Take on 25 breweries in 25 days; that was the mission of the Beer Ambassadors – three Melbourne-based beer lovers and an English mate – when they headed to the States earlier this year. Among them was Tom Delmont, well known to most beer people in Victoria, if not Australia, as an On-Road Goat (salesman for Mountain Goat Brewery) and one of the most enthusiastic consumers of the amber nectar in all its many forms you’re ever likely to meet.
Having had some time to dry out and reflect, here’s his take on the American craft beer scene – the one which Australia’s beer revolution is most closely following – and some thoughts on the future of craft beer in Australia. Take it away, Tom…
“It's 30 degrees outside. A young, well-educated, professional 20-something woman walks into a bar and orders a 9 percent, 75 IBU Russian Imperial Stout called "Old Rasputin". She's showing more confidence in her choice than a fat kid in McDonald's. I'm so shocked I almost fall off my bar stool. I need to check what planet I'm on.”
Turns out I'm still on Planet Earth, but it's not an Earth with which I'm familiar. I'm in Blind Tiger in NYC and I think I think I just saw the future of the craft beer industry, possibly. You see, where I'm from girls don't order drinks like that. Where I'm from boys don't either, in fact. Where I'm from, no one can, yet.
In June this year I was fortunate enough to spend 25 days on a tour of duty with Barney Matthews and Miro Bellini from Melbourne's Beer DeLuxe and a mate from London. Travelling as the Beer Ambassadors, it was an all-American craft beer mission, one that the average Yank (or Australian) would be proud of. My sole job during this trip was to learn, to discover, to taste – well, simply to drink my way around five states, 25 breweries and dozens of beer bars and brewpubs in the USA. Having been married less than a year and with a baby at home, a few friends were understandably impressed with my negotiating skills…
We've since returned and had time to reflect on our journey, something that in turn has led me to reflect on the Australian beer scene and how it relates to what I experienced in the States. As I write, I'm sitting in my armchair enjoying a Little Creatures Pale Ale (arguably the best locally made American-style Pale) and there's no doubt that it is satisfying. At the same time, it's not going to change the world. So while it is one of the best in Australia for hopheads (that's reasonably priced and widely distributed) it's not that full on. Where are the 6 to 8 percent hop bombs? The oak-aged Imperial Stouts (apart from the super expensive Moo)? The wacky Belgian IPAs?
I'm not a brewer, neither am I the owner of a brewery, so I'm not here to tell them what to do, but I believe there are several reasons these beers are not commonly produced in this country (yet fingers crossed):
One: the prohibitive cost of high alcohol beers (which most of these more interesting styles are by nature) due to the current tax regime in Australia that eats away into our brewers' pockets. Did you know that a keg of 8 percent ABV beer costs around double that of a regular 5 percent ABV beer without any increase in the margin going to the brewer?
Two: our market is so much smaller by volume, meaning it's a far lesser (albeit growing) number of people who are actually seeking out beers of this ilk. What' more, those that are can satisfy this urge largely by buying some of the more extreme imported craft beers (like Rogue, Nøgne Ø, De Molen).
Lastly – and most importantly, in my opinion – we are still in our infancy in embracing the good beer movement. I can't say how many years behind we are, but we're still a little way behind the USA in developing significant overall demand for these great beers. There is one thing that gives me great hope, however: once Australians get on to a good thing, we normally take it to extremes; just look at slow food, organics, coffee and hospitality.
If you want proof of how far ahead the States is, have a look at an example of a typically great draft beer list available over there at a beer institution called Toranado in San Francisco. If that doesn't get your motor running, check out the Stone World Bistro and Gardens list where we decided to spend more than six hours soaking up the space on our first beautiful afternoon in California. Stone is a place where they could easily fill all 32 taps with their one-off brews, vintages and the like, but instead they only (I know ‘only’ sounds ridiculous) have ten taps dedicated to their own brews with the other 22 generally given to smaller Californian breweries plus a few imported Belgians.
These smaller Californian breweries became favourites of mine: Green Flash for their amazing West Coast IPA, Ballast Point for Calico Amber Ale & Sculpin IPA, Russian River for their three IPAs and a great range of boundary-pushing Belgians, and Lost Coast for simply doing what they do, where they do.
It was a tough trip (but we were nothing if not dedicated!) and one that really opened our eyes to the possibilities in the world of craft beer. I've got more to say but, in the meantime, grab yourselves a good beer, click on the links in the story and be prepared to get a little jealous.