This is a story that starts with malt and ends with beer. “Grain to glass” is a phrase that’s thrown around a bit these days in beer and distilling, the beer version of the now ubiquitous “farm to table”. In the strictest sense “grain to glass” means that the brewer or distiller controls each step of the product supply chain. Ya gotta do everything ya damn self – from roasting your own malt, to controlling every aspect of production from recipe development through to packaging.
To me the spirit of the phrase is that you’re not taking any shortcuts – you know exactly what’s in your product, and can vouch for the quality and consistency of everything that goes into it. I’ve spent (arguably too much) time on the “glass” side of this equation, and in Tasmania I got to look under the hood to see the many people and ingredients that make good beer great. My time in Tasmania reminded me that beer is more than just the sum of its parts – it's just as much about the hands that go in to making it as what it tastes like. I had some of my favorite beers of the trip in Tassie, but I also met some of my favorite people. And that's what it's all about.
In Melbourne, Tasmania came up over and over again when I mentioned that I was interested in learning about Aussie craft beer. Before this trip I didn’t even know that Tasmania was a real place, it occupied the same spot in my mind as Narnia. Since I had no idea that Tasmania even existed, you may not know too much about it either. Here are a few fast facts on Tassie (like everything else in Australia, it has a cheeky nickname):
- Tasmania is an island state off Australia’s southern coast, first "discovered" by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. The earliest British settlement in 1803 consisted mostly of convicts from Sydney and their military guards (the convict island of the convict island! Wouldn't mess with these dudes).
- There are two major port cities a few hours apart by car: Launceston “Lonnie” (north, smaller) and Hobart (south, bigger, frustratingly not nicknamed Hobie). There's a healthy competition between the two cities, both between sports teams and historic breweries. If you're in Lonnie you're a Boag's drinker, in Hobart it's Cascade.
- The government and brewers association of Tasmania recently donated several hundred thousand dollars to support beer tourism. Tassie has 20+ microbreweries (tas beer trail), 11 cideries (?!) (tas cider trail), 10 distilleries (tas whiskey trail), and 112+ vineyards (tas winery trails) for it's 500,000 people, making it the region with the most buzzed residents per capita in the southern hemisphere (maybe it is Narnia).
- Tassie's got nature for days: stunning waterfalls, beautiful untouched beaches, national parks, a ton of animals I also thought were fictional, and even a gorge or two.
Another reason to make the trek to Tassie is that traveling solo forces me to interact with and meet new people. Weird, serendipitous encounters just tend to happen when you're traveling alone. While you’d think that traveling to hostels with two guys in their 20’s would be very conducive to meeting people and tasting craft beer, it's usually tough to pry me off the hostel beer pong table. After about a month of traveling with the guys and with my leg injury finally behind me, I was excited to strike out on my own for a craft beer pilgrimage. And boy did I get one.
That time I met a maltster
I flew to Launceston with no plan and no place to stay. Luckily for me, people are freakishly friendly in Tasmania. The man that sat next to me on the plane noticed that I was writing about craft beer, gave me a few tips on where to start, and offered to drive me to a hostel in town. It seemed so incredibly genuine that I accepted, though in what’s becoming a (semi) running joke I did send my mom a photo of the guy with the text, “If I die, this guy murdered me.”
After checking in to my adorable Victorian hostel, I walked through Lonnie towards St. Johns, the highly recommended local watering hole. The town is stunning, it’s got that Northeastern, idyllic, Abbie Kimball in Woodstock thing down pat.
So here I am on a Monday night a few thousand km's from Antarctica on a craft beer quest to learn about “grain to glass”, and GRAIN walks in to the bar. Yep, in walks a craft maltster, as in a person that produces malt from barley and sells it to breweries. Matt was on an agricultural scholarship traveling to different beer countries to learn about the barley supply chain (boy did I go to the wrong school). After we got to talking he mentioned that he was driving to Hobart in a few days, and would I like to tag along to some of his meetings with brewers and distillers? I immediately agreed and resent the above text to mom.
This generosity was the beginning of a multi-day crash course in grain to glass. I ended up meeting some incredible people including Dr. Evan Evans, aka "the beer doctor", a botanist with a PhD in malt science (dream job) who introduced us to his local contacts and even ended up hosting both of us for the duration of our stay in Hobart. Yes, this was my real life Willy Wonka. I ended up tagging along with my new crew for behind the scenes visits to a few wineries, a hop farm, and too many breweries and beer bars to count. Below are some of the highlights, but first let’s take a moment of silence for my liver.
Day 1: Redlands and Lark Distillery
Nothing like a taste of un-aged whiskey at 9 am to jumpstart your day. Redlands distillery is an example of an operation done right – the old way, the slow way. We spoke to Robbie, the delightful and very Scottish brand manager for Redlands. I learned that making beer and whiskey pretty much starts out the same way. First you "mash" malted barley by adding warm water to extract soluble sugars from the malt. The warm, sweet "wort" is then cooled before being passed into large tanks called "washbacks" where yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. At this point the wash could technically be brewed into beer, but is instead distilled into whiskey. In fact many of the local breweries we would visit in the coming days contract their equipment and services to create the wash to send back to distilleries.
Because of the investment by the government in Tasmanian beer and whiskey, the number of craft producers has grown quickly, and Robbie gave us some insight into how Tasmanian distillers have come together to make sure that quality of Tas whiskey remains high. As he put it, "one cowboy could come in and ruin the Tas whiskey reputation for everyone". In order to officially be labeled "Tas whiskey", the product must use Tassie water, be aged in the region for at least two years, and use only endogenous enzymes from barley to convert starches to sugar for fermentation. Additionally the distilleries have agreed to send samples of their product to an independent laboratory annually to test for certain quality markers.
This introduced an interesting question, when is a label like "Tas Whiskey" a clear marker of quality and when is it just a marketing gimmick? Robbie also shared that when comes to whiskey, age can be just a number. Macallan and other brands have helped propagate the notion with their marketing that the longer a whiskey is aged, the better it is. It turns out that's not always true. How long a whiskey should be aged depends on a number of factors including climate conditions and barrel size (surface area contact with the wood). There's a point of diminishing returns with aging any spirit, and it is possible to over-age a whiskey. For the particular whiskey we were tasting, 5-7 years is the sweet spot. Redlands is just now getting product to shelves, which made me realize that even if you're "only" aging whiskey 5-7 years, that's a whole lot of barrel time before you have anything to sell. Anyone making whiskey this way isn't doing it for the money, they just love what they do.
After visiting a distillery that was just getting off the ground, it was a nice contrast to visit Lark Distillery, one of the stars of the Tasmania craft industry. Bill Lark is known as the grandfather of Australian whiskey, and seems to be the guy that gave many promising young distillers their start. While he is now retired, we were lucky to get a behind the scenes tour with Lark's head distillery manager Craig. His single malt whiskey is quite the decorated pony, recently winning all kinds of awards including “best peated young whiskey in the world.” It's hard to even find Lark's whiskey for sale in Tasmania – they're still making small batches by hand and it's backordered everywhere.
As we walked into the distillery Craig mentioned that unlike a brewery, this place isn’t all that clean. They aren’t going for sterile. Their unique approach to whiskey involves a relatively long 7+ day fermentation. They leave the tanks open and actively encourage lactose and bacteria into the fermentation process to create sour notes and complexity of flavor. The funky stuff will be burned off in the distillation process, leaving a complex, nuanced product behind. And while the buttery notes of diacetyl from infection are avoided like the plague in beer, whiskey wants some of that flavor and mouth feel into the finished product. The staff writes their initials on the big open vats along with their colorful tasting notes with descriptors like "Sour pineapple, sourdough, and cabbage." Yum. While the tour alone was worth the trip, they're also a crew you'd want to hang out with after hours, which also makes things a little more fun.
Day 2: Hop Farm Harvest
Hop farms are the new vineyards, you heard it here first. We arrived at Hop Products Australia, home of the famous Galaxy hop, a few weeks before harvest, and got to tour the absolutely stunning farm with fields of climbing vines that put every vineyard I've ever seen to shame. As someone who recognizes the names of hops like Galaxy and Topaz from the sealed foil packets in homebrew shops, it was pretty darn neat to be half way around the world learning about the history of and R&D process for Australian hops. Apparently introducing a new hop into the market is a long and arduous process: the beer version of getting FDA approval. Hop breeders develop new strains and grow them on experimental plots. They then enlist breweries to test out the new hops and report back on how they hold up in different brews and storing conditions. Galaxy alone took nine years of development before her commercial debut.
Quick hop lesson: High alpha acid hops are used early on in the boil primarily for bittering, as the aromatic oils are burned off during the long boil process. Lower alpha acid hops are typically added towards the very end of the boil, where less aromatic oils are lost to evaporation, imparting kickass flavor and aroma characteristics.
At HPA they've been making Australian hops for over 150 years, but only recently have they found their niche in aroma hops and become a huge Tasmania success story. They are now in the midst of a rapid expansion, and export almost 70% of their hops (much of it Galaxy), with half of the exported product going to the U.S. Owen told us that back in the day Australian hop farmers were trying to emulate popular high alpha acid bittering hops in the US or European style like Saaz and Hallertau, and they just weren’t able to compete. It wasn’t until they were close to folding that they decided to take a risk and cross these high alpha Aussie hops with aroma hops that they landed a winning combination: the high alpha, extremely aromatic and versatile flavor hop. Galaxy, Topaz, and Ella are all HPA products, and part of a new wave of hop breeds known for their intense citrus and tropical aromas.
It was great traveling with a maltster because I got to hear his perspective and industry questions at each of our visits. For example, while a lot of craft beer people can name their favorite hops, very few know much about what malt is in their beer. Malt is the backbone of beer! Why is it not as sexy as the hops? The hop industry has done a great job of co-marketing and branding their hops. One small example, Pirate Life Brewery partnered with HopCo to feature their New Zealand hops on an outrageously popular beer called HopCo IPA, which has been a great co-marketing opportunity to promote Hopco and it's hop line. Matt and I discussed ways that the malting industry could potentially start to highlight craft malt and make it top of mind for consumers. Ironically it has taken me to quit my marketing job and travel the world to learn that marketing, does in fact, matter.
Day 3: We've made to glass
Like a kid on Christmas, I was excited to see all this local barley, hops, and Tasie water in action. I believe we ended up visiting 10 beer bars and/or breweries in Hobart, but these were my favorites:
Before baller rich guy David Walsh opened the stunning Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) in 2011, he launched a brewery in 2005 on the gorgeous Moorilla estate property. Now Moo Brew has expanded to two locations, led by brewer Dave Macgill. While the beer was very solid – traditional styles done right, I was fascinated by their packaging. They were one of the only breweries I had seen abroad that had fully embraced cans, and their bottled beers were packaged in 330 ml champagne style green glass bottles with labels created by local artists. They just felt special. While Dave confirmed they are much more expensive to produce, people just love them – another proof point that packaging matters.
Hobart Brewing Co. is a sprawling beer paradise right in the middle of Hobart. Though he opened HBC just last year, Colorado-trained head brewer Scott Overdorf spent the previous 5 years at Moo Brew before deciding to open his own shop. When I professed my love for barrel-aged beers, Scott even sent me on my way with one of his barrel-aged Saisons, aged for 4 months in gin and port barrels. Though I wouldn’t consider myself a saison guy, this spicy, woody beer ended up being my favorite beer in Tasmania.
Matt and I loved everything about this brewery. Everything on the tap list was exciting, from the rye golden ale to the rich, malty marzen. And Dances with Hops finally gave me an IPA that I just couldn’t get enough of. With a nice outdoor deck and a beautiful full bar with copper details, Shambles is a place you could hang out for the whole afternoon. Even better, the Winston and two other microbreweries are just a stone throw's away, just begging you to make it a beer crawl.
The Winston was the craft beer bar in Hobart. Owners Kris and Caroline are never far away, and hanging out there on a Friday afternoon, it was littered with industry guys. I only planned on having a beer or two there on my last day, and I ended up sampling all 12 taps and their BBQ brisket, getting to my gate a little toasty just a few minutes before it closed. A great way to close off my time in Tasmania.
I'll be back Tassie.