Back in 2013, Australia had 200 craft breweries. Today we've got 410 dotted around the country, and often in areas that aren't just wannabe versions of Brooklyn. I know this because I recently went to a craft beer festival in a town I'd never heard of.
South West Rocks is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and it's the sort of place Tim Winton gets hung up on. It's a grid of caravans and holiday units by a crescent bay of lime-coloured sea. The main street is filled with Norfolk Pines. A public hall screens movies. Old men doze on porches. There's a war memorial, a river, and a pub. It's not the sort of area you'd associate with craft beer, and yet there are four craft brewers based within an hour radius.
The owners of the pub, The Seabreeze, are trying to push their local brew scene, which is why they flew me up for a festival called Crafts on the Coast. I got there to find the festival was held in the bottom floor of the pub. On one side of the bar old men bet on horses and swilled VB. On the festival side, young parents and surfer dudes stood by beer stalls and talked hops. The divide was clear. One half of the bar was drinking what they'd always drunk, while the other was embracing new flavours. The insight was that craft beer might be expanding, but not by itself. Instead it's the fact that people who like craft beer love craft beer, and they're operating as missionaries for the unconverted.
Tim and Sam, founders of Bucket Brewery in Kempsey (they're the guys at the top of the article) are a prime example of beer missionaries. They describe their brewing journey as a process of persuasion, starting with their own families. "We first had to convince our wives that starting a brewery was a good idea," explains Tim. "That took some time." After that hurdle, the duo brewed a batch for one of the family patriarchs, "basically as a proof of concept," says Tim. The old man had never drank anything that wasn't freezing cold VB in his whole life, so when he demanded more of the Bucket brew, Sam and Tim decided to push ahead with a brewery.
As they explain, one of the tricks to wooing a small town crowd is to talk about local beer instead of craft beer. "No one wants in Kempsey wants to drink something called craft beer," says Sam. "But call it local beer and they're interested."
Aside from the name change, they're also negotiating regional Australia's fear of pretence with familiar flavours. We had this conversation over one of Bucket's pale ales. It had all usual flavours of hops and citrus, but dialled back so you could drink a few. Sam and Tim explained this was a deliberate feature of all their beers. Again, they're trying to seduce people away from Carlton United, which can't be done with beers that taste of only unbridled experimentation. So they're making beers that meet you half way.
The other thing I learned about the expansion of craft beer is that it's driven by blokes with a hobby. This was true of Bucket, and it's true of Black Duck Brewery out of Port Macquarie. Again, the company was started by a guy who professionally had nothing to do with beer. Al Owen is a friendly giant of a man who previously worked as a civil engineer. Like all the other brewers in the room, he'd started with a small setup in a garage that got a bit out of hand. He too talks about getting his wife's blessing and then sinking his savings into a commercial brewery. "Yeah there some persuasion involved," he says. "At the start some people didn't get it."
In 2013 around two percent of beer was made by independent brewers. Today it's nearly five percent, in a market that's seeing beer consumption fall overall, which indicates a certain level of tenacity from guys like Tim, Sam, and Al. And that's really the key. Craft beer isn't a drink so much as a culture for people to get obsessed with. And obsession comes with a tenaciousness all of its own. It can restore an ancient car, sit through an entire cricket test match, or build a brewery in a town that doesn't know much about craft beer. And obsessed guys are the reason places like South West Rocks are getting a craft beer scene.