It was 1984 when Matilda Bay Brewing Company started up in Fremantle, the milestone widely credited as the beginning of craft beer in Australia.
The phenomenon began much earlier in America, where production of its supposed first craft beer, Anchor Steam, began in San Francisco in 1965.
America subsequently evolved into a country of thousands of craft breweries that created a multitude of new, hop-driven beer styles quite unlike anything seen before in the Old World.
This rich and varied tapestry has provided excellent fodder for US beer pundits to nominate their selections of the most important American craft beers.
Our own comparatively nascent craft brewing industry does not throw up the same embarrassment of riches when considering individual beers that have been truly influential and groundbreaking.
I have nevertheless accepted the challenge, while not confining this list purely to modern ‘craft beers’.
It is instead a list of beers that were in some way pivotal or influential, or that foreshadowed the new era of brewing that was to be defined by flavour and passion, rather than homogeneity and profit.
Only beers that are still in continuous production today have been included, ruling out much feted beers such as Burragorang Bock, created by the late New South Wales brewing pioneer Geoffrey Scharer.
There are a couple of captain’s picks that will undoubtedly stir debate. I doubt however that there would be many people that would argue about the importance of Little Creatures Pale Ale in kickstarting the second, more successful wave of craft beer that continues to gather momentum today.
But it is actually Coopers Brewery that is the true father of Australian craft beer, according to Phil Sexton, co-founder of both Little Creatures and Matilda Bay.
“They provided a platform of awareness about different beers and an interest in traditional-style beers that survived through what were very dark years of brewing in Australia,” he once reflected.
So if you’re enjoying a newer Aussie craft beer this weekend, spare a toast for the pioneering brews that came before it. Are there any others you think are deserving of a place in this hall of fame?
Three of the beers in my list have been discontinued since the article was originally published in 2017. I largely stand by my selections, with the possible exception of Knappstein Reserve Lager.
- Chuck Hahn’s 50-year global brewing odyssey: S11E2
- The Beer Bible author, Jeff Alworth: S11E1
- Phil Sexton: Wine and beer entrepreneur – S9E3
Little Creatures Brewing Pale Ale
The resinous, citrus and pine characters associated with American hops were little known or understood in Australia, until Creatures set up shop in Fremantle in 2000. It is now a truly national brand purchased by the Lion group in 2012 in a deal valuing the company at $380 million. This feat was achieved off the back of its flagship American Pale Ale, the epiphany beer for so many of its brewing industry successors.
Mountain Goat Beer Hightail Ale (RIP)
It took years of hard graft by Mountain Goat before Australian tastebuds were ready for Hightail Ale, initially shunned by publicans for having too much flavour. Twenty five years after its launch, the pioneering amber ale thus deserves kudos as an ice breaker for the many more challenging beers that drinkers now consider to be the norm.
Coopers Brewery Sparkling Ale
It lives in the shadow of its green labelled brethren, but Coopers Sparkling is the only Australian beer to have inspired a globally recognised beer style (Australian Sparkling Ale). First brewed in 1862, its signature fruity esters and cloudiness have given countless brewing contemporaries a hint of beer’s potential for complexity in a market dominated by flavourless lager.
Matilda Bay Brewing Company Redback Original Wheat Beer
It is somewhat ironic that the beer dubbed ‘Australia’s original craft beer’ was a German wheat beer, a style with very little representation in Australia currently. First brewed in 1988, Redback suffered from the constant unrest surrounding Matilda Bay under owners Carlton & United Breweries, but has recently made a comeback with founder Phil Sexton back at the helm.
Malt Shovel Brewery James Squire Nine Tales Amber Ale
The brand created by brewing giant Lion in honour of Australia’s first brewer is now a gargantuan of craft beer. Created by brewmaster Chuck Hahn, this was the first Squire beer, then known as James Squire Original Amber Ale. The James Squire brand has undeniably played a significant role in turning many Australians on to more flavoursome beer styles.
Stone & Wood Brewing Company Pacific Ale
By far the most successful beer to have arisen from the last decade of brewing start-ups, Pacific Ale is also noteworthy for having showcased the potential of Australian aroma hops, specifically Galaxy. Pacific Ale is the purest expression of Galaxy’s passionfruit and tropical characters, loved by drinkers and now highly sought after by brewers globally.
Feral Brewing Hop Hog Pale Ale
Once considered an extreme beer, Hop Hog was truly ahead of the curve in introducing Australians to American India Pale Ale, a style we are revelling in only now. Tastebuds have evolved and beers have become so much more extreme during Hop Hog’s lifespan that Feral demoted it to a Pale Ale, with War Hog becoming the IPA in its range. A truly important beer in the development of modern palates.
Enterprise Brewery Knappstein Reserve Lager (RIP)
Produced from 2006 until 2017 at the Knappstein winery in Clare Valley, South Australia, this is a rich, fruity Bavarian-style lager with Nelson Sauvin hops as its hallmark. Craft lagers are currently a rarity in Australia, though we are continually told they will be the next big thing. If this ever does eventuate, Knappstein will have been one of the pioneers.
Cascade Brewery Co Stout (RIP)
You could substitute various beers into this space, depending on where you spent your formative years. Abbotsford Invalid Stout in Victoria, Southwark Old Stout in South Australia, even Tooheys Old in New South Wales. These dark beers offered some intrigue and character in what were dark days for brewing. Cascade Stout is the modern iteration of dark ales made continuously at Australia’s oldest brewery since the 1800s and it remains a cracking drop today.
Lord Nelson Brewery Old Admiral Ale
It was a bold move when Blair Hayden installed a brewery at the Lord Nelson Hotel in the heart of Sydney in 1986. Bolder still, one of the Lord’s first beers was Old Admiral, an English old ale of strong, warming, fruity malt-driven character scarcely seen Australia. It may not have penetrated the market like its flagship ale Three Sheets, but Old Admiral is a more unique, memorable and likely inspiring beer for enthusiasts making their essential pitstop at the pub for more than 30 years.