The Best Of Beer 2023: Victoria

December 12, 2023, by Will Ziebell

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The Best Of Beer 2023: Victoria

As 2023 draws to a close, it's time for our annual jaunt around the land to see who and what has stood out from the crowd over the past 12 months. We'll be stopping in every state, as well as the Territories, and inviting some of those who've enjoyed a great year to tell us all about it.
We've already taken a broader look at the major national trends and moments of 2023; here, we train our focus more locally, starting this year's journey in Victoria.
It's a combination of standout moments, beers that were great, had an important story to tell, or managed both, and the people that help make the industry what it is.


Standout Moments

Dollar Bill's Wild New Heights

 

One of the state's – in fact, country's – smallest and most idiosyncratic breweries continued to impress judges at the country's largest beer awards, achieving a first along the way. 

In May, Dollar Bill claimed their second Champion Australian Beer trophy at the Australian International Beer Awards just two years after their first in 2021, this time for Candy Paint, a wild ale made with cherries. If that wasn't enough of an achievement – beating every other beer entered by an Australian brewery twice in three AIBA competitions – they had another up their sleeves.

Just three months on from her emotional acceptance speech in Melbourne, co-founder Fiona Nolle took to the stage at the end of the Indies on the Gold Coast for a shimmying dance after they were awarded Champion Australian Independent Beer. This one hinted at the consistency they're achieved with their barrel-aged and blended beers too, as it went to Gold Teeth, a blended wild ale with peaches which, in an earlier vintage, had secured the tiny Ballarat operation their first AIBA win. 

It's a remarkable run for Fi and Ed, who make up the entirety of Dollar Bill's workforce and whose wins have been among the most warmly welcomed that we can remember in 13-plus years of The Crafty Pint. This year marked another achievement, as they installed Bright Brewery's original brewhouse on their property so they would no longer have to produce wort elsewhere.

The country's biggest awards nights proved to be a happy hunting ground for other Victorians too. Deeds picked up Best Specialty Flavoured Beer for their BBA Peanut Butter Imperial Stout, Best Specialty Beer for Ruminations, plus Champion Victorian Brewery and Champion Medium Australian Brewery at the AIBAs, with Mountain Goat, now owned by Asahi, doubling up with a trophy for their 25th anniversary version of Hightail and Champion Large Australian Brewery. The equivalent award at the Indies went to their fellow Melburnians Brick Lane.


The Brewpubs Of The Future

 

There might not have as many new brewery openings in Victoria compared with some previous years but, in terms of impact, there have been many that caught the eye. 

While we could be getting ahead of ourselves here, given none of the new venues they announced this year are yet open, Moon Dog have made it clear the well of inspiration that brought Moon Dog World, with its lagoon, waterfall and Wall of Warnie, to life is far from running dry. 

They were given the green light to open a vast three-storey venue at Franco Cozzo's old joint in Footscray, where they're planning a Wild West theme including bucking bull, honky tonk bar, pool tables, live music and a "secret" pianola bar. If that wasn't enough, they also unveiled plans for Frankston and another home next door to Marvel Stadium.  

But, while those announcements injected some moments of joy into 2023, many of the year's new arrivals opened their doors with real panache, offering truly unique experiences to punters. Over the last few years, breweries like Stomping Ground and Bodriggy have elevated the brewpub experience in Melbourne, and the choice for the discerning beer drinker continues to grow. 

Towards the start of the year, Molly Rose opened their restaurant, bar and beer garden (pictured above) next door to their Collingwood brewpub. If their original venue was created on a shoestring budget and with their own bare hands, this is more like the endgame envisaged by founder Nic Sandery and his passion to change perceptions around beer and see it valued as highly as wine on the dinner table. 

There's a gorgeous horseshoe bar as you walk in, a small pilot brewery system as you turn for the beer garden, and a kitchen at the rear, all of which are highlighted by their intimate Chef's Table dinners: five courses paired with different drinks produced in house (where they're also dabbling in tiny batch spirits). The menu blends cuisines from around the world, the venue's cocktails are as thoughtfully considered as everything else, and they even turned their stewardship of drinks and dining into the unique Smile, Enjoy! festival that saw six breweries showcase their beers alongside matched dishes. 

 

 

A short drive northwest, Bridge Road Brewers continued the evolution of their nigh-on 20-year story as they launched a Brunswick East brewpub which is completely distinct from their Beechworth home. It's a multi-level, sprawling affair that has instantly connected with its new community. 

This writer is particularly enamoured with the section pictured above, which opens onto the beer garden and gives solo drinkers the perfect place to chat with staff over a pint, or make new friends with anyone sitting nearby. 

Likewise, Brick Lane's modern taproom inside the Queen Vic Market has a bar designed with multiple heights to make it more accessible for people looking to take part in the joy that can come with having a beer at a bar. More recently, the upstairs restaurant opened with a food menu that focuses on the freshest produce from the neighbouring marketing stalls, and includes a raw bar too.

It's a trend that's not exclusive to Victoria, either, with Flaming Galah's slick, androgynous reworking of an abandoned corner pub in inner-Sydney Chippendale a shining example of the potential for brewing companies to move beyond the warehouses and suburban areas in which the industry has enjoyed success to date.

Meanwhile, given 2022 ended with uncertainty surrounding the future of another brewery venue looking to offer something different, it only seems right to bring that story up to date. Thankfully, there was a happy ending (albeit not for Alphington locals who'd welcomed their original venue in 2022) as La Sirène brought the look and feel of an inner-city wine bar to Reservoir after being forced out of their original home. The year isn't yet done either: as we type these words, we're just days away from Fox Friday opening their impressive Richmond taproom.


Last Beers For Two Pioneers

 

There's been enough gloom to report on in 2023 – much of which we kept for our Year In Beer national feature rather than these localised affairs – but it feels we can't let this pass without a final mention for a brewing company that blazed a trail for Aussie beer.

This year saw the closure of Australia's first female-founded brewery, Two Birds. In June, Lion announced the decision to pull the pin on both the brand and their Spotswood brewery after acquiring it as part of the deal for the Fermentum group in 2021. Sure, the brand hadn't been setting the sales world alight of late, and it wasn't the only of Lion's craft brands to get the chop in 2023, but the loss of the pioneering operation hit hard.

The brewery founded by Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen represented a more diverse and inclusive beer industry, inspired many to enter the beer world who otherwise might not, and put out plenty of damn fine beers over the years. So, while those beers are now gone, we'll finish with the words of one brewer who reached out to The Crafty Pint to discuss the brewery's impact on her career. 

"Seeing two women at the forefront of craft beer in Australia showed me that it was possible to not just exist as a token in this industry, but to thrive in it and to shape it." James Smith


Standout Beers

Hawkers Experimental Series

 

In previous iterations of this features, Hawkers have tended to be a bit of a problem child for the team at The Crafty Pint. The Rezza brewers generally release so many standout beers that it's tough to narrow them down to just one or two. Once again, we've failed in our task to pick out just one from another year of high-quality consistency, but we've narrowed it down a little: their hop series (admittedly, that is series plural, not singular). 

Their Four Seasons series of IPAs is a cute little experiment in which they use the same raw ingredients but in different ratios in order to create vastly different beers suited to the season in which they're released. Cute, maybe, but also containing a 10 percenter that was way more drinkable than a hazy triple IPA should be. (That said, it was far from the biggest beer to leave Henty Street in 2023, as their barrel-aged program continued to deliver the goods very, very, very, very, very, very frequently. 

But it was the Experimental Series that stood out the most as the brewery used multiple beers to explore the concept of terroir in hops. First up was Sheer Terroir, a trio of beers hopped with Citra in which the only point of difference was the farm in America from whence the Citra in each was sourced. They followed that with Fashionably Punctual, made with Nelson Sauvin from Freestyle Hops which was picked a few weeks apart in early and late harvest, while Trio Of Dips showcased Cascade hops grown on three different continents. 

Each series offered a fascinating way to explore hops, providing drinkers with a rare insight into variability, and a glimpse of something we expect to see more in the future. 


Getting On The Terps

 

Speaking of glimpsing the future, it feels like it would be remiss of us to let this section pass without mentioning the arrival of terpenes in beer. Sure, their appearances have been scarce to date, but we're happy to put this down as a marker to come back to in future years. 

Terpenes are compounds responsible for aromas and flavours in many plants and some animals, including hops and cannabis in which they are particularly abundant. Brewers have started using them as a means to supercharge certain characteristics.

Hargreaves Hill were among the first via their twin IPA release, 0 IBU and 100 IBU, which – as the names suggest – was also an exploration of bitterness. But it is fellow Victorians Wolf of the Willows who really seem to have the bit between their teeth.

They've been using terpenes derived from popular cannabis strains to add an extra dimension to their beers, initially with Pineapple Express, which was soon followed by King Louis XIII. The latter was a real standout, packed to the hilt with fragrant aromas and flavours incredibly similar to those brewers can elicit from hops, yet still entirely their own. 

And, while we're attempting to look into the future of IPAs, it's worth mentioning the growing number of Cali IPAs starting to do the rounds. We'll have a feature on the sub-style in early 2024, but have enjoyed many of those from the early adopters, not least those from Banks.


Here Come The Belgians!

 

If you were looking for positives to come from the challenges of recent years, one may well be the tendency of many business owners and their teams to start looking inwardly and asking: "Who are we?", "What do we stand for?" and, perhaps, "What on earth have we become?"

As the beer world changed at a pace that would put a runaway train to shame, you can understand the temptation to chase the new, the shiny, the thing-people-are-shouting-about-on-Insta. But if it's not who you are, or what you want to be, then where's the longevity in an industry in which one's story is as powerful as one's beers?

Which brings us to Watts River's Belgian series that alighted in May. There have been other Belgian-influenced beers from Victorian brewers in 2023 we might rate more highly in liquid terms – Sobremesa, in particular, seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and I've a soft spot for the furrow Luke Smith is ploughing at the tiny, farm-based Green Gully – but the whole: "Here's a single, a dubbel, a tripel and a quadrupel – in unfashionable stubbies, no less – with labels that just say, '1, 2, 3, 4' on them" approach had a certain dogged appeal, imbued with honesty and authenticity about who and what Watts River are and always have been.

As the maturing industry finds its feet again over the coming years, we expect to see more breweries reining in the chasing to instead rediscover what they liked about themselves in the first place. JS


Ocean Reach Artist Series 

 

So, having made a song and dance about an avowedly old-school regional operation, how about flipping things on their head straight away for a regional brewer that's very much of their time?

Ocean Reach have quietly been crafting some excellent hop-forward beers on Phillip Island for some time and, in 2023, their Artist Series releases stood out in terms of delivering a complete package. 

For this year's series, they handed over the keys to their graphics department to artist Aidan Howes, who worked closely with the brewery on Synth Blossoms, Red Shift Horizon, Dreamwave Temple and Virtual Oasis. Each can featured vaporwave-inspired artwork and subtle Easter eggs on 500ml cans, while the contents seemed to match the visual vibe just so, proving just as enjoyable to drink as their labels were to admire. JS


Best In Show

 

It's almost like the beer was created to appear in such an article...

So, given we've steadily been moving away from trying to make these lists a lineup of the absolute best beers to come out of each state (after all, how the $%^& can anyone be expected to try them all?) and more in the direction of beers that say or stand for something, where does Best In Show fit in? For us, it's about two things: brewing with intent, and the collaborative nature of the local beer world.

The intent comes from the fact this collaboration had a purpose, and that purpose contributed to the collaboration. While Moon Dog still put plenty of small batch one-offs through the taps of venues, they release far fewer limited releases in cans – and they're far from alone in taking this more considered approach at a time when the market had become overloaded with more of everything all of the time. Each one has to have a reason to exist, and thus a reason to be bought, and in this case it was born of their desire to brew a celebratory beer with their fellow Indies 2022 state champions.

Each of the participating brewers was invited to contribute ingredients or a process or an idea based on how they brew their hazy IPAs, which was then turned into a delicious hazy IPA. 

If the independent sector of the local beer industry – not just breweries but the venues and retailers that stock them and the producers that supply them – is going to emerge from the current economic shitshow without suffering too much more damage, its various parts need to try to work together as best as they can. Best In Show was a can that showed just what that can achieve. JS


Breakthrough Brewery: Love Shack

  

"Experience The Experience."

It's a motto that's so bad it's very, very good – and it's hard to think of a brewery that better suits those words than Castlemaine's Love Shack. Having launched inside a tiny shed in the Theatre Royale's beer garden in 2020, the past year has been a big one for the brewery, not least as it saw them open the doors of their Bar & Bistro.

Since launching, founders Conna Mallet and Harrison Cox have forged their own path, eschewing brewing a steady stream of limited releases or even giving their beers new names, instead focusing on making sure everything that leaves their hands is a quintessentially pint-worthy beer. 

They're best enjoyed in a space that squarely puts the word "pub" into brewpub and feels a little like it's been lifted straight out of Melbourne's history, thanks to the vintage paintings and photos that line the walls, and the long wooden bar that's just built to spend hours on and framed by native Australian flowers. 

Their kitchen is under the control of chef Joel Baylon, who has worked at Melbourne's highly-acclaimed Aru and The Moon. In Castlemaine, he's focused on creating quality bistro fare so, while you can grab a burger and parma, it's advisable not to skip on dishes like roasted Brussel sprouts with chickpea purée, the pickled fennel, or the Swiss gruyere and potato croquettes.

If we hadn't planned to include Love Shack here, their venue would have been mentioned alongside those in the Standout Moments above anyway.


How Was 2023 For You?
Lachlan Jones of Benchwarmer

Locky with Masahiro Taicho of Uchu Brewing, taken in Shibuya in July 2023.

 

Lachlan Jones is best known in Melbourne beer circles as the driving force behind Benchwarmer, the West Melbourne bar that doesn't just showcase great beer on tap, but serves up some of the tastiest izakaya-inspired snacks in the land. In recent years, it's been the home of beers from Asia as part of Pint of Origin too.

Beyond running the bar, Locky has also been forging relations with the craft beer community in Japan, as we touched upon in The Year In Beer 2023 feature. With ambitious plans to build on what's he's already achieved to date, and his finger in multiple beery pies, we figured he'd be a fine figure to cast an eye over the past 12 months.


How was 2023 for you and Benchwarmer?

It was a very mixed bag for Benchies considering how challenging things have been in general for the beer industry. We experienced the highs of organising a series of collaborations between our favourite Australian and Japanese breweries, then getting to travel to Japan for their launch of the beers, which included bar-hopping with all of our friends there.

Then there were the lows of a tightening economy, creating a quieter winter than ever; some days it felt pointless to keep the doors open in the hope someone might stop in for a beer. All-in-all, it was a learning experience and we were lucky to have enough support from our customers and the Melbourne beer community that we were able to weather the storm.


Which beers from Victoria have you enjoyed most in 2023?

My favourite beer of the year was the Japanese-style Belgian quad with adzuki beans and kinako powder that Deeds brewed in collaboration with Kyoto Brewing for our Pint of Origin event.

There have been so many great beers from Victoria, but the 2023 re-brew of the Candy Paint barrel-aged sour ale from Dollar Bill was also an absolute banger. The Screaming Sky Cowboy Double WCIPA from Banks Brewing – perhaps mostly for the can art – and the Neon Pastel White Peach, Passionfruit & Raspberry Smoothie Sour from Good Land were also standouts.

Pretty much all of the limiteds from Deeds, Banks, Good Land, Hargreaves Hill, Bonehead, Hawkers, Ocean Reach and Sailors Grave caught our attention, but it was also amazing to see the reestablishment of La Sirène in their new Reservoir facility.

 

Eva and Costa Nikias on the opening night of the new La Sirène bar in Reservoir.

What can people expect from you in 2024?

Oishii World, our import label, will once again be partnering with LAFF Imports from Japan to organise another series of collaborations between our favourite Australian and Japanese breweries. It was a little bit overwhelming hosting all eight of the collaboration launches at Benchies so, in April 2024, we will be organising the launch over eight different venues, including Beermash, Carwyn Cellars, Fox Friday, Hopheads, Mr West, Near & Far, Odd Culture and, of course, our own venue.

As for Benchies, we're launching a new food menu in January: a fusion of Japanese bar snacks and American diner food classics.


And what's your one wish for Aussie beer in 2024 and beyond?

Honestly, I would just love to keep seeing local breweries push boundaries to establish themselves as some of the most talented and progressive producers of beer in the world. Benchies has only been open for four-ish years but even we have seen a shift between punters coming in to ask for the latest Omnipollo or Finback shipment to asking if we have the latest smoothie sour from One Drop or the latest hazy from Mountain Culture. 

A secondary wish would be for the simplification of local logistics as a lot of the time ordering beer from interstate feels like importing, and importing from overseas has become so complicated and costly that it is barely worth it to attempt to bring the best beer from around the world into Australia.


You'll find all articles in the series here. Additional coverage by James Smith.

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