[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first annual Windsor Craft Beer Fest has come and gone, and I missed it. I would feel worse about it if I hadn’t been lying on a beach along the Great Barrier Reef at the time (beer-in-hand, of course).
I met a woman from Portland, Oregon in Cairns (pronounced “cans”), a reef-adjacent tourist town. Portland is the mecca of the American craft beer movement, with more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the continent. It’s safe to say that, in Portland, craft beer is as close to mainstream as it gets in North America, but it still only accounts for about 20 per cent of the beer market. Even so, I’ve never met someone from Portland who didn’t know a lot about beer. I told the woman that it was place I’d have to visit.
“It’s hard coming here after living there,” she said. “They say they have a craft brewery here, but they really don’t.”
She was referring to Blue Sky Brewery, the only brewery in town. Knowing they held this distinction, I was a bit surprised that the bar at the hostel wasn’t carrying any of their beers. Then again, it was just a hostel (I also saw a beetle the size of a ping pong ball on the chair outside of my room the night I arrived). But soon enough I discovered that the only beer brewed in Cairns was actually pretty hard to find in Cairns.
When I did track down the beer it was to find that they offered a line of four – a lager, a pilsner (a type of lager) and two different “golds” (a light lager). All four beers functionally conformed to the global standardised beer style that includes Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.
I drank FNQ Gold like it was water, at $3.50 per bottle (cheap by Australian standards). For a pale lager brewed to 3.3 per cent ABV, it was surprisingly quaffable. I’m no cicerone (the beer version of a sommelier), but I’d guess this is an all-malt beer. The Buds of the world cut down on their costs by replacing some of the barley malt with rice and corn in their beers, which is why you have to drink them as cold as possible before all the grainy off-flavours come out. But even as I let the FNQ Gold warm up, the malt backbone was still there.
This is not easy. It takes a talented brewer to make a clean, refreshing light beer like that. So why does the woman from Portland shrug Blue Sky off as “not a craft brewery?”
[pullquote]Who wants to drink a roasty stout, a boozy IPA or a thick, malty amber in this weather? Even a Molson Canadian, at 5 per cent, would knock you on your ass under this dehydrating sun.[/pullquote]
This was going through my head as I sat in the sun in the 30-degree, tropical Far North of Queensland (where FNQ gets its name). It soon becomes achingly clear why Blue Sky only makes pale lagers – the heat! Who wants to drink a roasty stout, a boozy IPA or a thick, malty amber in this weather? Even a Molson Canadian, at 5 per cent, would knock you on your ass under this dehydrating sun.
At 3.3 per cent, this beer tastes the part and does the job, but it’s still weak enough to keep you hydrated (these were the levels of the “small beer” they’d ration to sailors in the English Imperial Navy while on the job, since they couldn’t drink the sea water).
So why isn’t it craft beer? Should the fact that this brewery works within the same style as Anheuser-Busch disqualify them? Even the styles that the big brewers imitate (poorly) were originally invented by skilled brewers responding to a local taste. Pilsner is named for the town of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, where they still make Pilsner Urquell, one of the most highly-rated beers in the world.
Craft beer is about terroir. Its recent success is just a part of a larger movement in favour of buying locally-sourced products, especially in food. The best craft breweries cater to the local tastes of their surrounding communities.
While Portland is one of the best markets for craft beer in the world, there are still a lot of places like Cairns which remain almost completely untouched. With the rate at which Australia’s brewery count is going, I don’t expect that to last long, but in the meantime I can’t really blame tropical Queenslanders for just wanting to drink something refreshing, whether it’s craft or not.
By: Derek Harrison