How Australian is Foster’s lager?

Shane Warne in 1994 with a tin of Foster's and a cricket ball

An Australian news website has warned that Brits are about to become "unbearable" following Andy Murray's historic victory at Wimbledon, Chris Froome's stunning performances in the Tour de France and the possibility of England winning the Ashes (to cap the British and Irish Lions' rugby victory down under).

It aims to take the swagger out of the UK's stride, by arguing, among other things, that British beer is tasteless. "Hence the longtime popularity for Foster's beer, an Australian brand," it says.

But how Australian is Foster's? It's actually one of a number of beers marketed as quintessentially Australian/British/Indian etc which turn out to have rather more complicated stories.

FOSTER'S
  • Marketed as: Australian
  • Actually: Australians couldn't give a 4X about it
Paul Hogan in Foster's advert

It's the product advertised on both sides of the Atlantic as "Australian for lager". If you believed the ads you'd think that modern Australian men love nothing more than kicking back at the beach club with a fridgeful of Foster's. This stereotype-heavy depiction of brand loyalty traces back to the 1980s UK ads featuring Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan swigging pints of "the amber nectar" in British settings, dispensing catchphrases ("What a ripper!") and anecdotes about the lager's popularity back home.

The reality is that if you walked into a bar in Australia and ordered a Foster's, you might well receive some quizzical looks - it's a long way down the popularity list and almost unheard of in some parts of the country, making a mockery of slogans such as "Think Australian, Drink Australian". It's brewed under licence in Britain, its biggest international market, where it ranks as the country's second most popular lager.

For the record, VB and XXXX are Australia's biggest-selling beers, so those erstwhile ads saying Australians wouldn't give very much for anything else were a lot more fair dinkum.

COBRA
  • Marketed as: Indian
  • Actually: Like India Pale Ale, part-British part-Indian
Image from Cobra advert set aboard an Indian train, showing a beer vendor pushing through the aisles One ad featured a Cobra vendor on an Indian train

Just as the chicken tikka masala became an Indian restaurant staple to satisfy British palates, so too did a beer conceived by an Indian Cambridge student dissatisfied with the regular gassy lagers bloating his belly at local curry houses. Karan Bilimoria's less gassy Cobra brew slid down more easily with spicy food, and ended up snaking into more than 6,000 Indian restaurants across the country, confounding the recession-hit UK market it entered in 1990.

Though born in Bangalore, the lager has been brewed since 1997 in Bedfordshire, at the Charles Wells brewery famous for Bombardier ale (slogan: "Drink of England"). Though production resumed in India in 2005, per-capita sales there lag a long way behind the UK's.

Like Stella, Cobra is positioned as a premium beer, which in its earlier days created a logistical problem in that Bilimoria had to park his battered Citroen streets away from the restaurants he was delivering to. Like Carling, its slogan equates nationality with quality ("Splendidly Indian, Superbly Smooth"). And like Foster's, its exotic far-flung heritage is proclaimed at elephantine volume (Indian elephants are also embossed onto Cobra bottles).

And it works. Sole supplier for the Queen's Jubilee picnic and concert at Buckingham Palace last year, Cobra remains Britain's biggest-ever "Indian" lager.

STELLA ARTOIS
  • Marketed as: French?
  • Actually: Belgian
Jean de Florette advert from 1991

You'll have seen the cinematic commercials over the years. In Stella's "reassuringly expensive" 1990s heyday, they stylistically imitated the French cinema classic Jean de Florette, following the exploits of itinerant flower-seller Jacques who in one advert trades a whole cartload of blooms for a glass of the lager. Later ads in the series portrayed wartime France or parodied the Henri Charriere novel Papillon, while the 2000s saw a Gallic lothario charming ladies on the French Riviera. It was this pervading romanticised Frenchness that helped Stella became Britain's biggest-selling "premium" lager.

The thing is, not only is the lager actually Belgian, it originates from the Dutch-speaking city of Leuven where it's been brewed in its current form for almost 90 years. The brewers don't exactly disguise the beer's Belgian origins. The words "Leuven" and "Belgium's original" appear on bottles and cans. In branding terms, it has something of a split personality. "Artois" itself is a region in northern France that frequently changed hands, sometimes ruled by the French, sometimes by the Dutch.

Marketed as a regular lager in Belgium with unpretentious advertising, it isn't as popular as market-leaders Jupiler and Maes. Even Stella's latest Cidre product, hailed as "C'est cidre, not cider", is produced in the Dutch-speaking municipality of Zonhoven. Sacre biere!

CARLING
  • Marketed as: British
  • Actually: Canadian
Carling Black Label's Dambusters advert from the 1990s featuring comedy duo Steve Frost and Mark Arden One advert reimagined a Dambusters' raid

While many marketers exaggerate and amplify a lager's foreign heritage, Carling appears to have done the reverse. "Brilliantly British, Brilliantly Refreshing" ran the recent slogan, while its official brewery webpage waxes patriotic about the "100% British barley" and other home-sourced ingredients in "Britain's favourite beer". They're right in that respect - Carling is the UK's biggest-selling beer, with more than 1bn pints brewed in the UK last year. However, it hails from Ontario, Canada, where it was brewed for more than 100 years before a drop was sold on British soil.

Carling rose to prominence in the UK through the 1970s and 80s with a series of adverts in which displays of cleverness or cool prompted the response: "I bet he drinks Carling Black Label" (as it was then called). Its place in British culture was later cemented via sponsorship of English football's Premier League and League Cup, as well as music institutions like Academy Music Group venues and Reading Festival. By the end of the century, its Canadian history was as good as erased, and these days it's hardly heard of in Canada.

More recently, however, just like Stella's latest "Cidre" brand seemed to overlook its own provenance, it emerged Carling's new "British Cider" contained as little as 10% UK-sourced fruit.

GORDON SCOTCH ALE + OLDE ENGLISH 800
  • Marketed as: Scottish and English
  • Actually: Belgian/American
Gordon Scotch Ale advert with tartan and ye olde worlde village scene

It's not just the UK that peddles ersatz beers of a particular nation. Scots visiting Belgium may have encountered the tartan-labelled Gordon Finest Scotch Ale - marketed as "the soul of the Scottish Highlands", born amid "wild lochs and haunted castles". The brainchild of a canny English expat and early practitioner of pseudo-patriotic marketing, John Martin, Gordon has been brewed since 1924 in Flemish Brabant, becoming so popular in Belgium that it later rolled out into Western Europe - though it never reached its Scottish "homeland".

Meanwhile England comes full-circle in the form of Olde English 800 - one of America's most-popular malt liquors (super-strength beers). Sporting a label decorated with royal crowns and often sold in 40oz (2.5 pint) bottles, the potent brew has come under fire over the years for its connotations as "liquid crack" putatively targeting urban minority drinkers, prompting brewers Miller to realign its marketing with stigma-reducing measures, such as the sponsoring of a series of minority business seminars.

It's perhaps sobering to see, while the Gordon brand colourfully evokes Scottish bonhomie, what England has come to represent in overseas alcohol marketing.

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