The amber nectar
- 22 July 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
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.
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.