A bloodbath. That's how we've heard Battleground Melbourne described more than once in the past 12 months when it comes to the challenge of securing tap points – and then keeping them.
More venues might be opening up their taps, but the vast majority remain contracted – and not just to the major beer companies either – meaning it's tougher than ever to survive and thrive in and around the Victorian capital. Yet it should mean the better operators, those who've nailed their beers, brand and distribution, will be more likely to rise to the top.
It's but one part of what it means to have the most mature craft beer market in Australia, one in which many in the industry are experiencing growing pains, be that trying to keep up with demand, reinvent themselves for a new age or finding their place in an ever-diversifying landscape in which the noisiest and most eager of drinkers are permanently chasing new, new, new, whether new means quality or not.
Overall, it feels like it's been a steady year in Victoria, at least compared to the explosive nature of beer in Queensland or the exciting rejuvenation taking hold in Western Australia. That's not to say it's stagnant; new breweries, venues and bottleshops are opening apace while many are forging partnerships in the fields of sport, the arts and elsewhere. Melbourne's west is really coming into its own (hopefully, we'll have a western correspondent to help us do it justice from the start of next year) and the regions continue to flourish, not least the Mornington Peninsula where the brewers have been collaborating just like their High Country peers and where, with TWØBAYS opening in Dromana, you can now find a dedicated gluten free taproom too.
With tough competition comes the need to keep raising standards or innovating (or, in many cases, both) and we've seen plenty of that, whether in the shape of the Boatrocker and La Sirène barrel programs producing a series of gems as the age and diversity of liquids in their barrels increases, some fine stabs at the IPA styles du jour, or the growing number of quality brewpubs and tasting rooms dotting the landscape, be it Fixation's Incubator in Collingwood, Bonehead Brewing in Kensington, Burnley in Richmond (who, admittedly, opened at the very end of 2017) or the newcomers in the regions.
In the year that one of the more established members of the state's brewing scene, Mornington Peninsula Brewery, became part of the Tribe, there are plenty more closing in on what Jamie Cook of Stone & Wood described as the "glass ceiling" in our recent article on a decade of Pacific Ale – and keen to smash through it to become genuine regional breweries in 2019 and beyond.
With more brewing companies in the pipeline for the coming year and a growing number of local businesses looking to offer contract brewing and thus foster more competition in that area, don't expect any let up in the year ahead. But, before we get that far, what about the best of the new releases in 2018?
While there have been hundreds of beers to pick from in the past few years, in 2016 and 2017 the process followed a remarkably similar pattern. We'd fire off requests far and wide, compile a long list, then sit down with a panel to nut out the top ten – and find that the list pretty much wrote itself.
Thus, having set aside a few hours for debate, we'd end up kicking back and enjoying beers instead. So, in 2018, having again hit up several dozen retailers, writers, beer geeks and the like around Victoria (and heard back from around 40 of them), we figured an hour with a panel should be enough to come to an agreement. If only...
No less than 99 beers from 36 different brewing companies made the long list and, even after an initial round with a fiercely wielded scalpel in which we removed pretty much every beer with just one or two advocates, things were far from easy. In fact, as seems to be the theme this year, we've not even managed to come up with a ten but an eleven. And, even within that slightly extended lineup, there are entries that feature more than one beer. But, hey, we make the rules and the main raison d'être for these things is to reflect on the year gone by as much as highlight some of the beers that really dazzled, so that (in alphabetical order) is what you're getting.
The Top Eleven
Boatrocker – Sternweisse
It's been another fine year for the crew at Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers, where the barrels in which the beers closest to co-founder Matt Houghton's heart now share space with the still responsible for Hippocampus spirits. There was trophy success at The Indies, where Ramjet took out Champion Strong Ale and coolship beer Daddy Koel Champion Mixed Culture Beer (one of many mixed ferment beers to hit great heights in 2018), which meant the Champion Medium Brewery trophy also made its way to Braeside.
The beer that most impressed our pool of contributors – and was a real standout for the team at Crafty Towers – was Sternweisse, a "Double Barrel Aged Berliner Weisse" that had previously appeared in a tiny run on tap a few years ago. This year, there was more of it – and in bottles too – and what a subtly complex delight it was, flitting from oaked chardonnay to gentle whisky sour and being, quite simply, delightful.
CoConspirators – The Berserker / The Editor
When it came to gypsy foursome CoConspirators, there was plenty of debate. Not over whether they deserved a spot in the list for one of their beers – how could there be when pretty much every new beer they launched in 2018 garnered at least one vote? Instead, it came down to picking between the two that had the most advocates: two beers that couldn't be further apart on the beer sphere.
The Berserker was a collaboration with Carwyn Cellars released early in the year, a 12 percent ABV imperial stout aged in former aquavit barrels that had previously housed Pedro Ximenez that was awash with hazelnuts, vanilla, molasses and the richest of chocolate brownies. The Editor was a hoppy sour created with Froth Beer Mag for their joint birthdays at the end of 2018 and which swept up plenty of admirers with its passionfruit and guava goodness.
In the end, particularly with so many other CoCon beers making the long list, we figured: "Por qué no los dos?"
As an aside, fellow Merri Mashers alumni Old Wives Ales featured strongly as well on the back of their Old Man Yells At Cloud NEIPA and its supersized accompaniment. The beer with the best name of 2018 anywhere in Australia (surely) was launched in the first half of the year and, by August, was already making up 70 percent of the gypsy brewers' production.
Hawkers – Rum Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
Hawkers went nuts again on the big and barrel-aged beers throughout the cooler months. The results were up and down but, like the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead, when they were good they were very, very good. The unoaked Imperial Stout was the best since the brewery's first and the Aquavit Barrel-Aged Wheatwine (released three ways) created with Crux Fermentation was a complex delight.
But it was the Rum Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout that left the most lasting impression on those we canvassed in a year in which the brewery's reworked IIPA and three-way collab with The Wheaty and Liberty, Framboise A Trois, also found favour.
Hop Nation – The Dawn
It's been another big year for the former winemakers turned brewers at Hop Nation. For one, they've been making wine again as part of their new Site Fermentation project, both in bottles and in cans, with La Jeunesse, a mixed ferment Flanders red style beer also under the Site banner, catching the eyes of this year's contributors.
Yet, given the brewery is one that's made its name more than anything on the back of its Jedi Juice NEIPA, perhaps it's little surprise that a beer of that ilk secured them a spot in this year's Victorian roundup. Indeed, The Dawn – a new, canned and widely released version of a beer initially brewed to mark the opening of their brewery – garnered as many votes in the first round of polling as any other, with the spiced Market NEIPA, a tribute to Footscray Market, and The Forager, a blueberry NEIPA with which they ended the year, also getting a mention.
La Sirène – Citray Sour
The last official missive sent from the team at Alphington's urban farmhouse brewery La Sirène included an apology to retailers that they'd run out of their two canned releases to date, Urban Pale and Citray Sour, despite scheduling in extra brews as summer approached. While one assumes they'd rather have more beer on hand to meet demand, it's a good problem to have and one that will likely have sent Costa and Eva Nikias and co into the festive season with a spring in their step.
Presumably, the marketplace gradually reaching a point at which the beers in which La Sirène specialises – various saisons and other farmhouse ales, plus all manner of barrel-aged, blended and spontaneously-fermented releases – are creeping in from the outer fringes has helped. At the same time, as was the case with Urban Pale, in Citray Sour they've created a core beer that doesn't hold back on its La Sirènity – in this case, a pretty potent acidic tang – yet does so within a beer with broad appeal.
The oranges that give the drinker the impression they're being dunked into a freshly squeezed vat of fruit come from a single farm in Swan Hill, part of the brewery's drive to promote provenance in beer, while, as 2018 drew to a close, a spontaneously fermented version of the beer was starting out on its journey too.
Moon Dog – Brutus Beefcake's Tropical Vacation
If all goes to plan, by the latter part of 2019 Moon Dog will have a second home, a rather larger affair than their one in Abbotsford and, quite possibly, the most insane of any brewery in Australia. It would be fitting, given how the Abbotsford operation has been pushing the envelope in more outrageous manners than most for longer than most.
Their experiments don't always work but, as one part of the business focuses on producing and selling as much of their core beers as possible, the experiments keep on coming and on occasion arrive ahead of the game. Was there a lactose IPA in Australia before the original Splice Of Heaven? Was this year's Abbey Collabbey brew for Good Beer Week Australia's first Brut IPA? Or can their Bad Boy Bubbly from 2017 stake a claim? Either way, their 9.5 percent ABV Double Brut IPA Brutus Beefcake, loaded up with apple, passionfruit, pineapple, peach and mango juice, proved a winner, both considerably fruity and extremely dry.
Mornington Peninsula Brewery – The Big Squids
Mornington Peninsula Brewery got in pretty early on the haze craze, with Jiffy Squid created in collaboration with Brewski for Brewsvegas in 2017. They then upped the game with two bigger versions that accrued equal votes in our initial sweep around the state and, after subsequent debate, appear as a joint entry.
For me, they hit the sweet spot for such beers with Squid Rising, the IPA of the series, yet there were plenty for whom the hop gazpacho Squid Supremacy was the pick. Indeed, the turbid gloop of the latter was one of the beers that encapsulated the somewhat unhinged nature of hyped-up beer-chasing that has been such a big part of 2018, with beer groups filled with desperate pleas from drinkers on the hunt for a can to add to their Instagram feeds in the weeks after release.
Mr Banks – IPAs
Chris Farmer likes IPAs, of that we can be sure. On a recent Crafty Pint visit to the brewery in Seaford, more than half the dozen taps will filled with some form of IPA or hoppy ale, often hazy or with a dose of lactose (or both). Like the near neighbours one entry above in this list, he was early into the NEIPArena with Wheeze The Juice and, with Champagne For My Real Friends, produced one of the best Brut IPAs to leave an Aussie brewery this year.
The latter was just one of Mr Banks' IPAs to appear in our long list, with the West Coast IPA that's part of a new look core range the pick of them. While some of the many IPAs bearing the Mr Banks name were more equal than others, there was a feeling that Chris and co had enjoyed a really good year so we figured they'd more than earned a hoppy nod.
Sailors Grave – Wild Strawberries (and friends)
When we called in on Gab and Chris Moore at their Orbost brewery a few months ago, Chris revealed his favourite Sailors Grave beer to drink was "whatever is newest or the IPA". Given the impact the East Gippsland operation has had in little more than two years – with this their third appearance in three years in our end of year Best Beers feature – there will be many who won't even be aware they have an IPA as a core beer, maybe that they have a core range at all.
In 2018, there hasn't been a single Sailors Grave beer that stood out like the Peach Melba Pavlova of 2017, although the Pnau-inspired Wild Strawberries – a fruity cream sour in the same spirit initially created for GABS but which has kept coming back – was the beer that picked up the most votes. Indeed, for all the beers they release each year – wheat beers with foraged ingredients, low ABV Berliner Weisse, various farmhouse ales, the criminally overlooked lactose IPA series Squid vs Whale – it's the cream sours for which they've become best known and, as more brewers try their hand at such beers, it looks like what initially sounded like a concept destined for the nichest of niches could be set to enjoy plenty more time in the sun.
Stomping Ground – Watermelon Smash
There's always a chance that beers released at the start of the year can be long forgotten by the time we sit down to nut out these retrospectives. It's part of the reason we publish our mid-year review and also that we have the panels, as it allows us to throw the odd release that was much-loved many moons ago into the discussion. On the other hand, when a beer proves such a hit the brewery has to keep brewing again and again – "We can't order in enough!" said one regional bottleshop owner who had this beer on their list – it can override such concerns.
After trialling the beer on tap at Stomping Ground's Collingwood brewpub, this watermelon gose first appeared in cans in February and, in a marketplace awash with fruity sours or one form or another, has managed to stand out. Indeed, the beer had as many fans in the first round of our selection process as any other, with its Guava Smash sibling capturing the affections of a couple too.
Wolf Of The Willows – Southern Brut
One of two Brut IPAs as well as one of two beer media collabs to make the Victorian list, the Southern Brut conceived by Wolf Of The Willows and Luke Robertson and Dave Ellis from Ale Of A Time was one of the first such beers to hit taps and fridges in 2018. The initial release was arguably sweeter than a style purist* might demand, but was delicious (which is surely rather more important) with the sweetness seeming to come from the juicy, fruity hops with which it was laced.
A new batch was released at the end of the year, in which a change in hops deliver a drier, perhaps more "Brut-y" experience, while this hyped-up style was also attempted with some panache by fellow Victorians Watts River, Dainton, Red Hill and Two Birds. Elsewhere for WOTW, they continued to plough a sour beer furrow more interesting than most and kicked off the Barrel Exchange Project with Lark Distillery, with the first release, the Barrel-Aged Imperial JSP impressing too.
*If a purist would acknowledge Brut IPAs as a style in the first place, of course.
In other Best New Beers Of 2018 articles, it's been common practice at this point to include "Honourable Mentions". Given we've included a few above, ended up with more than ten entries and even clumped more than one beer into some of those entries, we'll spare you that here.
It is worth, however, acknowledging the dominance of IPAs in their many forms in the longer Victorian list as well as the burgeoning popularity of wild, sour and mixed fermentation beers and the enduring popularity of well made imperial stouts and other big, barrel-aged beers. Indeed, if The Crafty Pint was run as a dictatorship, examples of the last two of these would have made the list with Molly Rose's Matilde, a delicately composed Brett saison, capturing my affections (and not just because it shares a name with Crafty Pot Sr), and Hargreaves Hill's voluptuous R.I.S. wowing the wider Crafty team.
But it's not a dictatorship so we'll pretend they're not entries 12 and 13 and instead bid you farewell at the end of another monstrous year for beer in Victoria. Here's to more delicious madness in 2019.
You can find the rest of the state and territory-based Best New Beers features here. And you can cast your votes for the beers you love the most in the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers of 2018 poll here.
For more on how we put these features together, head here.
Thanks to the dozens of retailers, reps, venue owners, beer writers, beer geeks and others who offered up their opinions for this year's poll. Much appreciated as ever!