For more than a decade now, The Crafty Pint has ended each year by showcasing the best of Australian craft beer – the finest liquids, the people producing them, the stories surrounding them – and 2021 is no different.
As we've said before, it's a task that's become ever more challenging due to the remarkable growth not just in the number of brewing companies but also in the volume of beers and the diversity of styles too. But it's one we always enjoy taking on, aided by input from people throughout the beer community. And, for the first time, with a section dedicated to readers' picks too.
So, in keeping with the past few years, we kick things off in WA. Enjoy!
Even as 2021 ebbs, most West Australians remain blissfully unaffected by COVID and its palpable effects. The pandemic is arguably seen more as an inconvenience than a major impact on lifestyle, psyche, or outlook. The WA bubble – a result of both distance and one of the longest border closures in the world – has contained the populace, its appetite, and its spending for the second year running.
The breweries in the state's South West and North West continue to grow in number, swelling with visitors paying little regard to an on or off season, and rocking up with seemingly ample funds to spend. In fact, there’s nary a car south of Bunbury without a Wild Hop sticker, or full of Shelter and Rocky Ridge clad occupants, which reflects what may be the biggest unnoticed trend in WA beer: merch. The tribe of beer is now highly visible throughout the community; on one recent grocery shop visit, I clocked hats and tees from at least five different breweries in the aisles.
Urban brewing continues to gather pace with Pirate Life Perth finally opening and Golden West in nearby Subiaco joining a clutch of others within minutes of the CBD. No surprise to learn there are more on the way in 2022. However, it’s Perth’s under-serviced northern corridor which offers the greatest potential.
Last year’s forecasted Fremantle renaissance was pitched too soon; nonetheless, 2022 will see Gage Roads’ A Shed open to the public amid a burst of beer energy around the port city. The arrival of Tall Timbers, Brugan and Nannup Brewing ensured the distance from one brewery to the next is getting ever smaller as you make your way south from Perth too.
There have been casualties within beer-centric hospitality: Mt Lawley’s beloved Scotsman pub and its associated venues fell to the pressures of COVID, reopening as a highly gentrified venue with an exclusively Lion tap range; South West craft supporter The Goose was razed in Busselton; and Feral’s Swan Valley brewpub lease end caused an outpouring of misty-eyed nostalgia, only for one of the brewery’s original founders to announce he was to turn the venue into a tavern. Feral's future is very much uncertain too; just days after we broke that story, Coca-Cola announced it would divest from beer in Australia and was looking to sell the trailblazing brewery.
On the other side of the coin, Otherside’s parent company Triple 1 Three raised more than $1.1 million in shareholder equity to fund future growth, and the Australian government bestowed significant grants on the likes of Rocky Ridge, Spinifex, Beaten Track, Beerfarm (to fund an East Coast operation) and Blasta, a brewery which continues to pick up awards on a national level.
Established breweries reflected on relevance, before unveiling refreshed branding. Cheeky Monkey, Rocky Ridge, Gage Roads (technically in late 2020), Blasta and Eagle Bay – now in cans too – were among those to update their look and offering, highlighting market maturity and growing competition. The pitch for more sociable beers, with which brewers look to balance creative enthusiasm with the commercial realities of scale and market maturity, continues, as does the less obvious rise of contract brewing.
And there’s still more growth! The loyal following commanded by smaller WA brewing companies over the past two years swelled for Freestyle, Phat Brew Club, Heroes & Villains, Calamity’s Rod, Txoko, Campus, Impi, Geordie Bay and others, while the crew behind Exmouth-based Froth are set to open their second brewpub 1,400 kilometres south of their first, with their Bunbury venue set for a 2022 launch.
With borders opening, and the potential for West Australians to travel for the first time in two years, it will be interesting to see if this love for seemingly everything local can be sustained over the coming year.
As for the liquid, haze – in all of its various opacities, strengths and adjuncts – continues to dominate in WA, in parallel with a strong kettle / smoothie sour culture. Although barrel-ageing and mixed ferment programs remain formative for most brewers playing in that space, the beers they’re producing often arrive potent, as Seasonal, Margaret River Brewhouse and Boston in particular can attest. On the hop front, Strata and Idaho 7 provided the greatest influence, especially when it came to awards success, with Sabro and the back-in-favour Nelson Sauvin lurking.
Presented in alphabetical order, a succinct ten, whittled down from literally hundreds of beers which, when taken as a group, ably showcase the diversity and innovation found right now in WA beer.
Beerfarm – Big Hazy
For the first year in many, Beerfarm's Shirazzaweiss isn’t featuring on this list. Its omission may signal a shift in consumer taste, or maybe the sheer variety of beers now available, but don’t go sending condolence cards just yet because the Cryo Pop-laden Big Hazy (pictured above) caught the attention of punters and didn’t let go.
The Beerfarmers aren’t known for big ABVs, but with this kind of quality the demand was big. And, of course, hazy.
Cheeky Monkey – Lefties East Coast IPA and Smoothie Sours
The first half of the year saw Cheeky Monkey make further additions to their Surf Break hazy series; of the 2021 breakers, Lefties stood out and collected the Best Modern IPA trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards in May.
However, it’s Cheeky’s ridiculously-fruited smoothie sours which captured the zeitgeist. With a 1:1 beer to purée ratio, Never Crispy set the tone, only to be followed by their Portuguese Custard Tart with mango and vanilla – yes, that’s a beer – which is probably best explained by the attendant meme...
Eagle Bay & Copper & Oak – Oaked Vienna Lager
Oaked Vienna Lager arrived on the market unaware of an appetite for a well-designed, classically-styled beer, in a bottle. Nuance and character met overt drinkability which, in hindsight, appeared perfectly timed for Perth’s slide into Makuru, selling out in less time than it was lagered by the brewers.
NB Guy Southern counts working at Copper & Oak among his roles in WA's beer scene, but this is here on merit.
Heroes & Villains – Feel The Fiori IIIPA
Alongside Heroes and Villains also excellent Let Them Eat Cake Red Velvet Stout, the Osborne Park brewery’s collab with Fiori coffee roasters layered a rich bean experience into a very dialled-in, 10 percent ABV West Coast IPA.
What’s more, Feel The Fiori poured clear, and finished dry, something which is becoming ever more an anomaly in the current climate.
Innate Brewers – Smoothie Sours
Nominations were broad for Innate beers; Journeyman Lager West Coast IPL features below and Big Don’s Cold IPA was notable, however the allure of purée proved potent too.
Their Imperial Mango and Coconut Smoothie Sour’s combination of lactose, vanilla, salt, desiccated coconut and a whole lot of mango purée demanded a hurricane glass and cocktail umbrella for maximum enjoyment.
Margaret River Brewhouse – Panther Cream 2021
Welcoming East Perth’s Whipper Snapper Distillery to the party for their annual barrel-aged imperial stout release only amplified this sought-after and respected beast from Margaret River Brewhouse. This writer is not alone in regarding the serial trophy-winner as one of WA’s best beers, something which others nationally may also attest to if only there was more than 39ml available with each release.
Otherside – Redliner 2021
Although it flew a little under the radar, this year’s red-hued iteration of regular Otherside fan favourite Headliner IIPA brought a richly layered and juicy approach to the RIPA realm, a space which often relies on impact over dynamism.
Indeed, when asked for his favourite Otherside beer of the year, head brewer Rhys Lopez agreed with our contributors, and for good reason.
Out of a cast of thousands – at least it can seem that way given the rapidfire nature of their release schedule – this was a standout.
Phat Brew Club – Strawberry Fields
The six homebrewers behind Phat Brew Club's steady output saw the fledgling outfit – given a leg up by winning Margaret River Brewhouse’s Backyard Brewing comp in 2020 – grab attention for a number of highly limited releases, including Phat N’ Fluffy and Phat N’ Juicy.
Yet it was arguably their strawberry and cream hazy that topped the lot. All being well, 2022 should see the Phat crew opening a new brewery venue in West Leederville.
UPDATE: Since publishing the article, we discovered they've got a survey running to aid their application. You can take part here.
Rocky Ridge – Limited Releases
Rocky Ridge’s creative shotgun saw the Jindong brewery collect nominations for Nightman, Modern Fusion, Ken Oats, Joe’s Garage Triple WCIPA, the Cha-Ra-Bla Imperial Sours, New Currency Imperial Mango Oat Cream IPA, Good Energy West Coast Juicy IPA and, if this writer can offer another, their 12-month barrel-aged Pilsner, a beer admittedly available in only the most ephemeral of amounts. This placement, therefore, is a collection of creative trust, and what better way to highlight it than with a beer designed by national sales manager Ricky Watt.
Said beer is Excessive Adjuncts, the most expensive beer they’ve ever made. Levitiously pimped, the oak-aged, PX-spiked, 14 percent ABV beer is an indulgent, beerfied banana split.
Seasonal Brewing Co & Starward & Besk / Mane Liquor – Russian Imperial Stout
A beer which featured in our mid-year progress report clearly made a lasting impression as it remains at the forefront of WA drinkers' memories as 2021 comes to a close. Feels like that warrants a 2022 re-up from the collaborators, eh?
Otherside may not be new – indeed, they’re one of only a few WA brewing companies to have tested the waters on the East Coast in recent years – yet 2021’s team cohesion elevated their broad array and consistent stream of liquid to new heights. And it’s that word – consistent – that lies at the heart of our decision to place them here.
The Myaree brewery’s beers tended to be not just good but superior in terms of style, be it a Brazilian Amburana wood-spiked Belgian ale – a beer that no one really needs to make, but which was done with flair anyway – or their range of oat cream IPAs and pastry stouts featuring what’s missing from most – balance – while frequently melding West and East Coast IPA stylings in hoppy alchemy.
It’s the last of these for which Otherside may receive little credit, however their efforts on this front are changing IPA culture in WA. At the same time, their ever-tightening core range has morphed into a festival circuit-ready touring band, collecting accolades all year long (including WA Good Food Guide Beer Of The Year for Anthem), without hubris or hype.
Cheeky Monkey’s fifth rebrand, a scenario lampooned by their own meme-driven social media, now sees the liquid cheekily as well as very sharply clad. And, with award-winning consistency (Champion Small Australian Brewery as well as the aforementioned IPA gong at May’s AIBAs), an innovative mindset, and team energy at capacity – not to mention yet more expansion plans – the full Cheeky package has aligned.
Blasta’s Midas touch when it comes to awards saw more shiny stuff making its way into the Burswood trophy cabinet seemingly whenever they entered. The latest of their wins, for the prestigious Champion Beer at the 2021 Indies, will no doubt please the local isoamyl-banana gentry. The announcement of a new, state of the art production facility partly funded by a federal technology grant only added to another successful year.
King Road’s AIBA win (pictured) for an IPA that many West Aussies are still yet to discover. No matter, the Olbury brewery venue will be packed with close to a thousand people each weekend relishing its Strata-driven hoppiness amid brewer Steve Wearing’s finely-judged lineup.
The aforementioned closure of Feral's Swan Valley brewpub enticed many back along Haddrill Road before the October 3 denouement. Things may not have been quite the same after the 2017 sale to CCA, but beers such as the Biggie series ensured the trailblazing brewing company still had a sizeable home state following. So many palates were pleasured and taken to new places at that venue, so many award-winning beers conceived, that its closure meant a lot to many. We wait to see what Al Carragher and his team have planned when it reopens as the Baskerville Tavern and they fire up the old brew kit again.
Eagle Bay in cans. Nuff said.
For the first time in 2021, we invited our readers to nominate some of their beer highlights of the year, in part due to the travel restrictions impacting much of the country, partly to allow people to show off their love for local at a time when there’s so much going on in almost every corner of the land.
We’re also offering a prize to one participant from each region, with a name familiar to many in WA the first winner of a year’s Crafty Cabal membership and NZ Hops mixed pack: Jamie Reeves of the South West Craft Beer Bogans. Congrats!
As for the beers and moments readers enjoyed most in 2021 (aside from those covered above), there was love for a lager from one of the state’s longest-established and most remote breweries. Karen Franks picked out Beaten Track’s “easy-drinking even at 7 percent ABV” In Heels Helles as a beer that punches above its weight in flavour.
WA seems to be the state with the greatest fondness for IPLs too, and Innate’s Journeyman West Coast IPL proved a standout, with Russell Howell highlighting its full hop profile; “crisp and super refreshing heading into summer,” he reckons.
Elsewhere, two of the state’s biggest beer festivals – Froth Town and Freo BeerFest – brought joy, as did Wilson Brewing’s more parochial Battle of the Regions in Albany. Readers also enjoyed the continuing trend we noted in 2020 of venues and retailers continuing to support small indie brewers, while there were shoutouts for the long-mooted arrival of Pirate Life Perth, Mojo’s in Bunbury, the Margaret River Tuck Shop and Emily Taylor’s combo of “amazing Asian fusion” with craft beers.
Safe to say, there’s been much to enjoy for WA beer lovers in 2021, which brings us to...
IN 2022, LOOK OUT FOR…
COVID hitting WA
As borders open, the state will be faced with the reality of living with COVID. To date, there's been little impact on businesses, particularly hospitality, so the change may prove to be jarring for 2.6 million people, many of whom struggle with the basics of checking in now.
Smaller breweries stepping up
The WA beer alumni of the previous decade have grown and matured, with many of them now running substantial, and expanding, operations. With so many new openings across the state in the past couple of years, it will be fascinating in 2022 to see which of them will step up in scale and offering to join the more established players.
Continued regional brewery growth
WA is a big, sparse state, and, if the past 12 months are anything to go by, it's full of communities eager to rally around a local brewery or brewpub they can call their own. Thousands of kilometres from Perth, you'll find beer fermenting in the Pilbara, Kalbarri, Esperance, Manjimup and more. Keeping local alive continues to be a regional manifesto.
Brewers and distillers?
Across Australia, there are brewers who've been dabbling in distilling to one degree or another. In WA, it's been part of the business for Running With Thieves and Black Brewing (under the Dune banner) from the off, while Impi debuted their South African-inspired spirits (pictured above) as 2021 drew to a close. Given how many brewers in the west are fond of putting beer inside ex-spirit barrels, will we see more diversify into spirits themselves?
Thanks to everyone who assisted in the compilation of this feature. In today's kaleidoscopic times, your input is greatly appreciated. We'll be back with a look at the year in beer in Tasmania on December 15.