It's been an up and down year for the beer scene in the ACT. On the one hand, you have the two big-hitters, BentSpoke and Capital, continuing on their upward trajectories – kicking goals when it comes to the quality of their beers and expanding their reach (in particular BentSpoke) and, in the case of Capital, their already vast home venue.
Then you have new additions to the scene, notably the gluten free Wild Polly, currently brewing at Zierholz but with plans for their own farm-based brewery and cellar door. They're joined by Braddon Brew (pictured above, bottom left), a multifaceted operation which manages to squeeze a bar pouring beers they brew offsite, coffee roaster and café into a tiny space, and Brindabella Brewing (pictured above, bottom right), who offer tastings at Brew Your Own At Home Kambah, plus occasional sales via a mobile bar at events.
Yet 2019 also saw two of the city's best known brewing operations call it a day. In this article last year, we wrote about Lachie McOmish's decision to put the pioneering Wig & Pen up for sale so he could retire and that led to the pub brewery ceasing operations just shy of reaching a quarter century of brewing. Also in the first half of 2019, the founders of former Australian International Beer Awards Champion Gypsy Brewer, Pact Beer, decided to go on an indefinite hiatus.
The capital's drinkers have never had as much choice when it comes to venues in which to enjoy a diversity of quality beers or, indeed, when it comes to enjoying beer at home. Plonk is now into its second decade bringing good booze to inquisitive drinkers and in 2019 picked up prestigious awards in both the ALIAs and Retail Drinks Industry Awards, while the ever-expanding Melbourne-based Blackhearts & Sparrows group's Braddon store has become an established part of the city's offering too.
But what of the new beers released in 2019? To find the best of the best, we invited 42 local region beer drinkers – bottleshop and bar staff, amateur brewers, beer bloggers and enthusiasts – to pick their favourites from a list of 67 eligible beers. This included all new releases from ACT brewers in 2019, plus new versions of previously released beers and those canned for the first time in 2019. A couple missed out – Zierholz Amber in cans and Capital's White Xmas Milkshake IPA on tap – as they were released right at the tail end of the year so to give them a fair go they'll be included next year.
As well as Wig & Pen and Pact, there are four other ACT brewing companies without beers in that list: Kingston Brewing Co and Wignall Brewery due to being on hiatus (but both are set to produce again in 2020), and StoneAge and Zierholz, with neither releasing anything eligible.
For all that there were less brewers involved (and the big two dominated), there remains a good diversity of beer styles, with plenty falling under the banners "dark", "sour" and "juicy", as well as a peppering of Belgian, barrel-aged and lagers; in fact, there's double the proportion of new releases that aren't pale ales or IPAs compared with 2018. But which were judged the best?
The Top Six
Capital Hang Loose Juice Blood Orange NEIPA
It's no surprise that this beer made the top five. Last year, despite first appearing as a tap-only release, Hang Loose Juice received a huge number of votes.
Don’t be surprised to see this beer placing strongly in certain other surveys for 2019... Crafty Cabal Member offer at Capital Brewing Co: The Warmest of Welcomes at Capital Brewing
BentSpoke Descent 19 Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
This was the first of BentSpoke’s dark beers to make it into cans and only the second such locally-brewed beer to be packaged at all, following the Wig & Pen’s limited run Russian Imperial Stout.
Brewed in celebration of the brewery's fifth birthday, Descent 19 is a blend of bourbon barrel-aged and fresh imperial stouts – complex yet smooth. Delicious and gone so soon. It fared well on a national scale in our mid-year survey; surely Descent 20 is a good tip to make next year's Best New Beers too...
Read our recent interview with Richard and Tracy from BentSpoke in our Advent Calendar series.
BentSpoke Big Nut Black IPA
Big Nut is a long time Braddon taphouse favourite that morphed from an American Stout to a Cascadian Dark Ale. It hit cans mid-year as the winter seasonal and, judging from the strong votes, warmed many a cockle.
Capital Big Drop Double IPA
Big Drop debuted on tap and in can in 2019 and is a great example of a West Coast style double IPA, a little dryer than the DIPA offering from BentSpoke, and a contrast to the hazy and fruited IPAs often available at the Capital taphouse.
BentSpoke How’s it Gosen? Mango & Passionfruit Gose
This dangerously drinkable and approachable sour is doing triple duty at summertime events around Canberra and beyond.
One, satisfying confirmed sour drinkers. Two, driving conversations about what beer is. And three, How's It Gosen? has been welcoming kombucha and wine drinkers to beer with flavours both familiar yet different.
Wild Polly IPA
A hoppy and flavourful IPA proving that gluten free beers can be great beers full stop. Released in October, it's wasted little time making an impression and missed out on the top five by only a split grain.
As a side note, canned beers were, unsurprisingly, more likely to have been tried by our survey group. Filtering for new beers released on tap only in 2019, we get the following top five (in no particular order), consisting of a lager, a lambic, two hazy IPAs and a fruited IPA.
- Capital Crispy Boi Pilsner
- BentSpoke Muthur Funker (A gueuze that originally appeared as a Wig & Pen beer at Good Beer Week in 2011 now brought back by its creator, Richard Watkins, as a BentSpoke beer for GABS 2019)
- Capital Sonic Bloom Session IPA (a hazy, fruity IPA on nitro)
- Capital Twin Peaks NEIPA (Summit Session XPA on steroids)
- BentSpoke Hop Juice (Tangerine & Passionfruit IPA – pictured above)
Diversity in can and on tap. Let’s see what 2020 brings!
You can check out our Crafty Crawl guide to Canberra's breweries and brewpubs here.
Don't forget you can have your say in the country's biggest public poll, the GABS Hottest 100 Aussie Craft Beers, by voting here.