WA’s contemporary brewers are building on the foundations laid by modern institutions such as Little Creatures and Feral Brewing Company.
With more than 70 breweries operating in Western Australia, the amount of beer coming out of the state has hit an all-time high.
At the same time as volume has increased, the diversity of brews available has also reached an impressive peak, with brewers across the state increasingly testing the boundaries of the traditional Germanic principle of only using four ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast – to create beer.
In 2019, beer aficionados have more choice than ever, with traditionally popular styles such as lager and kolsch being usurped by pale ales and IPAs, while more adventurous punters have displayed a preference for experimental variations such as the fruit-infused sour styles of gose or Berliner weisse.
“It’s super tough to keep up,” said Dan Turley, president of the WA Brewers Association.
“The industry itself, there’s a lot more breweries and a lot more diversity.
“The beer range has gone crazy; you’re not just talking about two or three craft beers on tap, you go to places now and there will be 20 taps all filled with local craft beer, which is fantastic.
“It’s very eclectic, there are a lot of different businesses.”
Mr Turley said the revolution had not only been driven by customers continually wanting something new, it was also a by-product of the competition that had come with an increasingly active industry.
With new breweries opening across the state almost every month, Mr Turley said the collective quality being pushed into the marketplace had risen as fast as the number of breweries producing beer.
“Everyone has really lifted their game because they have had to – you’re not going to get a look in if your beers don’t stack up against the competition,” Mr Turley told Business News.
“It’s driven by customer demand; the main thing they are interested in is what’s new – what’s the newest style, what’s the newest beer in ... I think we are all guilty of it, it’s part of our psyche to always look around for the latest stuff.
“It’s made it tough in that respect, but also there are more hospitality businesses, on- and off-premise businesses starting up as well.
“You have just got to be smarter and try to find the right market for you.”
Finding that right market has led to a divergence of strategies within the brewing industry.
Whereas in previous years the standard model for brewers was to have a core range of several traditional-style beers, the need to establish a point of difference has led to creativity coming to the forefront of the brewing sector.
One of the newer entrants to the industry is Bright Tank Brewing Co, which opened its doors in East Perth around 10 months ago.
Bright Tank Brewing owner Matthew Moore told Business News the company’s initial strategy was to make both beer and food an essential part of the brewery’s identity.
“The market is hugely cluttered, which is good and bad in many ways,” Mr Moore said.
“For guys like us in that market, our point of difference is to be different, if that makes any sense.
“Guys like Nail Brewing, Feral Brewing Company and Gage Roads Brewing Company are established brands that can enjoy the luxury of producing the same beer and pushing it across a large market.
“For us, our point of difference is making as many different beers as possible.”
Mr Moore said deciding between a core range or producing limited edition beers had become one of the biggest challenges of the modern beer industry.
“It’s straining in respects to be continually looking for new ideas and new products,” he said.
“People always want to support something new and fresh, so now it’s about keeping new and fresh all of the time.
“For breweries producing 300,000 litres and below, you’ve got guys like us, Rocky Ridge Brewing, we push very little core range.
“But as your volume increases, core range is what ends up being what keeps the lights on as well, but it’s not where your marketing focus is on in that respect.”
Matthew Moore says brewers can longer survive by producing a limited range of beers. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira
Mr Moore said while Bright Tank hadn’t set out to sell its beer wholesale, the reality of establishing in a former industrial area of East Perth made it necessary to complement the brewpub.
But the packaged beer arena provides no respite in the constant need to set oneself apart, Mr Moore said.
“You need a point of difference – for the venue it’s the food, and for the can it’s the art,” he said.
“We do make crazy, different beers, I make sure of that, but so does the guy next to me.
“Rocky Ridge makes crazy, different beers, we all make different beers, the only prerequisite is that they’re good.
“Our point of difference in product is we spend a lot of time on our can art.
“The thought process that goes into the can, the poem on the back, the name of the beer, everything about it is days and days of thought before we get to that point.”
Another venue venturing outside of brewpub hospitality and into wholesale packaged beer is Cheeky Monkey Brewing Co, which was established seven years ago by the Burton family, the founders of Ferngrove Wines.
Cheeky Monkey was initially set up as a 450-seat hospitality venue near Vasse Felix in Margaret River, but managing director Brent Burton said as the business and the industry evolved, that facility was unable to keep pace with demand.
The brewery recently opened a new production brewhouse in nearby Vasse, substantially increasing its production capacity.
“The old brewery was 250,000 litres and we were pushing that to its limit, this one is capable of brewing 4 million litres per year,” Mr Burton said.
“We have a long-term view with our brand, I assume we will get to 1 million litres per year in the first couple of years, then we’ll be looking to increase that further.
“Our challenge was always brewing our core range of beers and also fitting in limited releases with our old brewery.
“With the increased capacity and flexibility here, we’ll certainly be playing around with some new recipes as well.”
Mr Burton said a poignant illustration of the changes still under way in the beer industry, and in beer drinkers’ preferences, was how an iconic beer such as Feral Brewing’s Hop Hog was viewed.
“That beer is not old by any means, but it’s been around for a few years and when it was introduced to the market it was considered to be an India pale ale – quite heavy on the bitterness and hop profile,” he said.
“Now it’s considered to be a regular pale ale that’s quite sessionable, so the general public’s palate has changed over time as well.
“There are new and interesting beers out there that are pushing boundaries, and that would be the biggest change in terms of consumers.”
Indian Ocean Brewing Company founder St.John Hammond also said the remarkable progression of WA’s beer industry was a case of history repeating, with one of the state’s most successful brewing exports – Little Creatures – having pushed the boundaries when it opened in Fremantle in 2000.
“If you think about Little Creatures, they created a pale ale which was new to the Australian market, and developed that product until it became an internationally renowned quality product,” Mr Hammond said.
“It organically grew throughout Australia and internationally.
“I think that motivated and inspired a lot of the young new world brewers to come into the game, and then we saw the likes of Brendan Varis, and a whole raft of other guys that came in and said, ‘You know what, we can make as good, if not better beer than anyone else in Australia’.”
Little Creatures, which was acquired by international brewing giant Kirin in 2013, has grown to become a global phenomenon, opening 10 venues outside Australia in far-flung locations such as Singapore, London, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“Little Creatures is an amazing story and it makes you quite proud to be a Western Australian,” Mr Hammond said.
“Little Creatures started off as an idea between some really creative guys, turned into a powerhouse in Fremantle that organically spread across Australia, which was then bought out by one of the top 10-sized brewers in the world, and is now rolling out in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“And if you look at the core reason they are there, it’s based on one beer.
“Typically, all successful breweries, their success story is built on one beer.
“It’s quite remarkable that Little Creatures, regardless of its ownership structure, has been able to create a global brand based on quality of provenance out of a little brewery in Fremantle.
“It’s a great story.”