Australia's beer drinking palate is changing. I'm sure you've seen the signs: trendy labels; strange talk of IPAs, IBUs and ESBs; and one-time VB drinkers brewing raspberry ales in the back shed.
The days of treating beer as inferior or less complex than wines and spirits are over. The craft brewing industry in Australia, taking its cue from a flourishing movement in the US, has long been challenging the perception that beer must be bland and watery. Bars, pubs and top restaurants now offer a plethora of brews exhibiting the full range and intricacy of beer's flavours.
The days of treating beer as inferior or less complex than wines and spirits are over.
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For a beverage we so take for granted, many forget beer is the oldest and possibly the most complex drink we create. For that reason alone, no discerning drinker need stick with mass-produced, flavourless offerings.
So as we enter the warmer months – summer is beer's natural habitat– here are some tips to help enhance your beer drinking life.
It is easier than ever to find delectable beers in your preferred style or flavour. From rich to resinous, chocolatey to smoky, citrusy to sour, once you understand the styles you're drawn to, you'll rarely be let down when opening a bottle.
Hoppy ales look set to grow in popularity again this year. From Australia, the Feral, Mountain Goat and 4 Pines breweries do a variety of ales from the mild to the more aggressively hopped and higher ABV (alcohol by volume) IPAs (India pale ales) which are all well worth a try.
But lighter, more 'sessionable' beers are also winning favour among beer lovers. Australian brewers are increasingly experimenting with German kölsch, pilsner and weissbier styles, with the Mornington Peninsula, Moo Brew, and Murray's breweries all producing delicious interpretations with a gentle but refreshing hop presence.
Breaking the rules
After getting your palate around some of the more popular styles, you can then begin to enjoy the many brews out there that either ignore the rules, or blend different ingredients and brewing processes to create something new and intriguing. Rogue beers from the US, Moondog from Melbourne, Yeastie Boys from New Zealand (yes, the Kiwis make amazing beer), and BrewDog from Scotland are confronting and exciting.
The perfect pairing
If you think food should only be paired with wine, think again. In a tasting I attended earlier in the year conducted by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer, he proudly proclaimed that beer makes a much better companion for food than wine.
Is he right? Boneyard Brewing's "head of beer" Chris Badenoch thinks he might be. "Wine and food is wonderful and traditional, but beer and food can most certainly work equally well - if not better, in many cases.
"Beer has so many subtleties in flavour from the combinations of hops, malts and yeast, which can match or contrast ridiculously well with so many foods. It's not just the commonplace 'beer foods', either; beer can work equally well in a fine dining setting as it can with a 'schnitty' in a pub."
After running the now-departed beer and food bar Josie Bones, and coming close to taking out the first season of Masterchef, Badenoch has some great ideas as to what works.
One suggestion is Belgian lambic (sour beer) with pork belly and pickled peaches. "Lambic works so very, very well with anything fatty, as its tartness cuts right through," he says.
"Take a forkful of soft but crisp belly, a slice of sweet pickled peach and a mouthful of cleansing beer and all will become right with the world. The same can also be said for chocolate – it's awesome with a rich porter or stout."
The popularity of craft beer is soaring, yet the total volume consumed in Australia remains miniscule – craft beer accounts for only 2.5 to 3 per cent of the overall market.
Smaller craft and micro-brewers are creating more flavourful and interesting brews than their colossal counterparts, yet it can still be hard to find them on tap in bars and pubs around the country.
The major multinational beer companies dominate proceedings by offering generous discounts and incentives to venues that stock a majority of their beers. It's been a very effective strategy, as an estimated 95 per cent of the draught beer market is owned by multinationals SAB Miller (CUB) and Kirin Holdings (Lion Nathan).
But it's not all bad news for craft beer lovers, because some venues are willing to challenge the trend. The recent opening of Foresters Beer & Music Hall in Melbourne is a sign of a growing faith in the craft beer category, with 32 of its 50 taps pouring craft beers.
Publican and co-owner Russell Griggs says: "We would prefer to stock good beer and have good relationships with our suppliers than be at the mercy of an international conglomerate.
"We choose to miss out on the incentives, and we make smaller margins. But it also means we can sell 32 awesome beers that we choose, rather than five or six mediocre beers that we're told to sell."
Many other publicans and bar owners share similar conviction. The Local Taphouse (Sydney and Melbourne), Archive Beer Boutique (Brisbane), the Wig and Pen Tavern & Brewery (Canberra, relocating to a new site), and Sail and Anchor (Fremantle) are a few examples of venues determined to promote a more discerning beer culture.
So if we want to help this culture thrive, if we want to support local businesses, and if we want to be rewarded with amazing brews in return, it's time to get on board. Life's far too short to drink bad beer.
What's your favourite craft-brewed drop?