The first day of the year is always one for looking forward with hope and in high spirits (tempered only slightly by the dustiness that comes with seeing out the previous one with two bottles of Auld Bulgin' Boysterous Bicep). And for anyone involved in craft beer in Australia – brewers, venue operators, drinkers – hopes and spirits should be higher than most.
The industry we know and love is no longer consigned to the fringes or dismissed as a passing fad as it was until very recently. Many of the country’s breweries have reached double figures or will turn 10 this year and are displaying a quality and consistency that comes with experience. An impressive number of start-up breweries and brewing companies are hitting their straps right from brew one. Quality and choice has never been greater.
Coverage in the media is becoming more frequent, even if the standard remains wildly inconsistent. And, while many big brands continue to suffer, sales of the good stuff are on the rise. Indeed, widespread anecdotal evidence of breweries doubling or tripling their capacity and still struggling to keep up with demand – as well as the scores of new breweries and venues opening and existing bars embracing craft beer – suggests the most recently reported figures of low double digit growth are, if anything, rather conservative.
All in all, it seems that when we wrote about a “craft beer revolution” back on the day The Crafty Pint launched in September 2010, it wasn’t just wishful thinking.
So, given we make no secret about being an unofficial cheerleader for the Australian craft beer industry, surely there’s never been a better time to grab our pom-poms and celebrate? Well, yes and no. For the craft beer industry, with maturity comes responsibility, while greater popularity brings new challenges.
Having successfully spread beyond the fringes and proven that, this time around, craft beer is here to stay, there will be greater scrutiny on brewers and their beers, more Johnny-Come-Latelies armed with the misguided belief that the industry is a cash cow to be milked, and fiercer attempts by big business to claim “craft” as its own, especially with Coca Cola re-entering the market this year. After all, as the billboards this month have been telling us, Stella Artois was “Originally Crafted For Christmas”. Little wonder there are some that are already suggesting dropping the term “craft beer” and using merely “beer”.
So, as we sup our first beers of 2014 and look forward to another colourful year of increasingly polished and consistent session beers on the one hand and ever more creative and out there ales on the other, of burgeoning beer weeks and more beer bars and bottleshops. As we look forward to the labours of the country’s two craft beer associations bearing further fruit and the flowers of the country’s hop industry winning further favour afield. And as we look forward to more people discovering flavour and never going back to bland, it’s worth acknowledging this changing landscape – acknowledging it and redoubling our efforts to ensure that craft beer does one day become, simply, beer.
Here at The Crafty Pint, we’d love to see every brewer striving for the quality and consistency displayed by the best in the country and every venue treat beer with the respect it deserves. As more people try a craft beer for the first time than ever before, the risk of creating a bad first impression intensifies, whether it’s from that batch of beer that maybe should have been poured away, that line that should have been cleaned a few days ago, or that bottle that’s been sat on a bottleshop shelf well beyond its best before date.
In a similar vein, it would be great to see improvements in the way beer is labelled. The “Fresh is Best” (in most cases anyway) message is getting out there, but steps such as date-stamping beers the day they are packaged or providing a best before date on all beers would help drinkers make more informed purchases. Honesty across the board when it comes to provenance would also be a positive step. Contract brewing is no longer viewed as negatively as it once was and many “gypsy” or contract brewers are respected for the quality of their beers so why not state where your beers are brewed rather than fudging the issue and leaving drinkers in the dark?
We’d also love to see education continue to increase: among drinkers so they can appreciate good beer even more but particularly among those who sell and serve it; if you are going to make the decision to stock a high quality, artisanal product and charge your customers accordingly, it makes sense to understand what it is you’re selling.
Thankfully, as beer lovers we can play a crucial role in ensuring craft beer continues to evolve. We can educate ourselves and encourage our friends to join us in enjoying better beer and supporting a fantastic industry. We can vote with our wallets and our feet too. If a brewer’s beer isn’t up to scratch, the chances are they’d love to know and, being small businesses, they should be easy enough to contact directly. If beer consistently isn’t presenting well at a venue, don’t drink there (and tell the manager why you’re taking your business elsewhere). If you find a good bottleshop, stick with it and advise your mates to head there too. Essentially, back those who are doing things right, offer feedback to those who aren’t, and that way we can all play our part in helping the industry flourish.
After all, it goes without saying that 2014 will be the biggest ever year for craft beer in Australia. Let’s make sure it’s the best too.