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Craft Boom Down Under

By Andrew Spence with images courtesy, the makers

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The sight of a kaleidoscopic peloton speeding past miles of terraced vineyards has been the money shot for the past two decades of the Tour Down Under, giving audiences a strong indication of South Australia’s long and strong history of winemaking. South Australia includes several world-renowned wine regions, including the Barossa and McLaren Vale, accounts for about half of Australia’s annual wine production and has more than 200 vineyards within an hour’s drive of the capital, Adelaide. Visit any Adelaide bottle shop—the “drive thru” stores that sell wine, beer and spirits in Australia—and there are aisles and aisles of local wine muscling out interstate and foreign vintages. Wine courses through South Australians’ blood.

But bubbling away below the surface is a vibrant craft beverage scene that includes dozens of craft breweries, cider houses and artisan distillers. This is supported by a booming small-bar scene that has brought Adelaide’s laneways to life and helped these boutique producers reach customers looking for new stories and drinks that reflect the clean, green flavors synonymous with South Australia.

The craft scene in Adelaide is nothing new though.

Soon after the first vines where planted in the free colony, Thomas Cooper brewed his first batch of naturally conditioned ale in 1862. Six generations later, Coopers Brewery is Australia’s oldest and largest family-owned brewery, accounting for about 5 percent of the nation’s commercial beer market with sales of 83.8 million liters last financial year. It’s also the world’s biggest manufacturer and exporter of home-brewing extracts, with a new $65 million malting plant to help it conquer the global market.

Coopers Brewery.

The 140,000 square-foot plant, considered the most technically advanced in the world, will produce around 60,000 tons of malt a year and give Coopers full control over its malt: a key ingredient in the production of beer.

“South Australian farmers are recognized as producing some of the best malting barley in the world and we will be looking to establish strong relationships with them into the future,” says Coopers managing director Dr Tim Cooper, whose namesake beer, Dr Tim’s, has come in an Australian “tinnie” long before hipsters revived canned beer.

Coopers beers, especially its pale ale and sparkling ale, are available around the world, but the company has also launched a hi-tech home-brewing machine for Americans who can’t find their beers in bars. The automated system uses Wi-Fi, precise temperature control and patented end of fermentation, and is being sold by Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and online at Amazon.

Barossa Distilling.

Coopers can be credited with giving South Aussies a taste for today’s bold new craft beers, helping a batch of smaller craft producers in South Australia attract niche audiences.

Prancing Pony Brewery, about 30 kilometers east of Adelaide in the Adelaide Hills, was established in 2012 by husbandand-wife team Frank Samson and Corinna Steeb—who had struggled to develop a taste for bland Australian lagers since emigrating from Germany via Ireland in the 1980s. Their range of about a dozen beers treads a fine line between a proud German heritage and the modern flavors of the New World.

Prancing Pony’s 7.9-percent-abv (alcohol by volume) India Red Ale was awarded the supreme champion prize at the 2016 International Beer Challenge in London after claiming the trophy for best ale above 5 percent abv. The award coincided with a brewery expansion that now gives Prancing Pony the ability to produce up to 3 million liters of beer a year, which is sold around Australia and exported globally.

The brewery—which the peloton would pass during stage 2 of this year’s Tour Down Under—can also host up to 180 people in its Brewshed, where a dozen of its beers are on tap and meals are served daily.

Kate Henning and Simon Dunstone.

Also on the stage 2 route, about 20 kilometers north of Prancing Pony, is the Lobethal Bierhaus, whose head brewer and owner Alistair Turnbull grew up in Adelaide before working as a banker in New York, London and Sydney. He retired to the Adelaide Hills in the early 2000s to pursue his dream of running a brewery and has become one of the South Australian industry’s great characters.

His boutique brewery opened in 2007 in Lobethal, about 40 kilometers east of Adelaide. The site includes a bespoke malthouse (one of the first of its kind in Australia), an allgrain microbrewery (brew length 1,200 liters), cellar door and restaurant. The small-batch approach allows Lobethal Bierhaus to brew up to 18 different beers, which are also available in selected restaurants and pubs around South Australia.

“Everywhere I went in the world I got to try different beers and developed more and more of a love for it—I was particularly impressed with what Grossman had done with Sierra Nevada in the mid ’80s,” Turnbull says. “This was about my retirement. I wanted to give up working, I wanted to invest the small amount of money that I had so I could do the least amount in the future while funding my drinking habit.”

The restaurant is only open Friday to Sunday but plays an integral role in the business’success, as about a third of the beer brewed in Lobethal is sold on site. “I’ve always liked food and I reckon great food accompanies good beer, so I want a bit of both. My idea of a good beer is one you can drink 10 pints of with your friends and still want more,” he says.

The new kid on the block in South Australian craft beer is Pirate Life, which is fast becoming an international player. Since selling its first beer in March 2015, Pirate Life has grown to more than 3 million liters a year and won the prestigious IPA trophy at the 2017 Australian Craft Beer Awards.

Pirate Life Brewing.

Originally from Western Australia, Pirate Life’s Mick Cameron and his son Jack lived in San Diego from 2005 to 2010, where Mick worked as the importer for Coopers and Brew Dog across 42 states. Jack met Jared “Red” Proudfoot while working as an apprentice brewer for Brew Dog in Scotland and the trio moved to Adelaide in 2014 to start their brewery with a focus on hop-forward West Coast-style beers.

“We wanted to be a production brewery and we wanted to be selling beer all around Australia quickly, and the right place to do that was Adelaide—we can get it to Melbourne and Sydney overnight and to Perth and Brisbane in a couple of days,” Mick says.

In November, Pirate Life sold out to AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewer and will now build a new, much larger brewery in historic Port Adelaide, which hosted the TDU’s stage 1 start. The new brewery will include a 200-seatcapacity hospitality venue and is expected to be operating by the end of this year.

The craft beer scene in South Australia has grown to include almost 50 breweries, many of which are within an easy drive of Adelaide. However, there is also a thriving craft spirits industry.

Prancing Pony Brewery.

The Adelaide Hills Distillery has grown exponentially since launching its first product, 78 Degrees Gin, in early 2015. It was awarded Best International Gin at the American Distilling Institute Awards last April. Founder and head distiller Sacha La Forgia began dabbling with distilling almost a decade ago in his laundry at home before studying winemaking and traveling the world visiting distilleries and working wine vintages in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

“When I came home in 2014 I saw an opportunity to start a craft distillery and I just went for it,” he says. “We’ve seen in the last few years a real movement towards quality and authenticity and that’s really given small distilleries a chance to get started, and it’s given them a market to sell some product.”

Adelaide Hills Distillery is co-located near Nairne with Mismatch Brewing and The Hills Cider Company. The group will soon open a visitor center with cellar door in the Adelaide Hills, which Sacha says would provide an important boost for all of the businesses.

Craft spirits are even finding a home in Australia’s famous Barossa Valley wine region. The Barossa Distilling Company released its Generations Gin—the area’s first gin—in 2016 and followed it up with a Budburst pink gin later in the year. It also launched a limited-edition, barrel-aged gin just before Christmas.

The gins are the star attractions at The Stillery, the company’s tasting room and craft spirits bar, housed in the Old Penfolds Distillery in the heart of the Barossa. The distillery was built in 1913 and for almost a century produced brandy and fortified wines for one of Australia’s most famous wineries.

Barossa Distilling Company managing director Neil Bullock said the unique rooms featuring old stills, 10-meter-high ceilings and an original cast iron spiral staircase provided the ideal setting for people wanting an alternative to wine.

“Once people have done their wine tasting they’re very keen for a bit of a palate cleanser and something a little bit different. They can walk in here and try our spirits or simply sit down to enjoy a cocktail or a gin and tonic,” he says. “People walk in through the doors and they stop about a meter inside the building and say, ‘Oh wow,’ because it is a magnificent space. It’s not just about showcasing our stuff, it’s about showcasing other people’s products as well and generally celebrating the great spirits that are out there.”

The Stillery in Nuriootpa is about a 20-minute drive north of Lyndoch, which hosted the TDU’s stage 1 finish, where Barossa Distilling planned a pop-up bar at the Lyndoch Village Green, near the finish line.

So whether it’s spirits or beer, craft brewing is booming down under.