Woolworths and Coles craft beers are worth a look.

Wine has long been a hostile battlefront for Australia’s two largest retailers, Coles and Woolworths. Reach for a bottle of sauvignon blanc or cabernet from any of the major national liquor chains and the odds are you could be holding a wine with a purposefully opaque provenance: made and packaged under a label dreamed up by the respective supermarket’s marketing division.

Beer, however, has long remained frustratingly elusive for the retail behemoths – dominated by the major international brewing conglomerates with huge war chests and rusted on-brands, plus a few highly trusted independent breweries, such as Coopers. This has been completely reconfigured in recent years with the explosion of craft beer: hundreds of boutique labels whose discombobulating gallimaufry has allowed Coles and Woolworths to sneak in between the cracks.

Unlike with their wines, the all-conquering retail pair are anything but furtive about the origin of their new beer labels, openly collaborating with some of the nation’s more progressive independent craft breweries to produce beers that are bridging the Holy Grail between exclusivity and approachability.

When Tinnies was lauded as the best pale bitter at the World Beer Awards in London in 2019, Kade Wilson was hardly surprised as he’d brewed the drop himself. Wilson is better known as the man behind the tanks at Brick Lane Brewing in Dandenong (an independent brewery with shareholders that include the likes of Mick Molloy, Eddie McGuire and All Black, Dan Carter).

Tinnies was brewed as an open collaboration between Coles and Brick Lane, fashioning house beers for First Choice, Liquorland and Vintage Cellars that craft-curious consumers could trust.

While Coles’ other in-house labels, including Lorry Boys (brewed by Tribe) and Steamrail (brewed by Asahi), are geared for the traditional mass consumer market, Tinnies is clearly positioned as an entry-level product for the ever-expanding craft sector – with trademark busy artwork, quaffable ABV and on-trend styles (including an XPA, raspberry
choc-milk stout and a raspberry sour).

While many may be deterred by the partnership with big retail, these beers walk the talk – using local malts and Victorian hops, and featuring original can designs by prominent local artists. The pale ale is of particular intrigue: a well-structured take on what’s become Australia’s most loved craft style, with rich malt earthing the bright pine and citrus hop blend. And while the sour and stout won’t thrill all seasoned craft devotees, they will no doubt tempt many fence-sitting beer drinkers into the brave new world of contemporary styles.

Not one to pass up an opportunity, Woolworths (through their drinks arm Pinnacle and retail storefronts BWS, Cellarmasters and Dan Murphy’s), have also entered the craft beer melee with their own bold collaboration: Zytho Brewing.

Created in cahoots with Goulburn’s Tribe Brewing (the company responsible for the Mornington Peninsular and Stockade labels), Zytho – zythology being the study of beer – is also targeted directly at the entry-level craft beer market with two, style-conscious beers that are well worth the pursuit.

Woolworths’ history in the craft beer sector has been a contentious one. For many, the chain’s custodianship of the iconic Sail & Anchor brand (the nation’s first ever craft beer label, founded in Fremantle in 1984) has been controversial, if not unpropitious.

The flagship Zytho Brewing IPA, however, is as good as (if not more approachable than) most others on the market today: a full-bodied beer with an expressive citrus and stonefruit-driven hop profile that comes in low on the IBUs (overwrought bitterness is a barrier for crossing over to more hop-forward beers). It’s a canny move as this beer will appeal to a diverse consumer base.

Similarly, the Zesty Pale Ale – which clocks in at a modest 4.6% ABV – will prove a winsome find for those newly exploring fresh, fragrant styles.

And for those wanting to take a step further, Woolworths recently added a raspberry sour to the mix under the banner Culture House (also in collaboration with Tribe), replete with suitably garish pink can.

Through the spectre of pandemic and consolidation, it is encouraging to see Coles and Woolworths actively – and openly – fostering relationships with independent Australian craft brewers. Nonetheless, as legendary Australian punk band The Saints so cacophonously cautioned in 1978: Know Your Product.