Fresh off the boat: Australian ales making waves in the UK

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

05 April 2018

With its progressive hop-growing industry and the surge of craft brewers in Australia, there's some exciting brews reaching our shores from Down Under, says Will Hawkes

Jason Cameron can remember what motivated him to start bringing Australian craft beer into the UK. 'I got sick of everyone thinking Fosters was all there was to know about Australian beer!' he says.

So sick, indeed, that’s he’s spent the past three-and-a-bit-years demonstrating it’s far from the case. His company Aus Avenues brings a host of different Australian beers to the UK.  And he’s not alone. Around a dozen Australian craft breweries are now selling their wares over here, primarily in London. In a city used to drinking everything from Belgian classics to American hopbombs, Australian ale is the latest thing.

Stone & Wood's Pat Keeble
Stone & Wood's Pat Keeble

It all started just over four years ago, when Camden Town Brewery – then an independent company – brought beer from Byron Bay-based brewery Stone & Wood to the UK as part of a reciprocal agreement. It was supposed to be a one-off, but it has become rather more permanent. Stone & Wood now sends a 20ft container of beer – mostly its flagship, Pacific Ale – to the UK every month.

When it gets here, it’s up to Pat Keeble, who has worked permanently for Stone & Wood in London since the summer of 2016, to sell it on. 'We’re committed to [the UK market] for the long term,' he says. 'We want to be recognised as a regional brewer of an Australian style of ale, internationally as well as domestically.'

Breweries like Coopers and Little Creatures preceded Stone & Wood in the UK, but its success has led to many more Aussie beermakers trying their luck in the Old Dart. Alongside those represented by Aus Avenues, there’s Nomad – imported, amusingly, by the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective – and Pirate Life, which has recently been bought by AB InBev.

'They’re all investing a lot of time and money in the market and it helps to tell the Aussie beer story,' says Cameron. 'It’s a welcome addition, it really creates awareness of what's happening.'

It’s a long way to send beer, but given the size of the two markets, it’s worth it. Australia’s population is around 20m – a third of the UK. Plenty of Australian breweries are looking to expand into south-east Asia, but the ties of history and commerce mean selling beer into the UK market makes particular sense.

Aus Avenues brings over three or four containers a year with a variety of breweries represented. Cameron started with Vale Brewing in early 2015, from close to his hometown of Adelaide, and has since added the likes of Mornington Peninsula, Prancing Pony and Kaiju! Beer.

'I give people the opportunity to get beer to the UK without too much hassle,' he says. 'It’s easier for me [to bring in a variety] – a whole container of one brewery would be difficult to do.'

He keeps close tabs on the Aussie scene to see who he should be bringing into the UK. 'I go back two or three times a year, and spend plenty of time going to bars and breweries to find out what’s good,' he says.

'I follow from a distance, too, and see what people are raving about. And there’s word of mouth – I have a network of friends and colleagues back in Australia. I get a regular stream of messages and Whatsapps: ‘You’ve got to try this beer, or this beer."'

Many of these Aussie beers are hop-focused. Australia has one of the most progressive hop-growing industries in the world, with hops like Galaxy, Ella and Vic’s Secret having rolled off the production line over the past few years. Stone and Wood’s Pacific Ale is a wonderful showcase for Galaxy, Australia’s premier modern hop, so it’s important that the beer is looked after between Australia and the UK.

'We use cold-chain transportation,' says Keeble. 'We keep everything as cold as we can for as long as we can. As soon as the kegs are racked, they’re in the refrigerator. The container on the way over is refrigerated, and it takes about five or six weeks between packaging and it being in our warehouse in Essex. There’s a couple of days in Felixstowe when it’s not refrigerated.'

Customers used to drinking beer from around the world are open to these Australian beers, according to Anthony Gunson, who runs The King & Co pub in Clapham, south London.

'These Aussie beers are very drinkable, so once the customer has had a sample they’ll stick around for a couple of pints,' he says. 'We’ve got a big contingent of Aussies around here, too, so Australian beers always go down well.

'We’ve had some Little Creatures recently and it always goes down well with Aussies or people who've tried it when they were over there.'

The King & Co has held Australian beer events to celebrate Australia Day for the past three years. At this year’s event – An Australia v Scotland-themed festival – Kaiju!’s Krush, a pale hoppy beer made in Melbourne was the star of the show. It’s Aus Avenues' bestseller and a good example of what British punters are looking for in an Aussie beer – something clean and drinkable, with lots of hop.

'The beers I bring over tend to be lighter,' Cameron says. 'They’re hoppy and are intended to be drunk cold.'

For Kaiju! Beer co-founder Callum Reeves, sending beer to the UK is about widening his own horizons.

'We had lots of enquiries from the UK before we started exporting,' he says. 'The biggest reason [we export beer] is being able to travel to different parts of the world, talking about what I love. We also tend to meet other brewers, and it's great to get their different perspectives and even collaborate on interesting beers.'

Quality is at a similar level to the UK, with some really excellent beers. Prancing Pony’s India Red Ale became popular in the UK after it was named Supreme Champion Beer at the International Beer Challenge in London in 2017, according to Cameron.

The amount of Australian beer in the UK looks set to grow. Thanks to Aussie company KegStar, which is now well established in the UK, breweries can send steel kegs to the UK without needing to retrieve them (and British breweries can send their wares Down Under, too, or to New Zealand and the USA).

This Australian wave remains a largely London-focused phenomenon, but both Aus Avenues and Stone & Wood are keen to get more beer out of the capital. 'I want to get up to Leeds, Manchester, Scotland too,' says Cameron. 'Leeds is a great beer city. We need to get out of London more, so I’m looking for a distribution partner.'

For Stone & Wood, it’s a matter of charting its own course. 'We’re not looking to be responsive to trends,' says Keeble. 'What’s best for us?  We need to branch out of London, get beer up North and down to the coast, too.'

If all goes well, the whole country could soon be exposed to the Australian craft-beer revolution. And that old cliche about Fosters? 'That started it - but the perception of Australian beer has come on leaps and bounds since then,' says Cameron. 'It’s been thanks to all of us; a real good Aussie team effort.'

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