Recent years have seen a veritable explosion of breweries and brewing companies in Australia. From tiny one-man or woman outfits to sizeable new corporate-backed brands, it’s difficult to keep pace with all the new additions to an increasingly vibrant brewing scene.
But amidst all the change are a handful of brewers that have been in the game a long time. Some have weathered the previous century’s consolidation of the brewing industry, some were absorbed by it, and some changed the game altogether while others seemed to just carry on oblivious to outside influence. But they’re all still there in one form or another and, most importantly, some of their beers are as good as ever.
Our recommended beers don’t form a neat chronological selection from Australia’s oldest brewers. Rather, they offer a suggestion of some of the better - but perhaps less talked about - beers from a handful of producers, both large and small, who have well and truly earned their place in the annals of Australian beer history.
Cascade - Stout
Looming in the hills behind Hobart like something out of Batman’s Gotham City sits the Cascade Brewery. The old brick building has been there since 1824 and brewing beer since 1832, giving it claim to be Australia’s oldest brewery. That aside, one of Cascade’s real privileges is its proximity to raw ingredients and, as such, locally grown hops and malt are a feature of several of their beers. That lends itself to the idea of the Cascade range being a slight cut above similar, large-scale lines produced locally and, broadly speaking, that rings true. But while Cascade Premium may be their flagship product, and the First Harvest (an annual one-off brew using experimental hops) may be the most interesting, it’s their less talked about Stout which remains the pick of the bunch.
The brewery Samuel Smith is even older than Fullers. Founded in 1758, their deliciously named Oatmeal Stout is one of the smoothest versions of that style you will find. At 5% it is velvety and rich; reasonably dry, and full of delicate but prominent flavours such as powdered-cocoa and roasted nuts.
Coopers - Vintage Ale
Brewing out of South Australia for five generations and more than 150 years, Coopers is the oldest family-owned Australian brewery. The widespread popularity of the brewery rests largely on the iconic green and red labels of the Pale and Sparkling ales, but Coopers does some of its best work on the dark side; its Best Extra Stout is reliably delicious while the annual Vintage Strong Ale is always an anticipated release. The Vintage Ale is a little different from year to year, thanks to the different hops used, but that’s precisely part of the appeal; it’s a beer that should stand the test of time, changing and improving with age. Drinkers with foresight (and a good dose of self-restraint) will buy up cases of each release and cellar them for several years, enjoying them side by side with previous vintages to compare each as their characters develop. The combination of once-a-year availability coupled with wide distribution means Coopers Vintage does more than perhaps any other local beer to extol the virtues of seasonality of beer, making it that little bit special.
Lord Nelson - Old Admiral
The Lord Nelson Hotel seems to live in a Lenin-like state of permanent stasis, always present but never really changing. But for more than 25 years, the brewpub in Sydney’s historic Rocks area has thrived as one of the city’s most cherished local haunts and a must-see for any beer-loving tourist. And it does this all without being flashy, or seemingly striving to get ahead of the curve. The Lord knows what it does best and that’s making good ales, so why try to change the gospel? The venue has English tradition oozing from its walls, and it’s when they tip their hat to the styles of the old country that their beers are at their finest. One of their best - and one that’s available in bottles - is the Old Admiral, a strong ale that’s built on a heap of malty sweetness.
Matilda Bay - Alpha Pale Ale
Having started in Western Australia back in 1984, Matilda Bay has had an eventful 30-odd years. To offer a truncated history, the brewer found an audience with what were, for the local market of the time, very different beers like Redback and Dogbolter, before Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) took notice and purchased the small brewer in the early 1990s. Production was shifted to Melbourne in the 2000s - then to another site in Melbourne - before brewing operations were moved to Hobart’s Cascade Brewery (another sibling in the CUB family) in 2014. As Matilda Bay has drifted eastward and down across the country, they’ve released plenty of different beers - but none comes close to the quality of the Alpha Pale Ale. That this hoppy American-style pale ale was deemed good enough to win the trophy for Champion Australian Beer at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2013 tells you all you need to know. While not as easy to find as the ubiquitous Fat Yak, Alpha is certainly worth spending more time looking out for.
Little Creatures - IPA
While there are several breweries older than Little Creatures - notable examples include Victoria’s Grand Ridge which is still collecting major awards 25 years in, and Mountain Goat which is only growing in popularity as it approaches the last of its teenage years - Little Creatures feels like it’s been a part of Australia’s beer drinking fabric forever, literally worn into the carpet of every decent pub in the land. In fact, since being founded in 2000, it’s hard to imagine any other modern brewery having done more to change the Australian drinker's perception of beer. Their hop-forward Pale Ale was a game-changer then and, for many, still is. But when Creatures was purchased by Lion Nathan/Kirin in 2012, some predicted its absorption into a corporate entity might spell the end of the magic. That notion was quickly dispelled as Little Creatures turned out a real treat by adding a highly-hopped but superbly balanced IPA to their permanent line-up. We are indeed spoiled for choice.