Big brewers turn crafty

Little Creatures Pale Ale
Little Creatures Pale Ale

I suppose it was inevitable really. With the mainstream beer market continuing to stagnate, it was only a matter of time before our big brewers started to throw their corporate dollars at the two areas of the market that are growing – craft beer and cider.

This month both Lion and DB have been wielding their chequebooks.

A week ago, news broke that one of my favourite Australian craft beers, Little Creatures Pale Ale, was about to come under the ownership of Lion. Then last Friday, it was announced that DB Breweries had acquired a majority shareholding in Redwood Cellars and is starting a joint venture with the Nelson cider maker.

While I can't see much changing for cider-drinking consumers as a result of DB's joint venture with Redwood Cellars, the news that Lion is likely to gain control of Little World Beverages, the parent company of the Little Creatures beers, is more significant.

Although Lion has long held a one-third share of the Fremantle company and has imported and distributed Little Creatures Pale Ale in New Zealand for many years, the acquisition highlights Lion's determination to be a significant player at the top end of the market.

Hailing Little Creatures as "one of Australia's leading craft beer brands", Lion chief executive Rob Murray laid out his plans for its future: "Lion has a long history of supporting the Little World Beverages business and we believe there is now a fantastic opportunity through Lion's scale distribution system to get these great brands to more beer lovers, while respecting the craft brewing ethos of the Little World Beverages brands, breweries and hospitality venues".

I sincerely hope Mr Murray means what he says when he talks of "respecting the craft brewing ethos", because Little Creatures Pale Ale is a beer whose reputation and brand image is built around one thing – quality. First brewed in 1999, it is a glorious recreation of the American Pale Ale style and one that's close to my heart.

American Pale Ales, or APAs as they are commonly known, are made with "all grain" (that is, no added sugars), and accordingly, the grist for Little Creatures Pale Ale includes just pale ale malt and a small proportion of crystal malt and wheat.

Although the beer's name is a reference to the tiny yeast cells that gobble up the malt sugars and produce alcohol during fermentation, it is the hops that are responsible for the signature citrus aromas and flavours of a true APA.

Such was their determination to use authentic American hops that the creators of Little Creatures obtained a special quarantine licence to import whole cascade and chinook hop flowers from the US Pacific Northwest for use in the beer.

The beer's hop bill has gradually evolved and today it includes varieties from Britain (East Kent Goldings) and Australia (Galaxy), as well as those citrusy American cascades.

Rather than pasteurising and filtering the beer, the brewers at Little Creatures add a further dosage of live yeast at the final, bottling stage. Known as "bottle conditioning", this technique rewards the drinker with the freshest, most flavoursome experience, as long as the beer is stored and served carefully. Little Creatures Pale Ale is a beer whose finicky, almost obsessive, production regime requires a craftsman's care and attention.

But it's definitely worth it. Over the last decade, I've presented the beer at countless supermarket tastings, where its vibrant bittersweet combination of sweet malt, lime zest, gooseberry, passionfruit, lychee and honeysuckle has won over scores of sceptical mainstream beer-drinking blokes, and women who, moments before, assured me they enjoyed only wine.

With Lion set to control the brewing as well as the distribution of the Little Creatures beers, I would urge the new owners to heed the words of Howard Cearns, the brand's founder: "Always taste, taste, taste, regardless of what the numbers say. If you get your product wrong, your days are numbered."

Will the quality of the Little Creatures beers be compromised as Lion grows the brand? It's a good question. Looking back, there's no doubt some of the Malt Shovel beers suffered when production was increased. Then again, I'd say Lion has steadily improved the Mac's beers since it took over the iconic Kiwi brand.

In the end, it will probably come down to money, and in this case that could be a good thing. Why would Lion spend an estimated A$381.6 million on the Little Creatures brand to devalue it? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I recommend you enjoy a truly wonderful beer. Priced about $20 for a six-pack, Little Creatures Pale Ale is hardly cheap, but look at it this way: for what you'd pay for a mundane bottle of wine, you can buy almost two litres of one of the world's great beers.

And trust me, served lightly chilled in a stemmed wine glass and paired with Mexican and Thai cuisine, it'll knock the spots off most wines.


The Marlborough Express