Two years of WA’s COVID-inspired secessionist trial run has embedded local love into the minds of consumers. At the point of purchase, punters are more actively seeking WA beers, and are more vocal about them online; this of course is supported by increasing range and overall WA beer volume.
It’s a less sexy, or hashtaggable, concept when looking back at a year in beer, yet as an overarching theme of a maturing market – both in WA and nationally – it’s bang on.
The WA upstarts of the mid-2010s spent much of 2022 increasing scale, tightening processes, and generally becoming more corporate in nature and offering. Last year, we asked in this piece who would step up from a new, lower volume yet beloved tier, and some like Phat Brew Club are making a push to reach the next step. All of which raises a broader question: Who is going to drink all this beer?
Cheeky Monkey, Rocky Ridge, Blasta (whose bar is pictured above), Margaret River Brewhouse, Bright Tank, Wilson and others have expanded, or have significant plans set in motion, pushing overall beer volume to realms not seen before, yet at the same time the overall beer market remains in slow decline. Meanwhile, on a national scale, the whole industry looks ever closer to supporting 1,000 breweries, a staggering thought considering there were just 30 at the turn of the millennium...
When paired against the rise of hard seltzer – especially those from multinationals with deep marketing budgets – as well as broad inflationary and cost of goods pressures, and with social media reach in savage decline (of which more later), this expansionary ebullience becomes quickly tempered. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the market is not static, and a West Coast IPA may never pass the lips of a younger drinker – many Gen Z drinkers have no interest in or knowledge about once award-winning APAs and the like.
Naturally, some may seek to increase volume through major retail chains, or contract brew supermarket homebrands like those already in EG's Pinnacle Drinks lineup or Coles' Tinnies range, effectively cannibalising their own potential shelf space in favour of brewery efficiency. The risk here is that any quick win could become the death knell as the Australian wine industry discovered in the late 90s and early 00s: liquid becomes managed on a spreadsheet to a retail price point a long way from the vines in a field.
The lasting impact soon becomes customers shopping to a price point, jettisoning any brand loyalty or notions of quality, and rendering consumption as a purely transactional affair. Whole categories like chenin blanc, riesling and sauvignon blanc have never fully recovered and, for many, cab sauv is more associated with Snoop Dogg than Margaret River – just imagine if this was XPA. Or if characterful IPAs become gradually replaced by homogeneous supermarket brand Aussie wheat ales across 900 retailers.
Another volume option is amplifying the Direct To Consumer (DTC) model, something which New Zealand's Garage Project have moved towards, keeping the most hype-worthy liquids for their own channel. This, on the surface, appears to build brand loyalty and collects data while shifting volume, but again looking back at the Australian wine playbook, the results might not always be as they first seem. As retailers that supported the nascent brands become increasingly shut out via DTC, there is nowhere to return to when things go wrong in big retail, or fickle online consumer interest moves on to the next big thing.
There are curious times ahead, however it seems that those with a compelling story, a galvanised and steady team, integrated branding, savvy cash flow management, and an active HACCP plan have a better chance at a bright and big volume future.
Rauch To Retro
Offsetting some of this caution is the mini-festival. Fun in beer in 2022 was bookended by Mountain Culture’s smoky February Rauchbier Festival on the East Coast and Rocky Ridge’s farm-based November Retro Beer Fest (pictured), with Range's Juicy, Hop Nation's Blobfish, Bridge Road's High Country Hops among those offering a more intimate festival experience.
The appeal of more one-on-one time with a favourite brewer, smaller crowds and, arguably, more fun struck a chord with Australian drinkers, especially when tied to a theme, or in some cases, a weekend away in a idyllic locale; as Smokey from Currumbin Valley said to this scribe at Retro Beer Fest: “This shit on Groundhog Day every weekend! Yeeeew!!” It’s a vibe that was repeated by brewers from the US, Hong Kong, Singapore and around Australia.
These, no doubt, require a lot of planning and energy for small businesses, yet the connection brings rewards long after the last sweaty bus departs; two days hanging and hosting in WA’s South West with the teams from 20 breweries and passionate punters rates as one of this writer's best ever beer experiences. Pure magic.
Which is not to say that larger scale festivals have fallen from favour. WA’s Froth Town goes from strength to strength, and was described one Crafty contributor as “every bit as good as GABS, and will only get better”, Beer & BBQ enjoyed a massive return to Adelaide in July, and the GABS team will be hoping for an uninterrupted run into May and June so as to maximise, in particular, on moving the Sydney event to Darling Harbour.
Which gets to a continuing theme: these major and mini festivals represent a massive merchandise opportunity whether that's t-shirts, headwear (trucker, five panel, bucket, running, visor, sombrero, beanies…), hoodies, tracksuits, socks, stubby holders, glassware, stickers, dog leads. Little wonder that Brand Hustle and Beer Fans have struck partnerships with festival organisers to run their merch stands as it’s as if beer has looked at music and footy’s diversified income streams (and tribalism) and said: "This'll do nicely."
Of course, without people there is no beer, nor culture. Beerfarm’s Emma Locke (above right) receiving the Young Gun of Beer at the Indies was a highlight of 2022, as was Pia Poynton's WA Brewers Industry Contribution Recognition Award.
And it’s not every day that we can help celebrate someone's 30 years in the beer industry, as we did for Jan Bruckner earlier in the year. Last Drop’s draught-only Pilsner is a coveted WA gem, made by a man who learned to brew behind the Iron Curtain [and was thoroughly enjoyed by the Melbourne wing of the Crafty team when we had a keg sent over for Pint of Origin in May – Editor].
Reach Out, Touch... What?
It’s winter 2015 and, after you’ve finished hosing down the brewery, you post a static, square ratio pic of yourself enjoying a freshly-tapped black IPA in the brewery you’ve just launched. Within moments, the digital love hearts come raining in, and by the time the following morning’s brew is underway, the post has amassed nearly 1000 likes, and more than 100 comments on Instagram and Facebook.
Roll forward to the summer of 2022/23: your social media manager spends half a day editing video content for a Ken Burns-styled 30 second video post of liquid being over-poured into a glass which receives less than 100 likes and no comments, despite your brewery now having 20,000 followers.
As you look out over the production brewery’s bar, watching the kids of local parents mimic TikTok videos, you’re left wondering how to let people that once loved you know about 1,200 litres of a new pastry seltzer fermenting behind you. And, without a decent summer, what is going to happen in 2023 without good marketing reach?
As social media continuous to evolve ever quicker, the platforms which helped make some breweries now have their own needs – needs that go beyond your data.
Meta – Facebook and Instagram’s parent company – needs your money and has skewed its algorithms, and therefore our personal feeds, towards those that pay, or at least those that hold our attention longer, hence the rise of video. Sure, some breweries have grown their reach through TikTok but such videos often reach viewers in far-flung countries and virality can be hard to replicate.
Pair this with its voluminous personal data harvest from the past decade and your feed will likely become increasingly relevant – to you, at least – but also increasingly smaller in scope. Ergo, there won’t be suggestions about a new brewery, or pastry seltzer, unless they are paying, which means those with deep pockets, and digital teams, have an increasing advantage as the Twenties progress.
So what if you’re a young brewery wobbling out of a pandemic, or one launching in ’23?
Well, the relatively easy wins enjoyed by the previous cohort will not be yours, meaning a carefully-considered branding and marketing plan is now as important as the liquid. The previous generations' homebrewer to success story is still alive, however there is far more noise to cut through, and it may require in a larger marketing budget.
The rise of BeReal, Mastodon and a resurgent Tumblr late in the year, aided in part by Twitter's Elon-gated implosion, may see online social networking less reliant on two privately-owned platforms, a change that would likely mean businesses needing to hire full-time professionals managing content across many platforms, something which is already a challenge for small breweries, venues and retailers.
BEERS OF THE YEAR
The Lager Arms Race
Without singling out a brewery, the Best New WA Beer of 2022 is, simply, lager – especially any with what one brewer described as a cold-conditioning "arms race". We're looking at you Eagle Bay, Whitelakes and Nowhereman with your 90, 100 and 123 Day pilsners respectively. What's more, there’s every hue and ABV of bottom-fermented on offer now, including dark lagers, oaked Vienna, festbiers, imperials, NZ pilsners, red lagers and the WA staple-style, India Pale Lager. It's fair to say 2022 in WA was decidedly crispy.
Likewise, pastry sours continue to find a voracious audience, as well as the occasional product recall. The likes of the AIBA Champion Australian Beer from Beerland Brewing plus offerings from Cheeky Monkey, Rocky Ridge, Phat Brew Club and more turned everything from a candy bar, dessert and seemingly Willy Wonka-inspired outings into canned confection. And it’s a trend witnessed on the other side of the Nullarbor too.
Roll Out The Barrels
This isn’t to say that Australian wild ales aren’t a thing out west too, as evidenced by Rocky Ridge and Blasta; when taken as a whole, barrel programs represent a swiftly expanding theme. In 2022, the WA brewing scene's building affection for oaky slumber spawned Margaret River Brewhouse’s Panther Cream (second place in the 2022 WA Good Food Guide Beer of the Year awards), Cheeky Monkey’s Hyperbole series of multiply-oaked Silverback stouts, Impi Brewers' wheat whisky barrel-aged imperial stout, Lucky Bay’s rum barrel-aged imperial stout, Eagle Bay’s Oaked Vienna Lager with Copper & Oak*, Rocky Ridge’s Foeder-Aged Pilsner and Artisan’s ever-expanding, Belgo-influenced wood dabblings to highlight just a few.
Now, however, let's move onto a few notable individual new releases in alphabetical order...
Aethoen Brewing New World Pale Ale
One man band Kevin Martinovich’s Aetheon announced its arrival with a characterful, moderate ABV hazy that was so good it heralds a massive year ahead for the newcomer in 2023.
Gage Roads Nitro Sleeping Giant English IPA
Entered here with zero consultation with others, and as a beer that in other formats has been around for years, I present Gage Roads' nitro'd take on their totally unfashionable Sleeping Giant English IPA that you can find on tap at their Freo home. It continues to slake as a softly-carbonated memory., with Gage Freo’s head brewer Simone Clements’ nitro treatment revealing this slumbering core range beer as a luscious, pintable, portside attendant. Nitro-crema ‘taches optional.
Otherside Shift Brewers NZ Double IPA
As predicted in this publication on March 1, this outstanding beer would likely be forgotten by the time sleigh bells rang, but thankfully I remembered just in time to pen this article... For many, Skipp and Lesk’s debut Shift Brewers offering remained a highlight of the year. Also notable from the Myaree brewers were Redliner Red IIPA, which claimed a Perth Royal Beer Awards Trophy, and Vegan Sabbath, a lactose free pastry stout that poured liker liquid Fantales.
Rocky Ridge Master of Kettles 24 Hour Barley Wine
Despite collecting Perth Royal’s Champion beer for the rarely-seen smoked wheat ale style Grodziskie, and Champion Brewery no less, it was this 24-hour boil barley wine which kept cropping up in discussions of WA’s best. The concept behind it and process involved in creating it made for a unique story, regardless of the outcome, and also, barley wine FTW!
For Western Australia, 2022 seemed a year when many recently-opened and established venues really hit their straps. In a post-ish-COVID world, new challenges pushed many breweries – especially in regional areas – to test the limits of what they could offer, some rebranding, others rethinking their model. Many moved onto greater heights while a couple sadly faded away. Amid it all, however, there were plenty of new openings.
Gage Roads Freo
It's hard to start this section anywhere other than at Gage Roads' epic waterfront home in Freo (pictured above) – a true destination venue in a destination port. The industry veterans launched to much fanfare, becoming a new favourite among the Freo drinking and doing landscape. As Crafty contributor Graham Frizzell put it: "Its location overlooking the Freo Harbour is simply stunning and world class. Of course, it's not all style and no substance with the beers being dependably good too."
Frothing Down South
After establishing their brand in Exmouth, Froth launched their second operation in the heart of Bunbury, establishing themselves as a hub for the port city.
A little further south, and drinkers wanting perfect froth on their pilsners can find just that at The Servo Taphouse, which opened right at the tail-end of the year with no less than a dozen imported side-pour taps lining the bar.
There was plenty to get excited about in and around Perth, not least Ruinbar (pictured below) in the bustling Northbridge precinct, with craft beer and hospo aristocracy at the helm. They also popped the doors open to Pretty Good Pizza next door, where beers can be purchased via vending machine.
Golden West opened the doors of their brewpub in the revitalised Subiaco district after the 2021 version of this article was published, bringing another great addition to an area that seems to be drawing plenty of top notch hospo offerings. Hygge Bar launched with plenty of craft cred too, serving up solid craft offerings and serious eats.
It's been quite the roller-coaster for the former brewpub home of Feral Brewing. After ceasing operations late in 2021, the site was taken on by one of the brewery's founders, Al Carragher of top Melbourne boozer, the Great Northern. Maintaining the old-as-new vibe, he brought in former Feral brewer Will Irving to create beers for Slumdog Brewing, which are now brewed on the recommissioned Feral brewpub kit at the renamed Baskerville Tavern.
Western Australian craft drinkers have also been enjoying the further spreading of wings of the state's brewers, with an uptick in crafty tap points around the state across bars, pubs and restaurants. The Corner Dairy (Doubleview), Foxtrot Unicorn (Perth), Margaret River Tuck Shop and General Public's three venues are just a few that have newly-improved tap lists.
King Road’s ascension may well be the quietest yet in the years we've been publishing year-end reviews. Instead of taking the Pokémon approach, the Oldbury team has focused on dialling in quality across a concise core range, and in the process picked up ABIA trophies this year and last, plus Perth Royal awards, while dominating the WA Good Food Guide Beer of the Year – first place for IPA, third for Lager, and 25th for Pale. A well-timed brewery expansion ran concurrently to a Zendoke rebrand which has given the multi-awarded liquid a skin to match.
When asked about the King Road’s whirlwind 2022, head brewer Steve Wearing (pictured above) says much was consumed by the decommissioning and recommissioning of the brewery, while the accolades were welcomed with his usual calm and warm humility.
“We certainly don't brew for the awards, but I would be lying if I didn't say the Lager taking out the Trophy at AIBA, and then IPA topping WA Good Food Guide awards weren't huge moments for us," he says.
“We are so lucky to have a huge amount of incredible beer available to us in Australia, and I have to say particularly in WA! To have our beers recognised amongst the top in the state, and country, is a huge honour, and a big pat on the back to our entire team."
And as for what’s next, he notes a new fresh hop festival in 2023, and “the rise of lagers to continue! For a long time craft beer drinkers have assumed all lagers are light and bland [but] a few WA brewers are doing a great job recently of showing that a lager can be a bigger and more complex beer, and are often a better way to showcase hops."
How Was 2022 For You?
Sticking to a theme of sorts, Steve and his team aren't the only folks with a brewery south of Perth that's quietly amassing a growing fanbase while focusing on brewing excellent beers that are the opposite of hype-chasers – and put lagers front and centre too. It feels like nothing leaves Whitelakes' Baldivis brewery that isn't immaculately-honed and session-friendly, with the aforementioned 100 Day Pilsener and the canned-in-2022 Pale Ale exemplars of their respective styles.
At the helm is Sean Symons, someone who will need little introduction to most in WA beer given his past life as Swan's head brewer and many roles throughout the Asia-Pacific beer industry, which includes being the designer of WA's much-loved Dingo Lager.
How's 2022 been for you?
It has been interesting to say the least. We started off still in fear of COVID-19, with ritualistic bi-weekly RAT tests at the hint of a sniffle. By April, however, it seemed like everyone had had enough and was just lurching from one measles party to the next with World Beer Cup, AIBA, WABA conference etc... I think we thoroughly self-inoculated our own industry.
Thankfully, from a Whitelakes point of view it was all relatively innocuous, with a few days working from home. It has decimated front of house on the venue side, though, initially with people getting sick and now with larger companies paying through the nose for labour; in short, it’s hard to get staff.
Any standout moments?
Our standout moment was the AIBAs this year where normally we’ve been good with one or two golds, some silver and some bronze. This year was a step change with five golds across the range and the rest silver – so the team were stoked with that consistency and recognition of effort.
We picked up a trophy for the dark lager at the Perth Beer Awards and it then came sixth in the WA Good Food Guide awards. We're developing a bit of a cult following along with our 100 Day Pils. [I have to admit, when presented with a can at Froth Town, deep into a second day of sampling at the festival, I become an instant evangelist for the beer – Editor]
Which beers from WA have you enjoyed most in 2022?
So many good beers in WA currently. When off-piste I reach for, in no particular order, Otherside, Beerfarm, Eagle Bay and the King Road IPA has been especially good.
On a more commercial note, Stone & Wood Pacific Ale has reached new levels of consistency and drinkability – well worth revisiting if you liked it before.
What can people expect from you and Whitelakes in 2023?
We've been planning a venue update for a while now so this will kick into gear for us in 2023: more space for kids, centralised kitchen, and al fresco dining areas on the cards.
You can find other articles in The Best Of Beer 2022 series here. Thanks to the wider Crafty Pint team and the industry gurus who have helped in the compilation of this series.
Also, if you're going to be in the state's South West in January, join The Crafty Pint for a celebration of WA beer when we host a blind tasting at Rocky Ridge on January 13.