Happy New Year, beer lovers! We hope you all welcomed in 2015 in fine style and aren't suffering too badly today. After a mammoth year in 2014, Crafty Towers won't be properly staffed again until January 12 but we thought we'd post our usual start-of-the-year article before returning to the R&R.
We've already looked back at 2014 in beer form in the seven Best Of… articles from the past couple of weeks and there's an article in the current edition of James Halliday's Wine Companion Magazine* that features the thoughts of the site's founder on the past 12 months in Aussie beer so we won't be doing much in the way of glancing in the rear view mirror.
That said, we did look over the seven lists to see what the makeup of the 65 selected beers looks like. After all, the lists were selected by seven (or so) aficionados in six different states and one territory and focused purely on brews that were new in 2014 so should provide an insight into where things are headed here. If it does, then there's a colourful future ahead with numerous variations on IPAs, sours, saisons, fruit beers, spiced beers, stouts, porters, lagers of various ilks and more among the beers that turned heads.
Partly sparked by a discussion on social media in the past 48 hours about whether an obsession with hops could endanger craft beer's future success, we also split the beers loosely into decidedly hop driven and not hop driven beers, with just 26 in the former category and 39 in the latter. It suggests that either Aussie brewers as a whole aren't overly hop obsessed or that, at the very least, they – and the people drinking their beers – are interested in a broad range of styles. The styles that cropped up most option were (in order): India red ale (or red IPA); IPA / stout / saison (all appearing five times); and with four were hoppy lagers / IPLs, malt-led lagers, double IPAs and session ales.
We also figure there's little need to do much in the way of soap box mounting as a lot of what we addressed in the article from this day last year, Shit's Gettin' Real, still applies. We're seeing movement on all of the issues raised there – quality and consistency at all stages of the supply chain, labelling (in terms of honesty, provenance, dating), and education among consumers and especially retailers – to one degree or another but there's a way to go still. Certainly, it's been noticeable – particularly among the more established brewers – how often lab work, quality control, yeast management, dissolved oxygen and the like have come up in conversation in 2014; it may sound boring in comparison to talk of hops, malt and barrels, perhaps, but these things are essential for their ongoing success and our drinking pleasure.
The labelling debate continues with Victorian brewers supplying their own spin at the end of the year when they introduced a "Handcrafted" stamp of authenticity (more on this soon). As for education, it feels like a mixed bag but hopefully a new venture from a handful of people in various positions in the industry that's set to launch early this year will add to the voices looking to help those selling beer understand better what it is they're selling.
In terms of what lies ahead, any crystal ball is likely to look as cloudy as a massively late-hopped IPA; the possibilities for craft beer in Australia seem so multitudinous that they would challenge the predictive skills of Phillip K Dick's precogs. Without a doubt, the craft beer bandwagon will continue to roll on, gathering more passengers as it does. The quality will continue to rise, the diversity will continue to astound and availability will become ever wider. We will reach the greatest number of breweries / brewing companies Australia has ever seen at some point in 2015, surpassing the 300 (give or take) of the final years of the 19th century, and craft beer (in some form or other) will become increasingly ever-present.
That we need to write "in some form or other", however, hints at the fact that if anyone was still minded to draw up a tight definition of "craft beer" then their challenge has never been greater. But, as "craft" becomes bigger and continues to become part of the mainstream, perhaps there will be less need to have any such term to distinguish one beer from another; as we hear more and more people saying: "One day it will all just be beer", with drinkers simply guided by taste or other qualitative preferences rather than an us against them tribal mentality. (Does this mean we'll have to rebrand as The Pint, though...?)
Whatever transpires, it promises to be another fascinating year. Will some breweries fall by the wayside or is rationalisation still some time away? Will the industry become more tiered as the bigger, better resourced microbreweries are able to tie up venues looking to get into "craft" without wanting to get too pointy, leaving the vast majority of brewers fighting over taps at the more specialist venues? Will the gap between the beer scenes in urban centres and outer suburbs / country towns close? Will Coca Cola and Asahi achieve the success in the "craft" sector they hope for and will Matilda Bay become little more than the home of Fat Yak once the brand moves to Tasmania? Will there be any brewer left by the end of 2015 who hasn't started experimenting with barrels?
What we can say with certainty is that the craft beer industry in Australia is in a strong position to embark on another year of big growth, drinkers will have more beer of a higher quality on offer than ever before and, here at Crafty Towers, we plan to make our coverage of all that's going on better still. Once we've had a few more days off anyway. Until then...
*The feature in the current edition of James Halliday's Wine Companion referenced above addresses cans, wild and sour beers, success for Aussies overseas as well as the arrival of overseas brewers setting up their own joints here, the maturation of the industry (in particular the number of breweries reaching significant anniversaries), collateral damage as some breweries change hands and close down, new brewing companies hitting the ground running, wineries and cider makers getting seriously into craft beer, and new hops.