One hundred and seven days. Much as we would like to expunge the whole June to October period from our collective memories, for most NSW residents in 2021 the Delta-induced lockdown looms like a spectre above any reflection on the year that was.
For almost four months, pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants throughout the Greater Sydney area were shuttered and tantalisingly out of bounds for more than 5.5 million thirsty people. The entire hospitality industry, denied the full additional federal government support of the 2020 lockdown, was forced to shed its largely casual workforce.
Many venues retained skeleton staff as they made the switch to bottleshops and delivery-only restaurants, while many more closed completely for the entire period. There were glimmers of hope, however, for the smaller, more agile breweries who rely less on kegs and more on cans. As in 2020, anyone who could take advantage of an established direct-to-consumer business model thrived.
As restrictions lifted for the fully vaccinated on October 11, and the eager but unkempt community-at-large flocked to hairdressers and favourite local haunts, the focus shifted to securing enough staff to service the people. Even two months later, there are thousands of hospitality jobs vacant as the industry grapples with the reality of doing business without the cheap and all too often exploited migrant workforce.
For all the doom and gloom, it’s easy to forget that for the first six months of 2021 things were largely back to normal. Despite the constant talk of craft beer oversaturation in Sydney, 2021 saw at least another five brewing companies enter the fray in the shape of Freshwater, Brickworks, 2 Halfs, Kicks and Bucketty’s.
The boom continues not just in the capital – plenty of regional breweries have been established or expanding too. Badlands in Orange have grand plans for 2022, Three Tails in Mudgee was launched with Nomad’s founders at the helm, Lake Mac opened in Lake Macquarie, Wicked Elf built a buzzing taproom while in COVID hibernation, and there’s been a veritable explosion of new breweries either already welcoming customers or in planning throughout the southeast corner of the state (more on that later).
Meanwhile, after what seemed like years of announcements and planning, the brewery formerly known as Modus Operandi opened their Merewether facility in October. Located a couple of kms south of Newcastle’s CBD, Modus Merewether is not only the kind of striking taproom and venue befitting Sydney’s original Hype Brewery®, it also gives the operation enjoying growth with their NORT no-alc offshoot a tenfold increase in production capacity.
On the actual beer front, we said it last year and we’ll likely say it again every year thus: the breadth of variety and quality of beer in NSW has never been better. It causes tremendous angst for the poor suckers who must write articles like these, but there is so much exceptional beer now available that even coming up with a shortlist is a Sisyphean task. No sooner have you decided on your favourites than another 60 beers will roll in, forcing you to start all over again.
Hundreds of distinct beers across almost every conceivable style pour into bottleshops and bars each month. How many people can claim to have tasted the three different blue beers released by NSW breweries in 2021, let alone the endless stream of low bitterness, soft and juicy, hazy IPAs? Anyone who claims with any certainty that their list of best beers is the accurate and correct one is a liar and charlatan.
Anyway, before we commence our accurate and correct list of the best of NSW for 2021, there is a slight disclaimer.
Of course, we try as hard as possible to solicit opinions far and wide for these articles but, regrettably, this is going to be a very Sydney-centric list. With travel plans thwarted for half the year and regional breweries struggling to meet the demand of their local community let alone get beers into Sydney bottleshops, the buzz surrounding breweries like Seven Mile in the north and Dangerous Ales in the south has remained, for the most part, just that.
We are hashtag blessed with the privilege of trying more beers than most, but there really is just so much happening all the time. It’s a lovely problem to have.
If you're after evidence there are some very good brewers making very good beers right now, this should help, as we present, in alphabetical order, some of the best of New South Wales in 2021.
Akasha Brewing Co – Little Korben IPA
In the middle of the year, Akasha released a pared-back version of their flagship beer, Korben Double IPA. It’s not often breweries take their favourite beer and strip it back for a new special release. Most of the time, as with Philter’s Double Red below, it works the other way round.
With Little Korben, Dave Padden and his team managed to take everything that’s beloved about the big boy and compress it into a 6 percent ABV West Coast banger. Huge tropical aromas, an earthy long lasting bitterness and a no nonsense malt body, Little Korben is everything you could want from a modern IPA.
Other, more extravagant Projects releases from the Five Dock brewers attracted more excited chatter (well, they do keep knocking out triple and quadruple IPAs , after all), but this was the beer that had the Crafty team purring with appreciation at a job very well done.
Bracket Brewing – Bramble
If there was an award for the little brewery with the biggest word of mouth support, it would be Bracket first, and daylight second.
Since opening in August 2020, Mark and Mike Meletopoulo have rapidly built a diehard following amongst the city’s more engaged beer fans. With no core range and a penchant for an eclectic mix of beer styles generally leaning towards big, hoppy boys, it was the imperial fruited sour Bramble that garnered the most love.
The 8.5 percent ABV sour is intensely fruited with a heady mix of blackberries, raspberries and boysenberries, all with the aim of creating the kind of colour that, if it occurred on an animal species, would likely indicate a level of poisonousness hitherto unknown to science. With hints of vanilla and a thoroughly understated tartness, Bramble proves that Bracket are far more than simple purveyors of lupulin.
Mountain Culture - VHS & Chill
How could we dare compile this list without an entry from the Katoomba killers, Mountain Culture? After the unending success of Be Kind Rewind (which made last year's list), Mountain Culture continued their unceasing dedication to IPAs (and, weirdly enough, decoction lagers) in 2021.
It was VHS & Chill, DJ McCready’s homage to the IPAs of yore that edged out numerous others to make the list for 2021. Dubbed a Retro IPA, VHS & Chill is a vintage combination of caramel malts, orange, grapefruit and dank pine. Think a leaner Sierra Nevada Torpedo. Sounds pretty bloody good, hey?
That said, as one of those sorts who loves all the decoction lagers DJ puts out, if I could make a captain’s pick it would be their Nevermore Schwarzbier.
Philter – Double Red
Since opening in August 2020, Philter has been a joyous addition to Marrickville’s infamous brewery trail. With an established and much lauded core range, having their own space has seen Philter branch out with a few more seasonal releases.
Released in the depths of winter and the Sydney lockdown, the Double Red Ale had the masses clambering for that perfect triumvirate of malt sweetness, resinous bitterness and tropical hop aromas. An expertly crafted beer from a brewery renowned for quality and consistency, who collected another trophy at this year's Indies for their Raspberry Pash, sparking joyous celebrations in their brewery store room.
Slow Lane – Threefold
It really is testament to the boom suffusing the Sydney beer scene at the moment that a little brewery focusing on some of the most uncool beer styles imaginable have managed to carve out a sizeable space for themselves amid the hops and haze.
Slow Lane have released an expansive array of beers this year, which is doubly impressive considering how long so many of them take to brew. But it was the pitch perfect Belgian tripel that captured the hearts and minds of Crafty contributors and awards judges alike.
Starting the year with a gold medal at the AIBAs, Threefold also went on to take out trophies for Best NSW Beer and Best Packaged Beer at the Sydney Royal Beer & Cider Awards. This beautiful golden amalgam of spicy esters, phenols, cereal grain and honey sweetness is utterly worthy of any and all plaudits that it could possibly be given.
Sunday Road Brewing – Vacation Rental/Sweet Escape
2021 saw the introduction of the cold IPA to the Australian market. Plenty of breweries had a crack at their own version of the style, but arguably none as successfully as Sunday Road. Vacation Rental introduced a lot of people to them for the first time with a lean and clean tropical hop orgy, and the recently-released Sweet Escape built on the success of its predecessor while leaning into a more classic West Coast flavour profile with the razor thin malt body being done over by earthy pine and a bracing bitterness.
With Sweet Escape taking the top spot in our cold IPA blind tasting and their Cryotherapy Hazy IPA winning champion new world style pale ale at this year’s AIBAs, Sunday Road have rightly cemented themselves as one of the darlings of the NSW beer industry.
Wildflower Brewing & Blending – Wildflower Brewing & Blending
Fresh from being crowned Champion NSW Brewery 2021 at the Indies awards (after the trophy was initially awarded to fellow Marrickvillians Philter due to a post-judging admin error), the fermentation wizards at Wildflower again dominated the lists of best new beers sourced from the local beer community.
It’s a complete cop out to name a brewery rather than nailing your colours to the mast by choosing a specific beer. And, while we’ve managed to pick just one in previous years, this year we’re taking the cowards way out. With a staggering 13 different Wildflower releases from 2021 nominated, picking any one beer proved if not impossible, then possibly unfair.
It’s been a massive year on Brompton Street with the release of the Bright Side series using smoke tainted grapes from the 2020 bushfires, a series of wild ales brewed with perennial grains in collaboration with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, and all the annually-released fruited Saints, among others.
To top it all, off the failure of their treasured house culture in August has demonstrated just how wild brewing wild ale can be. That they can still manage to produce such a consistently exquisite product, beloved by so many, is genuinely remarkable.
They're little more than a year old even now, yet Bracket Brewing spent 2021 riding a wave of popularity primarily generated through social media beer groups and Instagram posts. When The Crafty Pint first spoke to Meletopoulo Jnr & Snr in 2020, the tap list consisted of four different East Coast IPA variants, a West Coast IPA and a helles bock that could only be purchased at the brewery, with a keg or two heading out to select local venues. As it currently stands, you’ll find Bracket’s cans on shelves throughout the Greater Sydney area and beyond, plus online direct-to-consumer sales that see each new release turning up on socials Australia wide.
While the aura surrounding the small Alexandria brewery has been built on the back of the big, hop driven, hazy IPAs, Bracket’s regular forays into stouts and fruited sours have garnered plenty of attention too, especially from those in the beer industry.
After quietly slipping into the top five highest rated Australian breweries on Untappd, Bracket will enter 2022 as a key destination for many interstate beer lovers desperate to finally get their lips around these acclaimed brews at source.
Stone & Wood sells to Lion
On September 9, 2021, news broke that the Fermentum Group had been 100 percent acquired by Lion, the Australasian beverage company owned by Japanese conglomerate, Kirin. Even with endless buyout speculation that grew each time another "big" independent was purchased by one of the much bigger boys, Stone & Wood’s consistent and often firmly-stated commitment to independence did give those who care about such things the hope maybe it would never happen.
For many, many people, a schooner of Pacific Ale in the very early 2010s would precipitate a significant shift in their entire outlook on beer and alcoholic beverages in general. In the case of your humble author, without that first taste of Pacific Ale at an engagement party at a pub in Brisbane’s West End, there’s practically zero chance I would be the one writing this article.
The Crafty Pint and others have written at length of the impact the sale might or might not have on the Australian beer industry as a whole, but at the very least for the average punter who’s passionate about independence, not being able to rely on the relative ubiquity of Pacific Ale definitely stings a bit.
At times, it can feel like every week is a highlight for Mountain Culture as they joyously take to their socials to announce their latest releases; the construction of a sizeable production facility is confirmation of just how fast they've grown too (of which more later).
But, aside from the conveyor belt of new releases and the facility that will help that conveyor belt move faster and in greater volume, one moment brought surprise and smiles in equal measure. They'd been trailing their plans for a March 2022 beer festival featuring many of their much-loved beer brethren for some time, teasing they had a twist up their sleeves. Lo and behold, when autumn rolls around, they'll be hosting Australia's first rauchbier festival, with all participants required to bring along a new beer featuring smoke in one way or another.
While nobody would ever claim the March 2020 lockdown was fun, there was a sense of novelty and we're-all-in-this-together Blitz spirit that helped get people through. As the inhabitants of our neighbours to the south can no doubt attest, those that follow can be tough to approach with such vim. That was certainly the case in Sydney, and ultimately the entire state, as the 107 days started mounting.
Yet there were those who managed to rise above: people who repurposed their businesses overnight, others who did their best to support impacted hospo workers or bring pub vibes to punters stuck at home.
Undisputed kings of the lockdown in this respect were Willie The Boatman, who picked up where they left off in 2020 with a series of uproarious videos promoting their various escapades / means of staying alive, bringing much-needed laughs and levity to their fans. They were even quick off the mark once restrictions started easing, most notably with the amusingly-monikered 80% Cooked Festival. In a sign the Cosmos was paying attention, despite taking place when people were still warily readjusting to being allowed out again, they sold 80 percent of tickets.
Indies at The Ashes
It might only be a handful of taps (one in one bar in one stand for Grifter), but the news that two of Sydney's inner west indies (Young Henrys being the other) are now pouring at the SCG in time for the Ashes is a very welcome development.
It wasn’t too long ago that the very thought of anything other than obscenely priced plastic schooners of Great Northern was fanciful. But thanks to Merivale's takeover of hospo at the SCG and Sydney Football Stadium from 2022 until 2027, the offerings for sports fans and looking up, and right now anyone willing to make the walk round to the Noble Bradman Messenger Stand can treat themselves to an obscenely priced plastic schooner of Grifter Pale or Newtowner instead. Marvellous news, that.
If there's a Sydney brewery that might feel aggrieved not to appear in the Standout Beers above, especially as their Welcome To The Cryopop Experience featured in our mid-year wrap, it would be One Drop. More than anything, their insane release schedule can be a little like not being able to see the forest for the trees. As our own Mick Wust puts it: "One Drop is like an octopus, and that’s continued to show this year: stupid pastry beers, super fruity sours, their solid core range, barrel program, distilling and opening a gin bar upstairs… dayum!"
They released many eye-catching – and, on occasion weird and experimental – beers, including Void – "all the more interesting since the can didn’t tell you what it was" – and We Jammin' Double Fruited Sour – "Totally unique, masses of flavour," according to reader Ben Bishop, and their Twisted Fate DDH IIPA all finding favour.
On the beer front, aside from those brewers and beers namechecked above, there was love for Seven Mile (both their Classico West Coast IPA and German Pilsner), SHOUT's cold IPA – "Just insanely hoppy and delicious," says reader Kat Wood, Bucketty's punsome, for-a-good-cause Tawny Grogmouth, Frenchies' and Hopsters' Cool Kids collab series, Hope's imperial super sours, Springside's Lemon Meringue NEPA, and Rusty Penny's High St Haze.
On the venue front, there's still plenty of love for Newtown's longstanding craft haven, the Union Hotel, and also the unique newcomer down the road. Odd Culture is like little else, with its focus on the wilder, funkier and funnest forms of fermentation and brings something new to the state's beer bar offering.
Little wonder that there were plenty of people relieved that GABS made it before the walls closed in; on a rather smaller scale, the Zwanze Day event at Wildflower proved a winner for those in attendance. And while the inner west's version has garnered most attention, readers Jon Maratheftis and Paul Fraser were eager to highlight the fact you can now enjoy brewery treks through Alexandria and Brookvale respectively.
In 2022, Look Out For…
Events! Festivals! Tap Takeovers! Travel!
Wait, wasn’t this a prediction from last year? With vaccination rates almost hitting a cap, boosters on the way and most borders already open or opening (honestly, WA, what’s the go?) maybe we’ll finally see a long-term return to some sort of normalcy. What could possibly go wrong???
*Omicron has entered the chat*
South Coast to kick off in a major way
With much the focus on the major metropolitan centres, NSW’s South Coast has been quietly turning into a major beer destination, with 2022 likely to see the opening or expansion of several new brewing operations.
The big dogs, Milton’s Dangerous Ales (pictured above), look almost ready to christen their brewhouse expansion, and the mates behind Jervis Bay are in the process of planning out an environmentally-minded expansion in Huskisson. Meanwhile, we’ve had the likes of Husky Brewing in South Nowra, South Yeast in North Nowra, Flaming Galah opening their venue, and Tilba Brewing Co in Central Tilba arrive in the last 12 months.
Then there's another three slated to open in early 2022, plus a notice of intent to brew onsite at Ryefield Hops, all joining the likes of the more established Cupitts (who picked up some gold medals at major awards in 2021), Longstocking and Big Niles. The South Coast Ale Trail launched late in the year too. In short, it’s all happening down south!
Mountain Culture Emu Plains
With construction well under way for Mountain Culture’s production facility at the foot of the mountains, how will such a dramatic increase in capacity affect one of Australia’s most hyped breweries? Can you make enough beer to meet demand and still be cool?
Thanks to everyone who assisted Judd in the compilation of this celebration of 2021, in particular Mick Wust and Mat Farrington of CanBEERra. Here's to another great year for NSW beer in 2022!
You can find other entries in this series here.