A Short History of Craft Beer in Australia

January 27, 2016

The history of beer in Australia is rich, frequently fascinating and, for the interested drinker, well worth delving into. What follows are the highlights, key events and general trends within that history, from colonial days when breweries were a local concern through to an industry dominated by multinational corporations and on to the rejuvenated craft beer scene of today.

Early days

Breweries have been in Australia since colonial times. Back then, they were generally small producers supplying their local market. This was as much due to practical reasons as anything else; not having easy access to distribution or technology like refrigeration meant beer could spoil easily in the often hot climate, so brewers tended to supply outlets close to the source of production.

The beer scene was fairly well developed early on, with a few hundred breweries in operation. As you might imagine, given the roots of the colonists, they tended to favour producing English-style ales but, between what was being produced locally and imports from abroad, the Australian beer drinker of the late 1800s fared reasonably well in terms of selection (although it’s difficult to gauge whether that translated through to quality).

Towards the end of that century a combination of factors including an economic downturn, legislative changes and the growing presence of tied houses – pubs owned by breweries that would exclusively sell their own beer, thereby shutting out others – contributed to a gradual reduction in the number of breweries. During this time, technology also allowed for tastes to change as refrigeration became more prevalent and lagers served ice cold began to gain a following. The brewers that were able to navigate these changing conditions – be it through better technology, better distribution or large scale production – thrived, while smaller brewers that couldn’t compete were forced to close their doors, or were bought out by larger brewers. This was a trend that would continue to play out over the coming decades; between 1910 and 1920 alone the number of breweries effectively halved, from around 150 to a shade under 80.

A culture changed

The middle decades of the twentieth century and into the 1970s weren’t good ones for beer diversity in Australia. On top of independent closures, decades of rationalisation saw many breweries swallowed up or shut down by larger parent companies so that what was left was effectively a handful of monopolies, with each state having a flagship brewer to whom its pubs, liquor outlets and citizens were effectively bound. Quality was not a primary concern, nor was flavour, nor was choice. The only metric that mattered was volume and in that regard Australia did brilliantly as beer consumption soared. And almost every drop of it was some variant of a generic lager. This certainly wasn’t a trend unique to Australia though, as the commodification of beer had swept across the globe.

It was about this time things started to change abroad. Drinkers in the United Kingdom drew upon the rich beer history of the home countries and formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) while, across the Atlantic, US breweries like Anchor, Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams were flying the flag for what would become today’s world-leading craft beer scene.

By the mid-1980s, a handful of forward-thinking Australians had taken note of what was happening overseas and were preparing to try and change the local beer landscape. Setting up a small brewery at the time was no mean feat and would-be brewers were hardly welcomed into the industry with open arms. In fact, large brewers had a habit of destroying their old brewery equipment so as to ensure it couldn’t be used by anyone else.

Nevertheless, despite the constant uphill battles, a microbrewery within the Sail & Anchor pub in Fremantle became what you might call Australia’s first craft brewery. When its owners followed it up by opening the Matilda Bay brewery and led it towards huge success, the establishment was properly shaken for the first time. A number of pioneers followed, with the likes of the Hahn Brewery, Lord Nelson and Scharers Little Brewery launching. These were all significant steps forward for beer diversity; however, within the broader contact of the industry, they still represented no more than a blip on the beer map. And when, in a case of history repeating, the likes of Matilda Bay and Hahn were purchased by large brewing corporations (Fosters and Lion Nathan respectively) along with others closing down, Australia’s craft beer industry seemed set to lose much of the momentum it might have gained.

Rebirth

But all was not lost. In many cases driven by great beer experiences overseas, another wave of Aussie pioneers – plus some familiar hands – returned home full of possibilities. The years around the turn of the new century saw the opening of a handful of breweries that beer lovers across the country will be familiar with today, including the likes of Mountain Goat and, especially, Little Creatures. Started by the same people that launched Matilda Bay, Little Creatures and their iconic American-style Pale Ale would make a mark like no other Australian beer in recent history. It shone a bright light on bold hop flavour and there are plenty of current brewers who will cite it amongst the life-altering beers that set them on their own brewing journey.

From around 2005, whatever virtual dam might have been holding would-be brewers back seemed to crack open and they started pouring through. That has now transformed into a flood, with breweries opening at a greater rate in every state year on year. From a few short decades ago when you could almost count the breweries in Australia using your fingers and toes, the figures – when you include both breweries and brewing companies – are heading back towards a staggering 300, a number not reached for well over a century.

The beer industry in Australia is still very much dominated by large multinational brewers and the ubiquitous lager, but you only need to take a cursory look at beer shelves to see how things are changing as more drinkers seek out fuller flavours and local brewers. And as more independent brewers cross small but significant milestones of being in business for five or ten years (or, in the unique case of Coopers, 150 years) there’s more assurance that craft beer has finally found its place in Australia and, this time, it isn’t going away.