A craft beer from New Zealand could be the best brew in Australia right now

Pardon the pun, but the craft beer genie is out of the bottle. Acquisition is the quickest way for large multinationals to answer the innovative, locally minded brands and their flavour-focused beers that are resonating with drinkers worldwide.

The patience and individual thinking required to incubate these smaller players is difficult to replicate in large public companies, which are somewhat captive to investors and quarterly sales results.

By contrast, the business models of small brewing companies are anything but homogenous. Among the many small outfits currently shaking up the beer scene in Australia is New Zealand's Garage Project. Launched in Wellington in 2011, it has made an art form of defying brewing conventions.

"The quality of craft beer in New Zealand has always been excellent, but when we started the brewery, it was at the time quite conservative," says co-founder Jos Ruffell.

Tapping into flavour

Among 20 creatively named and styled beers on tap at Garage Project's Wellington taproom during a recent visit were Aardvark, a sour ale flavoured with ants; the light beer Fugazi, described as a 'sheep in wolf's clothing' and Hot Fuzz, a 'fuzzy pale ale with habanero'.

"Our job is to give people an experience they haven't had before," says Ruffell.

"If someone's not a beer drinker… maybe in a more conventional beer, the bitter flavours aren't to their taste. But if you give them a flavour that is maybe sweet or spicy or sour or umami, it might actually change their idea of what beer is and what beer can be. And that should come, in our opinion, in an unconventional package as well."

Garage Project also brought this avant garde approach to wine, launching GP Crushed, a label dedicated to challenging existing ideas around wine and winemaking approaches.

"We have some fantastic wine in New Zealand but it is very 'to style', very safe and traditional. We think we could bring a little energy and excitement to that and give people something they haven't had before," he says.

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Garage Project is not the only brewery taking bold steps outside of beer. Melbourne's Boatrocker unconventionally merged with WA-based spirits distiller Hippocampus in July 2017, becoming Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers. The creative potential of having a distillery on-site excited Boatrocker founder and head brewer Matt Houghton.

"We really want to try and connect that link between brewing and distilling so we're working on a whole range of different ideas; production with brewing malt and beer being put through the still to produce different flavour profiles."

Boatrocker's latest spirit release was actually conceived long before the distillery and brewery were under the same roof. More than four years ago, Houghton took a batch of the brewery's flagship Alpha Queen American pale ale to Melbourne whisky distillery Starward, where it was distilled before being rested in a first fill bourbon cask.

Released in April, the result was Forget Me Not 'Beer Whisky', which has a delicate elderflower note Houghton attributes to the influence of the aromatic hop character within the distilled beer.

"It doesn't really fit in any particular category, but the fact it's sat in barrels for more than two years, legally by definition it's a whisky," he says. "The name Forget Me Not just comes from us not forgetting what happened to the beer. It really comes through in the aromatic profile – you know you've got a beer there somehow."

A beer for charity

Other breweries are breaking the mould by using beer as a platform for altruistic, rather than purely commercial endeavours. Among them is Brewmanity Beer Co, which was set up in 2015 by former AFL player David Neitz to support the charitable endeavours of his mate and former coach at Melbourne Demons, Neale Daniher. Daniher was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2013 and has since devoted his life to finding a cure for the illness.

Veteran beer marketer Jamie Fox has since joined the Brewmanity effort, which began with a one-off beer sold at pubs across Melbourne in an attempt to create Victoria's most charitable happy hour.

"The reason we got together was, 'what can we do to help our mate out?'," says Fox. "We said, 'let's just plug away and brew a beer and get half a dozen pubs on board'. And then it sort of snowballed."

Brewmanity has evolved organically into what Fox describes as a "serious little brewing company" with fundraising for the Cure MND Foundation as its reason for being.
 "We donate a percentage of our profits to the foundation on an ongoing basis, and 100 per cent of the profits from whatever events we do," he says.

Cans of Brewmanity's Pale Ale 'Social Beast' are now available nationally through Vintage Cellars and First Choice Liquor stores. "Neale calls MND 'an absolute beast of a disease'. So what we wanted to do was help tame the beast and make the fight against it more sociable," explains Fox.