It's a hard life being a judge when craft beers go head to head, writes Dylan Cleaver. No , really, it is.

There are some assignments so daunting that you spend days in nervous contemplation and sleepless nights staring at the ceiling thinking about angles to pursue and interviews to secure.

This was not one of them.

This was flying to Melbourne to judge a beer competition.


"You poor bastard," a few mates said, with pointed and, perhaps, unnecessary emphasis on the noun.

I admit, however, the pressure of sitting in a catered room, being hand-delivered a range of small-batch brews and being asked which one tastes the best is not for everyone.

This went on for quite a while. It was hard. So many good beers. So many external conversations about hop profiles and caramel finishes with similarly hard-working journos from publications like Beer & Brewer. So many internal conversations along the lines of, "I'm not sure how much longer I can get away with this before these actual experts realise all I know about ale and lager is how to get to the bottom of a glass."

But let's focus on the positive here: Melbourne, beer.

Australia's relationship with beer has been, until recently, remarkably uncomplicated. They like it cold, they like it plentiful and, if sales volumes are to be trusted, they like it bad. By some distance the two most popular selling brands are XXXX Gold and Victoria Bitter (with about 12 per cent market share each), both of which are great examples of the old drinker's maxim: "If it's hot enough, it's wet enough."

This isn't a story about bad beer — we gave our menfolk and womenfolk DB Draught after all, so glasshouses and slingshots — but just a pointer to the fact that Australia's pioneering microbrewers were asking a lot of local palates by suddenly thrusting flavour upon unsuspecting drinkers.

As the rest of the world discovered, quality is starting to win. The global craft beer phenomenon has well and truly hit Australia and Melbourne — the Lucky Country's hippest city — finds itself slap, bang in the middle of it.

Hotel chain Four Points by Sheraton has recognised that discerning travellers are after more than generic lagers and so recently launched an International Best Brews Around the World tour. Their Melbourne Docklands property hosted the Asia-Pacific leg of the competition and saw two local craft breweries going head-to-head (ahem) to win the title as the hotel's best brew.


Which is how I found myself at a table with like-minded judges, drinking beer, marking cards, making frothy conversation and just generally working really, really hard.

The two breweries were Mountain Goat and Two Birds and the winning beer was the former's Pale Ale, a classic, crowd-pleasing beer. It was a sound choice but I had a soft spot for the runner-up, the Two Birds Taco.

Novelist Tom Robbins wrote in Jitterbug Perfume: "Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer."

But what if you could have the taco in the beer? This cheeky brew, infused with lime zest, corn and coriander, goes some way to solving one of modern life's more interesting questions.

Two Birds' Jayne Lewis, left, and Danielle Allen. Photo / Supplied
Two Birds' Jayne Lewis, left, and Danielle Allen. Photo / Supplied

is a brewery owned and run by two women, hence the name.

Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen are the driving force behind Australia's first female-owned brewing company, having come up with the idea while on holiday in Mexico. Two Birds, in Melbourne's increasingly artisan inner-west, started with a single flagship beer, Golden, before branching out.

We visit the industrial chic brewery as part of an Aussie Brewery Tours excursion.

Paul is the host and driver and his first line is disarming: "You can get drunk but don't be a wanker." It's tempting to think that the world would be a little kinder if everybody lived to that credo.

Also visited was Mountain Goat, the winner of said contest, in Richmond. As a pioneer of Melbourne's craft beer scene there was some surprise and a little nervousness when it was recently bought by Japanese un-crafty giants Asahi.

Really, this is also reflective of the global trends. There are about 1.8 billion litres of beer sold each year in Australia, 70 million of those litres are craft beer, about 4 per cent market share. There are about 420 independent or craft brewers. Of those, about 20 account for 60 per cent of that 4 per cent market share.

So it's a tough business in which to get a foothold. Those who "make it" and come to the attention of the big budget brands can hardly be excused for cashing in.

Moon Dog, in Abbotsford, sits in the shadow of the massive Carlton and United brewery — makers of VB, Foster's and Carlton Draught among many others — and couldn't be further away in sensibilities.

It is recognised as the craft brewer's brewer. It innovates and others imitate. It has a quirky space full of knick-knacks and old books but its beer will keep you coming back.
From Moon Dog and its Durian Sour it is a hop back in the van and a quick jaunt to neighbouring suburb Collingwood, home to Stomping Ground (

This is a slick, professional operation in a large, well-appointed space.

This is craft beer taken to the masses and if that sounds like a contradiction, then celebrate it as progress ... with a startlingly good glass of beer.