Craft beer can be a little intimidating. With its enormous bottles and alcohol contents, litanies of new words and adjectives, and bold, unique flavours. It’s easy, too, to see the scenes which emerge around hyped new and sometimes surprisingly expensive products, and to attribute it to some sort of hipster conspiracy. But the craft beer movement is much less about savvy marketing and artificial economies than it is about passionate people falling in love with new techniques and great ingredients.
At Caboose in Mt Lawley this May we got talking to Tim Matthews, the head brewer of Colorado’s Oskar Blues. Tim has an encyclopaedic knowledgable for near everything regarding beer brewing and boundless enthusiasm for his craft. I learned more about craft beer in half an hour speaking to Tim than I had anywhere else, so afterwards I was determined to keep he conversation going. We got back in touch with Tim to talk about the history and future of craft beer, and here’s what we found out:
It all started with passion for great beer.
Tim says that the craft beer movement has been tied with the boom in modern home brewing. “Craft beer has always been about a rebirth of having an intimacy with your beer, both from a brewer and consumer perspective.”
Indeed, the emergence of a number of craft breweries in both the US and Australia have formed as the result of brewers honing their skills at home until they had the support and finesse to take their product to market on industrial equipment.
Craft Beer is a product of the modern world
The proliferation of information in a globalised world, along with advances in technology and trade, have been instrumental in sharing not only beer and beer ingredients, but the love of beer itself. Lovers of beer can find a place not only in the global community, but local communities around craft beer form more readily as information about beer has become easier to spread. Smaller breweries now have better access to premium ingredients, better distribution, and better techniques, which allows inspired people to put out more adventurous and exciting beers.
One of the more noticeable trends in craft beer recently has been an adoption of canning. Oskar Blues have been producing craft beer in cans since 2002, and were the first craft brewery to do so. Here in Australia, adoption of cans has been slightly slower but the past year has seen Perth’s Feral brewery adopt a canning line, as well as breweries Modus Operandi and Pirate Life starting their trade exclusively in cans. Canned beer is easier to cool, less prone to oxygen or light spoilage, and more portable, but some of the biggest benefits to canning lines start at the breweries, where the unit price drop substantially, allowing more money to be invested back into the brewing. As well as lighter, more compact units meaning more beer can be transported, and complete recyclability making for a smaller environmental impact.
The future of craft beer is in farming
Tim visits Australia each year to check in on Hop producers, “Being from the States, I have access to an incredible array of flavors from hops, and a lot of our beers engage that flavour. Australian hop growers, however are producing incredibly unique hops; they’ve developed some of the most challenging, intense, and diverse flavors. We source a bunch of these to feature in our Oskar Blues IPA in order to add that color to our spectrum of beers.”
Tim and many other new wave brewers have attuned themselves to terroir, a term initially used by winemakers to describe the impacts of place on a wine in regards to climate, weather, soil, region and even culture. Beer is essentially comprised of just four ingredients, Water, Barley, Hops, and Yeast, and each of these ingredients is heavily influenced by its terroir. "Hops are influenced by the day length in early summer and the temperature fluctuations in summer and fall. Barley is heavily influenced by the dirt from which it grows (although a maltster has a huge say in how it is expressed). Water is influenced by the source of the water and the extent of contact it has with the ground on which it flows, along with the content of that ground. And Yeast, still a mystery in many ways, has different species all over the world just floating in the air.” Says Tim.
As the world becomes more connected, it is easier than ever to combine products from different places, but Tim argues that there are equally valid reasons for 'an isolated expression of terroir that features components all sourced and used with a small radius.’ In essence, the same way that an artist using artificial pigments in lieu of natural ones has a harder job as their palette is bound not by possibility but only by their own tastes, it will be interesting to see how modern brewers react as the question progressively stops being ‘can we?’ and starts to become ‘should we?’ Tim believes there is room for both mentalities: Keeping everything local, or balancing new and exotic ingredients.
Reinheitsgebot is no longer synonymous with quality
We mentioned that beer is essentially just four ingredients, but some brewers and beer drinkers believe there should never be more than these four ingredients in a beer. The ‘German purity law’ states that beer should comprise only of Water, Barley, Yeast and Hops. It is a 500 year old law in Germany and has served as a guideline for international brewers for almost as long. However, in light of better ingredients than ever before, modern brewing has trended away from the older practices which necessitated such a law. Flavours are now added not to mask bad ingredients or bad brewing, but to add complimentary flavours which couldn’t be achieved with just the four base ingredients. Says Tim: "The spirit of this “purity doctrine” comes out of the need to maintain a foundation since many times in history quality was not being met without it. There will always be interpretations on this but I’ve felt that beer is a fermented beverage from grain. Just like wine comes from grapes and Mead comes from honey. Beer is a base that can be “spiced” in various ways – hops, herbs, fruits, wood, and so forth.”
For Tim, brewing will always be about Family and Hospitality
Earlier when we spoke to Sam and Toby from Modus Coffee, they stressed the importance of community, connection and earnest hospitality, and for Tim these sentiments were no different. "Oskar Blues was built on family and hospitality,” he said, referring to a company which now comprises Oskar Blues Fooderies, Oskar Blues Soda Pop, Hotbox Roasters, REEB cycles, and the Can’d aid foundation. "We try to have just as eclectic a flavor as the crazy little group we’re part of by sourcing some unique foreign and local flavors and working side by side with the people that grow that flavour."
Craft beer, already huge in the US, is growing bigger and bigger in Australia. It’s great to see breweries adopt new practices and beer drinkers opening up to new and exciting styles. Brewers and bartenders at places like Caboose are a wealth of knowledge, and usually more than happy to share. But the most important thing to remember is that craft beer is a movement of passionate people nerding out about a product that they love.
It’s hard to see how something as simple as wanting to make brilliant coffee managed to get such a bad rap, but after years of working in cafes and roasteries around the world, Toby and Sam of Modus Coffee have set out to make great coffee an informal and inviting experience which anyone can love. Their cafe, which opened in Mt Lawley during the christmas season of 2016, is putting out some of the best coffee in Perth, but with none of the pretension we’ve come to associate with specialty and craft coffee. We reached out to Toby and Sam to talk about what they wanted to do differently when starting their own place, why they’re moving away from the ‘specialty coffee’ label, and why their take on modernity can have such an impact on coffee drinkers in Perth.
“We just wanted to serve good coffee in a way which was fun. We wanted to do away with the aprons and just make good coffee for everyday people we thought let’s just make it like our home, like you’re inviting someone to give them good hospitality at home, and it’s so good that it’s worth paying for.” said Sam of the driving philosophy behind Modus, “the way we wanted to differentiate ourselves from other people is to make really good coffee consistently, but not come away as pretentious or puritan. We really wanted to present in a casual, approachable way”
The design of Modus is simple without feeling minimalist or utilitarian: Coffee and plates are white, there is little clutter, but every surface is filled, the near ubiquitous Edison lightbulbs of fashionable coffee are nowhere to be found. Indeed, the coffee at Modus is a huge step from the established norms of Perth’s coffee scene, but Sam and Toby told me that these changes to the status quo have been much more digestible when presented without a hint of the the holier than thou mentality which can easily overcome experts of a product rife with misconceptions. Sam said of their approach to coffee “We’re looking at coffee as a beverage rather than putting it on a pedestal. Obviously it’s still an experience, it’s still amazing produce, still seasonal, still has terroir and should be approached with intentionality. But what we’re selling is still a beverage, it’s still something to drink.” and through this belief, Sam and Toby seem to have found a balance which has eluded much larger establishments.
At Modus you’ll find all of the hallmarks of the third wave scene, they constantly rotate between interstate and international roasters, a retail shelf offers aeropresses, hand grinders and sets of digital scales, and in the corner of the bar is an EK43, but this is all surprisingly well contained to one corner of the small space. There is a quiet confidence which is rare for people so dedicated to their product. Whilst they will gladly make anything ordered, their small, utilitarian menu offers price points for only black and white coffee. "The more traditional espresso menu changes at every cafe you go to. Every cafe does it differently, and it’s confusing. When you’re not transparent about how you’re making coffee, that’s how you get difficult and complex orders based on how someone made it once and what they decided to call it. We just wanted to simplify the ordering and simplify the price categories. At the end of the day, we’ll make you whatever you want, and we’ll make it the best that we can”
Sam and Toby feel that whilst they champion coffee, they find themselves distancing Modus from the ‘specialty coffee’ label, “I think specialty coffee really is more of a marketing term than anything else. It originally signified quality based on the score the coffee had got at origin, from a roasting sample.” Said Toby, "Wine is a great analogue, in that everything that goes into growing that product is what determines the quality of the end result, but there’s a hundred different ways to mess up that result in-between.” And so at Modus it is not about barista wizardry, but rather sourcing the best roasted coffee in the world, and doing the best they can to service that coffee, "It’s about creating transparency. The less you can do to mess with the beautiful fruit, the better we’ll be able to taste everything about where that fruit was grown.” Continues Toby, on both wine and coffee.
These may seem like bold statement, but Sam and Toby are able to use their years of combined experience in other cafes to nail down exactly what they wanted to do differently at their own place.
“We’re constantly reevaluating and seeing how we can make things better, we try to get everything down to numbers, even ahead of what we hear back from individual customers.” Said Sam. “We’ve got a big emphasis on modernity here, we wanted to see coffee move away from cultural trends and to actively try to do better all of the time”
When I asked them about the difference between owning their own place after so much time working in other cafes, they agreed that the work was more or less the same, but they cherish the opportunities to connect with their customers as business owners, which aren’t as possible when working for somebody else.
"I thought the milestones would be more exciting, when you clean the floor of your own place it won’t be so demoralising. But it’s so similar.” Said Toby, “The relationships we can build now are phenomenal, some of the people you can get to know as a business owner. Versus there’s only a handful of personal connections you can make when working for a place. But it’s hard to become friends with a person when you’re being paid an hourly rate to be nice to them.”
Coffee in Perth has never been better, but the appeal of cafes has always come from community and connection. Toby and Sam may well be sourcing and delivering the best coffee in Perth, and it’s amazing to see that they are doing so in service, rather than substitution, of that sense of community and connection. The guys have said that they are looking into future ventures which include roasting their own coffee, and opening new places, and we personally can’t wait to see what they do next.
As someone who champions simplicity in cooking, I have a pretty convoluted way of making hot chocolates. It didn't start out as the mess of labware and coffee equipment, but over the years, I gradually added steps using things I already owned. But at the heart of the recipe have always been two rules: Use good milk and don't burn it. I've always been a fan of heating up the milk rather than pouring cold milk onto boiling water: Nobody likes a watery hot chocolate.
Whilst you could just load up the sugar, I prefer to keep the milk sweet by keeping it under 70°C. The easiest way to keep your milk from burning is to use a thermometer, and when I found out that my old thermometer fit perfectly into one of my little erlenmeyer flasks, I thought it was a pretty perfect match— I'm not saying you should buy a flask just for this purpose (buy one because they make great cocktail shakers, tea kettles, and oil infusers), a milk pan or any small saucepan will do.
Whilst bringing the milk to 65°C over medium heat on my smallest element, I boil the kettle and scoop two teaspoons of dutch processed cacao powder and two teaspoons of raw sugar into a mug. I pour about 30ml of water into the mug and stir the sugar, and cacao into a syrup.
This next step is entirely optional, but to get a layer of froth I foam up the milk in my french press and then use a milk jug to pour a little heart. Since the milk is only 65°C it's important not to lose any more heat, so use some of the remaining water from the boiled kettle to preheat the french press and the milk jug. If this seems like too much effort, just pour your hot milk straight into your mug.
A cool alternative to this last step is to top the hot chocolate with whipped cream, and grate a piece of chocolate over it.
250ml Bannister Downs Full Cream Milk
2tsp Dutch processed Cacao
2tsp Raw Sugar
1oz boiling water
Heat milk on medium-low to 65°C
Mix cacao, sugar and boiling water in cup
Pour milk into the cup, stir slightly to incorporate.