Fremantle microbreweries

In 1871, the Australian state of Victoria contained 126 breweries. By 1987, there was effectively one. For all the new micro-brewed beer that has lubricated the gullets of Australians in the subsequent twenty years from 1987, at present two breweries control 90% of the Australian beer market. There are microbreweries who chip at the edges of the CUB and Lion Nathan oligopoly; who run around them in mesmerising circles and win umpteen beer awards.

Microbreweries who have little real impact on Australia’s wider drinking culture.

Australia had a microbrew culture in the mid-1800s, as did anywhere that brewed beer. Beer does not travel well in a hot climate and so there was much impetus to create it as near as possible to where the drinkers were. In the absence of refrigeration, drinking the local ale was the only choice even if a good deal of the beer created was indescribably awful. In 1855, a correspondent for the Herald described beer served at a Governor’s ball as:

..not a nice ale, or any good wholesome malt mixture, but a villainous compound…Poor Captain of the 12th took a bold draught, but when he set down his tumbler he cast a look upwards that was like the beer itself – he seemed thunderstruck

Once again Australia has started to brew more local beers but the real penetration of microbrews into Australian life hasn’t happened yet.

Except for in Fremantle.

Sail And Anchor Tasting
The tasting set from Sail and Anchor

The bellwether for drinking culture is the shift worker. What they crack open as their breakfast beer is the best indicator for what the masses drink. When you see fish processors who have barely had a chance to scrape the scales and grime from their hands turn up to the bar at Little Creatures in Fremantle and down a pint of freshly brewed pale ale for breakfast then you know that a revolution in Australian brewing is upon us. Welcome back to the 1800s.

In Fremantle, it is more difficult to find a non-local beer than one brewed in the immediate vicinity. Brewpub Sail and Anchor (tasting glasses, above) had four local brews on: a lager, wheat beer, a bitter India Pale Ale and their dependable Brass Monkey Stout.

Madmonk brewery beers

Relative newcomer Madmonk brewery put on a display of German-ness with a smoked beer (rauchbier), kölsch, witbier, as well as an IPA and a porter (above) in a Fremantle-appropriate beer garden.

Madmonk brewery

The only thing left to do in Fremantle was order some whitebait and fend off the seagulls.

Madmonk, 33 South Terrace, Fremantle

Sail and Anchor, 64 South Terrace, Fremantle.

Little Creatures Brewery, 40 Mews Road, Fremantle

Little Creatures Brewery, Fremantle

Had I forgotten something from the menu at Little Creatures Dining Hall in Fitzroy? Had I made an unfair comparison to its Western Australian brewery progenitor?

In the interests of factual accuracy, I flew across the country to Perth to find out.

Little Creatures Brewery, PerthClick the image to see full panoramic glory

On the westside, Little Creatures seems to be undergoing an identity crisis. Originally, the Little Creatures brewhouse and restaurant was housed in a set of two identical, adjoining sheds converted from their earlier role housing boats for the America’s Cup. It was a grand building to convert for this purpose: almost central Fremantle; overlooking the harbour with its eponymous medicament breeze; open space aplenty for the stainless tanks of a professional but small-scale local brewery. A thin membrane of plexiglass bisected the two sheds dividing the drinker from the brewer whilst keeping them in close proximity. The men’s urinal even had a chest-high window into the brewery so that male patrons could see the beer come full circle.

The bar and restaurant retained an ad hoc feel of a joint that was built to satisfy the brewers next door rather than the general public. It was packed with pipes, girders, pallets, bare chain link, fairy lights. For all its gleaming stainless steel and cavernous industrial space, the bar and restaurant had an appropriate feel of little-ness and being a bit half-arsed in a way that suggested that the owners were too busy making hand-crafted ale to care where the public drank it.

Little Creatures Brewery, Fremantle
Little Creatures Brewery, original pair of sheds on the left, new sheds on the right. This is how Perth looks in midwinter. Sunny and laden with cockatoos.

Where once a microbrewery stood (albeit, a microbrewery with an impeccable fitout) now stands an industrial cathedral worship of hops. The site has now expanded into an extra shed and some grain silos. They’ve built a lounge bar next door called The Loft, a name with all the generic urbanity of Ikea. Ikea would probably fit an umlaut in there somewhere, though.

The original bar and restaurant are otherwise unchanged, apart from the old urinal with a view, which has shifted. On my Monday morning visit, my waiter apologized at 11:00am that the table service might slow down because a table of 60 people had arrived, unannounced. Amongst the hundred or so breweries that I’ve seen, I can’t think of another that is getting hammered by customers early on Monday – so my guess is that the bar and restaurant wouldn’t want to change their business, ever.

Little Creatures Brewery, Fremantle

There is no mistaking that Little Creatures are stepping up from the micro-league and are taking aim at the mainstream drinkers of Australia. The place now feels big. With their extra brewing capacity, they’re now covering as much of the mainstream palate as possible.

They now produce a pilsner as bland as the style requires, a cider (Pipsqueak), an amber ale (Roger’s) and a “bright” ale that has less bold hops and maltiness than their flagship American pale ale. I certainly don’t begrudge them for brewing blander and less complex beers. If they are planning on moving up from a microbrewer to challenge the mid-sized likes of Coopers in Australia (and beginning to export seriously) then it is inevitable that they will brew less challenging beers because that is what the global market currently drinks in vast and unending quantities. As much as I whined about bland Asian pilsners in Cambodia, I did neglect to mention that bland pilsners are the brew that the majority of the world’s drinkers enjoy; the more nondescript, the better. “Interesting” is not an adjective that most people would ever wish to append to their beer. The decision to go blander has seen Little Creatures bright and amber ales achieve double digit growth in the last year.

Little Creatures early success came from doing something that would seem unremarkable if viewed from the perspective of the American microbrew market: brewing consistent American pale ale in Australia. That they managed to thrive from the start by doing so is an achievement and a nice testament to Perth’s preference for drinking locally. We could be drinking any number of floral American pale ales from America (or elsewhere), but we were smitten by the one from Fremantle.

The added bonus of Little Creature’s changing identity from micro to mid-size for Melburnian drinkers is that the old equipment from the Fremantle brewery is headed over east to Healesville.

Little Creatures Brewery, Fremantle
When brewery logos attack.

According to Little Creatures press release:

Work has commenced on building a brewery in the Yarra Valley town of Healesville…The original Fremantle brew house will be relocated to the site and the first brew of what will be a new national brand will be ready for sale early in the new calendar year.

The brewery is under construction Lot 2/316-336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, next to the Innocent Bystander winery.

My guess for that new brand: Hoegaarden clone. The last few years of Australian brewing have been awash with cloudy and “blonde” beers, so why shouldn’t Little Creatures follow the pack instead of leading?

Little Creatures Pale Ale
A pint of Little Creatures Pale Ale, as delightful as ever

Location: Little Creatures Brewing, 40 Mews Road, Fremantle, Western Australia. A short walk from the Fremantle train station.

US Department of Defense: The Best Brewers in South Korea

dragon hill beer

The best beer in South Korea is brewed by the US Armed Forces in Yongsan Garrison, dead in the centre of Seoul. The base itself is for all intents, a small American town, albeit an American hamlet with the purpose of keeping the North Koreans in North Korea. There’s a hotel, shopping mall, free cinema, schools, a Taco Bell next to the Starbucks, a Harley-Davidson salesman, lawn-fringed beige houses that look transplanted from some faceless Midwest American exurb. An arms contractor had set up display tents in front of mall; soldiers on lunchbreak pawed at the heavy automatic weapons and stared down high-powered scopes at a Lexus in a distant parking lot. Soldiers bought American taxpayer-subsidised Xboxes and Clinique cosmetics inside the US Army’s perfect simulation of Wal-Mart. Transactions were in US Dollars only, the Korean Won unsuitable as currency. The church had a signboard advertising its summer Bible camp.

Save for the large number of camouflaged American inhabitants, jarhead haircuts and the flagrant display of high-tech killing machines, the base looks like one of the many gated communities that are spreading throughout the outskirts of Southeast Asia’s major cities: those new ghettoes of the freshly-minted Asian middle class who are just as scared of the inner city as their Western counterparts. It’s a strange place to exist in the centre of the Korean metropolis, all the more stranger that they are brewing amber ale.

Dragon Hill Lodge on the base is one of four luxury hotels owned by the US Department of Defense, built to serve holidaying active and retired military members and their families. Originally established as Hartnell House in Pusan in 1950, during the course of the Korean War it has been shifted between Taegu to Seoul several times before being laid to rest on Dragon Hill. While it was purpose-built as an Armed Forces luxury hotel, a few of the older red brick offices still in use on the camp were built by the Japanese, who occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. The new foreign protectors taking the place of the old colonisers may have made tactical sense but for the previously colonised, it must look like business as usual. As a commercial enterprise, the hotel can’t be faulted. Last year it earned millions for America’s army and does business of a similar magnitude to its family of “Armed Forces Recreation Centers” in Germany, Hawaii and Disneyworld, Florida.

In the basement of Dragon Hill lies Oasis Restaurant, an ersatz Tex-Mex outlet. Their all-you-can-eat buffet runs the gamut of tortillas, guacamole, frijoles, Texas-style hickory smoked pork ribs with a choice of three barbecue sauces, Buffalo wings and burgers. Lobster was on special. Cola comes served in individual pitchers for each diner. Their amber ale is a genuine surprise, soldiers being enterprising but somewhat unconventional brewers.

When I was doing a little research on Grape Nuts for a previous blog post, I came across a rumour that during the Gulf War, US Armed Forces went a little crazy for the Nuts. While I couldn’t find anyone to confirm it with, Grape Nuts make a serviceable substitute for malt when attempting to brew beer under desperate lager-free combat circumstances. The Gulf being both a beer- and malt-free environment, bored soldiers stationed in the endless desert ordered and consumed tons of Grape Nuts. Yeast can be collected from either the air, sourdough-style; or fermented from bread. To substitute for hops, you would need a bittering agent of any description. Mix it all together with water in a clean jerry can with a makeshift airlock and in a few weeks it would make for a grisly ale, but ale nonetheless. Armies do not tend to be valued for their brewing prowess but their ingenuity cannot be faulted, which is why Dragon Hill Amber Ale is such a brilliant display of nonconformity to character.

The ale misses a good head but is packed full of malt and a jolting dose of fragrant hops, with a little aluminium flavour on the back palate. It’s a beer that for a moment makes you forget that you’re in Korea, fighting a war where there hasn’t been a casualty in years, staring north at an enemy who is busy both starving to death and targeting you, in the middle of a transplanted Middle American town.