Craft brewing in Australia is hitting a sour note, and that's no bad thing, writes Max Allen.
Ashley Huntington laughs his big, infectious laugh and pulls another pint of deep purple sour-cherry ale in his farm bar, on a hillside in Tasmania's Derwent Valley.
"I came to brewing thinking it can't be that hard," says the ex-winemaker who, with his wife Jane established Two Metre Tall brewery here a decade ago. "But brewing beer has troubled me greatly. It has upset my karma a lot. Which is just wonderful! I've found it ominously challenging but I think I'm actually now starting to get somewhere."
"Somewhere" is the extreme but increasingly popular niche of beers made with wild and mixed microbial cultures - soured ales; beers fermented with added fruit such as cherries and plums; spontaneously fermented, sometimes downright agricultural-tasting brews such as the pre-industrial Belgian lambic, kriek and gueuze beer styles.
Huntington is Australia's most passionate brewer of sour beers. Last year he travelled to Belgium and the US on a Churchill Fellowship to study the culture and production methods of these unique drinks.
But he's not alone: many of this country's growing band of top craft brewers have dabbled at the sour and wild end of the beer flavour spectrum over the last couple of years, releasing one-off brews to huge acclaim. One of the leading producers, Feral Brewing in Western Australia, has even dedicated a whole brewery - its original Swan Valley operation - to the production of sour and fruit ales, following the success of its Watermelon Warhead.
And, importantly, the best examples of these styles from Belgium and the US are now available in Australia and are developing a following; indeed, the finest producer of lambics, Brussels brewery Cantillon, has achieved cult status, with the tiny allocations of its beers shipped each year barely reaching the fridges in our leading speciality craft outlets before they're snapped up by sour ale-lovers.
It was Ashley's winemaking background that first led him down this particularly tangy rabbit hole in the beer world.
"What I realised when I started brewing was that beer lacks acidity," he says, drawing pictures in the air with his large expressive hands. "Imagine wine is a stool with three legs: fruit-sweetness, tannins, acid. It's stable, it sits, in time, can age, all good. Beer has sweetness and bitterness. Two legs. You need a third pillar, which is acid."
Huntington realised that beer made in the old Belgian tradition, where wild yeasts and bacteria are encouraged to play a role in long, slow fermentations and maturation in barrel - rather than the short, reliable fermentations conducted by cultured yeast strains in most conventional brewing - resulted in precisely the acidity he was after.
"A good, mature, three year-old lambic has minerality and is as dry as a bone, like a fine Chablis," he says, eyes twinkling wistfully. "But it also has the drinkability of a great cask-aged ale. And you just think: 'Wow! What a drink!'"
More and more Australian brewers are beginning to appreciate the qualities of these sometimes quite challenging beer styles. At last year's Australian International Beer Awards, for example, the Belgian Oud Beersel Oude Geuze was named Champion International Beer.
Huntington was surprised when that happened, to say the least. It wasn't that long ago, he says, that very few people in the Australian beer world understood the sour ale tradition or what he was trying to do. He was criticised, he says, for making "infected" beer.
"I was shredded by some blokes in the industry. 'You can't do that here!' they'd say. 'It's faulty!' Which I never understood: on one hand they all think wild-fermented sourdough bread is the pinnacle of bread making, and yet making wild-fermented sour beer is the worst thing you can do. Bizarre."
If you're interested in wild, sour and fruit beers - and if you like to have your karma "ominously challenged" - I strongly encourage you to download a copy of Ashley's report on his Churchill Fellowship tour from the Two Metre Tall website: if only more of Australia's primary producers were as passionate, as thoughtful and as articulate as this tall man.