Though today there are more than 500 breweries across Australia, as recently as the 1980s there were only eight, most of them prizing quantity over quality as they pumped out mass volumes of bland lagers meant to be pounded ice cold. Two of those eight breweries were located in South Australia, the most notable of which was Coopers Brewery, one of the first native operations to brew beers with a little character.
Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in 1862, and the Adelaide-based brewery has stayed in the family ever since. Its flagship brew is the bottle (or keg) conditioned Australian-style pale ale; rolling the bottle to rouse the settled yeast before popping the cap is a time-honored South Australian ritual. Coopers is still a fairly traditional brewery, particularly by today’s standards, but it has modernized some by canning a few of its beers and introducing new styles like the Session Ale, which has a slightly more hop-forward and fruity profile, but is still plenty approachable for mainstream drinkers.
Now very much a national brand—sales are higher in New South Wales than in its home state—Coopers is the largest independent brewer in the country, sitting somewhere between the international conglomerates controlling the vast majority of Australia’s beer market and the new generation of craft brewers. It’s the world’s largest producer of homebrewing equipment, as well.
Coopers commands roughly 5% of domestic beer sales; in comparison, conglomerates AB InBev and Lion plunder about 90% of it between them. The latters’ reach includes that of a number of craft breweries acquired over the years, with Adelaide’s Pirate Life among them.
Launched in 2014, Pirate Life staked much of its early reputation on big, hop-forward beers like IIPA, an 8.8% bomber sold in 500ml cans. Last year the brewery produced 3 million liters, and after AB InBev’s takeover it revealed plans for a new $15 million brewery and beer garden, located in Port Adelaide, capable of handling more than 10 million liters annually. For now Pirate Life is still based in Hindmarsh, an inner Adelaide suburb that’s a short drive from downtown. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday for tours and tastings.
AB Inbev’s main competitor, Lion, owns South Australia’s biggest brewery, West End. Tony Jones has worked at Lion for decades and is now Community Brewer at West End’s $70 million brewery, which is located in Adelaide’s Thebarton suburb. “One of the things I really like about being involved in a big brewery is that we do have relationships with the smaller craft breweries,” Jones says. “At an operational level, you can have these brewers call us for advice on various problems because they know we have a big lab and technical department, so it’s great to have that level of camaraderie in the industry.”
Jones says that one big change he’s noticed over the years is smaller breweries finding more success getting their beers on tap in hotels (the Australian term for pubs). This slow but steady change in consumer demand for more choice has forced many hotels to reconsider contracts that lock all taps into beers provided by a single company. Even so, some of the best places to try the freshest beers from Adelaide’s first-wave craft breweries remains straight at the sources.
Big Shed Brewing Concern hosts a number of contract brewers (and a gin distillery) in its industrial space, while also brewing its own range of outstanding core beers that includes the American-style pale ale F-Yeah, Californicator IPA, and Golden Stout Time, a syrupy, honeycomb-flavored stout inspired by Australia’s iconic Golden Gaytime ice cream.
Boozy Froot, Big Shed’s take on Frosty Fruits ice cream, is a fruit-forward New England IPA that won the Husky People’s Choice Award at the most recent Great Australasian Beer Spectacular (GABS). Since earning that coveted distinction, Big Shed co-founder Jason Harris says that the brewery has “been slammed with ‘where can I get it?’ phone calls and emails, angry punters and publicans” as everyone tries to get their hands on the highly in-demand brew. When we went to press there were two fresh batches in the tanks and another one on the way.
Harris and his cohort, Craig Basford, both started brewing on Coopers homebrew kits—Harris describes it as a “rite of passage”—before graduating to full-mash brewing and opening Big Shed in late 2013. Here the bar is open Wednesday to Sunday, and the kitchen cranks out simple but satisfying burgers and chips. Big Shed has proven so popular, however, that it’ll soon expand to a new location, then use the current space as an incubator to help Adelaide’s next generation of brewers get started before they’re ready to scale up to their own facilities.
Little Bang Brewing Co, another first-wave Adelaide craft brewer, is readying a move to new, larger facilities, as well. Founded by two former video game developers who shared a “pretty healthy appreciation for beer,” co-founder Ryan Davidson calls it “a hobby but it very, very rapidly got out of control.” After leaving the video game industry and becoming one of the first craft beer reps in South Australia, Davidson realized that he and Little Bang co-founder Filip Kem made homebrews that could compete with some of the imported products.
Rather than just keeping up with the competition, however, Little Bang aims to always bring something new to Adelaide beer drinkers. They launched, for instance, with an American-style barleywine, steam ale, and saison, all somewhat scarce beer styles in Australia at the time. The response was overwhelming. “Whole batches would be pre-sold, and batches we hadn’t even put in the tank yet were also pre-sold,” Davidson says.
Davidson and Kem have yet to brew a beer that hasn’t found an enthusiastic audience. Housed (for now) in a warehouse in the inner city suburb of Stepney, the brewhouse regularly has different iterations of the Galactopus barleywine alongside such other beers as The Pinkening hibiscus session sour and May Contain Traces Of Panther new-world porter, which marries caramelized malts with hoppy overtones.
Little Bang makes a well-loved India red ale, too, but Prancing Pony Brewery’s rich, beautifully balanced take on the style is somewhat easier to find around town, perhaps because it earned Supreme Champion Beer honors at the 2016 International Beer Challenge Awards in London.
Rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, German head brewer Frank Samson, who brews on a state-of-the-art BrauKon system from his home country, favors more traditional beer styles at Prancing Pony and adheres to the modern Reinheitsgebot, or German beer purity law, which stipulates that only hops, grain, yeast, and water can be used in the brewing process. The range includes the citrus-forward Hopwork Orange, the rich and malty Black Ale, and perhaps the finest hefeweizen brewed anywhere in Australia.
Five of Our Favorites Pouring Good Beer in Adelaide
A word on South Australian serving sizes: Pints are 425ml, schooners 285ml, and the lesser-seen butcher 200ml.
The Kings Head is a fantastic place to try locally brewed craft beer on tap—all of the beer, wine, and food served here is from South Australia, and the in-store bottleshop has an even wider selection. An on-demand canning machine means you can order take-home crowlers of anything on tap.
The Wheatsheaf was a beacon in the gloomy dark days before craft breweries became more common. This Thebarton watering hole has long staked is reputation on an excellent beer list, with half of the 12 taps dedicated to the onsite brewery and the others spotlighting quality Australian and imported brews. The welcoming atmosphere makes it the perfect spot to settle in for an afternoon, and even though there’s no kitchen a food truck is usually parked outside.
Located on Semaphore Road, a short stroll from the beach, this beer café has four taps and a fridge full of beers that lean heavily towards South Australian brews, including several of their own (brewed at an off-site brewery) and a few hard-to-find interstate beers. The outdoor beer garden is very comfortable, and the drinks are accompanied by a range of dishes with beer incorporated into the recipe, like jalapeno IPA hummus and porter-caramelized onion dip.
This inner-city time capsule is a classic old-school pub. Little about the interior has changed in decades, and glasses are still kept cold in old wooden refrigerated cabinets. There are no pokies (gambling machines) or TVs—just cold Coopers on tap, a small selection of bottled craft beers, excellent pub grub, live music most nights, and a roaring fire during the winter. In other words, it’s perfect.
It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one of Australia’s biggest annual beer events. More than 70 domestic and international brewers are on hand, many of which bring special limited-edition releases and collaborations just for the festival. There’s live music, amazing slow-cooked meats (for those willing to queue), and a large screen to ensure nobody misses the footy, too. The festival travels to Sydney, too.