The very first beer book I ever owned was the Australian Beer Companion by Willie Simpson, Australia’s foremost – and likely first – beer journalist. By the time I picked it up off a Dymocks sales shelf in 2014, the book was already five years out of date. In its pages, there was no Young Henrys, no Stomping Ground, and no Balter. Instead, there were descriptions and photos for Scharer’s, Bluetongue, and Knappstein, once prominent breweries that now no longer exist.
Having picked it up again yesterday, ten years after it was published, there was something special about flicking through the pages of the book and seeing the faces and names of people who I have come to know in the five years I’ve owned it. Even more amazing was the number of pages dedicated to breweries that still do exist, breweries that started when the Independent Brewer’s Association was a mere twinkle in its founders’ eyes.
Of these, there are a few that really stand out. The Sail & Anchor in Western Australia is credited as the catalyst for Australia’s independent beer movement, at a time before it was called “independent” or even “craft”, but rather “boutique” beer. The brewery which it spawned, Matilda Bay Brewing Company, was the first to open in Australia since World War II. Started by Phil Sexton in 1984, it joined Coopers, Lion Nathan and Carlton & United Breweries, the latter of which acquired it six years later.
Following Matilda Bay in 1984, New South Wales briefly led the independent beer charge, with the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel in 1986, the aforementioned and now defunct Scharer’s in 1987, and the Hahn Brewery in 1988, on the site that is now Sydney’s best smelling part of Parramatta Road, the Malt Shovel Brewery (now owned by Lion). Around the country, the number of independent breweries began to grow slowly but steadily over the next fifteen years. By 2009, the year of publication for The Australian Beer Companion, Australia was home to just shy of 200 independent breweries.
Some of the names are still recognisable today, northern NSW’s Stone & Wood, country Victoria’s Bridge Road Brewers, and Western Australia’s Gage Roads, all of which are proudly independent, with Gage Roads having bought back its Woolworth’s acquired shares.
Blasts from the past, courtesy The Australian Beer Companion circa 2009. Left: Ben Kraus of Bridge Road Brewers. Top photo, far right: Chris Willcock, now head brewer at 4 Pines (CUB/Asahi), during his time at Bluetongue Brewery (Fosters/CUB). Bottom photo, middle: Jamie Cook, now also Chairman of the Independent Brewers Assosciation, during Stone & Wood’s early days.
Also in the pages is the independent Hunter Beer Co, for which Keith Grice has brewed for almost ten years.
“In the early days, the major brands dominated,” he says. “When visitors walked in to the brewery, I had to sometimes explain I didn’t brew XXXX or Tooheys New, but that we brew small batches of beers and you may not have heard of some of the styles we make. You had to be a serious craft beer nerd to know that Matilda Bay and James Squire were owned by the big boys. Now, every beer drinker is used to seeing different beer decals above the tap at their local.”
One of the book’s few subjects who is still brewing today, Keith cites the very nature of independence as the reason he’s stayed in the industry for so long.
“There’s three things that keep me motivated,” he explains. “I love that I play a role in helping the next generations of brewers. I love the challenge of consistently making quality beer. And I love the creation process. But, it’s in that last bit, in the creation, where only an independent brewery gives you the freedom to produce the weird, the wonderful or the whimsical.”
As to how it makes him feel to still be recognisable, “old!” he laughs. “The rate of change is both incredible and exciting. When I started in the industry you could know the name of every brewery in the country and every beer they made. Nowadays both the quality and the diversity of beer made locally is outstanding – we really are living in a golden age of beer!”
Keith Grice then (left) and now (far right), having won Champion Hybrid Beer at this year’s Indies for Hunter Beer Co’s Slaked Magpie.
Since 2009, the number of independent breweries in Australia has grown from under 200 to over 600. The Craft Beer Industry Association (CBIA) was founded in 2011, acting as a body to represent what was then referred to as the craft brewing industry. But, the big beer buyouts of breweries like Mountain Goat, Feral and Little Creatures generated confusion as to what “craft” really meant. Even last night, the Australian Liquor Industry Awards distinguished between “independent craft” and “mainstream craft” – that’s breweries owned by big beer – somewhat of an oxymoron. Ultimately, Lion voluntarily withdrew its James Squire, Little Creatures and White Rabbit brands from the CBIA in early 2017 and coincidentally (author’s note: sarcasm), the CBIA rebranded two months later anyway, redefining “independence” and excluding “mainstream craft” in the process.
As it stands, a brewery, any breweries it owns or is owned by (by more than 20%), must produce less than 40 million litres a year in order to be considered independent by the Independent Brewers Association. If it meets that criteria, it can become a member and display the independent beer seal on its products. This is perhaps the most important function of the IBA from the point of view of consumers, allowing one to clearly distinguish independent breweries from those that are not. According to Beer Cartel’s most recent survey, the independent beer seal does have a significant influence on consumer choices, with over half of respondents saying they try to or exclusively buy beer with the seal.
A variant of the independent beer seal appears on supporter pins ahead of Indie Beer Day on Saturday.
But, what exactly does the seal indicate, and why should consumers have a preference for independent beer? After all, any beer sold in Australia passes profits on to the people that made or marketed it, doesn’t it? And didn’t many of today’s independent brewers get their start at non-independent brands, and many drinkers turned to independent beer by first trying “mainstream craft”?
Jamie Cook, current Chairman of the IBA and Stone & Wood co-founder, has the answer.
“The IBA is about working together to form a member organisation where we can actually have a more powerful collective voice than we ever could on our own,” he explains. “Small, independent brewers don’t have access to the resources that big beer does, for example technical, quality development resources globally. We don’t have a voice at the table when it comes to advocacy and lobbying and we don’t have the powerful distribution muscle and weight.”
“You don’t walk through the halls in Canberra, as we have been, as a single small brewer. You do it as a voice for 250 breweries who provide a massive chunk of the jobs in the country’s brewing industry.”
Indeed, some of the recent issues tackled by the IBA include excise tax, market access, and the availability of vocational training for brewers. But, the IBA is still young and awareness around it needs to grow. Of the independent breweries that choose to be members of the IBA, only about half use the seal, which amounts to around 30% of Australia’s independent breweries. But, Indie Beer Day hopes to change that.
“The purpose of the day is twofold,” says Jamie. “One piece is about building awareness around indie beer amongst the brewing community and the broader industry, who can register as members or supporters. The other piece is just to pause and celebrate the growing role that indie beer plays in the community.”
So, on 26th of October at 2pm, we have the opportunity around the nation to collectively raise a glass to independent beer. In doing so, we salute the breweries that started it all back in the 1980’s, the breweries of today that bring us continuous liquid joy, and the breweries that are still yet to come.