A formative moment in any young, Australian beer drinker’s life is discovering that Foster’s still exists and, in fact, thrives abroad. The frightful lager that purports to be “Australian for beer” hasn’t been on Australian taps in decades; I thought it died a well-deserved death until I discovered it, hale and well, on my first visit to an English pub.
Given Foster’s misappropriated Australian marketing and its robust (and surely unmerited) sales—it’s the UK’s second-best selling beer, for example—the disconnect between international conceptions and the actual dynamics of beer Down Under isn’t surprising. In Sydney, visitors confronted by the charmless and generic stuff flowing from most taps in most pubs may not realize that beer here no longer begins and ends with Foster’s clones. Indeed, like in many major metropolises across the world, here a rising prevalence of local craft brewing means punters have more choices than three or four versions of the same old swill.
You just have to know where to find them.
For a taste of what’s brewing locally, the density of burgeoning breweries in Sydney’s Inner West suburbs is a good place to start. It’s here that a housing boom has seen many of the old warehouses and factories converted to residential stock, with those remaining spaces now hosting businesses—fusion brunch joints, pole-dancing wellness gyms—that cater to a growing local population with plenty of disposable income and a hunger for new experiences. At the same time, beer palates are developing away from tasteless lagers served ice cold (and the occasional indistinct stout) to hoppier American-style IPAs and the vast undiscovered country of craft beyond them—and this maturing drinking culture means it’s now acceptable to sip, rather than skol, too.
All of this has helped fuel a contemporary explosion in Inner West craft breweries. Cellar-door sales and fairly specific beer education events like brewing classes, tours, and tasting sessions are generally designed for a hyper-local market. However, getting yourself outside an Australian drop while inside an Australian brewery is also a great way to learn about the ongoing evolution of this increasingly diversified beer scene.
Set a Course Due Inner West
Wayward Brewing Co, located about 4.5 miles from Sydney’s CBD in Annandale, is a perfect place to kick off an Inner West beer-ploration.
Like many of their local peers, the team at Wayward Brewing Co. cut its teeth as so-called “gypsy brewers,” perfecting and testing their homebrew recipes in small batches brewed at host facilities with extra space. Founder Peter Phillip built the brand and his reputation in this manner before settling into the current site in 2015.
It’s a curious (and cavernous) one, too. Wayward is built into the old concrete vats of a former vintner. The décor, a funky mish-mash that includes old-fashioned trunks, gas pumps, a motorcycle, and typewriter, has a distinct, Kerouacian travel theme, a style entirely appropriate for this gentrifying area.
Chalk-smeared clientele trickle in from NOMAD, a nearby bouldering gym. Others often don sportswear from Deus Ex Machina, the nearby custom bike shop slash boutique fashion label. And on weekends, a rotating lineup of food trucks from local restaurants set up in front of the brewery.
Across 24 taps Wayward has beers to suit all tastes, though the core range is surprisingly adventurous. There’s one lonely common-or-garden pale ale alongside a handful of somewhat odd choices, like a raspberry Berliner weisse that somehow found its way in there. Expect a fine assortment of seasonals and single-batch experimentals, as well, along with a few taps that spotlight other local breweries.
Good Decent with the Bad
Right around the corner from Wayward is Malt Shovel Brewery, a contentious site in Australian brewing. Over several decades in the industry founder Chuck Hahn has been responsible for a fair whack of drinking across Australia, building such brands as Kosciuszko, the eponymous Hahn, and Malt Shovel’s own James Squire.
For my money, his Hahn Ice embodies the nadir of Australian beer: an aggressively insipid lager with very mild metallic notes and a hint of vomit. Drinking it is like licking an aluminium pole while suffering from watery acid reflux, but in an incredibly boring way. It’s a drink that aims as low as possible and hits that mark right on the head.
Given that ignominious contribution to Australian brewing, the James Squire brand is in contrast almost heroically aspirational. Founded in 1998 and named after an early colonial brewer, the ale-focused range leans fruity, but unchallenging. These brews are fairly easy to find on tap across the city, and generally reasonably priced. Everything about them murmurs ‘comforting,’ but in a drinking culture that traditionally viewed beer as the boring commute to stupor, an accessible, mild-mannered “gateway ale” unafraid of flavor is an achievement in itself.
For some, Hahn’s long association with industry giant Lion Nathan (a Kirin-owned corporate monster that pushes out dozens of brands) drives to the core of what exactly defines craft brewing. There’s some snobbery there, of course, but serious questions too—boring but important stuff about tax rates, compliance, and all the million laments of small business.
Perhaps most pertinent to everyday drinkers is the ongoing argument over “locked tap contracts,” which are exclusivity deals whereby big brands exercise their muscle (and financial might) to pay pubs to reserve a majority of space for their beers, leaving small brewers to fight for the leftover scraps. As a nominally craft label ensconced in the Lion Nathan machine, James Squire indeed gets both beardy cachet and large-scale distribution.
Beer politics aside, Malt Shovel is absolutely still worth a visit, though you’ll have to time it right to get in. The brewery is usually only open for public tours on special occasions, most regularly around Sydney Beer Week in October. If Malt Shovel isn’t an option, skip it and instead take a 15-minute walk south from Wayward Brewing to Young Henrys in Newtown.
The Cool Kids Around the Block
Quite possibly Sydney’s coolest brewery (and if they think they’re not, they try harder), Young Henrys is known both for sessionable mainstays like Natural Lager and Real Ale, as well as for its more ambitious partnerships and seasonals. For example, a Foo Fighters-themed lager (Foo Town) accompanied the band’s 2018 Australian tour; the sour cherry saison Stupid Sexy Flanders was part of the brewery’s Car Park series, which features beers conditioned in the car park; a number of seafood stouts culminated in the horrifying triumph that was Brew Tang Clam.
Between those extremes, Young Henrys fosters in its taproom an atmosphere in which beer can be properly enjoyed and celebrated, free of pretension. It’s also conveniently located near a bustling nightlife strip and a few hostels, which should push it to the top of the list for any backpackers.
From Young Henrys, it’s only another kilometer or two further west to the real center of modern-day Sydney craft brewing. Inner-suburban Marrickville, to borrow a phrase, is where millenials go to retire. Formerly a working-class migrant suburb, it’s increasingly the stomping ground of young families, bourgeois bohemians, and grown-ups who take their hobbies seriously. If mum bombs graffiti and dad rides a skateboard and they both have cash to spare, they’ll settle in Marrickville.
An afternoon crawl here can encompass half-a-dozen brewhouses without breaking a sweat. Willie the Boatman, Batch Brewing Co, The Grifter Brewing Co, Wildflower Brewing & Blending, BlackFont Brewhouse, and Sauce Brewing Co are all within a gentle stagger of one another—with more seemingly joining the brewing party all the time.
Breweries are clearly so thick on the ground in Marrickville that it’s easy to manage the terrain on your own. However, there are a few dedicated tour operators that’ll steer you between them and make sure you stay upright; local specialists Dave’s is the gold standard.
Either way, if you’re making a proper day of it, you may need to restrain yourself to sampler flights to make a real dent on the Inner West beer trail. Then again, if Foster’s is all you know about “Australian beer,” you have some catching up to do.