Sunday, May 15, 2011

Australian Brews! - My Favorite Beers From My Trip Down Under

Sorry for the long delay in posting, but even I get to have a vacation every once in a while.

So as most of you probably know, I got back Wednesday last from a fantastic trip to Australia.  It was a truly wonderful experience.  Australia is certainly a beautiful country filled with lovely, genial people, many of whom expressed deep admiration for our delightful accents (good to know that the shoe fits on the other foot as well!) and insufferable politeness.  I found Australians to be a very cheerful, unassuming bunch, whose nation's history shares some striking similarities with that of Canada, so I found we were able to fit in quite easily - once we figured out their baffling coffee drinking system ("Flat white? What the hell is that?").  Unfortunately, my likelihood of visiting that lovely country again in the near future is not very likely at all, as the fates have conspired to stick Australia as far as humanly possible from me to prevent regular travel.  Such unique beauty and ecodiversity diversity comes at a price, it seems.  It's been over a week since I returned and I am only just now starting to recover from the jet lag.  Seriously, that long flight and time difference really cuts into one's beer drinking.  Fortunately, I'm more or less back to my usual dynamic self and am ready to regale you all with tales of beergettery and beerdrinkery!  Let's get right to it!

"Let the booting begin!"
First, a word about drinking beer in Australia.

Unlike the Socialist Republic of Ontario, Australians have privatized liquor stores, which would be cool if it weren't for the fact that - as the LCBO correctly reminds us - the selections at the corner store booze chains tend to be pretty lousy.  We went in to about seven different stores and generally found the same beers in each one, and none of them were particularly inspiring.  Well, I shouldn't say that, as there were a few places that seemed to have a better variety of brews than others.  But almost nowhere had the kind of selection of craft brew bottles that we come to expect in Ontario and demand in the United States.  Not that I was expecting some sort of craft beer mecca on every block, but an occasional thrown bone would have been nice.  I asked a fellow beer-lover from Australia about it, and he seemed to suggest that distribution is quite a problem, not just for imported crafts (which is understandable - Christ, that was a long flight...) but even from breweries within Australia.  Other than a few of the bigger craft breweries like Fat Yak, James Squire (Malt Shovel) or Barons, you were hard pressed to find more than a few other out-of-staters, in your local shops, if they carried them at all.  Strangely enough, the best locations to get craft brews - at least, from what I could find - were the grocery stores, which had pretty solid selections of single bottles and six packs.  I managed to get most of my initial haul, seen here, from a Supabarn grocery store in Canberra (a few are courtesy of an in-country trade with my aforementioned beer-loving friend), but could find almost none of them anywhere else.  Neither the Gold Coast nor downtown Sydney seemed to have any bottle shops that carried anything other than the usual Australian big brand stuff.  Clearly, privatization doesn't necessarily equal better selection.  For the rest of the trip, tracking down craft brews proved to be exceedingly difficult.

Yet one positive to Australia's global isolation was that I couldn't find Budweiser or Coors Light on tap or in bottles anywhere!  I couldn't believe it!  It was so glorious to be far very away from these American brewing behemoths, because I'm so sick and tired of going to bars and restaurants in North America and finding these flavorless poor excuses for beer clogging up the taps.  To be fair, the stuff that was on the taps wasn't that much better (all Australian macros, like VB, Toohey's, Hahn Extra Dry and Carlton Draught), but at least they were Australian.  It truly was very refreshing to have such a reprieve.   

A half-pint (middy) of James Squire Amber Ale,
and a witbier schooner of Hahn White.
Most pubs tended to have the same general lineup on tap, although there are many great brewpubs to be found, and the two I managed to snag a pint or two at will be explored in the next posting.  Aside from featuring VB, Toohey's and the other usual Australian lineup (no Fosters, that's an export brew), fortunately nearly ever pub I encountered had at least one or two brews that worked well as standbys.  Almost every place I went to had either Fat Yak Pale Ale or one of the James Squire line of brews.  I think it helped a great deal that Australians love their beer - more so, I would argue, than Canadians do.  Pints, pints, pints, everywhere you went.  Even at the trendier, clubbier pubs, men and women alike were still almost exclusively slugging back brews.  Only a few folks were sipping wine (which seemed to be more of the with-meals beverage), and only the loudest and most obnoxious girls were having cocktails - and at an average of $15 for a mixed drink, I'm not really sure how well they (or the prospective males) can afford it.  Perhaps this love affair with beer means that more places are capable of carrying more than just the lowest common denominator brews, and could offer a few alternatives to the non-lager drinking folk.  And with only Guinness, Stella and Heineken as imports, you can easily have an enjoyable night drinking nothing but Australian-made stuff. 

Now that you've picked your brew (which is done and paid for at the bar, not by sitting lazily at your table), you have to pick your size.  Australians usually have three sizes of glass to pick from, with different names for each depending upon your region/upbringing.  In New South Wales, Canberra and Brisbane - the three cities I stayed in - a pint is, well, a pint, as it is throughout the country.  You could also order a half pint, or 'middy' (also known as a 'pot' in Victoria), just under bottle-size at 285mL, which was great for sampling multiple brews in a sitting.  I went with the middy-sized glasses at some of the brewpubs to maximize my tasting potential.  Slightly larger is the delightful schooner, which is great for those situations whereby a pint just is a bit too much.   I usually found myself in this camp, as drinking slightly smaller volumes allowed me to consume more varieties of beer at each establishment without getting full (we were touristing too...)  Another far less common option is the "seven" glass, which is...*drumroll*...exactly seven ounces, no bigger than a beer festival tasting glass, really.  Good I suppose if one is driving, or just has time for a quick whistle-whetting, but I didn't really see it that often.  Prices seem expensive at first, but when you consider that tipping is rare (their servers make a living wage, usually in the 20-25 $AUD range) and that taxes are included in the price, it actually ends up working out to the same amount you'd pay in Ontario.  Since the Aussie and Canuck dollars are pretty much identical, this was a good thing.

So, now that we've covered the basics, lets have a look at some of my favorite brews from Down Under.  As in Canada, I tended to find that most brews were pretty decent, a few stood out far above the rest, and some, well, you'll see. 

Beer: Little Creatures Pale Ale
Brewery: Little Creatures (Perth, Western Australia)
Type: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5.2%

My first real Australian brew of the trip, picked up at that Canberra supermarket.  Apparently, for many Australian beer-lovers, Little Creatures is somewhat of a "back-up" or "fall-back" brew - something that is somewhat widely available and tastes better than most of the other dreck on tap (Creemore fulfils this role for me on most occasions, as does Sam Adams Boston Lager).  Sturdy and reliable.  I actually found this brew to be a cut above such definitions and was very satisfied with the end result. 

Little Creatures is a nice golden-amber brew - sitting firmly on the 'pale' end of the pale ale spectrum - and sporting a half inch of sturdy creamy head.  Good retention on that, and some great lacing streaks as well.

Nose is nutty malts, caramel, citrus (orange, lemon), mildly bitter hops. 

Since the definition of 'American' vs. 'English pale ale depends more upon the hops than of anything else, and since those lovely citrus American hops are more readily available for brewers to incorporate into their products, it's not uncommon to find both English and American hops in the same brew.  Thus it can be quite difficult to categorize a brew as one way or the other on taste alone.  Now I myself would place Little Creatures somewhere between the two styles, as it reminded of either a mild American pale, a or citrussy English pale.  But no matter how you categorize it, the bottom line is that this is a great-tasting brew: accessible and refreshing, yet full of flavor.  Opens with a nutty, caramel malt flavor, then transitions to a mild citrus/bitter hop finish.  Creamy, slightly watery, soft carbonation (though not flat by any means).

Great brew, something I'll certainly come back to again whenever I'm Down Under. Drinkability is very high - easy to quaff, flavorful enough to sip, several in one go would be ideal.  I would have gladly consumed bucket-loads of it had I found it in more of the pubs, but sadly, I never encountered it again.  But I know it's there! (Grade: A-)

Beer: Wild Thing Imperial Stout
Brewery: Murray 's Craft Brewing (Bobs Farm, New South Wales)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 10%

Thanks to the favorable position of Australia in the global time arrangement, the Royal Wedding mercifully took place at prime time, rather than at quarter-to-stink in the morning in Ontario, which meant that, unlike for all but the most dedicated Canadians back home, Michelle and I could drink during the ceremony.  Which we did.  Since the grand proceedings were such a throwback to the glory days of King and Empire, I felt that any brew worthy of celebrating such a momentous occasion should also be suitably imperious in nature.  Also, preferably, full of booze.   Wild Thing Imperial Stout fit the bill on both counts.

This bottle was courtesy of a fellow beer-lover from Canberra, and the result of a terrific beer trade.  Cheers to David for such an excellent brew; I hope the Wellington Imperial Stout was just as enjoyable for you as this was for me. 

Poured into a red wine glass that just happened to be kicking around our hotel room in Gold Coast.  I brought it out of the fridge to warm around the time that William and Harry arrived at the Abbey, and finally opened around the time that Churchy McChurch got things going.  The brew poured a deep near-black, and left a thin mocha head that receded to a fine ring which made some nice sheets of lacing.

Nose is dark coffee malt, cream, currant.  All the best things I look for in an Imperial Stout.

Wild Thing is one rich, tasty stout, with big (and hearty) dark coffee, chocolate, cream, and dark fruit flavors, with a slightly boozy, sherry finish.  Just the right brew to make it through what it turning out to be a long, boring, churchy ceremony.  Very glad that I didn't have to get up early for this, because I couldn't watch this sober, no matter how hot Kate looked.  Creamy feel, thicker bodied, zippy carbonation.

A fine RIS, certainly worthy of special mention from OZ.  Had I been more patient, a few months of cellaring would have really done wonders for this brew, as it still came out a touch too hot.  Rich, flavorful, a great slow evening sipper.  (Grade: A)

From the highest high to the lowest low we go...

Beer: Melbourne Bitter
Brewery: Carlton and United (Melbourne, Victoria)
Type: Adjunct Lager
ABV: 4.9%

Those who follow the blog will know that I tend not to harbor any particular ill will towards any specific brewery, a stance I try to abide by with only a few notable exceptions.  Now there are many breweries that I don't really like, but this is just my personal opinion based on repeat sampling.  Though their beers might be bland, poorly-made or over-hyped (and sometimes all three), since I can't really say they've personally inconvenienced me or ruined my drinking experiences, I really don't care what they do - I just won't drink their beer.  And that's okay, as everyone has personal tastes and sometimes whole breweries will go against them.  But it takes a special kind of douchery for a brewery to warrant a personal hatred on my part, such that not only will I never drink their beer ever again but that I also will specifically wish their company to fail outright, and will attempt to facilitate this failing by deterring friends and associates from purchasing their wares.   Carlton and United, thanks to their deceptive advertizing and insultingly terrible products, have successfully added themselves to this unfortunate list, and I thus encourage everyone to avoid their brews at all possible costs.
Carlton and United brew many different beers, but they are mainly known for three of them - Foster's, Carlton Draught, and Victoria Bitter.  Foster's has been Australia's official representation on the international beer scene for years, but for some strange reason hardly anyone drinks it in Australia.  A true export beer, Foster's almost exclusively marketed for international consumption (it's one of the highest selling beers in Britain, so don't let anyone tell you they drink better beer there), and sure enough, I almost never saw it on tap or in cans.   Their real big domestic sellers are Carlton Draught, a fairly safe, bland and inoffensive lager (and the source of some pretty damned funny beer commercials, like this one), and Victoria Bitter, which is lovingly referred to by its detractors (like yours truly) as VD.  While Carlton Draught is somewhat drinkable, Victoria Bitter is one of the foulest beers I have ever consumed.  It's really something else.  I've had it in cans, bottled and on draught, and every time that I've done so I seriously regretted it.  Even 18 hours into my flight home, I could barely stomach the free can offered on the plane.  But there are certainly many other lagers out there that elicit the same response; VB is the target of my particularly potent ire because it has decided to call itself a "bitter."  When I first found Victoria Bitter in the LCBO, I was ignorant of the evin contained within.  I saw "bitter" and "Australia" and my tastebuds steadied themselves in anticipation of a delightful malted hoppy treat.  I was disappointed beyond consolation.   So let's make one thing clear: Victoria Bitter is as much a bitter as Alexander Keith's is an IPA.   Real bitters are pale ales, and contain malted barley, hops and flavor; VB is a pale lager that tastes of corn and tin and failure, wrapped in a label that would not feel out of place in the engine oil section at Canadian Tire. 

Fast forward to the corner store in Canberra, three weeks ago.  I see a bottle on the shelf.  It says Melbourne Bitter.  My stupid brain doesn't remember, or chose to forget, the awfulness that transpired before.  You see where this is going....
"We didn't listen....*sob*...WE DIDN'T LISTEN!!!"
Poured into a small tumbler.  My first clue that I had horrifically erred in my purchasing decision was the colour and appearance of this brew, which is all macro lager, and as far away from a bitter as one could ever get.  Pale golden, loads of visible carbonation, thin soapy head.  To call it "uninspiring" is an understatement.   Even though it looks like a lager should, when a beer decides to call itself a 'Bitter' I can't help but be disappointed when it looks like pee. 

Nose is almost non-existent - pale malts, a bit of lemon, chemical.  Smells like Bad.

My first sip from the bottle reminded me of those first sips of beer from my dad's nearly empty bottles when I was a kid.  Not a good sign.  The taste of the poured out stuff was not much better, just a macro lager with a foul, chemical character that made me regret all the decisions in my life that had led me to this point.   Hard to finish.   Thin-bodied, harsh carbonation.  Yellow fizzy water.  Blegggggghhhh....(Grade: D-)

Alright, this depressed me - we need to end on a high note, we do! 

Beer: Coopers Best Extra Stout
Brewery: Coopers Brewery (Adelaide, South Australia)
Type: Extra Stout (higher ABV for export)
ABV: 6.3%

Coopers is an Australian beer name you might have seen before, as their Sparkling (Pale) Ale has graced the LCBO's shelves on occasion.  I was very happy with the Sparkling Ale, but wasn't too impressed with their standard Pale Ale when I had it on draught in Canberra, so I wasn't too sure what to think about this extra stout I picked up in Sydney.  All fears were allayed with my first sip of this flavorful gem, which proved to be a most enjoyable companion in the evenings when I settled down to watch some footy (that's Australian Rules Football to you!).

Poured into the tumbler the hotel room had kicking about. Deep chestnut, almost black, with a mocha head which recedes quickly with snappy bubble bursts. Some lacing sheets.

The nose is quite pleasant: coffee, cream, milk chocolate, toasted malt, a bit of booze. 
A pleasant stout that does what it sets out to do quite well. Begins nice and malty with that sweet chocolate creamy flavor, then transitions to a dry, bitter roasted coffee finish. Quite enjoyable.

Carbonation is a bit hot, but the body is slick n' thick - just right for the stout.

A solid brew and a pleasant evening sipper. Nothing out of the ordinary, but everything seems to be put together properly.  A stout you can order with security knowing you won't be disappointed.  Also, because it's quite a bit milder than the Wild Thing Imperial Stout, its probably something that will taste great in quantities (as good as Wild Thing was, I doubt I could handle more than a bottle in a single sitting).  Great work from Coopers!  (Grade: B+)


Still lots more to come from my Australian beer adventure, including a closer look at some more bottled Aussie brews, a spotlight on two great pub districts, and a damning indictment of New Zealand Pure Lager!  Stay tuned!


1 comment:

  1. Hi... do you know it they sell Carlton Draught in Canada (LCBO)? Love to get some when my buds in Airbourne come back and tour here ;) Cheers