Here's to a bitter winter

Three craft brew newcomers give Willie Simpson a warm inner glow.

SUMMER used to be the time when new, seasonal beers were rolled out. Now, it's just as popular to launch a winter brew. The practice is especially true of craft beer producers such as Moo Brew, Stone & Wood and the McLaren Vale Beer Company. Each has released a new brand in recent weeks.

The McLaren Vale Beer Company's IPA is a suitably hopped-up beast, while the other newcomers are noticeably conservative and a marked retreat from the more extreme end of the craft flavour spectrum.

''There are endless big craft beers on the market, using high alcohol and high bitterness to create a point of difference,'' Moo Brew head brewer Owen Johnston says.

''[Some] drinkers love these beers but there are only so many you can drink.

''I call these big beers 'superheroes' or 'palate-smashers'.''

Enter Moo Brew Belgo - pronounced bel-jo - which Johnston describes as ''an easy-drinking beer, complex but approachable''. It has become Moo's fifth regular brand alongside its pilsner, pale ale, dark ale and wheat beer.

There was another compelling reason for Johnston to introduce an additional core brand: ''The artwork has been sitting in storage for almost seven years - time to get it out, dust it off and put it to use.'' The label comes from a commissioned original painting by renowned Australian artist John Kelly. Moo Brew owner David Walsh just happens to be the man behind MONA, Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art.

Johnston agrees he was under ''self-imposed pressure'' to match a beer style to the artwork.

Belgo is a ''fusion of styles'', he says, combining a Belgian yeast strain with fruit-driven American hops.

Stone & Wood head brewer Brad Rogers reckons it gets cold for only a few weeks of the year in Byron Bay, where he is based. ''So brewing big winter beers is something we really don't need,'' he says.

''But we have always wanted to brew a beer more suited to cooler months [that] you could equally drink all year-round.''

Stone & Wood Jasper Ale is a deep-red colour, reflecting the ''red volcanic soil of our hinterland'', Rogers says.

Vale IPA has been available on tap since August, with the bottled release timed for winter drinking. The bristling bitterness and hop-driven palate are firmly in the American-style IPA court, but head brewer Jeff Wright uses a combination of hops from three countries: galaxy from Australia, Nelson sauvin from New Zealand and citra from the US.

This article Here's to a bitter winter was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.