As 2015 draws to a close, so too – nearly – does our seven part look back at the year in beer. Today's Best New Beers of 2015 focuses on New South Wales, where a panel compiled by Nick O came together to nut out the new beers that had impressed them most over the past 12 months.
You can read our wraps from ACT, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania by following the links. And, if you haven't already, you can cast your votes for the five beers that impressed you most (new or otherwise) in 2015 in the GABS (née Local Taphouse) Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers poll here.
For now, however, over to Nick...
The past year seemed to confirm that the sleeping giant has been roused and craft beer is on its way to becoming unstoppable in New South Wales.
Wherever you look there are breweries. Sydney’s inner west has become the central hub, having gone from just one brewery three years ago to close to ten today – and with more on the way. That said, the Northern Beaches is giving it a good run for its money. Even the Sutherland Shire now has two breweries. So does Wollongong – and you won’t go thirsty in Ulladulla any longer.
Head out west towards wine country and you’ll cross a handful of new breweries on the way, from Campbelltown to Penrith through Katoomba and beyond. Up towards the Hunter Valley, the Central Coast has doubled its quota while Newcastle has a brewery in its beating heart once again. From Dalgety in the south all the way up to Byron Bay in the north, the distances between the dots on the beer trail grow smaller each year.
All of which makes it increasingly difficult to pick the best new beers of the year. An interested drinker could, with relatively little trouble, find more than a hundred new offerings to choose from, perhaps double that if you could get to every brewery and try every beer. We couldn’t, so we pooled resources.
To try and get as comprehensive as possible representation of what’s been available this year we invited panelists we thought could, as much as possible, cover the full spectrum of packaged, keg-only and beer that could only be tried at the source. They are:
- Ian Chainey: As chief beer buyer at The Oak Barrel there are few packaged beers from NSW that don’t pass through his hands (or lips…)
- Aaron Edwards: Owner of sexy beer bar Bitter Phew, where any local beers they stock have to earn their place on the taps ahead of the best imports you can find Down Under.
- Darren ‘Doc’ Robinson: Mixer of medicines at Doctor’s Orders Brewing, longtime gypsy brewer, prolific collaborator and well travelled beer drinker.
- Kenny Smith: The sole non-industry representative, albeit one who visits more breweries than most industry people and probably tries more new beers than a lot of beer judges.
We also invited input from Corey Crooks, owner of Newcastle’s Grain Store, a venue that only pours beer from independent Australian breweries, including many from the northern reaches of the state which otherwise aren’t seen beyond their catchment areas. His selections were incorporated after, but based on, the panel discussion.
The eligibility criteria was as follows:
- Must be a new release in 2015, or a new vintage of a previous beer
- Must be from a NSW brewer (even if in collaboration with someone from elsewhere)
- It didn’t matter if the beer was a one-off release and is no longer available
No list of this nature could be considered definitive, but at the very least it’s an awful lot of fun and a great chance to ponder the enormous year that’s been.
With that in mind, in the tasting room out the back of The Oak Barrel, armed with a stack of post-its and the keys to the beer fridges, a shortlist of 50 or so was whittled down to a final dozen, among which there are three new breweries, one brewing company, one canned beer, three beers that could only be found at the breweries that made them and four that either cannot or will not ever be made again.
Cheers to another very big year.
Australian Brewery – Saison D’Hérétique (6.2 percent ABV)
During a past conversation with Neal Cameron, the head brewer at The Australian Brewery joked that all he ever does these days is talk about cans. It’s part of the pleasure, of sorts, of having been the first small Australian brewer to start packaging their beer that way, back in 2012. They’re certainly not alone now as craft brewers in every state take to tinnies, and if what they’re putting in them is half as lovely as the Saison D’Heretique then long may the trend continue. This French/Belgian saison was a joy to drink; light but complex, full of clove and citrus, dry and peppery. That it came armoured in full Joan of Arc artwork was the finishing touch that made this beer the whole package.
Akasha Brewing - Fire Within (5.8 percent ABV)
It's been a big year for Dave Padden. It began by handing over the keys to Riverside, the brewery he co-founded and in which he played the leading role in it becoming one of the stars of the local scene. After a few months of rest he was ready to return to brewing, though conversations at the time suggested he wasn’t necessarily the same person as that which had temporarily exited the industry. There seemed a greater ease with his inner self and the new company name, Akasha, reflected this new outlook with its sanskrit origin apparently meaning "the fifth element".
That is Dave’s role now, the je ne sais quoi bringing water, malt, yeast and hops together to form Akasha beers. While outlooks may have changed slightly, taste hasn’t so much. Dave is a hop fiend at heart and it’s where his best work is done. Thus came the almost preordained series of beer releases: pale ale, amber ale and IPA. Having moved from contract brewing early in the year to having their own brewery in Five Dock, there is now move freedom to play with recipes – a lager and double IPA mark the new ends of the spectrum – but the pick is still the rich American amber ale, Fire Within.
Batch Brewing – IPAs
When the call was put out to panelists to start pondering their shortlist for new beers of the year there was no requirement to pick a range a styles, although we did jest that hopefully it wouldn’t result in ten different IPAs. It didn’t quite, though they did make up the most commonly picked style and the brewery responsible for a good number of them was the Batch Brewing Company. There was no consensus as to the pick of the batches, with the West Coast, Grapefruit, Mosaic and Double IPAs all finding favour. Considering those are just a handful of the new IPAs they’ve brewed this year – an event we attended at the brewery featured six new versions alone – Sydenham Road should be high on your list of places to visit if you’re a hop head.
With such a congested field for the style, it’s worth noting here the others to receive more than honourable mentions: Mike Jorgensen at Ekim for his Grapefruit Viking and [ragna]RÖK Double IPA, the team at 4 Pines for its West Coast Red Rye and Citrus, the Sydney Brewery (Lovedale) Pyrmont Rye IPA, Little Brewing's Citra IPA and Murray’s Thunderbolt.
BlackFont Brewhouse – Double Berry Berliner Weisse (3.6 percent ABV)
When first visiting the BlackFont Brewhouse in November, it had only been open two weeks and we’d heard precious little about it. Housed inside an old printing warehouse down an obscure laneway in Marrickville, right down the end where the trains are louder and the rent presumably cheaper, it was what you might reasonably expect from a suburb whose gentrification is gradual yet unstoppable. All painted brick and blackboards, it seemed so perfectly "on trend". The deception ended at the bar.
Across a 12 strong tap list there was no straight golden ale, pale ale, or IPA. Instead there was a German helles and English mild, black wheat ale and saison, an eisbock and a couple of versions of a fruit Berliner Weisse. With its tiny brewing kit not driven by volume, sales targets or expansion plans, BlackFont is a beer lover’s brewery where quality is absolute. And not only is the beer excellent, it’s also genuinely interesting, case in point being the Double Berry Berliner Weisse. Spontaneously fermented, made with organic ingredients and infused with raspberries and blueberries, it’s precisely the kind of thing critics of craft beer would roundly mock as they clamour for the good old days when any lager would do. It’s also exactly the kind of thing cynics ought to try because it has the ability to change your view of what beer can be. In a Sydney beer scene now offering more than it ever has before, BlackFont is something unto itself and is the surprise find of 2015.
Flat Rock Brew Cafe – Barrel Aged Sour Saison
This was the year the Flat Rock Brew Cafe really found its feet. The tiny Naremburn brewpub reached a milestone of sorts when it produced enough different beers to take over its own taps. Since then, head brewer Vince de Soyres has been utterly prolific with a new beer or two hitting the bar seemingly every week. They stride across styles and methods, ranging from cask ales to barrel ageing and, most importantly, the quality has increased across the board. This was recognised officially as the brewery picked up its first ever awards at major beer competitions, with medals at the AIBA, CBA and Sydney Royal competitions.
The last of these was a gold medal effort for a saison that had been aged in a very lively Chardonnay barrel for six months (the description Vince gave us of the barrel’s bacteria at work during that time sounded like an understaffed hospital during a viral outbreak), where it took on oak character and developed distinct Brettanomyces funk, tartness and a touch of spice which all came together in harmony.
HopDog BeerWorks – SuperBeast 2015 (10.5 percent ABV)
Each year for their birthday anniversary, HopDog BeerWorks releases a unique take on a barleywine and names it SuperBeast. In 2012 it was a wheat wine, 2013 used 90 percent peated malt and 2014 was something above and beyond a double IPA. None were below 10 percent ABV. SuperBeast 2015 continued the theme by flirting in the areas between India black ale, imperial stout and barleywine. As such, it was incredibly dark and amongst the label’s references to its colour were: the bottom of black holes; bowels of hell; innermost fear; sadness; despair. But it was the suggestion to consider this beer as “the liquefication of the first 3 Black Sabbath albums” that, perhaps accidentally, was most apt.
Sabbath are portrayed as hard rock and heavy riffs with a sprinkle of menace but to focus solely on those aspects is to ignore the band’s other influences, from the jazz undertones of The Wizard to the blues on Lord of this World. Thus, SuperBeast 2015 is not as scary a beer as you might be led to believe. In fact, it’s a rather beautifully thoughtful construction, its inherent booziness swept away within sweetness of raisin syrup that washes over you before leaving hints of liquorice and lemon.
With this being an unordered list, there’s no one ultimate winner. That said, SuperBeast was the one beer picked for inclusion by each individual panellist before the need for any discussion, and more than one panellist reckoned it was the best beer Tim Thomas has made. Make of that what you will.
Illawarra Brewing Company – The Inheritance / Raspberry Lambic
Putting aside concerns over what can or can't technically be considered a lambic*, the Illawarra Brewing Company put out two lovely interpretations of the style this year. They both started as the same beer back in 2013 when then brewers Shaun Blissett and Ashur Hall split a base beer into several barrels. Over the ensuing 18 months or so, each barrel, as it will, did something different to the liquid it held while outside the oak walls the two brewers moved on to other breweries, leaving incoming head brewer Chris Sewell to nurture the babies towards maturity. The original intention was to blend everything, but one barrel showed so much promise that it was released unadulterated under the name The Inheritance, a tannic, tart, dry, complex and ultimately cleansing ale. The rest of the barrels – that is those displaying an imbalance varying between too much oak and too much sourness – were blended before having raspberries added. The result was candy for grown-ups, a pastel pink beer that was at first sweet and fizzy like sweet raspberry sherbet before its sourness tore into you.
Nigh on two years in the making by the time they were released, neither of these beers can be repeated. The Inheritance is already gone forever while, at the time of writing, the raspberry lambic is the beer equivalent of the Northern White Rhinoceros, down to the last few in existence. Once that last schooner is consumed, it will mark the end of a wonderful two year experiment.
* As an aside, in conversation with Cantillon head brewer Jean van Roy earlier this month, he claimed that anyone calling their beer "lambic" outside of those with the designated right to do so "didn't respect" him or his fellow lambic brewers. Editor
Modus Operandi – Simmy Minion (aka Modus Pale) (5.2 percent ABV)
On the night Simmy Minion picked up the trophy for Australia’s Champion Pale Ale at the Craft Beer Awards, brewery owner Grant Wearin said the award, for him, was “like winning the big one”. When you consider the sheer number of different pale ales now available and the fact that almost every brewery has one, he’s got a reasonable point.
Modus have always done pale ales well, though they tend to struggle for attention in the shadows of the brewery’s pair of totemic IPAs, Zoo Feeder and Former Tenant. But it’s clearly a style they hold dear and find interesting as their American brewers, DJ McCready and Dennis de Boer, released five new variations in the second half of the year, most within the Cream of the Hop series. But it was Simmy Minion that best showcased their skills and made the biggest impact. Originally a one-off, when the brewery rebranded earlier this month it was added to the permanent range as the flagship Modus Pale Ale.
Murray’s – Wild Thing Chocolate (10 percent ABV)
Murray’s went full circle this year when Graeme Mahy, the brewer in charge when the business began in Taylor’s Arms nearly a decade ago, returned for a second stint at the helm of the brewhouse. In the interim eight years Murray’s, at least at a national level, has probably become more well known for its crowd-pleasing core range of pale, pilsner, porter and golden ale, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they are also responsible for several beers that were ahead of their time. When big beers like Grand Cru, Icon 2IPA and Wild Thing were launched, there was precious little like them available locally so it’s a credit to the brewers over the years, led by Graeme then Shawn Sherlock**, that they’ve set the bar high and kept it there.
In the case of the Wild Thing imperial stout, it’s long been a favourite annual winter release – this year even going so far as to pick up a gold medal at the Sydney Royal Beer Awards – but the additional release of a new Wild Thing Chocolate featuring bitter dark cocoa nibs and vanilla pods was deemed to be better still.
Nomad Brewing – Freshie Salt & Pepper (4.5 percent ABV)
When Nomad brewer Brooks Caretta winged it to Australia from Italy, we’re sure he had a pretty good idea about the direction the Brookvale brewery would be taking in regards to producing beers with a distinctly Aussie touch to them. For the most part, that’s been done by way of herbs or spices – a little wattle seed here, a touch of bush tomato there – but we can’t imagine he’d have pictured himself wading out into Freshwater Beach and scooping out seawater to add to a beer. That’s what was required when the Nomad team set sights on brewing a gose, the obscure German beer style that counts salt water and coriander amongst its ingredients. That Brooks had never brewed a gose before – let alone one with Tasmanian mountain pepper thrown in for good measure – didn’t stop him turning out a beer that was salty, spicy, unusual and immensely enjoyable.
Shenanigans Brewing – Hoppy Gonzales (5.9 percent ABV)
If there’s a commercial brewer in Australia doing chilli in beer better than Shenanigans, we’ll take a spray of pepper to the eye. With 19 kilograms of jalapeños, Hoppy Gonzales should have been full of spicy heat. Instead it was just shit hot.
To be fair, it was actually a reasonably spicy beer, but it trod the line between being interesting and intense so well that you couldn’t help but like it. At its heart was an American ale full of herbaceous hop character which perfectly complemented the capsicum-esque character from the jalapeños. But it was that chilli on top which made it. With every tiny pepper having been chopped and deseeded by hand (a painstaking process, we’re told, that required rubber gloves and safety goggles for protection) it was something of a labour of love and we can’t imagine brewers Dan and Sam will be in a terrible rush to make it again, however happy that might make drinkers.
** Shawn Sherlock left Murray’s this year to open the Foghorn Brewhouse in Newcastle. A couple of his beers were discussed for this list but ultimately weren’t considered as not enough panel members had tried them. Having since visited the brewpub, we’re usurping the panel in true dictatorial fashion and endorsing his Pivo Bohemian pilsner: a soft Czech pils of Mucha-like beauty.
Thanks to the panelists for giving up their time to help us compile the list. Just Queensland to come now...