If you were to sum up the 2014 year in beer for New South Wales in a single word, it might be "more". More breweries, more brewing companies, more pubs and bars supporting good beer, more media coverage and, of course, more beer. There's genuinely never been a better time to be a beer lover in this state (or, it should be said, any other) than right now.
But as much love as you have or however much you give it's nigh on impossible to try every beer that's released, meaning any list such as thus should probably come with a rather large asterisk. In saying that, we (mainly Nick O, above right in front of the Opera House) gave it a damn good go and have come up with the following ten beers, reaching across a range of styles and providing a glimpse into the fun, exciting and downright delicious stuff happening across the New South Wales craft beer world…
If you're thinking, "Hey, wasn't this released in 2013?", you're absolutely right. At the tail end of last year, after 'Best Of...' lists had been put to virtual print and everyone was packing their bags for festive season holidays, the Riverside Brewing Company released a much-anticipated double IPA. At that time there were no more than a handful of kegs and it wasn't until this year that the beer got a wider release, so never mind the pedants: the 777 is in. Besides, at 9.2 percent ABV, it's such a brute of a beer that it would have forced its way in without being asked. There's really nothing subtle about it: the hops burst up out of the glass, get up in your face and all over the walls. But where some beers in this style are so overloaded they trip and lose their balance, this delivers everything you could ask without overstepping the mark. Equal parts punishing and brilliant, the 777 adds to the argument that few in Australia do West Coast US style ales as well as Dave Padden and the team at Riverside.
The Little Brewing Company Breaking The Cardinal Rule
If you're looking for a locally-brewed Belgian style beer, the Little Brewing Company do it as well as anyone; their Mad Abbot Dubbel, Tripel and, at this time of year, Quad (Christmas Ale) are always worth seeking out when you're in need of something to sip and savour. More recently, they've branched out into some impressive IPAs too, namely Death Between The Tanks and Fastidious Bastard. But in the smartly named Breaking The Cardinal Rule they blended the best of Belgian with big hops and brewed an IPA Tripel (not to be confused with a Triple IPA). The resulting blend was bang on the money and a beer that's an absolute pleasure to drink, from first sip to last.
Stone & Wood Cloud Catcher
Brian Wilson knows a thing or two about crafting a hit. The erstwhile Beach Boy spent a creative career pursuing – and some would argue finding – perfection. And one of the great secrets to his success was creating works of incredible depth but hiding all the complexity beneath layers of sweet, sweet harmony that made it easy for everyone to enjoy. Stone & Wood are the Australian beer industry's own version of the Beach Boys, with their Byron Bay hit factory pumping out the brewing equivalent of pop perfection that is Pacific Ale.
This year they delivered another feel good hit – albeit a bit of a slow burner – in the form of the Cloud Catcher. Released to celebrate the opening of their new Murwillumbah brewery then re-released a few months later, the beer, like Pacific Ale, bursts with fruitiness though the malt is more pronounced and at 5.5 percent ABV was practically imperial for a Stone & Wood beer. So well balanced and so easy to drink, it was a very good thing that it only came in 500ml bottles because you wouldn't want a drop less.
Modus Operandi Former Tenant
From opening their doors in July to collecting the inaugural Craft Beer Industry Association trophy for Champion Small Craft Brewery in October, there's surely been no success story in 2014 comparable to that of Modus Operandi. While a number of their beers would sit comfortably in this list, the leading light at the Mona Vale brewery is the Former Tenant Red IPA (aka Champion Australian Craft Beer). It's named for the former tenant of the site where the brewery now sits, a slightly unfortunate marijuana grower who was caught out when police were pursuing another criminal down the alley next to the brewery only for the police dog to pick up the weedy scent coming through the extractor. With hops and marijuana being famously close in botanical terms, the reference is apt as the Mosaic and Galaxy hops in this beer stink out your glass like a dealer's den. But the aggressive hopping regime doesn't forsake balance at all. It's a delightful red IPA that's far easier to drink than it ought to be.
Mash Collective Heartbreaker
Heartbreaker was the fourth beer from the Mash Collective, an occasional offshoot of Stone & Wood which brings people together from a variety of walks of life to create and brew a one-off beer. Those involved in this particular incarnation were a designer, a musician and an indigenous chef and it's the latter (Clayton Donovan, pictured above centre) who had the most obvious effect on the flavour profile.
Building off an amber/red ale base, it featured quandong (bush peaches), lemon myrtle and pepperberry alongside four rather distinct hop varieties; Ella, Sorachi, Centennial and Mosaic. With so much going on, it could have been a mess. Instead, it all came together beautifully, creating a beer interesting enough to be different but not different enough to be scary. With all those involved staying involved throughout the entire process, from conception to brewing to packaging, Heartbreaker was fine example of what can be achieved through genuine collaboration.
HopDog BeerWorks Holy Snappin' Turtles
This barrel-aged wild ale is one of those beers for which there's no middle ground. Love it. Hate it. Those are your options. And haters will find a lot to hate: full of Brettanomyces, incredibly sour, tannic, very strong. Conversely, lovers will find a lot to love: full of Brettanomyces, incredibly sour, tannic, very strong. It's all a difference of opinion. But what's inarguable is that the beer scene is more interesting for beers like this being around and for brewers like Tim Thomas taking a punt on making them. As the label itself states: "this is NOT for the faint of heart, but the adventurous types. We know it's infected, so don't send us complaint emails, just dig it." Consider it dug.
Nomad Brewing Long Trip Saison
When most breweries open, there's little pressure to start putting out blockbuster beers from day one. But Nomad isn't quite like most breweries. It was formed through a partnership between Leonardo di Vicenzo of Italy's famed Birra del Borgo and Aussie couple Kerrie and Johnny Latta who bring some of the world's big-name beers to Australia through their Experience It distribution business. To spearhead this new venture they called in brewer Brooks Caretta, someone whose apprenticeship included stints working alongside Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Teo Musso of Baladin and the aforementioned Leonardo.
In the Long Trip Saison, they've produced a beer that lives up to the pedigree. Like all core Nomad releases, this features unique and uniquely Australian ingredients – think wattleseed, Tasmanian pepper and roasted coffee – which help create a beer that's simultaneously dry, spicy, sweet, fruity and even has a distinct bubblegum character. In short, it's a beer of high complexity and refinement that's well worth exploring.
Doctor's Orders Brewing Vaccine Elixir
Unique ingredient. Style-bending. Barrel-aged. Rare. The Vaccine Elixir checks most every box in the beer geek's guidebook. Of course, it helps that it also happened to be a very good beer. Based on the original oddity that was Vaccine – a wasabi wheat porter – the Elixir was simply the result of a few kegs worth having spent time inside whiskey barrels. But upping the original prescription did something wonderful; bumping up the ABV, adding more complexity, vanilla character and making it silky smooth (particularly when pulled through a hand pump). In a year during which Doctor Order's turned out a broad range of typically unusual but invariably enjoyable new releases – including notable collaborations with Bacchus Brewing, Yeastie Boys/Wheaty Brewing Corps and Sixpoint – this one crept under the radar a little but certainly made a mark.
Shenanigans Brewing Company Winston & Red Sky
It was too tough to decide which of Winston or Red Sky to include on this list so, to ease a troubled mind, both make the cut. Winston – quite possibly the only beer in Australia named after a guinea pig – is a sort-of-American pale ale while Red Sky is a jasmine and hibiscus infused IPA. Whatever your own preference, both suggest tremendous promise for a brewing company that (a) only launched this year and (b) doesn't yet have its own brewery. When you get these beers fresh (which is pretty much any time you see them, since growing popularity generally sees demand outstripping supply), they're bursting with hop fruitness and a real treat. In a craft beer market that's not short on either pale ales or IPAs, Shenanigans' efforts stand tall.
Thanks, Nick. Just South Australia to go now*, with that state's top ten new brews of 2014 landing on the site tomorrow (30/12). You can work your way backwards through the previous four starting with Queensland here. And don't forget to vote in the Hottest 100 poll here.
* We appreciate this means a lack of representation from ACT and NT's one micro. We intend to get in touch with the latter early in 2014 and did ask someone to put together a shortened list for ACT but never heard back. This we shall also remedy in 2015 as there's a long overdue trip in the pipeline... UPDATE! ACT may still be coming...!