For many in Australia, we have lager forced down our throats from the beginning, with many venues still offering nothing but lager from the commercial breweries owned by multinationals. In fact, most of us will remember this was the beer landscape across the country until quite recently. It’s understandable given the Australian climate that the refreshing lager is so appealing to the masses, and as we have traditionally liked to drink copious amounts of beer, the cheap price makes it a very attractive option. I started my beer drinking existence at university, where you could pay $5 for a sausage sandwich and all you can drink VB or Tooheys New on tap. (I was a beer snob even back then, favouring the less popular Tooheys New, even in NSW.)
I occasionally tried a dark beer in the early years (Tooheys Old), just to shake things up a little. The flavour was a little strong for me, but it was nice to try from time to time. But as my income increased from the measly student wage, some premium lagers caught my attention, such as Crown, though the more affordable Tooheys Extra Dry and Carlton Cold became my beers of choice, still a step up from the base lagers.
Then one day I discovered an amber ale from a then small brewery down Parramatta Road in Sydney, the Malt Shovel Brewery, and I was an instant convert. It had a nicely malty flavour, but not too strong. From then on, I was on the hunt for a pub selling Squire on tap, abusing Victorians on my occasional trips south for their lack of beer variety. The James Squire Amber Ale (as it was known back then) became my “gateway beer” to something more.
Spending some time living and travelling overseas, I came to discover the English bitter, the Czech Pilsner, and the German Hefeweizen. I stumbled into a couple of American microbreweries on a work trip that turned my misconception of boring US beers on its head. And then there was one night in Belgium that changed my life forever. On my return to Australia, I found I could no longer drink lager, and if I found myself in a pub without a Coopers Pale Ale at the very least (which was often the only non-lager on tap for a time), I chose to stay dry. A trip through the Victorian Alps a couple of years later following the microbrewery trail there, I had my craft beer “epiphany” - I think it was sometime early in the Bridge Road Chevalier Saison. It became apparent to me the Australian craft beer industry was growing, and had so much to offer. It was all over for me, or maybe just the beginning – I was on a trajectory of Australian craft beer discovery.
I’ve noticed my trajectory has been quite similar to other craft beer lovers I know, and this led me to develop a beer style progression, an approximation of the maturation of the beer palate. Wondering where to look for your next favourite style? Take a look at the progression below, see if it's somewhat similar to your own experience, identify where are you now, and where you might expect to go next.
Commercial Lager - Usually where it all begins. It's very light in flavour and body, very widely available in Oz, and cheap. (Note: I use the term "commercial lager" because apparently a good, non-commercial lager is really good, but I think you need to have progressed further along the style spectrum than I have at this stage.)
Amber Ale - Let's add some malt flavours and a bit more body without the bitterness of the hops we get further down the list.
Wheat Beer – This is like the alcopop for beer drinkers – fruity and sweet, very easy to drink.
Pale Ale - Light in body like a lager, but it’s time to introduce some bitterness – not as fruity as the wheat beers, but more diverse in options. And the second most popular beer style in the country.
Stout and Porter - Stepping up the maltiness and body, this comes earlier for some, especially if you’re not yet ready for hops.
IPA - Ok, we've enjoyed some hops, we've enjoyed some flavour - time to turn it all up a notch.
Double IPA and Barley Wine - You're turning into a big time punch hunter. Big on hops, big on flavour, big punch in the face.
Imperial Stouts and Barrel-Aged – Strong in alcohol, strong in flavour. Not recommended for the faint-hearted.
Sour/Gose - Getting numb to the punch in the face? Time to turn the flavours sour (and maybe a little salty).
Home Brew Hunter - Feels like the smallest microbrewery in the country is too commercial for your liking and you just can't get a decent brew on tap anymore? It's time to go find out what other home brewers are doing.
Craft Lager/Pilsner - It gets to a point where your beer palate is so well developed that you can appreciate a lager again for the intricacies the brewer intended.