Yes, Australia is far. Sydney is 14 hours by plane from California and an entire day vanishes from the calendar while en route. But it’s a lot closer than most realize—especially when it comes to craft beer cultures. Australia’s booming scene mirrors that of the U.S. in its better-brewing heyday. But before Australia could thrive as a craft beer destination, it had to get out of its own way. Until about five years ago, the only bars that could sell alcohol had to procure what was called a general hotel license, which was prohibitively expensive for tiny, independent establishments—in other words, the type of places most likely to carry craft. The ones that could afford the license were fine with the macro-intensive status quo. “They basically had this monopoly on beer service and they never had to think about what the customer wanted,” explains Oscar McMahon, co-founder of the brewery Young Henrys in Sydney’s Newtown neighborhood. The dynamic quickly shifted with the introduction of the small bar license. Boutique beer pubs sprouted up and the older “hotel” establishments realized they either had to update their lists or start hemorrhaging regulars. Now, these are heady days for Australian craft beer. “It’s definitely got 10 years of growing up to do,” says Batch Brewing Co. co-founder Chris Sidwa. “Having said that, because we have the benefit of looking at what’s happened [in the U.S.], it will probably be achieved in a shorter period of time.” To experience the continent-wide revolution, there’s no need to crisscross the whole of Australia. A few days spent in the suburbs that compose southeastern coastal Sydney—Oz’s biggest city—reveal a detailed capsule.
Just east of the central business district (CBD) is the Darlinghurst suburb, once considered a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Well, more accurately, it’s the erstwhile red-light district, but has managed to shed its seedier roots and become better known these days among Gen-Xers and millennials for its cafes, shopping and nightlife. It’s also home to the quintessential example of the new crop of watering holes that have emerged since the creation of the small bar license: Bitter Phew, an upstairs loftlike space with 12 constantly rotating taps and around 150 bottle selections. Couches, comfy chairs and local art on the walls give it a coffeehouse feel.
The best way to describe Newtown is as Sydney’s Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not colonial) if Williamsburg were in San Diego. The suburb is about two-and-a-half miles outside of the CBD and easily accessible via train—everything’s generally walkable from Newtown Station. Newtown boasts all of the usual telltale signs of post-hipster gentrification: artisan shops and eateries, indie music venues, cafes populated by starving artists and elaborately subversive mural-sized street art—in other words, a craft beer magnet. A popular purveyor is Young Henrys, a production brewery and tasting room in a spacious, commercial, garagelike setting. Aesthetically, it’s a mashup of punk rock, metal and burlesque; its most striking visual is its mural featuring a World War II-era pinup girl in a captain’s hat. Working your way through Young Henrys’ list of dependably crafted session-friendly brews—like the refreshing, 4.8%-ABV Newtowner, an English-style summer ale brewed with three local hop varieties—is as good a way to spend an afternoon as any.
Darlinghurst borders the Surry Hills neighborhood, an affluent arts, foodie and fashion center that has provided fertile turf for craft beer. A 10-minute walk from the Darlinghurst haunt above gets bar crawlers to one of Surry Hills’ mainstays. The first of those is the Royal Albert Hotel, a neighborhood fixture for nearly nine decades (its exterior still retains some of its Art Deco character). The Royal Albert has evolved with the times and now bills itself as “a crafty little corner joint,” offering draft and cask ales and lagers from the likes of Batch Brewing Co. and another up-and-comer, Willie the Boatman. Some of the multiroom, multi-personality English interior is divey (there’s an electronic gambling room) while other parts are quite posh (the wood-floored dining room houses a piano). The peckish can order burgers from the Londonlike bar area or dumplings from the adjacent Asian kitchen. Less than a quarter-mile from the Royal Albert, Keg & Brew (pictured) is another Deco-era corner hotel, reinvented in 2014 to concentrate on craft beer and American-inspired fare like bourbon and Southern/Western dishes (a pulled pork po’boy, for instance). Taxidermic moose, stag and buffalo heads line the walls, giving the place a frontier saloon feel. The best time to go is during its Crafternoons (Monday-Saturday, 5-7 p.m.), when pints drawn from its 30-plus taps and three hand pumps are four Australian dollars (U.S. $3).
If Newtown is Sydney’s Williamsburg, Marrickville is its Bushwick: It’s a bit later to the bohemiazation party than Newtown, but in the past few years it’s seen an explosion of artisanal activity, and that of course means beer. Marrickville is a little farther outside the city center and considerably closer to the airport; zooming planes provide audiovisual accompaniment to an afternoon saunter. The gritty neighborhood used to house heavy industry, which left behind some brewery-friendly real estate. It’s proved an ideal home base for Batch Brewing Co., launched in late 2013 by Andrew Fineran and Chris Sidwa, two American expat homebrewers gone pro. Batch makes the most of a black-walled, hangarlike space, with a tasting room that’s the neighborhood hotspot on a summer Saturday. There’s plenty of room to make yourself comfortable on the couches, stools and standing tables while you sip a glass of whatever’s fresh that day. Batch’s U.S. roots are visible in its year-round flagships, American Pale Ale and West Coast IPA, both of which help wash down snacks from a rotating lineup of food trucks that visit the taproom. One of the newest additions to the neighborhood is The Grifter Brewing Co., which began as a gypsy brewery in 2012—founders Matt King, Trent Evans and Glenn Wignall brewed mostly in off hours at Young Henrys. The operation has since outgrown this setup and Grifter opened its Marrickville tasting room late last year. The site, like Batch, revels in its industrial architecture, with high ceilings, exposed brick and ample elbowroom. Regulars and visitors now can sample standouts like Demon Lungs smoked porter and Omen oatmeal stout from the source.
For those who like their beer with a side of ocean, there’s 4 Pines Brewing Co.’s original brewpub, opened in 2008 in the beachside suburb of Manly (it opened a larger brewery in nearby Brookvale in 2012). The second-story patio overlooking the harbor-hugging Esplanade—and the namesake flora—is one of Sydney’s great open-air drinking experiences. When the sun’s out, a glass (or three) of 4 Pines’ 4.6% Kölsch is really the only beer anyone needs to drink. Hopheads will find a lot to like in Fresh In Season IPA, whose production corresponds with opposing Northern and Southern hemisphere hop harvests. Foodwise, there’s a full menu, including gourmet burgers and fresh catches of the day. A ferry out of the CBD is the best means of transportation to and from Manly. I’m glad I opted to return to the CBD after sundown: The boat passes the clam-shelly Sydney Opera House, which is at its most jaw-dropping when bathed in evening lights.