Since this article (and the coronavirus-themed graphic above) was filed, the situation in much of New South Wales has altered significantly. We wish everyone impacted by the latest COVID-19 outbreak well, and hope it will be brought under control quickly.
In the spirit of maintaining some sort of end of year normality, however, and acknowledging the content of the article remains valid, we figured we'd press on with our celebration of the year in beer in the state. Here's to 2021 being rather less challenging.
What’s left to say about the last twelve months in New South Wales that hasn’t already been said a million times? Drought, fires, floods, pandemic, lockdown, social distancing, QR code check-ins etc. You all know the drill by now.
We may as well be upfront in declaring that, while the NSW Crafty Pint team probably gets to sample more beers than most, we haven't spent as much time outside Sydney as we would in a normal year, hence the somewhat different approach from previous years.
Trying to decide on the best beers and significant moments within the beer community over the last year can be a bit of a tough ask when, instead of getting out and about and talking to brewers, publicans and fellow beer lovers, you’re stuck at home quietly ordering yet another couple of four-packs from somewhere local.
However, as we're doing with each of these 2020 roundups, we have picked out some of the standout beers, breweries and moments of the past twelve months, and had a look at what the future might bring.
You may disagree the beers that start the roundup were the best and brightest the state had to offer in 2020 but, in our defence, trying to pick only five stylistically diverse beers out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of beers brewed each year nowadays is a herculean task. We absolutely stand by each one of the below as extraordinary in their own right, all fit to demonstrate that beer in NSW has never been better.
Top Five Beers
Mountain Culture Beer Co Be Kind Rewind
There was no shortage of hype releases during the COVID lockdown, but arguably none more so than this big DDH IPA from certified 2020 Darlings, Mountain Culture. In a lot of ways, this beer is emblematic of what changed in the Australian beer landscape in this most hellish of years.
Released in the initial stages of the country-wide lockdown in April and available almost exclusively from the brewery’s own online store, Be Kind Rewind sent social media into a full-scale meltdown. Facebook groups engaging in a civil war over users having the audacity to pose with more than a full cartons worth when others were being left wet faced and impotent in front of a sold out screen. Being able to witness a philosophical discussion about the merits of the free market play out amongst unfocused photos of dirty glasses in dank hovels was a real beacon of light in a truly dark time.
In a year when so many breweries were simply turning a big dial labelled "hops and haze", and constantly looking back at the audience for approval like contestants on The Price is Right, Be Kind Rewind still stood out from its peers. A massive, juicy hop aroma without any prickly hop burn, subtle malt sweetness without lactose, and an undercurrent of dank bitterness. Currently sitting tied for first place at the top of the Australian Untappd beer ratings, it’s a beer of exceptional balance by one of the best brewers in the country.
One Drop Brewing Co Big Bad Wolf
When putting together a diverse shortlist of our favourite beers of the year, One Drop could have easily made multiple appearances. Building on their success with fruited sours in 2019, One Drop expanded their fruit offerings and upped the ABV on a few, brewed countless West Coast/milkshake/hazy/oat cream IPA variants, pastry stouts, a Mexican lager, a nitro Irish red ale and, as casually as you like it, revealed a small mixed fermentation barrel program.
While the dark cherry imperial sour was a firm favourite, it was the Big Bad Wolf who managed to devour the young and elderly alike before being disembowelled, filled with rocks and drowned in the nearby river that represents The Crafty Pint Best New Beers of NSW 2020 in this horrific and unnecessary analogy.
Originally intended to be served as part of a winter solstice event, the Big Bad Wolf was a nitro pastry stout absolutely packed to the gills with vanilla, chocolate, lactose, Slovenian hops and aged on French oak. Nick Calder-Scholes and the rest of the team at One Drop executed the brewing of this behemoth with enough finesse that the beer remained thoroughly enjoyable despite so many huge flavours threatening to unbalance the lot.
White Bay Beer Co Core Range
Early in the year, news started to filter out that a new brewery was being constructed in the shade of the old White Bay power station in Rozelle. When American expat Dennis de Boer was named to be the head brewer of the new venture, most immediately assumed White Bay Beer Co would launch with a swathe of American IPAs in the mould of those he was so capable of producing in his former role at Modus Operandi.
What we got instead were two of the most no-nonsense, delicious beers you could ever hope to see on tap at your local. Union, a modern take on a Euro-style lager, presents with a dazzlingly white and lacy head, hazy straw body with bready malt and citrus zest. Fair dinkum, this is the kind of beer you wish you could take with you everywhere. Then you have the aptly named Sunny, an Australian pale ale that radiates joy. In appearance and flavour profile, Sunny is almost certainly what a Pacific Ale would be when re-imagined in 2020. Passionfruit, mango and pineapple hop aromas overlaid on a golden hazy base with a gentle resiny bitterness.
There’s little wonder these two have popped up on taps in almost every pub on the Balmain peninsula and throughout the Inner West.
Slow Lane Brewing Foundation
Of all the beer in this list, none is more unlikely than this Brettanomyces spiked, barrel-aged 5 percent ABV saison in a can.
It's been an incredible year for Alex and Yvonne Jarman at Slow Lane Brewing. Since opening in May, they’ve sold out batches of pale ale, had a Flanders brown take a spot in The Australian’s top 20 beers of 2020, picked up four medals at the Indies and, amazingly, a trophy for Champion Mixed Culture Beer for their traditionally made Berliner Weisse. However, it was Foundation (for The Crafty Pint team at least) that really cemented Slow Lane as an outfit to keep an eye on.
For a style of beer originally brewed to quench the mighty thirst of Belgian farmhands, saisons in 2020 have an air of intimidation around them. Call Foundation a saison and put it in a 750ml bottle and all of a sudden the Botany locals calling in to pick up a four-pack on the way home from work don’t touch it with a 40 foot pole. But a deliciously dry, immaculately structured farmhouse ale in a can is another prospect all together.
Wildflower Amongst the Bines
It just wouldn’t be a NSW best of listicle these days without Wildflower, would it? Compared to the other entries in this list, at almost four-years-old, the Marrickville purveyors of wild ale are deep into boomer territory by now.
As we mentioned in our article on their expansion back in August, the lockdown had been a bit more gentle on Wildflower than others, thanks in part to a lesser reliance on keg sales and a style of beer that’s not going to go bad with a bit of age. As a result, Wildflower continued to release more single batch beers than ever before. Their collaborators for this beer, however, had not been quite so fortunate.
Ryefield Hops (pictured above), located in Bemboka, around 480km south-west of Sydney, had been devastated by the increasing climate instability throughout 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The double barrel blast of historic drought and unprecedented bushfires meant their 2019 hop harvest was almost non-existent.
Lucky for us, Amongst the Bines began life a little earlier in February 2019 when a bine full of Saaz was drowned in a small batch of wort to see if the naturally occurring yeasts on the hop flowers could fully ferment out a beer. The little experiment was wildly successful and was used as a sort of starter for a much larger batch of wort hopped with more Ryefield Saaz and left in barrels for a year.
Some of the scant few kilos of hops that made it through the 19/20 summer were used to dry hop before bottling. The resulting beer is complex but remarkably clean, given its wild origins. Lemon sorbet, herbaceous earthiness, vanilla oak, bretty funk, vinous and dry. Amongst the Bines was an inspired standout offering from a brewery that excel at making the inconsistent, consistently wonderful.
Breakthrough Brewery: Mountain Culture
DJ and Harriet McCready have had themselves a bloody massive year by any metric. Since opening in October 2019, Mountain Culture Beer Co. started with a core range of beers with quality to rival any other in the country and cranked up the hype machine with another 30 odd single batches. Most batches selling out online within a day, some within an hour. In fact, at the time of writing, every single beer on Mountain Culture’s online store is sold out.
It might have been the prevalence and popularity of their many oat cream IPAs that so endeared them to the beer loving public, but it was the mastery they brought to every single one of their releases that entrenched Mountain Culture in the upper echelons of brewers in the country. We’d be willing to bet there’s more than a few punters out there willing to stake a claim that Harvest Season, their autumn release Marzen, was one of the best beers of the year, nationwide.
The Blow ins (and outs)
Interstate brands Mountain Goat and the Atomic Beer Project decided there simply was not enough beer available in Sydney's inner west and opened their very own Sydney outposts in Newtown and Redfern, respectively.
At the same time, Marrickville based Sauce Brewing Co raised a few eyebrows by opening a brewpub in the heart of Cairns.
East Coast Low (ABV)
In what is almost certainly a sign of the times, Australia’s craft beer godparents Stone & Wood added to their core range with the super low ABV East Point. Most breweries are now catering to the mid-strength portion of the market, but few have taken the plunge into the light beer pool.
What’s more interesting is the way Stone & Wood have marketed their new beer – eschewing the usual descriptors of what is essentially a low alcohol gose and relying on “zesty tang” instead of sour and not even outright mentioning the salt content at all.
You don’t get to be as successful as Stone & Wood by making mistakes so no doubt there are plenty of others watching East Point very closely.
It’s almost bewildering to think that, just a year ago, Australia faced the most severe bushfire season on record. Almost five-and-a-half million hectares of NSW were incinerated, with the full impact on people, wildlife and the environment still unknown.
A relatively wet winter and a global public health emergency may have taken the focus away from the fires, but it’s important to acknowledge and reflect on what we have endured. The Beer For Bushfire Relief drive and the Australian Resilience Beer showed just how willing the beer community was in lending a hand for those in need. A genuinely touching moment in an otherwise heartbreaking time.
In 2021, look out for ....
- Old school IPAs to make a comeback: Hazy and juicy is still king, but the latter half of 2020 has seen more West Coast, black, red, brown and farmhouse IPAs than at any time over the last few years.
- Breweries hanging onto their beers a bit longer: More and more brewers are starting to come around to the notion of “can or bottle shock”, ie the theory that the packaging process can mute or alter certain flavour and aroma properties of beer. It wasn’t long ago that managing to snag some tinnies canned hours ago was the epitome of hoppy beer enjoyment. Don't be surprised if, in the future, your favourite IPAs are packaged a week or two before they’re unleashed on the masses.
- The pot calling the kettle (sour) black (seltzer): The rise of hard seltzers has been long foretold and the latter part of 2020 has seen plenty enter the market. We may be completely wrong, but it seems like seltzers are targeting a similar demographic to the fruited kettle sours of the last four years. So, how far might the former go in snaffling market share from the latter?
- Beer festivals: It seems absurd now but the scriptures tell of a time when you and 5,000 of your closest mates could walk mask-less into a convention centre and jam yourselves up against one another in a line to buy 150 tasters of borderline undrinkable beer. Stranger things have happened.
You can read our look back at 2020 from a national perspective here, and look out for more state and territory-based roundups over the coming days.