It’s the end of another year. It’s the end of another decade. It’s the beginning of a new era, and it’s the middle of a whole bunch of things. (Forgive me; I’ve just started reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, so the concept of time isn’t entirely linear in my mind right now.)
Aether opened their brewery at Northgate, then announced the founders were going their separate ways; one is keeping the Aether brand at Northgate, the other transforming the original site into Milton Common. Ballistic became the first Queensland brewery to open a third venue, a brewpub in Springfield, and they don’t appear to be slowing down while also becoming one of six local brewing companies to take investment from Founders First.
Stone & Wood opened their brewery and tasting room in Fortitude Valley to service Brisbanites who, for a long time, made up the brewery’s biggest and most enthusiastic customer base. And, after a couple of false starts, BrewDog finally opened their Murrarie venue (with the onsite brewery still under construction); we’re all still deciding how we feel about that.
Our very own Beer Tragic, the Mayor of Brewsvegas, laments: “I used to be able to go everywhere in Brisbane on a weekly basis. Twice, even. [Note: he really did.] But you can’t do every event these days. I can’t even keep up with the openings and birthdays now.”
Up on the Sunshine Coast, we’ve witnessed the region's surprisingly rapid growth as a brewing hub continue and diversify: the likes of lager-focused Heads of Noosa and neighbour Boiling Pot Brewing both opened their doors to the public in 2019, as did the sustainability-focused Terella Brewing. Down on the Gold Coast, a bursting-at-the-seams Black Hops opened BH II, their production brewery and taproom, while Currumbin Valley Brewing were stoked to get their first brewery up and running on a former banana farm.
In the Far North, Hemingway's picked up an Australian International Beer Awards trophy for their Prospector Pilsner and also, among other things, helped showcase the region's band of small brewers to drinkers with a sour beer festival at their home on Cairns Wharf, a series of words no one in their right mind would have put in that order – or at least never said them out loud – a few short years ago. Already established at Eumundi, Lion added Townsville to the places they've launched a new brand and microbrewery.
Of course, it’s not only that the industry is expanding, but that the nature of it is shifting. At the AIBAs this year, Balter Brewing won Champion Large Australian Brewery and Green Beacon won Champion Medium Australian Brewery… and before the year was out those breweries were bought by CUB and Asahi respectively, with the latter of those two set to acquire the former and amass quite the artillery of trophy-winning ex-indies. It’ll be mighty interesting to see who wins those awards in 2020 and, if they're new to the trophies, whether they jump to the top of the Big Beer shopping list like seemingly all before them.
And, in the midst of all of this, we have the audacity to try to put our fingers on the best beers of the year.
Every year we say this is a really difficult process, and every year we say the reason for that is because there are more new beers than ever before. And that still holds true. But I think there’s another factor that makes it difficult now: we’re drinking differently. People who were “into craft beer” used to go out and try as many new different beers as they could in attempt to try them all.
Well, the ship has sailed on that. We know there’s no hope of trying them all any more, and to attempt it would be ridiculous. So what do many of us do? We become niche drinkers in a way that we never were before. As the pool of options grows bigger, our focus grows narrower. We stick to our preferred breweries, or to hazy IPAs, or to sours. We decide we’re mostly interested in mid-strengths nowadays, or we only drink local, or we only drink independent. The result? All of the beers we’ve tasted in the last year tend to fall in noticeable patterns.
This is a generalisation, of course. But it’s drawn from observation. That observation being: a panel of seven people well-versed in the Queensland beer scene sat down with a shortlist of about 50 beers that had been nominated from a wider group, and we found it difficult to talk about beers from the past 12 months, because as often as not half the group would shrug and say: “I didn’t try that one.”
But at the end of the conversation in which some of the tasting notes we shared were no more specific than: “It’s a fucken ripper,” we sat on our crappy couches in The Scratch with an agreed upon list scribbled on a stained piece of paper. (Full disclosure: I may have spilled my smoked cherry chocolate stout on it.) If there’s one thing you can say about Queenslanders, it’s that we’re down to earth. If there’s a second thing you can say, it’s that we’re a bloody joke.
So here's the list. It's not a top ten. It's kind of a top eight, except we cheated for a few of the entries. Like I said – a bloody joke.
PS Sorry, FNQ. We know you never get a look in on these articles, and we know it’s largely because we’re too lazy to visit. We do know you make good beers up there, but most of us live in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast or the Gold Coast, so we rarely get a chance to taste them. Long distance relationships are hard. Just ask that guy who’s dating Delilah.
THE TOP EIGHT
Look, we’re going to start cheating from the get-go. The first entry on this list doesn’t go to a single beer, or even to a single series of beers. It goes to a series of serieses. (And, yes, for the purpose of this entry, I’m sticking with that as the plural form of series.)
In 2018, Ballistic’s Sleep When You’re Dead series scored a spot on this list. There was a spread of votes for different SWYD beers, and the series as a whole had a loyal following, so it just made sense.
This year, we received votes for beers from the SWYD series, the Twang kettle sour range, and the single hop IPA series. Which highlighted a few things for us.
Firstly, Ballistic makes many stand-out beers that imprint themselves on people’s memories. Obviously, they aren’t the only ones; plenty of other breweries, including breweries in this article, manage to snag themselves loyal drinkers by making a variety of great beers.
But something clever that Ballistic have done (and some other breweries such as 3 Ravens have also done) is create multiple serieses with different concepts. Plenty of breweries make kettle sour beers, but Ballistic have the regular Twang series, with each variant bearing the broken guitar. Plenty of breweries talk about the importance of freshness in hop-forward beers, but Ballistic have the Sleep When You’re Dead series with fun robot characters on the labels. And of course, the SHIPA range showcases different hop varieties.
In an industry where it’s becoming more and more difficult to gain brand loyalty, this blend of brewing strategy and marketing strategy can win die-hard fans for a single series of beers. Punters can keep an eye out for the newest Twang to hit the shelves, or pre-order each SWYD when they receive the email advertising the limited edition beer and merch packs.
Ballistic didn’t invent the idea of grouping beers in serieses. But the love they’ve been getting for these beers in 2019 shows they’re doing it well.
Individual beers of note include the SWYD Hazy IPA, Nelson Sauvin SHIPA, Enigma SHIPA, Mulberry Twang, and the Passionfruit & Guava Twang. [And I can't let this moment pass without highlighting Mick's Christmas poem dedicated to the last Twang of 2019 – Editor]
BLACK HOPS #100
A lot of good breweries fly under the radar. But Black Hops never have. From the beginning they’ve made their story well known and they’ve received massive media attention (and even managed to get involved in this year's Sydney to Hobart...). They’ve weathered a controversy or two, and they saw out the end of 2019 with a recall that must have created a lot of stress at what we're told is the most wonderful time of the year.
Black Hops have a loud voice, and they put their beer where their mouth is. (Where else would you put it?) This year has seen them put out some whoppers, particularly in the form of IPAs. Their well-loved core IPA Hornet, and its big brother Super Hornet, were joined by Toshi’s Megahornet. California Love West Coast IPA made our list of top five new Queensland beers in the middle of 2019. And their Full Nelson and Half Nelson were a simple but fun way to introduce many to the distinctives of single hop IPAs, the flavours of Nelson Sauvin, and the difference a boost in booze can make to an IPA.
For most who tried it, though, the real stand out was the their #100. When it came to Black Hops’ 100th beer, the brewers put their heads together to decide what style would get to do the honours, and landed on an IPA continuously hopped for 100 minutes, following in the footsteps of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA. While some people may find that concept intimidating, afraid that the result would be bitter enough to perform a tracheotomy from the inside, Black Hops managed to work with the elements in such a way as to provide a complex hop profile while holding it steady with sweet malt.
Or, in the more eloquent words of one our panelists: “Couldn’t fault it. Drank a shitload of it.”
BROUHAHA WATERMELON LIME SOUR
I don’t know how often you’ve heard the story of your own birth. I’ve heard mine on several occasions – if I’m being honest, once was too many – and, every time, the phrase “head like a watermelon” seems to crop up. Sorry about that, Mum. If it’s any consolation, I try to put my watermelon head to good use.
First released as “Mystery Sour” for GABS 2019, Brouhaha’s Watermelon Lime Sour sure puts watermelon to good use, but the reality is: we’re not surprised. Brouhaha’s Raspberry Saison made our Best New Beers list in 2016. Their Strawberry Rhubarb Sour made the list in 2017. Their Nectarine Sour made the list last year.
We get it, guys. You make excellent fruit sours. How about trying something different, and making a bad beer for a change?
But until Brouhaha start making swill, we’ll have to settle for this. The Watermelon Lime Sour proves that there’s still some truth in advertising. A big thwack of sweet watermelon up front floods the nose and palate with the taste of summer – a ballsy move for a beer first released in midwinter. Lime and lacto follow up with a zesty tang in the backend, inviting you to knock back tinnie after tinnie of this low percentage bliss elixir.
Consume ice cold while sitting on the back verandah, spitting the seeds out onto the grass. (Note: There are no seeds in this beer. I’m using a literary device to convey how this beer will give you the feeling of eating fresh watermelon. Stop being so literal.)
CURRUMBIN VALLEY GRAPE BUBBLEGUM SOUR
Most GABS beers are either too expensive or too ridiculous to keep being brewed and consumed on a regular basis. There’s a reason that Peanut Butter Pickle Barleywine Sour Infused With The Tears Of Belgian Nuns is served in a 60ml taster. But Currumbin Valley Brewing’s Grape Bubblegum Sour managed to strike the sweet spot between novelty and moreish, and subsequently took on a life of its own. After winning the People’s Choice award at GABS 2019, it became Currumbin’s first beer in cans, with the first post-GABS batch selling out online before it was even brewed.
Inspired by Grape Hubba Bubba, this beer managed to capture not only the rich purple colour of the iconic childhood favourite, but the flavour as well. It holds so true to its inspiration that when our panel met to discuss we spent a solid ten minutes debating the similarities and differences between this beer and the bubblegum (“It doesn’t get that stale, stiff, chewed-on-it-for-55-minutes taste”, “You can’t stick it in someone’s hair”).
While the novelty factor of liquid bubblegum could wear off, this beer is saved by an initial tartness followed by a sherbet acidity. Its flavours appeal to beer drinkers and non-beer-drinkers alike, so much so that it inspired a sequel: Strawberry Bubblegum Sour.
Luckily, because of the quality of Currumbin’s other beers – their Mango Sour with lemon myrtle, for one, was another banger of 2019 – the Currumbin boys aren’t in danger of becoming “that bubblegum brewery” any time soon. But they’ve certainly gained for themselves a fair chunk of street cred for this beer alone.
GREEN BEACON'S FATHOM SERIES
When a much-loved independent brewery is bought by a larger company, there are decidedly mixed feelings within the craft beer community. For some people, there’s little change to their opinion of the brewery; for others, there’s a lull in excitement, or even enough disapproval to trigger a personal boycott. But when we put out the call for the best beers of 2019, the love for Green Beacon’s barrel-aged Fathom series was strong enough to outweigh any prejudice.
As with any barrel program, this series had been in the works for a while before release; brewer Johann van der Walt had been dreaming of working with barrels since he became a brewer, and secreted a number of them away at Green Beacon’s Teneriffe location several years ago. In 2016, the first barrel-aged beast - the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Strong Ale – hit taps at the brewpub and subsequently made the Best New Queensland Beers of 2016 list. The following year, the Flanders Red made the list. So, when the Fathom series was released to the public in all its glory at Brewsvegas 2019, no one who predicted the beers would get traction was going to impress people with their soothsaying skills.
Though they opened when bottles were still in vogue, Green Beacon looked to tinnies for their packaged beers right from the beginning, so it’s no surprise they put the Fathom beers in cans (albeit with their own fancy design). But, while cans have since become the norm across the board, they tend to get passed over when it comes to barrel-aged beers, with breweries instead turning to individually numbered 750ml bottles, hand-dipped in wax and signed by the the brewer with their own blood.
Once they started coming out, they came out indeed. The imperial stout aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels was everything a barrel-aged imperial stout should be - chocolatey and oaky and whiskey-y and coffee-y, bringing a smooth warmth without approaching alcohol burn.
But for those who love Belgian beers, the Belgian Style Brown variants – the Raspberry Cherry Sour, and the Belgian Style Red – were the real cause for celebration. For some on our panel who'd recently travelled to Belgium, the Fathom beers gave them flashbacks, and even rivalled some of the big names in Belgium. The Raspberry Cherry Sour was even hailed as “one of the closest things to a proper Flanders Red that I’ve had in Australia.”
This kind of high praise from experienced drinkers is like a warm hug for a brewer, and for Johann it's a hug well deserved.
RANGE BREWING'S RANGE
Congratulations, Range. You’ve done it again. A whole spot on this list just for you.
There were doubters. But, 18 months in, Range Brewing’s brew-it-once-then-move-on approach is still going strong. When I first spoke to co-founder Matt McIver in early 2018, he said: “We want to drink new beer all the time… so why wouldn’t we make new beer all the time? It’s not the most economical way to do things – it’s not the cheapest or most efficient way to brew – but it’s the way we wanted to do it. And we think that people will really get around it.”
And get around it we did. While the brewers at Range are forever exploring, evolving, tweaking, adapting, experimenting, playing, trialling, researching, the drinkers of Range are forever taking a first sip and giving an approving nod.
Now in their second year, Range have tweaked a few other elements of their business too, leading to a slight shift in tone for the brewery. Their initial ultra-local approach, which saw their beers accessible only at the brewery itself, has given way to a wider audience; as they’ve grown in popularity, Range have started playing in the collaboration space with both local and international brewers, and their online store is now hit hard with each new release by those who live outside spitting distance of the brewery.
The variety of their styles has broadened somewhat - while they still have a strong focus on highly-hopped IPAs and fruit sours, they’re not holding as rigidly to the four or five styles they riffed on at the beginning.
And their can designs, which originally held to the cartoon images of Viking family members and lip-puckering fruit characters, are moving towards a more artistic European aesthetic with full-bleed patterned labels (think To Øl and Cloudwater). I’m not sure how I feel about this; sure, they’re sophisticated and pleasing to the eye, but I now have to look elsewhere to get my fix of flatulent Viking children riding goats.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Range team are committed to making delicious, well-crafted beers, and committed to continuously changing. And they’re keeping their promises.
Individual beers of note in 2019 include their Cashmere Mosaic IPA, their monstrous ONE: TIPA, and their Participation Award Oat Cream Double IPA, which was a collaboration with Mr Banks and Mr West.
SLIPSTREAM BREWING X BEENLEIGH RUM COLLABORATIONS
This spot almost went to the Rum Barrel Baltic Porter, but then Slipstream went and released 2019’s Rum Ball Brown Porter and it was fantastic so the two beers will just have to share. Since the collaboration is with Beenleigh Rum, these beers are double Queensland, so perhaps it’s fitting to have two beers here.
For a brewery that’s unashamedly focused on American style hoppy beers, Slipstream – one of the six brewing companies mentioned above to join the Founders First club – have done beautiful things with rummy dark beers. The Rum Barrel Baltic Porter was thick as a bearskin rug, had all the glorious flavours of rum and raisin chocolate, and sported a respectable boozy warmth without being harsh.
The Rum Ball Brown Porter, on the other hand, brought together rum and chocolate and coconut and managed to capture the feeling of sitting on the couch in your pyjamas on Boxing Day night, eating more leftover rum balls than you probably should because you have to get through them before you’re allowed to start eating healthily again. Even this self-professed-non-rum-drinker can get on board with that.
Recently, a friend of mine who’s new to craft asked me what a hazy IPA is. I found myself explaining the blurry category by first pointing out the part West Coast IPAs played in the craft beer movement, then the emergence of New England IPAs and East Coast IPAs, then the way that some Australian brewers did whatever it took to make IPAs that were as ridiculously hazy as possible, then the insults that flew against said brewers because they hadn’t even tasted a true NEIPA and they weren’t adhering to the style, then the dialling back of the language of NEIPA and the move towards the descriptive nomenclature of “hazy IPA” or “juicy IPA”.
And, while my friend was grateful for the explanation, I was left thinking, “Gee, we’re a bunch of wankers who like to make things complicated.”
But a lot has happened in the few short years between Australian brewers discovering NEIPAs and now. While I wasn’t an insult flinger, I do think hazy IPAs had a shaky start in Australia, with many brewers learning along the way how to deal with the sheer volume of hop vegetation they were throwing into their beer. In classic Aussie fashion, though, we battled on, and there are now plenty of breweries putting out hazy IPAs of which they can be proud.
Since there’s an idea that these beers have to be consumed within the first hour of being packaged in order to be fully appreciated, it’s only natural that not everyone gets to try each Queensland example. However, there were enough votes spread across the category to make it worthy of this list. Brouhaha’s Nectarine NEIPA and CPR NEIPA both received votes, as did Ballistic’s SWYD Hazy IPA, Land & Sea’s Juicebox Hazy IPA, and a few of Range’s IPAs which, while not always classified as hazy IPAs on the label, are all but opaque.
Curiously, Balter’s Hazy – which made our national mid-year Best New Beers article – didn’t receive a single vote at the end of 2019, and nor did its stablemates Dazy and Hazy/DC. Did these beers get forgotten? Unlikely. Did they get surpassed by other beers? Possibly. Did they get passed over in people’s minds in favour of beers by independent breweries with the sale to CUB coming just as people were racking their brains as to which they'd enjoyed in 2019? Most likely. Do they fit within the category of “well made and tasty hazy IPAs from Queensland”? Yes.
Hazy IPAs – perhaps it’s inconvenient we’re told to drink them so fresh they haven’t been brewed yet, but damn, the good ones really hit the spot.
PS Prediction for 2020: rise of the style “Opaque IPA”. [Followed by "Abstruse IPA" in 2021? – Editor]
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. And thanks to David Fill, Mitch Wilkins and Craig Maiden for letting us pilfer some of their snaps for the montage image.