The state of the Australian beer industry is such that, were we to try to sample every single beer released by local craft brewers in a year, we'd need a designated pilot with helicopter on hand 24/7. Even in Victoria alone, we'd risk divorce trying to keep up with absolutely everything; we do our best regardless, of course.
In 2014, it felt like there was something of a renaissance in Victoria. Already the state with the most microbreweries, the country's biggest week of beer and more craft beer specialist venues than anywhere else, in the past 12 months it has welcomed many more breweries and brewing companies into the world, seen brewers give their creative juices a fresh squeeze, and craft beer sweep into more and more venues – pubs, bars and otherwise. Maybe it's a subconscious reaction to the New South Wales and Brisbane scenes bursting into life. Maybe people just like making and drinking good beer.
Either way, it makes it a tough job to pick just ten top drops from the past year, even narrowing the selection down to those released for the first time in 2014. But here – roughly in the order in which they appeared – is what we've come up with...
Mountain Goat India Red Ale (IRA)
The story of the year for Mountain Goat would have to be the runaway success of their cans, with Summer Ale now a year round release and, we suspect, Fancy Pants to follow. Then there was the none too insignificant moment that one of our longest and closest friends in the beer world, Melbourne's first ever craft beer rep Tom Delmont, was immortalised in a beer for the brewery's first In Breed release. The Delmont IPA was as good as any IPA released in Victoria this year but wasn't the best beer to come out of Goat's Richmond home. That was this rich and full-flavoured but beautifully balanced India Red Ale with which they opened their account in January. BrewCult's Keep On Truckin' was another cracker in this category and our favourite of Hendo's beer to date.
Boatrocker Brewery Mitte
Sours and wild-fermented beers really took off in 2014 (OK, they're still a tiny niche within the craft beer niche but pretty much everyone's playing around with some form of barrels and beasties). And, technically, a keg of this beer was snuck out at a Good Beer Week Showcase late in 2013. But its proper release – and then many subsequent ones to meet demand – was this year, with the Chardonnay barrel-aged Berliner Weisse offering plenty of subtle, soft, acidic sourness, with each batch seemingly an improvement on the last. The two Matts are doing some of the most interesting things in the Aussie beer world at the minute; look out for some really special beers that have been ageing for months and months appearing in 2015.
Exit Brewing #001 Saison
Having sounded the siren for saisons for years, possibly the happiest happening in the Aussie beer world for us this year was that pretty much every man and his dog was brewing one – sometimes more than one. Were he not featured elsewhere in this countdown, the saison master, Costa Nikias of La Sirene, could well have taken this spot for his Super Saison – Australia's first imperial saison as far as we're aware. Other notable newcomers included: Mornington's collaboration with America's own saison master, Bryan Strumke of Stillwater, a beer that we were told may not make it out due to issues with fermentation, but did and was delicious; Bright Brewery's Saison; Red Duck's unique saison / lambic Aztec, the best of his four saisons this year; even Brooklyn got in on the act with the Ridgy Didge created in collaboration with Mountain Goat.
The place on the podium goes to Exit Brewing, however, not least because the beer was their first ever commercial release. It was a great way to announce themselves to the world and, in an industry full of top folks, these guys seem like some of the toppest.
La Sirene Praline
If there was such a thing as beer aroma porn, this would be Jenna Jameson at the height of her fame taking on all comers. La Sirene's entry into this year's Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular was also its first dark, dark beer: a Belgian stout featuring organic vanilla pods, cacao nibs from Mexico and hazelnuts. It's a combination that creates the most decadent of aromas, the sort of thing you'd expect to waft across the table after dinner at some Bacchanalian feast in a Victorian era stately home. The flavours are just as fulsome yet somehow the body is nowhere near as heavy as you'd expect, with the beer managing to finish dry.
As a side note, we popped into the brewery not long after GABS and asked Costa if he was going to brew the beer again. He was undecided; "What do you reckon?" he asked. "Strike while the iron's hot," we suggested. He did and the buzz around La Sirene, not least because of this beer, continues to build by the day.
Kaiju! Beer Where Strides The Behemoth Double Black IPA
Black IPAs aren't as prevalent as they were a couple of years ago but still make the odd appearance. Our personal favourite of the year from Victoria was Bridge Road's revisitation of the Dark Harvest originally brewed with Mikkeller in 2012. He went back to the original experimental hop variety this time around after a detour in 2013, taking the beer back to its awesome best but also meaning this year's release wasn't technically new in 2014, despite its 2014 suffix.
All of which is a longwinded way of getting to the second GABS beer to make the list: Kaiju! Beer's Where Strides The Behemoth. It was launched as they basked in the glow of a trophy for their Hopped Out Red at the Australian International Beer Awards and feels like the brewer's philosophy taken to its logical conclusion: cramming as many hops as possible into the beer then heaps more and a few more for good measure, then attempting to keep things in check with a deeply black malt backbone.
3 Ravens Druid
One of the medal-winning beers that helped 3 Ravens to the title of Champion Small Australian Brewery in May, albeit scoring a silver to their English Ale and Black Mass' golds. We reckon it should have been another gold as brewer Adrian McNulty (now at Moon Dog) looked to recreate the characters of Pedro Ximenez via the means of a very strong Belgian ale aged in Pedro Ximenez barrels. He did a bloody good job too, creating a beer of depth and complexity.
Bright Brewery Stubborn Russian 2014
One of head brewer Jon Seltin's final gifts to Bright Brewery before he headed off to as-yet-unannounced pastures new. The latest version of his ever-improving Russian imperial stout saw him add a dash of a stock ale – a deliberately soured-in-a-barrel strong ale with origins in English brewing's past – that he'd been developing for more than a year. It added extra undertones to the original beer with the mocha, liquorice and coffee joined by a welcome leathery touch that brought to mind nothing less than North Coast's Old Rasputin.
In the big, black and new in 2014 in Victoria we also really enjoyed Moon Dog's latest Black Lung, 7 cent's Big 'n' Beardy and Temple's New World Order American stout.
Hargreaves Hill Maibock
It's been a fine year for Hargreaves Hill as they celebrated ten years in brewing. The year started with them bidding farewell to brewer Glenn Harrison (now at Temple) and welcoming Kai Dambergs from across the Yarra Valley at White Rabbit. Since then, there has been a liberal smattering of hoppy, US-inspired beers (not least because founder Simon Walkenhorst spent time in the Pacific Northwest and came back suitably inspired). Among them were some fine IPAs and an imperial IPA but the standout for us, not least because of its unique nature, was the Maibock they released in October. A typically refined and subtly intriguing strong lager that felt like it summed up the brewery's ethos in a glass.
Holgate Brewhouse Big Stein
Another brewery that celebrated a major milestone in 2014 was Holgate, with Paul and Natasha marking 15 years of Holgate beers with a sold out Oktoberfest at their Woodend home. The beer they brewed to officially commemorate the anniversary was a bigger version of the White Ale that had been one of the first beers they put out in 1999 but they also brewed this Marzen for the big day (and sent a few kegs elsewhere). There was nothing flash about it: just a malty German style lager with a great balance between those malts and soft German hops and just the right amount of bitterness. We were quickly cursing the decision to drive to the event; thankfully there were a few unlabelled bottles to sneak home to enjoy later. Expect to see more unpretentious lagers from Aussie brewers in 2015.
Two Birds Bantam IPA
If any one style (or styles) had its moment in the sun this year it was the "session IPA" or, latterly, XPA (extra pale ale): essentially, beers that were usually hoppier than a pale but lower in booze than an IPA. There were plenty of good ones around Victoria too, with all three XPAs to come from Melbourne brewers (Riders, 2 Brothers and Wolf of the Willows) possessing plenty of charm. The Bantam from Two Birds, who this year moved into their spiffing new home in Spotswood (promptly followed by half of the population of the neighbouring suburbs it seemed), didn't bother with any fancy nomenclature. It's just tagged as an IPA but weighs in under 5 percent. It does so without compromising in any way on hop aroma or flavour and boasts a full body that belies its size. One of many pocket gems from head brewer Jayne Lewis and one that was run close in the sub-5 percent IPA stakes by the delicious Aussie Terrier from Black Dog.