Craft journey driven by middle-of-the-road approach
For a few light years craft crusaders were on board beer’s USS Enterprise speeding through the brewing galaxy.
Their star trek was to explore new brewing worlds, to seek out new hops and new enzymes and to boldly go where no beer drinker has gone before.
There was no final frontier.
Could it be that the craft beer industry is coming back to earth?
Cyberspace is full of chat boards and forums in which zealous tasters fight to become the first to show off fresh brewing territory with previous humble styles Pale Ales and Stouts transported into weird, wonderful, often delectable, yet not necessarily commercial successful, concoctions.
But there seems to be something of a correction occurring throughout the industry.
The growing trend of mainstream craft – and yes that is bastardised terminology - is getting stronger.
While there is still a wave of drinkers shying from the run-of-the-mill (read mainly flavourless Lager) brews most taking the craft journey are happy to settle into middle-of-the-road artisanal beers.
And that isn’t being disrespectful to Stone and Wood’s Pacific Ale, Single Fin from Gage Roads, Hawkers Pale Ale, Colonial Small Ale or the XPA of Balter. Indeed, it is a sincere compliment because these are beers that consumers have grown to trust.
That isn’t necessarily the case with the barrel-aged IPA with a lemon zest sourced from trees on the edge of the rain forest.
Sure there is a small band of craft drinkers who live permanently in the bubble and are desperate to be the first to show off the new and wildly different brews to the one per cent of those who regularly open their wallets and purses for experimental beer.
They’re the ones who shout yum at the mere sight of a new label, well before the liquid has gone anywhere near their lips. This author is definitely excited by the conveyor belt of beers pushing the boundaries. Sometimes being trapped in that sphere means you don’t see what is happening in the wider world.
However, most others are playing it safe. They’re sticking to regular craft.
Take the spin coming from Gage Roads this month as an example. The WA brewery claimed Single Fin was the fastest growing beer in the country. They used RI MarketEdge MAT data that indicated the brand accounts for 69% of the national annual growth in the Summer Ale bracket.
Single Fin is a quality beer. It is well made at the Palmyra operation. And it is easy drinking at 4.5%. It is about as far away from some of the radical one-off brews that come from smaller breweries.
Then consider Beerland. The team has attracted strong crowds at the Whitfords and Northbridge Brewing Company venues. More of the brewpubs are set to be rolled out around the country after the crew dominated the Australian International Beer Awards in May, winning Champion Beer with its Wheat.
While Beerland do experiment with the brewkit every month, with a band of about 50 who regularly attended the small-batch beer club sessions, it is the accessibility of the Lager, Pale Ale, Kolsch and India Pale Ale for the everyday drinker that has made the operation such a success. And that is a credit to the experience and guile of master brewer Ken Arrowsmith. He knows what punters want to taste and how to make it damn well.
It must be remembered that brewpubs are the fastest growing segment of Australian beer.
When it comes to production breweries it has been the Pilsner, XPA and IPA that has driven the 739% annual growth (RI MarketEdge MAT) for Balter. And it is those beers that are expected to poll well again in the GABS Hottest 100 next month.
As much as independent crusaders see James Squire as the devil, the 150 Lashes Australian Pale Ale is Australia’s biggest selling craft beer – by a long way. For the experimenters, the Lashes is also almost up there with XXXX Gold, Emu Export and VB in terms of appeal.
But what the small legion of palate gymnasts has to accept is that many don’t want to take the risk with widely deviant beers. If they’re parting with $12 for a pint or $22 for a six-pack they don’t want to buy something that over-stretches the taste buds. The 150 Lashes is right in that strike zone. So, too, is Little Creatures’ Furphy.
A good case in point is one of Perth’s newest craft brewing havens – Blasta. The big advantage for Steve Russell’s premises is that it is a drop-punt from the 60,000 seat Optus Stadium. And apart from the big barn known as The Camfield next door, there aren’t too many casual food and beverage establishments around the multi-purpose venue.
Matchdays and concert nights mean the Blasta brewpub is packed – and most are just randoms seeking a beer and a bite before the action starts down the road. While Russell has picked up awards for his Grimster Rocks Pale Ale and his Myway grapefruit infused IPA has plenty of fans, his good old Where the Helles Burrswood Lager is by far the biggest seller.
Again it gets back to risk and reward. Consumers, many of whom wouldn’t consider themselves craft beer aficionados, aren’t interested in having their sips bombarded by weird and whacky flavours. They’re happy to play it safe with a well-made style with which they are comfortable.
That is certainly the ethos of new Brisbane brewpub Felons, which has some sharp and beer savvy minds behind its operation. The Felons menu consists of an Australian Pale Ale, Crisp Lager, IPA and a low-bitterness 3.8% drop called Middy. Nothing fancy but supremely constructed.
There is no doubt there is a market for the triple backflip with half-pike beers that do make the brewing scene interesting to those truly immersed in it. And this office has those within its walls.
However, what must be remembered is the vast majority of brew consumers don’t spend the week taking courses in what unusual beer can they have next. An accessible – yet well-made and tasty beverage – is the priority.
It might also mean Lager could be on the comeback. Not those from CUB and Lion but those with handcrafted goodness. Many smaller breweries have shied from the style because it has been the domain of Big Beer. In the end it is about catering to the majority of drinkers’ tastes so more smaller operations could have a Helles in their repertoire.
And that puts the pressure back on the brewers who must ensure their beers meet the standard for the masses, not just cater to the radical fringe.