A once-a-year beer has become the link between Coopers past, present and future.
The annual release of Vintage Ale is normally a trip in a brewing time travel machine. While enjoyable immediately, the concoction that was first developed 20 autumns ago, can also be stored for tasting in subsequent years.
But the 2019 Vintage Ale emerges at a time when Coopers has made two other significant developments.
One concentrates on its 157-year-old flagship brew – the other the family-owned company hopes will continue to give it relevance and attraction in a modern beer market.
Coopers Sparkling Ale, the recipe and method devised by Thomas Cooper in 1862 and which has since been the star of the operation, will next week be available in cans. So, too, will a brand new beer, XPA, a hoppy ale designed for the current generation that prefers bucketloads of hops generating high fruity flavours that were never in the old patriarch’s thinking.
Thus Vintage Ale reappears at a point where Australia’s oldest family-owned brewery marks a new direction – but one that doesn’t forget its roots.
“We have become a little bit more marketing-driven than perhaps what we had been,” said managing director Dr Tim Cooper, a fifth generation descendant of Thomas Cooper, at the Vintage Ale launch in Sydney.
“I think that is a function of 157 years and Sparkling Ale which has been there from the beginning and still amazingly continues to grow. It is only slight growth but for most of its history last century it was sitting at a few million litres a year yet last year it went over 10 million litres.
“We think as brewers about our Pale Ale and Sparkling Ale but then we need to think about the market and think about the opportunities that present themselves with these additional projects.”
The new ideas were somewhat forced on Coopers. The company’s sales fell 9 per cent in the 2017-18 financial year. Only the impressive growth of its fledgling malting business ensured a profit for the company.
It seemed Coopers was caught in a time warp for which it wasn’t prepared.
With 5 per cent of the Australian beer market, Coopers wasn’t big enough to be a major player like CUB and Lion, which combined account for 88 per cent of national sales, nor, at 85 million litres of production a year, was it small enough to be a part of the independent brewing movement that ironically only has slightly more of the market despite having around 500 operators in the sector.
As a result of the decline Coopers instigated a 20 per cent increase in advertising spend and put $3 million into the development of new products.
“When (Marketing and Innovation Director) Cam (Pearce) says what’s next, it tests us,” Dr Cooper said. “But we do want them (new beers) to be in their own space.
“We have some very good products now with Pale Ale easy to drink; a mainstay representing over half our volume, Sparkling is the flagship, Stout has been there since the 1870s and in the last 20-odd years we’ve added Dark, Mild, Session and now XPA to our core range.
“We don’t know what is going to be next but it is exciting to think about the prospects.”
Significantly, Coopers is still using a century-old yeast although 20 years ago the brewery selected a single strain for use in all its beers.
And that that strain has provided a key flavour profile across the product range.
It is prevalent in all Vintage Ales. So, too, is the single origin malt produced from Compass barley grown in the Murray Mallee of South Australia that was specifically used for the 2019 edition.
The new iteration, the 19th in the Vintage Ale series, also features the American hop Mosaic. It was selected after a comprehensive testing process that also included an internal session called “Hop Idol” where staff rated their preferences.
“Compass barley is hardy and high yielding, allowing the brew to deliver a hefty alcohol content, yet still retain a fine malt sweetness,” Dr Cooper said.
Like all Coopers ales, the 2019 Vintage undergoes secondary fermentation and natural conditioning.
In one way, Coopers likes to think it was ahead of the game in terms of breweries producing special batches.
“Seasonal releases of beer have become popular in recent years with the craft movement,” Pearce said.
“Coopers has been bringing an annual seasonal release to market for the past 20 years and we are proud to continue this with a greater focus on the seasonal aspect and the origins of the ingredients.”
The result of the ingredients in this year's Vintage Ale is a beer that is far more enjoyable to drink now - not that previous versions weren't. But past efforts seemed to be better after at least six months of storing. So it will be a great exercise to determine how 2019 changes given a little time to develop.