In my last post I reviewed the top ten beers in Australia as voted by the bleakest gronks of the country – that is, the majority of Australians. So, it seems only fair this time to try the top ten as voted by another, differently insufferable slice of the population. Not to sound too much like a punchable-faced hipster, but I’ve never really put a great deal of stock in the Taphouse’s (GABS’) Hottest 100 since it went mainstream.* It always seemed more like a popularity contest won not necessarily by the deserving but by those breweries with a greater advertising budget, and alongside that, a deeper understanding and command of the powers of audience manipulation that social media provides. In my humble estimation, that hasn’t changed overmuch.
*After one year
Still, I invite you, dear reader, to sit back, crack a can of something and get comfortable while I explore the top ten percent of the Hottest 100 as voted by you, the rabid fans and the workers of the cramped mercenary troll-farm sweatshops of Russia and Bangladesh. A thousand votes and the same in Insta likes for a mere $10? Yes please! Put it all on some deep-pocketed newcomer no-one’s ever heard of and whose beer isn’t even available outside of their sparsely populated state. Or we can just give over to Crankshaft, Stone and Wood and Balter again. Quality beers to be sure, but ones I’m tired of seeing in the top spot year in and year out. Yeah, go on Australia, surprise me. I dare you.
As I prepare to shift a mental gear from finding new ways to say “clean, easy drinking lager” to finding new ways to say “light, sessionable pale ale”, it should be noted that these beers were tasted in a similar fashion to the last. Alone, one after the other, all poured from cans into a teku glass, palate cleansed by plain bread and soda water with added lemon, for additional hop-scrubbing power. This time, I’m going to follow the format of the Hottest 100 and countdown backwards from number 10. So, as I prepare to get decimated, my loyal reader, please know I do this only for science, and out of my love for you.
One last note – this post is coming approximately a month after the announcement of the contenders, but I was unable to lay hands on fresh product worth reviewing for some of the cans. So the bulk of this post was written some weeks ago while I kept trying to source an appropriate example of each beer to satisfy the criteria of having it fresh enough – that is, within 3 months of brew date – to give it a just review. Every can has an unprejudiced, even chance to impress me. They did not all manage it.
10. Black Hops Brewery – G.O.A.T. HAZY IPA, 6%, $8.09, pk 11/11/22
The Prejudice: A cocky sort of a name but what else could you expect from the people who unironically brought you Pussy Juice? One of the breweries that’s bringing a good name (er, sort of) to Queensland’s beer scene, I expect great things from the G.O.A.T.
The Verdict: Pours a proper hazy, pale orange colour with a fluffy white head. Presents a slightly savoury tropical aroma, with some dried fruit also – like someone’s frying some sausages while putting the pav together, at the same time as they’re steaming the Christmas pud. If you know what I mean. There is a proper IPA sort of grapefruit-like, piney resinous dankness to it, though it mostly seems to have that sort of hazy IPA, orange-and-mango-with-a-hint-of-passionfruit-but-not-quite-NEIPA thing going on – a little sharper, with a more bitter finish after the tropical fluff fades away, with perhaps a touch more spiciness from… presumably the hops? It’s rather good, with a bit of a margin to improve – like, the bitterness isn’t entirely appealing, even a little repellent; the fruit isn’t as bright and vibrant as it could be, but in the end it strikes like a solid NEIPA would. Somehow it doesn’t quite land amongst the greats – like when it was figuring itself out it didn’t quite successfully draw the line between an IPA and a NEIPA and an XPA and it sort of inhabits a phase space between the three. It’s still good, delicious even, but it isn’t exactly great, much less the G.O.A.T. Don’t get me wrong, I would happily drink this again if I saw it on offer at my local, but it feels like it only got part of the way to being perfect and then stumbled massively before it called itself the Greatest Of All Time. Like Kanye. Except I actively dislike this beer less than I do Kanye.
9. Bridge Road Brewers – Beechworth Pale Ale, 4.8%, $6, pk 12/12/22
The Prejudice: I remember this being a fine, perfectly drinkable pale ale. Am I surprised it’s in the top 10? Perhaps. It has been a long, long time since I last had one, so this feels like an appropriate excuse to revisit.
The Verdict: The only beer on this list to come from a bottle rather than a can (I did buy both, but one was a few months fresher than the other and I thought it would probably be the better representative of the two). Pours a deep amber though it remains pretty clear, with a tight white head. It is getting harder to discern microflavours from the brew, due to the fact that there is a roast in the oven and the whole house is beginning to fill with those aromas, but it has a floral, almost honeyed scent, with a slight yeastiness as well. Tastes like an old-school homebrew sort of a brew, not so clean as some others on this list, with a muddying between the borders of the yeast, the hops and the malt. At some point, all feel dominant, but they slip and slide and give way to the others, creating a broader sort of a palate than you’d expect. There’s a strawberry sort of flavour that probably comes (presumably) from an intersection of the sweetness of the malt and the fruitiness of the hops and the very mild sourness of the yeast, which is also probably responsible for a faint rosewater and orange blossom note lingering on the afterpalate. It has a lightly savoury quality and ends with a bitterness that runs all the way from your tongue down the back of your throat.
It’s not like the other girls, this drop. Interestingly, this is the only other beer of these two ‘popular’ lists that compares to Coopers Pale in its basic-but-non-simplistic complexity. It doesn’t have the clean, IPA aspirational flavours of the bigger pales, nor does it have the fruity NEIPA notes that some have, nor the crispy and frankly dull lager notes that a lot of the others aspire to. It has a woolly, slightly wild sort of a flavour, influenced by all of its members and not merely led by one. Is this a good thing? Its undirected, non-single-focused, scattershot approach? I would say that at the very least, it is interesting. And that can’t be said for a lot of the beers available today, where it can be difficult to discern one from the other. Would I say that everyone needs to rush out and sample this brew? No, not really. Would they regret it if they did? Probably not.
8. Coopers – Pale Ale
The Prejudice: Oh, haha, what? Coopers Pale? You come here too? I didn’t expect to see you here, I was just… it’s not what it looks like, I’m just here with… friends, yeah, that’s it, friends. I’m certainly not here with sexier beers I’m far more interested in or anything. Hahaha, ur so random. Um… k… bye.
The Verdict: Nah, we’re old mates, Coopers Green and me. We have a very forgiving, open relationship. Though it has slipped four spots between the two lists, you can read what I think about Coopers Pale Ale here
7. Young Henry’s – Newtowner Australian Pale Ale, 4.8%, $7, pk… who knows? (re-reviewed with a can bought for $4.99 with a PKD date of 28/10/22)
The Prejudice: Jesus, really? All those crackers further down the list and bloody Newtowner gets the 7th top spot? A pale ale for people who’d really rather be drinking Tooheys Extra Dry but who have a carefully crafted poser façade they need to keep up.
The Verdict: Once again, the beer I was looking forward to the least is in 7th spot, and it’s an unappealing Sydney offering. Hooboy, well, here we go. Pours looking like a delicious IPA, but it isn’t. Fucking liar. Fairly clear but crucially opaque amber with a standard white head. The closer I look at the can, it seems to have potentially passed its best before some four or five months prior. Ironically, it tastes better than I recall this brew tasting. In this form, it has a very light, jammy orange flavour and an inoffensive earl grey sort of after taste, the bitterness and the oranges combining to produce such. It’s bitter, and thin enough to not feel chewy. Seriously, despite a slightly vomity aftertaste, this is better than I recall the flavour of this stuff, but there is a tired, overboiled citrus and stale caramel flavour that suggests this is beyond its prime. And therein lies the rub – I usually hate this beer so I feel that, while this review is more positive than a proper, fresh can review might be, I am honour-bound to do this properly. I will stop here, and revisit when I can find a fresher can.
Which is now! It pours the same – no change. Honestly, the above review is still pretty solid for this beer and mostly holds up, though it is a slight bit unfair. It smells lightly citric and jammy with a hint of pineapple. Tastes like oranges and grapefruit and something slightly herbal – like the bouquet of mint, but without the sharp and intense menthol, maybe? Once the light fruit flavour dies down, it moves to bready and finishes a little thin, with an aftertaste of honey and just a faint hint of bile. The bitterness is a touch out of proportion – it lacks the malt backbone or the hop front palate to back it up, but honestly – it’s not that bad. It tastes like a few different brews at once – like it’s going for the crispness of lager and the flavour of IPA in the style of a pale without quite hitting any of those marks. The thinness with the bitterness is not a great combination, and the hops have an oversteeped quality to them like tea left too long in the pot and there is an unpleasant mustiness that becomes more apparent the further through the can that you make it, that accumulates and frankly drives off much of my interest in drinking it again. But all things considered, I may owe Young Henry’s a half an apology. It’s still not great, but I could drink this much more readily than I had previously thought.
So what’s changed? Have they upped their game? Did I get a bad batch last time? Or am I less of a prejudiced, crotchety C-bomb now? Perhaps all three. Still, I’d take, like, a lot of other things first, but it’s not quite so bad as I made it out to be at the beginning there. Mea culpa.
6. Better Beer – Zero Carb, 4.2%, $6, pk 10/01/23
The Prejudice: They’re making great strides in alternative grain, low carb or zero alcohol beers these days. Theoretically. I hope this is decent, but how could it be anything other than thin and a little bit of a letdown? Craft beer for the Pure Blond crowd.
The Verdict: Genuinely looks like water coming out of the can, agglomerates into a very clean, clear, pale yellow colour – like if you left a cigarette butt or a used teabag floating in a glass of water for a few minutes. It’s clear enough to be able to read the writing on the other side of the glass, the only beer on this list that can be said of. Of which that can be said, for you pedants. Smells like a lager. Dusty, like a heavily-trafficked dirt road a day or so after rain and a little mildewy, musty and a little… is that lemon? Tastes like a lager, with a crisp, lightly honey-and-hay characteristic. Also like just ever-so-slightly stale water. It has somewhat vinous forepalate, a dry, oaky sort of a characteristic with a yoghurt aftertaste. Predictably, the body is thin and the CO2 is light, the mouthfeel is lacking but for a beer with 0 carbs, 0 sugar and 87 calories (as purported by the tin) it has as much flavour or more as any of the beers on the last list. This tastes a lot like what a decent goon sack tastes like in comparison to a fairly standard wine. Like, very similar, but just ever so slightly… off. There’s a hint of something like vermouth in there, and it is a little ashen. There’s also lemon, white wine and a hint of something else, though I am failing to pin it down. Perhaps a wine cork? It’s an odd duck. And while I probably wouldn’t drink it myself, if you are the sort to value a low carb beer, I’d definitely say give it a try. In comparison to some of the ones I reviewed last go around, like Hahn Superdry, Pure Blonde etc this is like the difference between practicing making out on your own and hooking up with a real, live human. A weird one, who smokes and eats lemon yoghurt while drinking goon, but hey – still better than tonguing something inflatable, right?
5. Your Mates – Larry Pale Ale, 4.5%, $6.49, pk…? Hard to read. Perhaps September last year? Re-reviewed with a can pkd 21/10/23
The Prejudice: Another probably quite drinkable drop from one of the rising stars of the steadily growing craft beer scene up north. Decent, nothing special? Or a cracker that will stay with you?
The Verdict: Pours a lot like a lager – not quite so clear but almost. Pretty golden, but even though it does block some light you can kinda see through it. This was a surprisingly difficult can to get my hands on, at least in my neck of the woods – I went to three or four independent bottleshops, two Blackhearts and Sparrow’s, three IGA’s, a Liquorland and two BWS’s before I finally found it at Dan Murphys. Smells malty enough that I fear I may have a can too old to impartially judge. Tastes like a crispy-boi with the faintest hints of additional hop flower. It’s a clear and relatively clean malty brew with a crisp, uncomplicated profile. Is this what this beer is? Or have I procured a can beyond the point at which a hop profile can reasonably be expected to shine? Because it has a kind of… pushed-in flavour, a spongy, diminished hop profile. Like a slightly musty hole where a delightful hop aroma should have been. I think I should just stop right here and revisit later. Well, sorry to bring you all this way and then just leave you hanging. Perhaps a joke before you show yourselves out to the next entry? Alright then. Ahem. A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says “five beers, thanks.”
Alright. Move along, nothing to see here.
*Addendum – can found!
Smells significantly fruitier than the last, passionfruit and pineapple being predominant although still rather bready. Tastes crisp with a bit of a subdued tropical sort of aroma – like a pale ale gift inside a pilsner box. Though it starts lager crisp, it moves through pale fruit and finishes lingeringly and lageringly bitter. A pretty smashable brew – tasty enough and refreshing enough and inoffensive enough that it covers all bases, depending on what you feel like when you get your hands on a can of this. The biscuity malt lacks the sweetness or presence to be dominant, the hops are neither just bittering nor aroma coming together in a good blend. I can see why this is popular – it has that sort of broad appeal that fails to alienate, but isn’t quite idiosyncratic enough to appeal fully. It’s a beer that can’t help but find its way onto a list like this. I would be happy to drink it again, but probably wouldn’t rave to my friends about it now that I have ‘discovered’ it. Not to undersell it, I feel like I’m coming across rather meaner than I intend to; it’s really rather good.
4. Stone and Wood – Pacific Ale, 4.4%, $7, pk 12/11/22
The Prejudice: The only surprise at Stone and Wood’s placement in the top ten of the hottest 100 is that it is as low as 4th position. Light, fruity, sessionable, accessible. Often imitated, the inspiration for so many others, a very drinkable drop. So ubiquitous as to almost feel boring, but you can’t hate on something just because it’s popular. You don’t want to be that person that gives up on something just because it isn’t your little secret anymore and then bores everyone to death by going on about how much they don’t care, do you?
The Verdict: Pours a very pale yellow, doesn’t let much light through but instead seems to be imbued with the light of summer itself. Bright, lacy white head. Smells like a subdued tropical juice with a hint of that beery after…scent? Tastes pineapple-y and fresh, moves through fruit into sweet and finishes with a light bitterness and dryness. It has a pleasingly sharp carbonation threading through a full yet light body, really driving those hop flavours through a presumably wheat-heavy malt bill that offers a full yet not the least bit overpowering feel to this beer. I haven’t actually had a Stone and Wood for a while. No specific reason, I think just because I used to get Mountain Goat Summer Ale – one of its early imitators – for free, and when I see it (ubiquitously) on tap at pubs I tend to opt for the more exotic.
But to return to it is to remember or realise why it was so popular to begin with, why its popularity endured, why it kickstarted a style,** why it has so many imitators and why you are sick of seeing it near the top of all the ‘best’ lists. It’s light, and tasty, and easy drinking, but made with artistry. I genuinely don’t recall when I last had a Stone and Wood, but I’m kinda kicking myself for the long absence. It’s similar to when I was reacquainted with Little Creatures and instantly regressed a decade or so, remembering all the good times along the way. This light passion fruit, pineapple, bitter concoction is taking me straight back to Richmond circa 2009, and my first brush with it. The intervening years have changed something in my memory – I honestly remember it tasting blander than this, but it’s delightful. The ‘drink local’ part of my brain tells me to stop waxing so lyrical about a macro-owned brewery 1600km away, but the ‘drink what’s good’ part of me urges a revisit of this pale golden brew. If, that is, you had allowed it to fall by the wayside. You and S&W may have been tight this whole time. In which case: good for you, I guess?
**Pacific Ale. Yes, you have them to thank for all of those.
3. Bent Spoke – Crankshaft IPA, 5.8%, $7, pk 29/11/22
The Prejudice: Canberra’s finest, Bent Spoke is probably one of three or four good things to come out of Canberra, a place so famously dull that I genuinely fell asleep trying to come up with something even more dull to compare it to. Vogon poetry? No matter. A solid example of a classic IPA, no f___ing about.
The Verdict: Pours a coppery orange-amber, appearing clear but only letting the barest glimmers of light through with a lacy, off-white head, it just looks like an IPA. Not an enormous bouquet, but a little citrus flower element, like orange blossom or similar, and a little bit of toast. And it tastes like marmalade on toast, straight up. Then the hop cliff comes along, and the bitterness throws your tongue over the edge. So, you’d better have a little more, right? Has the total balance of a good IPA – strong and present malt profile, with a little stickiness and sweetness alongside the biscuity, bready goodness, but it all kinda fades to the back, there as a supporting role for the hops. The Kevin Costner to the Hops’ Whitney Houston. And Iiiiiiiiiiiiii-yi-iiiiiiiiiiiii will always say yes to another one of these. Less of a stand-out, more of a classic IPA with more resinous bitterness, interesting notes of flower and fruit than it is a murky glass of breakfast juice (and please don’t take that as a trendy dig at NEIPAs – I am a fan, but sometimes you just want a beer with a bit of hair on its heaving, supple bosom). Well balanced, citric, little glimmers of sweetness, mouth-wateringly bitter and moreish – every sip leaves you wanting another. The bitterness layers, as does the citrus as you move through the glass, and while you may have IPAs that you prefer, as indeed do I, this is still a very solid offering from <yawn> Canberra.
2. Balter Brewing – XPA, 5%, $7.5, pk 08/12/22
The Prejudice: Whaaat? Balter XPA in the top three? Next to Crankshaft and Stone and Wood? Get out of town. Get right the f*** out of town. Who saw that coming? You disappoint me, Australia. But at least you’ve made a little room at the top for something new by only allowing the perennial favourites to climb as high as second, third and fourth. In a desert of frosty fonts sporting decals for all the shitty, bland, macro lagers that get us, as Australians, hard, Balter is the cool oasis that lets you know that no matter how rigidly the globe straddling colossi control the tap contracts at this pub, you can always get a pint (or more likely, schooner) of something decent.
The Verdict: Pours a little clearer, lets a little more light through, but still looks for all the world like a lager, in its amber shirt and its crisp, large-bubbled white hat. Look for the opacity to differentiate, my chums. Has a grapefruit marmalade bitterness right upfront and a sharp crispy body shot through with a large-bubbled carbon dioxide quotient. More on the bitter side than some of the other offerings, big, juicy hop notes that give that pine resin, that grapefruit pith and that citrus zest acridity. In a good way, of course. Bitter and crisp upfront, finishes with a sort of boiled-citrus hop stickiness. Tastes more… complex coming out of a can than has been my experience of getting it from a tap. Is this the first time I ever had this from a can? Quite possibly. No, surely not? Anyway, no matter. This has a lot of the hallmarks of a classic IPA, albeit a little sharper and a little crisper, but lacks the completeness, the all-around balance and structure of its older sibling. More than a pale, less than an IPA, the eternal lament of the XPA. To quote my partner, upon tasting it – “eh. Not amazing.” But crucially – still pretty good.
1. Mountain Culture – Status Quo Pale Ale, 5.2%, $7, pk 22/12/22
The Prejudice: One of my favourite breweries. If anyone could knock Balter XPA, Stone and Wood Pacific Ale and Crankshaft IPA from the top three, I’m glad it could be this Blue Mountain brewery. Consistently pumping out new, interesting, quality drops, this is one of the more subdued offerings, but whatever it lacks in zazz it makes up for in quality of execution.
The Verdict: Pours a hazy, pale straw yellow, looking more like a NEIPA than a Pale, with a fluffy white head. Smells like a citrus-forward tropical juice. Tastes like a fuzzy orange and mango juice, with a belt of passionfruit running through it, but finishes with a crisp malt backbone and a nice, hoppy bitterness, pithy and grapefruity. Pretty standard description of IPAs and NEIPAs to be sure, but somewhat rarer in the realms of Pales. Starts with a richness that slides into a thinner finish as a slight jamminess evaporates and dries up on the tongue. Certainly more on the New England India side of Pale Ale, and no mistake. I simply forgot how much it tilted this way. A delicious beer, one that a few years ago would have been run out of Pale Ale County and forced subsist as a weak, mongrel interloper on the mean streets of IPA city. For all its inbetweenitude, this is a very smashable can of beer. Dangerously so, at 5.2% If this is their baseline brew, they truly deserve all their plaudits. A delicious pale ale. Look forward to a price increase in the coming weeks.
So what have we learned on this journey through the Top Ten beers as voted by the self-appointed elites of Australia’s beer drinking world? That Australians like a light, easy-drinking, relatively hoppy pale ale when they aren’t having their heads turned by light, easy-drinking, crispy lagers? Some brilliant detective work there my son, go on, pat yourself on the back. Investigative journalism at its finest. I will say that I would drink almost anything on this list though, and it does showcase the independents much more than I would have thought. There were some glaring oversights for the top ten, found further down the list in some cases (e.g. Dainton) or otherwise completely absent, but it does show a little hope for the future of craft beer.
If the ultimate purpose of these sorts of lists is to give recognition to the people out there working hard to produce our favourite things and to give the major breweries something to base their future development on, then there is definitely hope for the future. While some styles are entirely absent – olde-worlde Europeans, engine-oil stouts and bright, acid sours to name but a few, we can at least look forward to the slow and gentle maturing of the Australian palate as it journeys along the path of the New World hop and away from the rather insipid lagers of its past. Moral? Nothing groundbreaking. Get out there and push things forward. Drink what you like, but always be open to trying something new. And don’t put too much stock in Top Ten lists.