James Squire may have been one of the pioneers of craft beer in Australia, but to many beer geeks they have fallen off the radar, accused of being too mainstream and not a real craft brewery. Craft beer folk love the vision of the lone (possibly mad) brewer toiling away in a hot brewhouse, concocting personalised, evolving recipes and then getting that beer as fresh as possible to their local market. Well I’m here to tell you this is exactly what James Squire do.
Okay not the standard James Squire range, those with a fancy back story of a convict, thief and general scallywag turned brewer named James Squire. As an aside here does anyone else think the new outdoor campaign makes James look a little bit like a weird hipster convict on his way to a gay nightclub or is it just me? The main range is pretty standard commercial fare, brewed in volume in Sydney, pasteurised and shipped around the country. Nothing wrong with that of course, but not the thing that floats the beer snobs’ boats.
What we get excited about is happening at James Squire though, and in the most unlikely of places; in Russell street, tucked in next to Greater Union cinemas is the Portland Hotel, which much like James Squire himself has a sordid past. I’m reliably informed it used to be a strip club (not that I would know anything about that) and may even have a ghost stripper, I assume giving lap dances to Bill Cosby and Patrick Swayze, which now ticks all of the beer snob beery attributes.
That’s right, almost hidden in one corner is a small scale working brewery pumping out batches 800 litres at a time, and if you pop in during the day you can see brewer Dan Dainton toiling away making his own small run, exclusive to the Portland Hotel brews. And best still the taps behind the bars are connected straight to the bright tanks – so it doesn’t get any more fresh and local than that.
This set-up is best described as a brew pub, which is not something you see a lot of in Australia, but are all the rage in the US of A, who are widely seen as the world leaders in modern craft beer. What makes it even more unusual is that this little stand alone brewery exists within the larger Malt Shovel/James Squire/Lion beverages empire.
Dan is passionate both about the brewery and its place in the empire, he tells me that this proves James Squires’ commitment to craft beer and the small size brewery gives them a chance to experiment, brew special beer (like their recent Black IPA for Good Beer Week or Rauchbier for the Food and Wine festival) and serving in-house only allows them to get feedback straight away.
And that feedback should be good. I sampled four of the regular in-house brews whilst I was there. All four were designed to be a step more challenging than the standard James Squire range but still approachable for the average punter wandering in off the street.
The Portland Pale is like the 150 Lashes pale ale from the main range but turned up to 11 with more malt and more hops. It is particularly noticeable in the aroma which instantly hits you with both fruity and floral tones and just begs you to take a sip. A very pleasant sessionable pale – Schooner.
The Speculator is another pale ale, but a step up again, there is more length in the taste than the Portland Pale coming from even more hops, but completely balanced with a robust body and great mouthfeel – Pint.
Unfortunately the Highwayman had proved so popular it had run out, but Dan did give me a taste of the new batch, still fermenting in the tanks. Although this wasn’t fully developed yet and uncarbonated it was easy to tell that this American style red ale was a quality brew.
The standout for me though was The Craic which is a nitrogen carbonated (just like Guinness) dry Irish stout. The body on this beer was outstanding, so full, yet soft and almost luxurious. It was nicely balanced with the dry roasted, almost burnt malt tones. Really very nice stuff – Pint.
But the pub isn’t all about beer, it also has an extensive menu; there are all the pub grub options you would expect like burgers and parmas as well as more exotic fare like the emu salad that I scarfed down over lunch and was very happy with.
So there you have it, a well located pub for after work or pre-movie drinks (as it’s still 1983 at Greater Union I assume they are playing Superman III, Return of the Jedi and Trading Places). The Portland ticks all the boxes on the craft beer creditability checklist, but is not overwhelming for your non crafty friends, and to top it all off you can eat half of our coat of arms there as well.