Microbrews used to be the dusty bottles up the back of the bar fridge, but it’s now standard to have to order a beer over a snaggle-toothed array of exotic tap handles. Lovers of craft have never been more spoilt for choice.

But what exactly are the characteristics of craft beer beyond small-batch manufacturing? Is it anything with a kitsch label, or are there certain characteristics? To find out, we spoke to two craft brewers at either end of the manufacturing scale.

Kaiju! is a nascent boutique brew out of the south-east Victorian region of Officer. Nat Reeves is one of its three-person team that produces four beers – an IPA, Double IPA, Red Ale, and a Double India Black Ale. (They also make their own cider, Golden Axe). In just two years of operation Kaiju! has won a handful of plaudits, including Best Amber/Dark Ale (Hopped Out Red) at the 2014 Australian International Beer Awards.

At the more sizeable end of the craft-beer scale is James Squire. It’s a high-profile, multi-award-winning beer out of the Malt Shovel Brewery in Camperdown, Sydney. Head brewer Chris Sheehan oversees the production of nine beers, as well as an apple and a pear cider.

We asked both men some questions about what craft beer actually is.

Broadsheet: Explain your attraction to making craft beer – is it the "craft" or the "beer"?

Nat Reeves: Our attraction to craft beer is a bit of both. I couldn’t give you the definition of “craft” because I think it means different things to everybody. But for us the craft is in being diligent. Thinking about why we are putting certain ingredients in, making each beer an experience for the drinker.

Chris Sheehan: Definitely the “beer” out of those two options. However, I’d add that it’s actually the people. Both the people I work with and the people that work within the industry. We all design and brew a massive array of beers that are savoured far and wide by all types, which is incredibly rewarding.

BS: Does factoring in ingredients rely more on the scientific or the subjective? Do you think: “I love salted caramel so damn it, I'm putting it in”, or is it more: “the recipe says this”.

NR: You can basically put anything you want into a beer, as long as there is a sugar source and yeast, you will make an alcoholic beverage. But the thing about putting something in beer is that it often doesn’t taste like what it did before it went in. For example, with salted caramel, the sugar in the salted caramel will be converted to alcohol and will no longer be sweet. There will be residual flavour from the caramel and the salt, but it won’t taste like it once did.

CS: Brewers fundamentally work from recipes, however they are subjectively driven. The great conundrum is whether brewers should evolve certain beers as both our ingredients and tastes changes. Beer has historically worked along the same lines as champagne – being all about consistency between batches from a well-versed formula. However I don’t think we should restrict ourselves. For example, we deliberately change our Hop Thief each year.

BS: My dad thinks craft beers are “fruitier” than other beers. Why does he think that?

CS: That’s a really common observation. Full flavoured beers challenge long held expectations of beer. New hop varieties and how we use them certainly contribute a lot more aroma, everything from spicy, citrus, tropical notes. Different malts and cereals change the mouthful, making them typically fuller and often sweeter. Which is all in contrast to the traditional dry, clean and crisps lagers that have been popular for so long.

NR: There are different aromas and flavours going on that get the descriptor of “fruity”. The more banana, apple, pear-like aromas you get in some styles, such as Hefeweizen, and some English style ales, are yeast-derived esters. The other fruity aromas such as citrus, passionfruit and stone fruits present in IPAs are hop derived. But there are other styles of beer, such as Rauchbier (German styled smoke beer), that exhibit no fruitiness.

BS: There’s a million craft beer varieties. Can their characteristics be reduced to a handful of descriptions?

CS: Once upon a time, yes. But not anymore. That’s what is worth celebrating! Style guidelines do exist and are the realms of competition and judging. They’re very comprehensive and a lot more than a handful of descriptors. It’s common nowadays for skilled brewers to brew beers that meld one or more traditional styles.

NR: A lot of beers actually have very complex flavour and aroma profiles, but you could define many styles by their dominant characteristics. With so many different styles of beer, it would be hard to list them all, but some of my favourite (and least favourite) “craft” styles should be characterised by:

Wheat beers (excluding American) – Banana and clove flavours/aromas.
American Pale Ale – Hop fruitiness, balanced bitterness.
Pale Lager – Clean flavor profile.
Imperial Stout – Roasty malt, chocolatey, bittersweet, high alcohol.
Brown Ale – Malty, toffee.
Barley wine – Rich, heavy maltiness, slight boozy flavour, very high alcohol content.
IPA – Hoppy, bitter, high alcohol.

BS: Explain the importance of:

IBU

CS: International Bitterness Units are the analytical scale of bitterness. We can analyse bitterness in a beer as much as we like to get a number, however it is how it is perceived in someone’s mouth that matters. Bitterness is unique to beer and a great strength. It cleanses the palate, and works well with food between portions.

ABV

NR: Our preference for making high-alcohol volume beer is because with more alcohol in beer you can have more flavour. It takes more malt to make a high alcohol beer so the malt flavour is usually greater. You can put more hops in to balance that greater malt flavour, and the alcohol adds a viscosity to beer, lending greater body and mouthfeel.

BS: What are your individual specialities?

CS: Quality and consistency. Two very important specialities that work exceptionally well together. James Squire has been around for a long time, and for the team and I it is a massive legacy that we need to continue and build on.

NR: Kaiju! makes big-flavoured beers. Currently, we produce seven regular lines ranging from Robohop (5.7 per cent Golden IPA) to Where Strides the Behemoth (11 per cent Double India Black Ale). All our beers are hop monsters and that’s why we have gone for the Kaiju! Theme. Also because we are nerds.

BS: Finally, if you’re looking at a wall of fancy labels and don’t know which one to choose, what are some useful signifiers?

NR: High alcohol usually means more intense flavour. Many beers, especially the hoppier styles, are better the fresher they are. So check the use-by date or ask the staff how long they have sat on the shelf.

If you try a beer that sounds like a style you would like but are disappointed, don’t let that discourage you from trying the same style by someone else. Some people do some styles much better than others.

CS: The look and packaging of a beer is very different to what the beer might taste like, so I’d say “ask, ask, ask”. If a bar or shop has gone to the effort to carry great beer, it’s a good chance they know what they’re talking about and also how to serve it. Which matters.

For more discussion about craft beer, explore jamessquire.com.au.