Australian Beer Guide

Australia is a great example of how climatic conditions influence a countries brewing styles. Despite being colonised by the English, a nation of bitter and ale drinkers, 95% of the beer consumed in Australia these days is lager - quenching thirsts in the hot sun.

Brewing started soon after the European settlers arrived with the first pub starting in 1796 and James Squire managed to find a way to cultivate hops in the harsh Australian climate in 1805. The Cascade brewery started in 1824 and is still going today whilst the Coopers brewery dates back to 1862. By 1870 there were well over 100 breweries in Australia despite the population being only around 1 million people. Beer was promoted by the authorities who were concerned about the amount of rum people were drinking. In comparison to rum, beer was more nutritious and led to less problems with drunkenness.

However it wasn't until 1885 that lager was first brewed. First by the Gambrinus brewery in Melbourne, but soon after by the Foster brothers who introduced refrigeration equipment into the process. These beers proved popular in the hot climate and came to dominate the market. Fosters Lager is no longer that popular within Australia itself (the same breweries Victoria Bitter sells much better) however it is widely available in the UK.

The recession of the 1890s led to many breweries closing or consolidating into larger businesses. This consolidation, combined with the difficulty of transporting beer the long distances across different regions, led to each state having a dominant brewery. If you were in Melbourne you'd drink Carlton whilst in Sydney you'd drink Tooth's or Toohey's.

The 1901 Beer And Excise act made things harder for small breweries and new entrants to the market. The mergers and takeovers have continued into recent times with most breweries owned by either Fosters or the New Zealand based Lion Nathan - the only large exception is Coopers, which remains family owned. These days you'll find the same range of beers all round the country but sales still reflect the regional favourites of 100 years ago.

A typical Australian bar is a pleasing sight. Set on the corner of a street it will have deep awnings to provide shade and a colourful jalf tiled wall. The tiling dates back to when Australian pubs used to close at 6pm and drinkers tried to get as much beer inside them as the hour after work would allow. when they were kicked out at 6pm there was a need for the drinkers to relieve themselves urgently, which they did up against the nearest wall. Bartenders soon found that tiling the outside walls of their bars was a wise idea. A great example of this type of bar is The Australian Hotel in the Rocks area of Sydney. It makes a claim to be the oldest pub in Oz and has it's own German style lager.

Inside an Australian bar you will find a wide range of domestic lagers combined with the choice of a couple of American or European ones that are brewed in Australia under license. In terms of beer strength you can cut your cloth to your own taste with all the major breweries doing light, mid strength and premium lagers. Given the heat there is no stigma attached to drinking light beers and mid strength beers are growing in popularity - unlike the UK where they are dissapearing due to the rise of premium beers.

There is little in Australian lagers that you won't find elsewhere in the world. Some of the big names are cold, gassy and pretty much devoid of flavour - however they succeed in meeting the key criteria of being cold and refreshing. Other big hitters like Toohey's Extra Dry or James Squire Sundown are decent, tasty lagers that can feel superb on a hot day. A good place to start is Victoria Bitter, a lager that is pretty much ubiquitous across Australia and tastes decent too. Often bottled beers will be served in a foam "stubby holder" to help keep them cool. Similarly draft beer is served in 300ml 'skooner' glasses to give it less time to warm up before you go back for a fresh one - though you can still ask for a pint if you'd want one.

Alongside lager the most common things you will see are pale ales and stout. Pale Ales generally have far more flavour than the lagers whilst remaining crisp and cool. They will be peedominantly malty with a fruity edge. The Little Creatures brewry in Freemantle near Perth does a particularly fine Pale Ale that is widely available and can even be found in Europe. Other fine examples are made by Fat Yak, Boston's Mill and Matilda Bay.

Stouts are generally served ice cold, though their flavour is best appreaciated if they are given time to warm up. Many classic Australian stouts, such as those by Cascade and Coopers, are very gassy which can obscure the subtleties of the flavours but may appeal more to a market that is used to lagers.

In recent years a wide range of microbreweries have sprung up. You might struggle to find them in bars, big city bottle shops and supermarket owned liquor stores such as Liquorland and Woolworths liquor - don't even bother looking in supermarkets as they cannot sell alcoholic beverages. You best bet are large liquor stores such as the Dan Murphy's chain which has a very wide selection or bottle shops in smaller towns that will often have a few beers from a local brewery.

These microbreweries cover pretty much every style of beer going on in the world today, although wheat beers and pale ales are particularly popular. Given that some liquor stores term anything that isn't lager as "boutique beer", the microbreweries have an uphill struggle to try and market the concept of quality beer effectively.

There are also a smattering of brewpubs. Sydney has a trio of these that take very different approaches. The Red Oak in the central business district brews a wide range of styles in a slick building, even making a beer especially for the Sydney Opera House bar. Meanwhile over in the Rocks heritage area the Lord Admiral Nelson does it's best impression of a stereotypical English pub, even down to serving pork pies. In fact it does it so well it puts the pubs in many English towns to shame. It's striking named ales such as Nelson's Blood and Quayle Ale do it proud. Finally over in surf beach haven Manly things take a Germanic feel. Over the road from the Bavarian Bier Cafe the 4 Pines let's you take in harbour views whilst trying Kolsch and Hefeweizen brewed in equipment on show (their ESB is even better, even when served cold).

In the end Australia may not have contributed much to the world of beer beyond having cold lagers at pretty much any strength between 2% and 6% as well as the knack of calling a lager a bitter. However with a bit of effort you should be able to find some domestic produce that has more to it's attributes than "cold" and "fizzy".

Five Australian Beers To Try -

1. Little Creatures Pale Ale:

2. Fat Yak Pale Ale:

3. Mountain Goat Hightail Ale:

4. Matilda Bay Dogbolter:

5. 4 Pines Extra Special Bitter: