When it came to choosing a Western Australian brewery to write about, the decision was difficult because there are two very important ones to choose from. One the one hand there’s Matilda Bay, who were making great beers way, way, way ahead of everyone else. They were pumping out what would be called “craft beer” today (but which were given the cringeworthy sobriquet of “boutique beers” at the time) way back in 1985. That’s huge when you consider the Australian beer market would have been summed up in just one word at that time – lager.
Then there’s Little Creatures, who came along much later – in 2000 – but is given credit for sparking the craft beer scene in Australian, with their pale ale. Modelled on the US style of pale ale, which would have been relatively new in the US itself, it’s a beer that turned many people onto what beers could taste like. It’s also stood the test of time – more than a decade after it was made, it still routinely finishes in the top 10 of those 100 best beers in Australian polls.
After much deliberation, I had to go with Matilda Bay, just for the sheer ballsiness of launching great beers before anyone even realised there was a market for them. Matilda Bay started out as a brewpub, set up by former Swan Brewery worker Phil Sexton (who would also play a role in setting up Little Creatures too). That brewpub was called Sail and Anchor (and I’m still trying to work how whether it’s connected to the Woolies-owned Sail and Anchor label). Sexton brewed up a range of beers not much seen in Australia at the time – porters, stouts, steam beer and real ale. Imagine what it must have been like for locals going to that pub and discovering loads of beers they didn’t know existed, had never seen in their local bottlo before.
A few years after Sail and Anchor was set up, Sexton built a brewery and the Matilda Bay Brewing Company was born. In 1987, they launched Redback nationally. The bottle itself was eye-catching; drinking it at uni in 1988 I can remember it had the label etched into the glass, rather than printed like a standard paper label (which it is today). It was also like nothing it’s tasted before – it was a wheat beer and some beer scholars reckon it might well have been the first time that style had been brewed in Australia.
Matilda Bay was listed on the stock market in 1988 and CUB bought up lots of stock. That led to CUB taking over the business two years later. In 2008 the Matilda Bay brewery in Fremantle was closed and the range of beers is now brewed in a number of CUB’s other breweries.
When it comes to tasting a Redback it’s hard to do it fairly. There have been so many other wheat beers that have rushed through the door after Matilda Bay opened it and many of them overshadow the flavour and quality of Redback. So by comparison, Redback does come across a bit staid. I’ve read professional reviewer critiques (ie those who get paid for what they do rather than just blog about it) and they find it’s not as good as it once was. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s their palate that’s changed rather than the beer.
But if you stop comparing it to other beers and judge it on its own merits, Redback is still okay. There are some banana aromas and flavours – though not as much as I’d have liked. But there’s also a lemon citrus bite in the flavour that I’d never noticed before. That bite helps make Redback a fairly refreshing, easy-drinking wheat beer. And one that really deserves respect for being a trailblazer.