The amber nectar


I confess to being a complete sucker for those books that purport to tell you the history of western civilization through six glasses, 300 cheeses or a dozen different ways to cook potatoes.

Australia is ripe for such treatment, of course, for you could easily write a half-decent history of the country through the prism of its wine glasses, rum tumblers, coffee mugs, tea cups, schooners and stubbies.

The Rum rebellion. The Six O'Clock Swill. A prime minister, Bob Hawke, who once held the world beer drinking championship - an impressive 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. David Boon. Some chapters almost write themselves.

Man drinking beer

However, its latter sections might veer from the storyline that many outsiders would expect to read. For a start, beer consumption in Australia is at a 60-year low. It peaked at the end of the 1970s, and has been falling off ever since.

Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that consumption had fallen from 4.62 litres to 4.56 litres of pure alcohol per capita per year, the lowest result since 1947-48, the year of Don Bradman's last test. Perhaps the two are even linked.

The feeling is that Australians now prefer quality over quantity. Greater health awareness and tough drink-drive laws and enforcement are also thought to have played a part.

Rather than blowing the froth off their traditional favourites, Australians are also opting for imported beers and what are called craft beers. Ten years ago, the average beer drinker was content with three or so brands. Now that drinker is wantonly promiscuous, choosing between about seven.

I'm surprised that we haven't discussed beer before, because it also doubles as a wrecking ball when it comes to demolishing a few stereotypes and misconceptions about the land down under.

Foster's may be "Australian for lager" to British consumers, for example, but it's not a popular beer here - it accounts for just 1% of the market. Its brewer, Foster's, has a lot more success with brands like Victoria Bitter and Carlton.

Indeed, there is no such thing as "Australian for lager", Foster's famous boast abroad. Instead, the kind of beer that you drink normally provides a pretty good pointer to where you come from.

VB and Cartlon are the beers of choice in Victoria. In Queensland, it is Castlemaine, in New South Wales it is Tooheys, in South Australia it is Coopers, in Tasmania it is James Boags and Cascade, and in Western Australia it Emu and Swan.

Rather like Aussie Rules teams, beers increasingly pop up in places where you would not normally expect them - the New South Wales rugby league is presently sponsored by Victoria Bitter, for instance - but regional drinking habits still die hard.

The way that the authorities have tried to crack down on drink driving and binge-drinking also reveals the country's regulatory impulses. Random breath-testing is the norm across Australia, and the maximum breath alcohol is lower than in Britain.

I mention all this because Australia is bracing itself for what has already been dubbed a "beer war". The world's second largest brewer, SABMiller, is trying to buy Foster's, with Mexico's Groupo Modelo and Japan's Asahi also thought to be eyeing up a bid.

With Foster's main local rival Lion Nathan already Japanese-owned - Lion Nathan owns Tooheys, Castlemaine and Emu, to name but a few - it would mean that most of Australia's most famous beer brands would no longer be Australian owned. Coopers would be the main exception.

As Andrew Main of The Australian noted earlier in the month: "The startling thing in the beer business is the difference between the image of a beer, which is usually tied to a nationality, and the often transnational reality of who owns it."

It might some, for instance, that Foster's is brewed under license in Britain by Heineken. His piece is worth a read.

So the final chapter of that book charting Australia's boozy history might end with a chapter on the globalisation of the economy, and a row of schooners producing profits that would flow offshore.

Nick Bryant Article written by Nick Bryant Nick Bryant New York correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Coopers all the way. Coopers' Pale Ale is a lovely beer... and as for whether beer should be served cold, of course it should. We live in a warm country and a cold beer is refreshing. It always ends up room temperature by the end.

    I do wish Guinness travelled better... it's not a cliche, it really is delicious in Ireland but the Australian draught version is like rough smack in the face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Serving any beer cold to quench thirst in hot weather has very little to do with taste. If a drink is served too cold it actually masks the flavour (this is true for white wine, coke, etc). Standard Aussie beers MUST be served icy cold because their natural flavour is so awful. Decent stuff with flavour (like Coopers) can actually be drunk at room temp like the English ales if needs must.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    stirling222 wrote:

    "Any surprise kcwhattrick or his alter ego T2 doesn't understand what 'warm beer' is? It's not a Bud left out of the fridge, mate."

    I "understand" exactly. It is, *for me,* disgusting.

    Besides, alcohol is not good for you so why anyone would praise something obviously not good for you makes absolutely no sense.

    I am also one person with one user ID so you can stop it now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    24 Gus Shmus

    I'll defer to you as the expert in tasting wet dog and soap.What's your choice for breakfast - dried sheep dung and shoe polish?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Any surprise kcwhattrick or his alter ego T2 doesn't understand what 'warm beer' is? It's not a Bud left out of the fridge, mate. As for you being anti-British, why would I think that? And I wouldn't be raising the topic of contributions to culinary culture, canned cheese boy. :)


Comments 5 of 29



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