Current State of Craft Beer in Australia & New Zealand ?

Posted on August 18, 2013


“Why aren’t there more Aussie Craft Brewers here? “ was a question I was asked frequently on a recent trip to NZ.


It made me wonder why, but also the beer crowd were curious why their big neighbours aren’t producing better beer? and why on recent trips to Melbourne and Sydney Craft beer is hard to find? It was quite embarrassing to say there are only about 3 bars in Sydney to get consistently interesting craft beers. Especially as Sydney is a city that had double the population of the whole of New Zealand.

This article is not to slander or badmouth any brewer in Australia but merely to provide a bit of perspective from what I have seen from my experience in Canada, US and Belgium. I will provide a breakdown of what I see is the state of the beer in both countries, and some issues.


Supermarkets Own the Bars

One of the underlying issues in Australia is with bars being owned by large private equity divisions that are sometimes owned by the duopoly supermarkets. Woolworths  ALH Group owns 300 licensed venues in Australia. and 460 liquor outlets. (NSW Venues). These companies are both traded companies on the stock exchange and shareholders want solid returns off growth in revenue. Recent bars that have sold in Sydney’s Newtown area have gone for A$15-18 Million. I know I had a dream coming back home to Sydney of opening a brewpub, but I’m missing that extra 20 million off my deceased loved ones will. One post I wrote on why I wouldn’t ever own a brewpub.

The bar owners have special supplier arrangements with the larger brewers that can supply the beer at much cheaper prices than Craft Brewers can due to using lower cost ingredients and higher volume production. Like most countries there are specific market driven supplier agreements in place with either Lion Nathan or Fosters regarding taplines in bars. One of the few to break the mould has been South Australian Coopers Brewery who are still family run but have a great distribution network.

The Tax Laws favour larger Breweries

The basic premise of getting support for small business is quite difficult for any industry but especially for brewers that are small. The higher the %alcohol in the beer the more taxes that have to be paid when you brew below certain levels. The understanding I have is that its based on high levels that tax breaks only occur at certain production levels. This ultimately only allows the large two brewers Lion Nathan (Tooheys) and Fosters brewing to attain these breaks.

A great article on history of brewing tax laws in Australia.

Aussie Palate for Light Beer

Do Australians have weaker, lighter palates for beer ? I can see a lot of similarities between my trip to Mexico years ago and not being able to find a decent beer to drink other than Corona and Sol, and in Australia is the same issue trying to find a decent craft beer. There average Aussie wants to drink rounds of beers with his mate, and doesn’t want anything too ‘heavy’ or alcoholic. This also has a lot to do with the blood alcohol levels in Australia compared to countries around the world. Australia has a alcohol levels of below .05%, with other countries having the level at .08%. This does affect how much strong beer the average Aussie can drink.

The palate for beer is one that is surprising for a country that makes and drinks some of the best wine in the world. Do Aussies have more sensitive beer palates than Kiwis or Americans? I can recall an article talking about the Sierra Nevada Torpedo being too bitter and acidic to the majority of people trying it. Do Aussies need more sessionable craft beers so more weisse beers, and pale ales ?


What’s Happening in Australian Beer?

Once I move back to Canada and in traveling through the US I will get ‘Whats happening in AUS?’ more than I would like to admit. Instead of Paul Hogan jokes of ‘This is not a Knife’ it will be Where are the AUSSIE beers ? SO this is my honest appraisal after nearly 3 years back on the ground.

In terms of the beer scene in the last 2 years there has been a lot more new small brewers starting, and some of the older brewers creating more interesting beers. Pale Ales like the original Craft brewery Little Creatures are starting to become more common on the market. This is likely the first stage of consumer tastes changing with brewers creating lighter style beers that are approachable for a wider drinking audience.

In the Sydney market its Little Creatures and Coopers are the two beers that are very easy to find in bars and clubs around town, as would be the case in Melbourne. Its much harder to find more discrete less common beers.

Finding craft beer on tap outside of the downtown/inner city area of the major cities is where the battle hasn’t been won with craft beer, and one that I find quite sad that the culture of beer in Australia is still very tough. In Sydney if you know where to go there are about 4-5 bars that you can seek out craft beers, with a few other bars on the periphery, but in terms of how these bars stack up to an average American city, it’s a pretty sad state. This is not to say the bar owners aren’t trying, but I think it relates back to the palate again of what beer drinkers want, and also what they want to pay.

A night out drinking in Sydney is easily over A$100 (US$=AUS). Beers cost anywhere from $8/half pint, to $16/halfpint for special/rare beers. I can recall drinking in the US on many occasions and struggling to break $100 between the Ex-wife and I.

Craft Beer is sold to some extent by the Supermarket chains, and there are small boutique companies that sell either online or via mail order (BeerCartel (Sydney), Slowbeer (Melbourne).  This is again one of the areas that are quite hard to find, and you have to know where to go to find these. The issue with overseas craft beer in Australia is by the time it arrives in stores or shelves its already several months old, and some of the beers arrive in less than ideal shape. I have been disappointed with many of the American imports I have purchased, in comparison to when I had it fresh in the US. Much like sometimes you shouldn’t take French wine out of France..

Contract brewing is one of the common trends in Australia where beers are made to certain recipes at contract brewing facilities. This again comes back to the costs of setting up a brewery or bar. This appears to where Australia is likely to grow in terms of contract brewers making their beer at offsite facilities and then selling into their own distribution networks. Some of the brewers who have been growing their distribution networks and contracting are ‘Murrays Brewing’ and Two Birds who both release lower strength beers in the craft beer market.

Some Interesting Brewers that I would like see in a few years

Red Duck – Mildura, VIC

HopDog – Nowra, NSW

Feral Brewing – Perth, WA

Mornington Peninsual Brewing- Mornington Peninsula, VIC

Riverside Brewing – Parramatta, NSW

New Zealand

Having only spent a week in NZ through Beervana this perspective is taken from my own views and those I had spoken with in sessions, and at bars in Wellington.

I first encountered EPIC beer from NZ at a beer store in Seattle when I was looking for beer to take back over the border to Canada. I had assumed then that I could buy it when I moved back to Sydney. Little did I know then, that the US craved more of the highly hopped NZ IPA. Until this trip to NZ, it was the only beer that I had on the radar for NZ, though I knew about 8 Wired I had not really tried their beers.



So what is an APA ?

The APA (American Pale Ale) is definitely the one thing that every brewer appears to be making right now. Pale Ales that I generally find are quite boring were more fun, there had different types of New Zealand hops and flavours. Due to problems access certain US hops at different times, there are many brewers who are using local hops available in New Zealand. There were several Pilsner style beers with Sauvin hops that were quite light and special, where they are finding the balance in how to use the hops to not make an offensive cat-piss beer.

There appears to be a local movement in Wellington that many said was not typical across New Zealand but its slowly changing due to the love of local food, and coffee. This is very similar to the city of Portland Oregon who have great local produce, and coffee. I noticed in several restaurants I ate in they had one or two taps of beer from local brewers, or bottles of craft beer. This is something that I found very cool for a young beer city.

What are NZ Hops Like ?

The following Hop descriptions I have taken from NZ Hops

– Motueka:

This hop represents a triploid substitute for the traditional Saaz. Its unique Saaz-like flavour, with a New Zealand twist, has made this hop very sought after by both craft and larger international brewers. Motueka has created a unique citrus flavour in several beer styles. 

– Riwaka:

Developed at the same time as the Motueka, from similar parentage. This Saaz type distinguishes itself with delicate citrus and passionfruit aromas. Similar to Motueka, but with a subtle difference. With a small but growing production, this very sought after variety has a dedicated following making pre-ordering essential for Riwaka.

– Pacifica:

This triploid has been bred from the famous Hallertau Mittlefruh hop variety and retains a similar oil profile. Like its parent Hallertau Mittlefruh, it has a clean floral aroma with a slight cinnamon-like spiciness, imparting a smooth bouquet with mild buttery notes, as found in classic European lagers.

 Stouts and Porters?

At the Beervana event there were a few stouts but very few >10% stouts/porters. This for a country that sits in rain most of the year is quite surprising as after so many Pale Ales, I would have liked to have had one of their top tier stouts. But maybe this is an area that is the next stage of their brewing growth.

Where is NZ going to go in terms of the beer making, and small brewers is anyones guess, but for a country who is so much smaller than Australia they have the edge with some of the most exciting brewers I think globally right now. It was great to taste these beers fresh in bottle and on tap in New Zealand.

Some interesting Brewers I would like to see in a few years

Liberty Brewing

8 Wired Brewing

Garage Project


Brew Moon

Where to from here ?

I think that both countries will define certain styles of beers that will be unique in the next few years, as it comes down to availability of hops, and of course the prices of these from overseas. Both Australia and New Zealand are poised for huge growth in Craft beer, and then they can label those generic growth stats like that of Italy all the time. For two countries that make great wine that sit very high on the world stage, beer is obviously the next one to improve and take off. But are they considered up to world standards in breweries and places where to get craft beer yet? NO. But like anything when I moved back 3 years it was a pretty sad state, and now it has improved dramatically.

Several things need to change for breweries in both countries to succeed, it is both local and international. The currencies of both countries need to be lower so that beer can be sold to the US/European markets for brewers to be sustainable operations. Brewers don’t get rich from local growler sales. Beers need to be seen as more approachable, than massive high alcohol IPAs, like the ones I love. But I think too brewers needs to learn from overseas brewers, not just read HOW TO BREW Manuals. or take slaps on the back from their mates over the good brews as Job Well done. This happened in the wine industry and should in the brewing community in Australia and NZ for growth and beers to improve.

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