Beer glorious beer. If any one product is going to be synonymous with the foundation of our epic little island, I’m championing beer over the mighty pie; and over Vegemite. Our forefathers have been swilling the golden nectar since Captain James Cook popped four tonnes of it on his ship for the voyage over (it didn’t last, incidentally) and we haven’t looked back.

Victoria once thrived on small breweries, with their number reaching the lofty heights of 124 in the late 19th century. But by 1907 when five smaller entities merged to form CUB, things had begun to take a turn for the large and homogenised. By the 60s, we were bogged down in mass-produced and mass-marketed beers, with most small operations slipping under the radar as mere curiosities.

My how the tables are slowly turning. It’s true that boutique and craft beers won’t ever touch the volumes that Australia’s giants are producing, but come the summer of love that will be 2009/10 I guarantee we’ll be seeing more bar tops, eskies and picnic blankets dotted with custom Vic brews. Taking advantage of the refined modern palate that demands more boutique variation and the emerged acceptance of European beers, there’s been a quiet groundswell of craft brewery openings since the turn of the millennia.

In order to check out what was really happening on the scene (besides my usual research involving delicious pints and counter meals) I happily fronted up at the October instalment of the Fed Square Micro Breweries Showcase, and what a turnout! The space was buzzing with beer enthusiasts milling around little stalls captained by equally enthusiastic sales folk, brewers, their chefs and their daughters. Let me say now that Victoria’s current beer-form is very bloody good.

The first sign that the event had been well thought out was that all the samples were served in glass (heaven be praised!), and clutching my stemware for the afternoon I dove on in there. It’s no secret that beer is a thoroughly European invention, but some may be surprised to discover just how many different types are out there. From the two big schools of lager and ale (which are largely distinguished by the type of yeast used) we see styles numbered well into double figures, and the beers on show reflected almost all of them.

Where Europeans take a largely serious tack on how they present beers (it’s all about tradition etc) it’s refreshing to see the Aussie interpretations exerting a bit more fun and life, possibly represented in the extreme by Moorabbin’s very entertaining 2 Brothers Brewery. Their Märzen beer (a traditional, seasonal lager made famous by Oktoberfest) is aptly named The Chief, and is a wonderful if too-rarely seen style offering a golden body, sweet malt character and a gentle spice. Yummy.

Other lagers on show were equally tempting and it might be worth noting at this point that when tasting beer, it’s best to try the lighter expressions first. Coldstream Brewery’s pilsner is a cracker and destined for summer greatness; it has a a honeyed nose that turned crisp, zesty and dry on the palate and a fantastic, lingering aromatic hop.

Another trendy beer style is the German/Belgian weiss or whit (wheat) beers, typified in Australia by the ubiquitous Hoegaarden. Almost everyone is jumping on that bandwagon! I tried six, and this unusual wheat beer is definitely on the move. Often infused with coriander seed, clove and orange peel, the resulting flavours can be a bit psychedelic and challenging – a definite love/hate beer style. Grand Ridge’s blonde presented a heady offering with plenty of spicy banana bread on the nose with a pungent, sweet and buttery palate and a coriander spice coming through delicately. A definite thinker’s beer!

[pagebreak] As the afternoon wore on, and my tasting notes became considerably shorter I eagerly got stuck into the stouter (pardon the pun) fare. Although Melbourne was enjoying one of its first hot days, the ales – which are reputed for their cooler weather attraction – were in force and excellent. Hargreaves Hill, which sadly lost its brewery to a fire earlier in the year, is coming back strong. Their ESB (or English special bitter) is probably my favourite beer this year and proudly sports a rich passionfruit nose with fruity malt on the palate and a fantastically aromatised bitterness. Refreshment incarnate.

By the time I’d claimed a pie, and started to think maybe some water was a good idea, I’d gotten to the heavy end of things and was pleasantly surprised by Bright Brewery’s porter with plenty of toffee and fudge on the nose and a big, rich body of bitter chocolate, dark fruits and spice. Balanced, indulgent and delicious, it is the beer drinker’s chocolate cake!

Loads of other brewers showcased excellent fare this year, with the standouts being Mountain Goat Brewery, Holgate Brewhouse, Red Hill Brewery, Bridge Road Brewers, Hawthorn Brewing Co, White Rabbit Brewery and The 3 Ravens Brewing Company. Be sure to seek them out.

It was a fantastic and very reassuring afternoon, not that I harboured any real doubt about the health of the industry. But a brief parting shot is required for those on the trail of good local refreshment this year. Please be aware that beer is a living, breathing thing, and doesn’t like being messed around by excessive travel, storage and even sometimes bottling. To taste beers in their natural element seek out venues like The Lincoln, The Great Northern or The Royston Hotel, where Victoria’s craft beers are served on tap. Better still, hit the road for a fantastic Sunday excursion to country Victoria to discover the breweries first hand. Brewers are an affable lot, and will be happy to have you.

Please enjoy responsibly this summer, and by responsibly I mean lager is meant to be served with a generous head! Insist always that this be the case when pouring for yourself or friends; it’ll never get better.

The Microbreweries Showcase is a recurring event at Federation Square. The next event is 17-18 March. Check out the website for further details.