Australia and Canada have always had a natural affinity for each other. Perhaps it’s the shared colonial heritage that’s responsible for that connection. Or maybe it’s the fact that both countries are sparsely-populated outposts at opposite ends of the Pacific; one encased in ice, the other scorched by the sun.
Personally, I think our common love of beer could have a lot to with it. Don’t believe me? Well, take a look at who’s brewing your favourite craft beer or pouring your next pint. Don’t be surprised if they have a funny accent and a penchant for wearing flip-flops.
It’s true! Hordes of Aussies, working holiday visa in hand, land on our fair shores every year, and the ones that don’t end up in Whistler working the ski lifts seem to gravitate towards the craft beer industry. In fact, plucky antipodeans like Dean McLeod at Victoria Caledonian Brewing (and previously with Lighthouse Brewing), Daniel Murphy at Canoe Brewpub and former Steamworks brewer Caolan Vaughan have all had a role in the growth of the BC craft beer scene.
As it turns out, Australia is also undergoing its own craft beer revolution. From its humble beginnings in the gastronomic capital of Melbourne, craft beer has spread to every state and major city.
I sat down with fellow Aussies Mike Roberts (head brewer at Old Yale Brewing) and Joshua McGrogan (Field House Brewing’s tasting room manager and “Director of Experience”) to chat about what drew them to Canada (women, as it turns out), their perspective on BC’s craft beer scene, and what’s brewing Down Under.
Also, before I get any angry emails, I realize Josh isn’t technically a brewer, but he’s Australian, he knows his beer, and he was available.
Growler: So how the hell did you guys end up in Canada?
Mike Roberts: I was travelling Europe and I met a bunch of Canadians travelling around, and they said if you’re ever in Canada, come stay with us… so I ended up coming out to Canada. I had plans to go back to Australia and study to become a brewer – I was working at a brewery in Edmonton – and I stopped in to visit some friends in Vancouver, and met a girl at a party. We did the long-distance thing, and she moved down to Melbourne for a year, then we moved back here and got married.
Joshua McGrogan: Yeah, similar story. I graduated from university at the end of 2012 with a bachelor’s of commerce and decided to move to England, to London. I ran a gastropub there, and that’s where I met my now fiancée, and we moved [to Abbotsford], where she’s from.
Mike: Yeah, almost every person you meet from back home, you ask them, what brought you here, and they answer, “I married a Canadian girl.”
Joshua: Australia and Canada, our cultures are very compatible, and in a lot of ways we’re very similar. We both definitely have a love for beer.
Mike: Yeah, we mix really well, we have similar drinking habits, and when Canadians and Australians get together, it’s always a good time.
Growler: So what’s the beer scene like in Australia right now? We’ve seen unprecedented growth here in BC in the past five years, but a lot of that had to do with the liquor laws finally changing. Has there been that same sort of growth in Australia?
Mike: Australia has similar issues with taxation, so it’s very tough to turn a profit for a craft brewery. All the taxation laws were written by Foster’s, basically, back in the day. So they’re made for large-scale [operations], so it’s just tough to do small batch. But [unlike BC] the laws haven’t really changed much, they are still lobbying for changes. They’ve made it easier here, so you’ve seen that explosion, but it’s happening [in Australia], just not as fast. [The craft beer scene] started in Melbourne and blew up there, way earlier than Vancouver. The food and coffee scene and wine scene was always there, so beer just fit right in. And now other big cities are following. Sydney, Brisbane is really taking off, Adelaide is great, Perth is crazy, there’s some great breweries there.
Joshua: A lot of the craft breweries there are huge, though. Even the ones that are just your local brewery… they are pumping out a lot of beer. Everyone is doing large-scale packaging too. You’re just starting to see the first growlers coming to Australia. And even craft beers are still sold in 24-packs. Smaller bottles, like the 650mL bombers we have here, you barely ever see those. People still tend to buy beer in volumes.
Growler: That’s because it’s so hot out and everyone is so thirsty!
Mike: That’s part of it, for sure! Yeah, the drinking culture is different. It’s a little more adult, almost, except that we get hammered all the time, so we’re like children in that way. In Melbourne, there are places where you can drink in public, so you can just take beers down to the park. I’ve taken kegs down to the park or to the beach. They give us a little more flexibility, I suppose. Here, if you have even an empty bottle in the car, they can fine you for it, and it seems ridiculous.
Growler: What have you noticed as far as trends in beer styles in Australia?
Joshua: Well, yeah, Australia is really hot, a lot hotter than over here. So there’s a lot of craft lagers, kolschs, and we have a beer called summer ale, which is not really a style…
Mike: It’s an Australian made-up thing!
Joshua: Yeah, it’s basically a pale ale, but they call it summer ale. A lot of the beer styles are made for drinking lots of beer when it’s hot, so they’re really, really light flavor profiles. Which is great! Lately, every time I go back, I’ve seen more [breweries] popping up and they are being more adventurous with things that are going crazy over here, like lots of wild yeasts, Bretts, sours, big hoppy IPAs. I just saw Stone & Wood [Brewing Co., in Byron Bay] and they are doing a Brett ISA, which I never thought I would see, ever. So that stuff is starting to catch on. A lot of those guys are keeping track of what’s happening over here, because it seems to start in North America, and that’s what’s really of interest. I think [Australia] is definitely a bit behind the trends, but it’s slowly catching up.
Growler: Tell me about the perception of the BC beer scene in Australia. Are we even on the radar? Because I feel like the beer scene here is struggling to place itself within the greater context of the global craft beer scene. We’re in a bit of a bubble. Do BC beers even register down there?
Mike: I knew about the big American breweries. The brewery I worked at in Melbourne [Mountain Goat Beer] had a sister-brewery thing going on with Brooklyn Brewery… and if you’re into craft beer, you know about the American breweries. But as far as Vancouver, I don’t think many people do know. Australia is in a bit of a bubble, too. We’re so far removed from everywhere else. We’re a bit isolated.
Growler: Tell me a bit about how your Australian upbringing seeps into what you do here. What influence does that have?
Mike: For me, it’s totally in the ingredients I use and the styles of beer that I’ve done. Using [Australian] ingredients like the Vegemite, for example, and finding a way to force that into a beer when it shouldn’t beer there (editor’s note: any homesick Australians should definitely try Old Yale’s Vegemite Gose). I did a couple of trial brews with wattleseed (the edible seed of the Australian acacia tree), and when I was coming up with ideas for the Yeti [White Stout], to give it some dark and roasty and chocolately flavours without adding colour, I was adding some native Australian ingredients I knew of. Stuff I was familiar with that came to mind, I ended up using that. Recently, I’ve even done a trial batch of summer ale.
Growler: What are some of the differences you see between the BC and Australian beer scenes?
Joshua: It seems like the big difference here is, you serve your community first. In Australia, breweries serve all of Australia. So they are pumping out big volume, as far as possible. Like, back home, all my favourite craft beers were made in really, really big breweries, like Little Creatures, Matilda Bay. It’s not really common to have a local brewery. I think Australians are still catching on to craft beer, because there’s not enough [smaller] breweries around experimenting and trying new things.
Mike: It’s uber-local here, isn’t it? The population in Vancouver is smaller than Melbourne, but you have way more breweries; they’re just producing less beer. So they can experiment and try new things.
Joshua: Yeah, it’s amazing. I love it!