The home of Australia's top brews? Look across the Nullarbor, writes James Smith.
AT THE last Australian International Beer Awards dinner, brewers from Western Australia won five of the 14 titles for which they were eligible, sending out a statement that the craft-beer industry in the west was in rude health. Melbourne may be the city driving Australia's growing love of craft beer, yet the awards showed WA was still producing the best beers.
Certainly, the state has the pedigree. It is almost 30 years now since a young brewer and his friends took over the Freemasons Hotel in Fremantle, renamed it the Sail & Anchor and began pouring their own beers.
The hotel is acknowledged as the birthplace of craft beer in Australia. The owners soon opened the Matilda Bay brewery, and within a few years had opened 39 brewpubs across Australia and were sending their beers interstate.
Today, the Sail & Anchor's brewery is no longer operational, but the pub has more than 40 taps pouring beers from across the world and is Beer & Brewer Magazine's best beer venue in Australia. Matilda Bay was bought by CUB in 1990 and relocated to Victoria, where it has just completed its latest move to a venue in Port Melbourne.
The young brewer who started proceedings, Phil Sexton, now owner of Yarra Valley wineries Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander, was later involved in the launch of Little Creatures in Fremantle and its sister brewery, White Rabbit, in Healesville. And new brewers continue to follow in his footsteps across WA, particularly in the south-west.
''The scene is strong,'' says John Stallwood, who founded Nail Brewing 12 years ago. ''Yet even though it started back at the Sail & Anchor and had a bit of a following, it has only been in the past five years that it's started to go out of control. Probably the main reason is Little Creatures, but when they started out at the same time as Nail, even they struggled until they won best Australian brewery in 2002. There were already craft breweries like Bootleg and Last Drop, but Little Creatures revved it up to another level.''
Stallwood is set to open a new operation with Swan Valley brewer Feral soon. The 5000-litre set-up will be one of the largest in the Australian craft-beer community, so his award-winning Nail Ale and Stout will soon be seen across the eastern states. So far, few WA beers have made it across the Nullarbor, meaning a road trip to sample them at the source is essential for any serious Aussie beer-lover.
It makes for a colourful experience. Just a short drive from Perth Airport is Ironbark, a family-run operation that knocks out dozens of beers - its best-known is its Cherry Ale - in surroundings draped with ''Aussie, Aussie, Aussie'' banners and murals painted on corrugated iron. Sharing its Swan Valley address are breweries as varied as the Bavarian beer hall-style Duckstein, Elmar's with its glass brewhouse, the slick Mash Brewing and the aforementioned serial trophy winner Feral.
In the Margaret River region, craft-beer veterans such as Bootleg and Bush Shack have been joined by names such as Colonial, Eagle Bay, Cowaramup and Duckstein's second venue (shared with Saracen Estates winery), some of which offer cellar doors and restaurants Victorians would more readily associate with high-end Mornington Peninsula wineries. Meanwhile, Denmark, on the south coast, is experiencing a flurry of activity, and Matso's in Broome has made a name for some of its more esoteric releases, including mango and ginger beers.
The latest to open is Cheeky Monkey, another Margaret River brewery with a spectacular venue. Overseeing brewing there is Jared Proudfoot, who returned from 18 months at Scottish success story BrewDog to take on the role.
''I came back and all of a sudden the beer scene was a lot different,'' he says. ''It took me a little while to catch up with who was doing what and who was making good beer.''
His experience overseas working for a brewery responsible for several of the world's strongest and strangest beers should stand him in good stead as Cheeky Monkey sets out to create beers ''that are definitely a bit more progressive than what you'd normally be able to find. Although, that's changing - now it seems 'normal' is quite out-there.''
The state is also home to some fine bottle shops, such as Fremantle's Freo Doctor, the International Bottle Shop, Mane Liquor and Cellarbrations at Carlisle. Where brewers have struggled is in finding support from bars, with only a few such as the Sail & Anchor and Clancy's
Fish Pubs getting behind craft beer until recently.
''One area where we are behind is in the hospitality industry as the laws here are pretty tough,'' Stallwood says. ''It's starting to change, with small bars popping up, but it's very hard to get tap points.''
Yet it seems the appetite is there. In February, the inaugural South West Craft Beer Festival drew more than 2000 people to the Margaret River region. Among the breweries on show was Bootleg, a stalwart of the WA scene since 1993.
''When I first visited Bootleg, I wondered how it could work, as it was rural,'' head brewer Michael Brooks says. ''But [owner] Tom [Reynolds] had the vision: 'Make good beer and they will come.' Now more and more pubs and independent bottle shops are opening and we're becoming more wanted.
''The festival was a turning point. It was talked about 10 years ago and last year we finally decided to have a go and got double the number [of visitors] we expected.
''I've seen a lot of breweries come and go elsewhere in Australia but in the south-west I've seen a lot come and stay around, so it shows that we're making good-quality products.''
A crafty guide
Fremantle is a must on any beer-lover's tour of WA. The Sail & Anchor is in fine fettle, with The Monk Brewery & Kitchen across the road making a name for some quality beers, too. A short walk away, the original Clancy's Fish Pub offers a showcase of the state's on-tap beers, while Little Creatures dominates the waterfront.
Clancy's now has three other venues, with City Beach staking a claim to the best location of any craft-beer bar in Australia and others in Dunsborough and Canning Bridge. The Pourhouse in Dunsborough has a fine tap and bottle selection, while Five Bar in Mount Lawley and The Quarie in Hammond Park recently launched new beer lists.
The Swan Valley and Margaret River areas offer the greatest concentration of breweries, with the Western Australian Brewer's Association website - waba.org.au - suggesting up-to-date listings.