtle, coming from the use of German malts smoked over Birchwood chips, for those who care for such details. It adds decoration to the well balanced coffee and chocolate flavours rather than overpowering them and results in a remarkably quaffable take on the style. Or, as we said to someone at the brewery, it’s “so bloody smashable”. “Smashable is what we want,” came the reply. “Well, as smashable as a smokey porter can be.” UPDATE This original write up was based on a tasting of the draught beer on tap just prior to the packaged beer’s release. Having sampled the packaged beer since then, the smoked element is more prominent, distinct even, and lingers long on the palate.
Feral Brewpub Series: Boris
It seems the brewing maestros at Feral are genre-benders. Hop Hog IPA has made a habit of winning the Pale Ale trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards and now Boris has picked up the trophy for Best Porter despite being tagged as a Russian Imperial Stout. If anything, it shows that the brewers there know their beers inside out and just where they’re going to fit within judging style guides. Semantics aside, any beer that wins a trophy is likely to be a cracker. And, as anyone who’s come across Boris before will know, this Russian Imperial Stout is indeed just that.
It’s also the second release in Feral’s occasional Brewpub Series, meaning you can take Boris home with you. If you do, you’ll find that beneath his iron jaw lurks a beer of lush complexity. Here at Crafty Towers, were we only allowed to drink one beer style for eternity it would be Imperial Stouts, which means there’s little that excites us more than pouring a thick, oily, black beer into a glass and watching a deeply dark brown head forming. That this one follows up with all manner of roast, mocha, chocolate and molasses flavours – not to mention plenty of hops to balance the dark malts – and perhaps even a hint of leather to remind us of our beloved Rasputin, means we’ll be making this a Russian winter.
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
When The Crafty Pint was over in the US last month, there was plenty of hype around Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By Double IPA, a new release from the Californians that is sent out as fresh as possible with the date before which it must be drunk emblazoned across it. The result is an impeccably fresh hop bomb of a beer in which the hop characteristics don’t have time to taper off. The day before returning, we had another IPA – Maine’s Lunch – recommended to us that, again, comes with a tight best before date for the same reasons (we managed to drink ours 13 days after it was released in a different hemisphere from where it was released which must be some sort of record). The point of this preamble isn’t to gloat (much) but to make the point that there’s a rising tide of awareness that some beers – particularly massively hopped IPAs – really are drunk best fresh. Yes, they might take on different characteristics later on, but not the ones the brewers want you to experience. Hence the latest venture from Feral for this new batch of their Imperial IPA Tusk. It’s the first time it’s been brewed in a few years and is the biggest brother of their line of US-inspired hoppy pales. The few kegs that have been brewed have only been granted to venues who have guaranteed that there will be cold refrigerated transport from brewery to bar and that it will be tapped the instant it arrives. As the brewery’s Steve Finney told us: “Northwest USA style IPAs need to be fresh to taste best.” FInd out for yourself when the Tusk lands near you soon…
Style: Imperial IPA
Feral Brewpub Series: Raging Flem
In their 10-plus years of brewing, Feral has accumulated such a long and wildly varied list of beers on its roster that you rarely see one-off, limited releases from them. Instead, it’s more a case of waiting until the next batch of Boris/Fantapants/Watermelon Warhead/Razorback (delete as appropriate) appears on tap or travelling to the brewery’s home venue in the Swan Valley to sample them year round. In fact, whenever a new release does appear, chances are it’s going to become a permanent fixture in one way or another anyway. But, with only four of their beers currently available in packaged form, it means you can’t stock your fridge with Feral specials without nicking a keg. That’s all set to change though with the launch of the Brewpub Series, which will see them release some of their less widely available beers every three or four months. First to set sail is the Raging Flem, a hopped up Belgian IPA that first appeared a few years back and gained its name from a competition run amongst the Local Taphouse’s Ale Stars. Professor Pilsner came up with the name – drawn from the raging seas that the original IPAs used to have to cross to reach India and the Flemish region of Belgium – for a beer that is a big, US hop influenced 7.6 per cent Belgian IPA. It combines the yeast-driven Belgian beer characteristics with floral American hops, including Amarillo, Cascade and Chinook, with a special addition of Belgium candy sugar to round things off.
Style: Belgian IPA
Feral White Hog
The most successful brewery in recent Aussie history turned ten this year and decided to mark the occasion with a new beer. How to mark the occasion appropriately? Why not combine their first and historically best-selling beer – the White Ale – with their most successful – the Hop Hog. The result is the White Hog (well, they did tell us recently they don’t put much thought into their beer names!). According to the brewers, the beer displays “all the bitter hoppiness of the Hog and the smooth mouthfeel of the White.” To be more explicit: “It’s like there is a party in your mouth and these two beers where the only ones to show up.” Still, it’s a high quality guest list.
Style: Belgian White IPA?
Bitterness: 52 IBU
Feral Watermelon Warhead
Named after the sour kids' lollies, this was originally the Swan Valley brewery’s entry for the 2012 Great Australasian Beer Spectapular. When asked to nominate a style, Feral said it was along the lines of a Berliner Weisse, although that their main aim was to create something akin to said kids' lollies. The beer itself went down so well at the Spectapular and then everywhere else that it appeared, both in Australia and overseas at Beervana NZ, that it’s now being brewed regularly. It’s a fine, tart, aromatically fruity addition to Feral’s funky / sour / wild ale program, brewed with a heap of local watermelons added late in the ferment before spending time in Chardonnay barrels with some lactobacillus yeast. Remarkably full flavoured for a beer of such low ABV (the GABS batch turned out to be less than two per cent – now it sits just under three) and zesty and refreshing as hell, it’s a beer to get anyone excited about Feral’s barrel-aging plan extremely hot under the collar. Hot enough to need another Warhead, perhaps.
Style: Berliner Weisse
Feral King Brown
Of all the beers that were put on the lineup for the Festival of the Frothy, few had people more excited than this, a cognac barrel-aged Imperial Brown from Feral. Perhaps it was because it was a new beer from Feral, perhaps it was because the brewer Brendan Varis had called it the “most luscious” beer they’d ever created which, given the output from their Swan Valley base, is quite a claim. The result is a deeply dark brown beer and one that lives very much in the darker realms of flavour when it comes to its malt character, bordering on roasty with lots of rich, dark cocoa characters. At least that’s how it starts, before unravelling a big wave of smoky, woody goodness, like taking a drag on a Cuban with one hand while lazing back in a leather armchair and brandishing your cognac balloon with your other. A multi-layered beast to be savoured.
Style: Barrel-Aged Imperial Brown
Feral Boris (2011)
One of the first Aussie beers to go really big when it was first brewed, Feral’s Russian Imperial Stout weighs in at nigh on 12%. A big, bold, jet black, take-no-prisoners kind of a beer, a new batch has just been unleased by the Swan Valley brewers and started appearing on a handful of taps around the country. We’ve yet to get our smackers around the latest incarnation so are handing over tasting note duties to Al, who runs the Great Northern Hotel and has just taken delivery of a couple of kegs. “You wouldn’t pick it as 11.5%,” he says. “Very smooth, lots of chocolate and a hints of port.” He even wonders if it’s seen the inside of a barrel as he’s picking up a little oak. Only one way to find out if he’s right… EDIT: Having tasted it, we’d say it’s the most highly hopped Imperial Stout to pass our lips. And yes, you wouldn’t pick it as that big; very smooth.
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Feral Golden Ace
In the ongoing quest to create new beers and serve up new flavours, brewers are often on the lookout for an ingredient that can add something different. Late last year, a new hop variety arrived in Australia – the Sorachi Ace developed by Japanese brewery Sapporo. A couple of Victorian brewers played with it – each thinking they’d brewed the first commercial Sorachi Ace beer in Oz, only for Crafty to discover the guys at Feral in WA had beaten them to the punch. Feral 983 was the beer in question and now Sorachi, a hop we’ve found adds a really interesting character to the beers in which it’s appeared so far, returns in the Golden Ace. Described as “a crisp dry golden Belgian style ale with a refreshing lemon hop character”, it is Feral’s third bottled beer.
Style: Belgian Golden Ale