When beer fans return from their first trip to the States, it doesn’t take long for the half-delighted, half-wistful anecdotes to begin flowing: “They have craft beer at the supermarket!”, “I went to a brewery with 64 taps!” and so on.
Depending on who you ask, the US market is between five and 15 years ahead of Australia’s. Californian outfit New Albion Brewing Company, established in 1976, was the US’s first new brewery following World War II, with present-day craft titans such as Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company close behind.
In Australia, we had Tasmania’s Cygnet brewing (1979) and Victoria’s Old Ballarat Brewing (1984), both small, inconsequential blips on the radar before Fremantle pub the Sail & Anchor began brewing in-house. In ’84 and ’85 the pub grew into Matilda Bay Brewing Company and kicked off the “boutique” beer scene. (It wasn’t until much later, around 2010, that the word “craft” took over.)
Looking only at those early breweries, you could say the initial gap between the two markets was about 10 years. And you could continue this way, tracking every new brewery up until now, but it’s not so helpful. It doesn’t explain how much each country has actually embraced and responded to craft beer.
Enter “market share by volume”, which measures what percentage of beer made in a given year was “craft” (that in itself is difficult to quantify with so many former craft breweries now partly or wholly owned by the majors, but let’s push on). In 2020, that figure is 13.6 per cent in the US and 11.9 per cent here. That puts Australia four years behind the States, where craft had 12.1 per cent market share in 2016.
As always, though, these numbers don’t tell the full story. If you drink beer in Australia and live in a city, a craft taproom or craft-inclined pub are never far away, and most beers can be delivered to your door. A drinker in Brisbane can easily access beers from Melbourne and vice versa. The point being, for the passionate drinker, availability is more important than market share.
In that sense we’re maybe six months behind the States. Sure, they may have many more breweries per capita, more bars pouring nothing but craft beer and so on, but when US brewers make a big enough innovation – such as inventing a new style like the brut IPA – it’s months, not years, before our brewers have it on shelves here.
In recent years the best example of this is the “hazy” or “juicy” New England-style India pale ale (IPA). Accidentally invented by a Vermont brewer circa 2011, the cloudy, pulpy-looking style bursts with sweetness and fresh, fruity flavours. Though it contains plenty of hops, they’re added to the boil late, imparting lots of aroma but little bitterness. In craft circles NEIPAs have enjoyed unparalleled popularity in the US and Australia over the past few years, most likely as a reaction to the prior dominance of overpoweringly bitter IPAs.
But that’s just beer nerds – people who actively seek out new styles and get excited about them. Right now, what’s really telling is that NEIPAs have also broken into the beer mainstream, a place where adjectives like “fruity”, “flowery” and “sweet” are viewed with disdain and even disgust.
South Australia’s Coopers, founded in 1862, exists in a strange liminal place. While it’s family owned and uses no additives or preservatives in its beer, its enormous 75-million-litre yearly output and conservative portfolio mean it could never be called a “craft” brewery.
“We don’t adventure into the weird and wonderful area,” says Cam Pearce, Coopers’ director of marketing and innovation. The brewery is happy to leave the coconut porters and cucumber sours to the smaller players. Developing, marketing, packaging and selling such niche styles would be little more than a distraction from bestsellers such as the original pale ale.
Still, that doesn’t mean Coopers doesn’t innovate in its own way. Every year it sends a crew to Melbourne beer festival GABS, among other places, to see what’s happening out there and maybe find some inspiration.
In August 2019 this eyes-up approach saw it add an XPA (extra pale ale) to the core range, followed by a session ale in March this year. Both have been a huge success. “We’re always looking for emerging trends that have opportunity for consumers and retailers in terms of new product development,” Pearce says, adding that drinkability and sessionability are non-negotiables.
Now comes a hazy IPA, limited to 40,000 cartons and 1500 kegs. Brewed with Coopers’ own closely guarded, 115-year-old strain of ale yeast (“the DNA” of every ale the company produces), it clocks in at 6.2 per cent ABV, pushing the boat out quite a bit in the context of non-craft beer, where five per cent is a hard ceiling.
So too with regard to its hop profile, which employs US varieties Ahtanum and Strata for aromatic characters of citrus, mandarin, tangerine and grapefruit. And of course, the beer has a turbid, juicy body where sweetness slightly outweighs bitterness, making it extremely drinkable despite hazy’s status as a craft darling.
“We go through a process call ‘hop idle’ where we use our freshly packaged sparkling ale and place some hop samples into those,” says Adrian Clark, a beer ambassador at Coopers. “And then we all sit down around a tasting table and pick out those that would really suit our secondary-conditioned beer styles first and foremost, but have a really identifiable and independent aroma and character as well.”
For the most part these meetings are held to create the Vintage Ale, which changes slightly each year. “Every year with the Vintage Ale, the brewers really have an opportunity to let their hair down and use some different hop varieties,” Clark says.
It speaks volumes that this time around, the table took the opportunity to create something so conspicuously crafty. It says that whether Australia is six months or 10 years behind the US craft beer market, the movement has firmly arrived in the mainstream and will only continue gaining ground here. Who knows? Coopers might even add this hazy – an experiment, it must be said – to its core range eventually.
This article was produced by Broadsheet for Coopers. Learn more about branded content on Broadsheet here.