By Matt Kirkegaard - Editor of Australian Brews News
Scan the digital shelves when you buy craft beer online these days, and you quickly realise that beer is no longer the thing that your dad drank. The range of ever-changing styles can be a little overwhelming.
Where once the serving temperature was 'cold' and the flavour description was 'crisp', today beer comes with complex tasting notes talking of citrus and fruit flavours, hop varieties and bitterness units.
What is craft beer?
So, for the casual drinker who wants to enter the world of craft beer, the first question they need to ask is 'what is craft beer?'
Craft beer is a term that came to be used commonly in the early 2000s as the early wave of new breweries opened and started to reach a wider audience. Before that, the term boutique was used, but craft came to represent the new approach to brewing. But Australians love a pub debate and the definition of what made a beer 'craft' was a hot topic.
The size of the brewery and who owned it, the techniques of brewing and the ingredients used were all up for discussion. In the United States, 'craft' even had a definition. Craft breweries were small, traditional and independent.
The challenge with Australian breweries following this definition was that in the US 'small' meant a brewery making 700 million litres, almost ten times the size of Coopers in Australia. The use of 'traditional' also meant that some of the modern techniques and flavour additions that small brewers were increasingly using fell outside of the definition.
Then there's 'independence'. As breweries such as Pirate Life and 4 Pines came to be purchased by the major breweries and the beer didn't change, many consumers were left wondering why their beer wasn't so often called 'craft' just because the owner changed.
Before the craft beer revolution, beer in Australia had typically been lager with a focus on refreshment, but these new breweries marked themselves out with fuller flavoured ales that showcased the bold flavour of hops.
Though as the craft beer movement has evolved, many craft breweries have realised that not all drinkers want to be punched in the mouth with a pineapple and many have come to embrace beers that are a little closer to the traditional lager. The type of beer you would buy by the case and not the four-pack or single.
What are the different styles of craft beer?
With the definition of craft beer being hazier than a NEIPA, let's have a look at some of the most common styles that beer drinkers regard as craft beer.
Craft lagers can be shadow territory for beer drinkers - the perfect introduction into the world of craft beer. A beer such as Furphy, which is technically an ale, can be seen as classic, while Mountain Goat's popular GOAT, a lager, is seen as craft. You could happily sit down and drink them side by side.
Even a beer such as Hawke's Lager, which has won a national trophy for Best Australian Style Lager, would easily find something to talk about with those two if they were all at a party together.
Lagers from small breweries are great to trial as an introduction to craft beer. They have the lighter, crisper body of classic lagers but usually incorporate newer, more flavoursome hop varieties that add a little bit more flavour to step up the experience.
Pale Ales are the mainstay of the modern craft beer movement, though they are now represented under a multitude of sub-styles.
The classic American Pale Ale, best represented here by Little Creatures Pale Ale, and Sierra Nevada in the US, uses US hop varieties to deliver piney aromas and a firm bitterness over a solid malt body for a balanced but full-flavoured ale.
Craft brewers quickly decided that if a little bit of flavour and bitterness was good, a lot of flavour would be better. This saw the creation of the modern India Pale Ale, which took the hopping of the Pale Ale and turned it up to 11. In many ways, the IPA is still seen as the craft beer flagship, with Bentspoke Brewing's Crankshaft IPA being named the hottest craft beer in Australia in the 2020 and 2021 GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers. The Balter IPA and Akasha's Hopsmith IPA are both classics of the style.
Not all beer drinkers adore the higher bitterness of the IPA, and over a decade ago a start-up brewery in Byron Bay, Stone & Wood, saw the opportunity to take a relatively new Australian hop variety called Galaxy to highlight the passionfruit and lychee aromas in beer with a gentler bitterness and more sessional ABV. Thus, the Pacific Ale was born. Coming in at the low 4% ABV this is a cracking style for relaxed drinking with friends.
Craft beer can be about extremes, and with some pale ales showing a little haze, brewers leapt on the trend and many started to resemble a glass of mango juice as the haze and juice craze took off. Beers labelled Hazy, Juicy or NEIPA (New England India Pale Ale) tend to be hazy in colour. The haze comes from proteins and organic compounds from the ingredients such as hops that aren't filtered out so give the beer a distinctive appearance. The hops are used to give the beer juicy fruit characters but not the bitterness of a traditional IPA. We recommend cracking open a can of the Capital Brewing Co Hang Loose Juice - a perfect introduction to the NEIPA world with liquid that tasted like a glass of freshly squeezed juice bursting with tropical notes and a refreshing bitter finish.
Sour beers are another broad style that covers an increasingly popular craft beer style. A variety of brewing techniques can be used to give the beers a slightly sour or tart character that gives the beers a quenching refreshment. Brewers are increasingly using a variety of fruit flavours to balance the tartness and add flavour. We recommend Hope Estates Sunny Boy Super Sour - a lovely and vibrant sour beer, which is refreshing, tart and delightful all at once.
How to choose the perfect craft beer for you?
One of the great things about beer though, is that it doesn't need to be demystified the way wine sometimes can. The way to choose the perfect beer for you is to drink the ones you like.
A little bit of knowledge about hops and malt, beer styles and knowing the difference between a lager and an ale will always help you to understand why you like a particular beer. If you know why you like one, it will help you to choose others that have a similar flavour.
The key with craft beer is to have fun as you try.