Tastings School - a beer romp in wine country

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a beer romp in wine country

Matt Kirkegaard embarks on a Sideways-style beer romp in Western Australia, an area more commly associated with wines.

GO WEST YOUNG MAN Oddly enough for a nation with a permanent place in the top five beer drinking countries, Australians are just starting to discover beer.

It’s true that beer is a backdrop to our social gatherings and it is integral to our national obsession with sport, but for all that we drink it can’t really be said that we have a national beer culture.

Look to the traditional pub and cask ale cultures of Britain, or the everyday reverence brought to beer by the Belgians and you see something very different in Australian beer life.

Instead of a culture built around beer, we have a culture lubricated by and a national self-identity awash in it.

And, truth be known, this beer that we drink in great quantities isn’t that great. Australians will speak louder in defence of their brews than most expats but the Australian national drop is a fairly timid creature. Developed in an arid country baking under a parching sun, the beer has evolved into a pale and fairly innocuous refresher; something to keep the heat of the day at bay, not something to savour and reflect upon.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It serves this purpose admirably. The beers are good in that they are impossibly consistent and no doubt conform to every definition of quality thrown at them by the International Organisation for Standardisation.

But culture doesn’t evolve around a convenience product. Passions are rarely as stirred by perfectly processed, plastic-wrapped cheese slices as they are by a French farmhouse brie.

These reflections on my country’s relationship with beer occur during a five-hour transcontinental flight from Brisbane to Perth, Australia’s craft beer hotspot and a beacon for my fellow beer lovers. My beery reverie is brought about because I have just been offered a can of fizzy yellow liquid by the same Qantas flight attendant who earlier proffered copies of the national airline’s 50-page Inflight Guide to Wine. A Margaret River winemaker citing her greatest winemaking hero (Anne-Claude Leflaive of Leflaive and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Contie for those who are curious) is interrupted by the attendant saying, “You wanted a beer mate? VB?” Several thousand lofty words, a ‘Sommeliers in the Sky’ programme and an internationally awarded inflight cellar for the wine set and a selection of three almost indistinguishable lagers for the rest of us.

This all takes on greater moment because I am headed to the heart of Australia’s premium wine country in the Margaret River to visit the wellspring of Australia’s nascent craft brewing industry. It’s a journey that leads me to ponder why our beer drinkers have been so late in coming to the gourmet party. Wine, coffee, cheese, chocolates, fine and casual dining and just about every other gastronomic endeavour in the country has seen boutique and artisanal go mainstream over the last decade, but not beer.

Our major breweries have tried any number of bottling and production gimmicks to lure drinkers to their brand in a process that has culminated in some beers more closely resembling manufactured alcopops than a noble beverage, but I was here to visit small breweries that were trying something new: flavour.

The first stop on the flavour express is the Little Creatures brewery in Fremantle, just south of Perth. Named after the little critters that turn the wort into beer, the brewery wasn’t the first in the Western Australian craft beer movement but it is perhaps the most successful. With its first beer, a ripping, hop-driven American-style Pale Ale, and some serious marketing nous, Little Creatures has quickly gained a firm toehold in the broader Australian market.

Adding the amber-style mid-strength (3.8% ABV) Rogers Beer to its lineup further confounded beer drinkers unused to flavours of nutty caramel and toffee in any beer, let alone one of lower gravity. The brewery’s permanent range is rounded out with a Czech-style pilsner.

Crisp, it has enough bite to let you know it’s been hopped with a good dose of Saaz hops.

While you can find Little Creatures beer almost anywhere in Australia, the brewery is the perfect place to enjoy it. Set inside a massive, high-roofed converted boat-shed set right on the water, Creatures has its own distinctive style and laid back culture. Simple food, well-prepared and served all day and into the night and a shaded beer garden under a perfect blue Australian sky, this is a place that celebrates living and is a pointer to how a beer culture should be.

From “Freo” we head three hours south into the heart of the Margaret River wine country.

The region, a 100-kilometre long, anvil shaped protrusion on the southwest of the Australian continent, was traditionally recognised as a surfer’s haven. Now a world-famous wine region, it only saw its first vine plantings in the late 1960s after a young agronomist realised the region’s climate and soils were similar to the Bordeaux Region in France. Today there are almost 120 wine producers in the region and 5,000 hectares under vine. The region now contributes three per cent of the country’s wine grapes but commands an astounding 20 per cent of the domestic premium wine market. Driving through wine country I am struck by how these newest of New World wineries are striving to cultivate a distinctly old-world feel.

Massive gates of whitewashed stone and iron open onto tree-planted drives leading to vine-covered cellar doors. The intended effect is one of long-established affluence by wineries less than a decade old for a product more often than not sold on the design of its label. We pull into the Cowaramup Brewery named after the tiny township just west of the town of Margaret River. This 18- month-old brewpub and restaurant actually looks like it should – new – and the bar is light, airy and welcoming inside.

Owner-brewers Jeremy Good and his partner Claire Parker are part of the new breed of local brewers. Jeremy, originally from Britain, got into home brewing after moving to Australia as a 21-year-old in the early 80s disappointed with the bland lagers on offer. The dream to make a business out of his passion fermented along with his beers and after their marriage they set about making it work. With the motivation of living in a high-traffic tourist area and Claire’s background in business, they built the brewery and are making a good go of it.

With a solid range of beers including a pilsner, English special bitter and – Jeremy’s favourite – an IPA, this is a place that revels in its regional nature. They provide good beer and food, a pleasant surround and their hefeweizen is perfect for a hot Australian summer. What more could you ask for? All of the Margaret River breweries – in fact, most of the Western Australian breweries – provided similar stories. Businesses built by people passionate about what they do and fuelled by the desire to share their passion for beer. What’s more, they are building something and the people are coming. With craft beer comprising just six per cent of the total Australian market – and that is with Australia’s third largest brewer, Coopers, included – there is a long way to go. But for Australia’s beer drinkers it is a great ride.

Post Script: Since this journey was undertaken, Qantas has added James Squire’s Golden Ale – an approachable and flavoursome American-style pale ale to its inflight menu. Times really are a changing.

BREAK OUT The Margaret River Region isn’t the only region with a concentration of great small breweries. Perth and Fremantle both have a number of breweries and brewpubs and the Swan Valley just north of Perth is another hotspot. Western Australia’s oldest wine-growing region, Swan Valley is home to the man who could perhaps become the poster boy for Australia’s brewing renaissance, Brendan Varis.

With his raucous laugh and air of general irreverence, Brendan could be the model for the Wild Colonial Boy.

This assessment is compounded when he explains that he named his brewery Feral as it means ‘undomesticated’, a swipe at the country’s major labels.

Despite both Brendan’s and his brewery/restaurant’s rustic appearance, his beers are anything but feral. He prides himself on being a technical brewer and balance is something he strives for in his beers. Feral offers one of the most interesting beer menus in the state, including Feral White, a Belgian Wit (4.6% ABV) for which he is best known. Others include a farmhouse ale (4.3%), Rust – a strong Belgian abbey ale (6%), a pale ale and a pilsner.

Brendan also regularly offers a surprise beer he calls his Brewers Handle. It can take many forms, such as a twist on his classic Wit that sees him up the alcohol to 7% and add cardamom pods to the traditional orange peel and coriander and then mature it for four months. Another intriguing Brewers Handle saw him blend a beer with fermenting grape juice sourced from the Malbec grapes that grow in the fields around the pub.

A beer/wine hybrid, the result was – excuse the pun – intoxicating.

Brewery guide
FREMANTLE
Little Creatures
40 Mews Road, Fremantle, WA 6160
Tel: +61 8 9430 5155
www.littlecreatures.com.au
Mad Monk
33 South Terrace, Fremantle, WA,
6160
Tel: +61 8 9336 3100
www.madmonk.com.au
Sail and Anchor Hotel
64 South Terrace, Fremantle,
WA, 6160
Tel: +61 8 9431 1666
www.sailandanchor.com.au
MARGARET RIVER
Cowaramup Brewing
Lot 3 North Treeton,
Cowaramup, WA, 6284
Tel: +61 8 9755 5822
Colonial Brewing Company
Osmington Road, Margaret River, WA, 6285
Tel: +61 8 9758 8177
www.colonialbrewingco.com.au
Bootleg Brewery
Corner Johnson & Puzey Roads, Willyabrup,
Margaret River, WA, 6285
Tel: +61 8 9755 6300
www.bootlegbrewery.com.au
SWAN VALLEY
Feral Brewery
152 Haddrill Road, Baskerville, WA.
6056
Tel: +61 8 9296 4657
www.feralbrewing.com.au
Mash Brewing
10250 West Swan Road, Henley Brook,
WA, 6055
Tel: +61 8 9296 5588
www.mashbrewing.com.au