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Australian Beer – A World Apart from America’s Craft Brewing

Posted by gingerbreadpirate on April 3, 2010

Foster’s beer has so successfully been marketed in the United States, that if one mimics the commercial to a beer-drinking friend, in an appropriately-poor Australian accent, “Foster’s,” inevitably the friend will mindlessly regurgitate, “Australian for beer.”  But it’s not Australian for beer.  As I commented in an earlier post, my brother challenged me to find a Foster’s during our time in Australia.  While I didn’t exactly make a mission out of finding a Foster’s, we did find plenty of beer-serving establishments throughout our Australian journey, including four of Australia’s territories.  At no time did we see Foster’s as an option for beer.  Clearly, it has been well-crafted marketing, and not quintessentiality that has made “Foster’s – Australian for beer,” for many Americans.

I was surprised that I truly couldn’t find Foster’s in Australia.  I was not surprised, however, that more and different beers would be available during our trip.  While we were planning the trip, I was excited about visiting my brother, seeing kangaroos and koalas, relaxing on the Whitsunday Islands, and enjoying local beers.

Indeed, I was not disappointed in the quantity of new beers while I was there.  I tried to have a different beer every time I had the opportunity.  Here’s the list I can remember:

Victoria Bitter (VB)
James Squires
Blue Tongue
Carlton Mid
Crown Lager
Cooper’s (which I believe is actually British)
XXXX Bitter
XXXX Summer
XXXX Porter
Hahn Premium
Hahn Premium Light
Cascade Premium
Cascade Premium Light
Toohey’s New
Toohey’s Black Ale

No, I wasn’t disappointed in the number of beers I could enjoy.  I was, however, disappointed in the diversity of the beers I could enjoy.  All the beers are remarkably similar in so many respects.  Most all of them were light in color.  The darkest beers I could find were the James Squires (about the only “boutique” beer I found, equivalent to American “craft” beer), VB, and Toohey’s Black Ale.  Even the VB has only a hint of real color, bordering on amber.  Otherwise, the rest were golden pilsners and ales.  Almost all of them were light, crisp, with moderate body.  There is no real indication of any experimentation with extra ingredients outside of water, grains, hops, and yeast, with the exception of sugar cane, which XXXX said they use to keep the beer light and crisp in the northern, tropical region.  Most of the hops, also, seemed to be mild German hops, so the strong, floral scent I would hope for in a pilsner was often missing.

The uniformity of the beer actually lead to a new nomenclature for beer there.  In the United States, if you get a “light” beer, it typically means you’re getting a golden-colored beer.  If you order a “lite” beer, it means you’re getting a low-calorie beer.  In Australia, “light” beer indicates neither of these attributes.

Australians are reasonably adamant that their beers are “stronger” than beers in other countries.  While it’s true that a traditional VB is going to have between 4.5%-5% alcohol by volume, this is hardly stronger than any craft brew in the United States (or mass-marketed craft clones), and honestly, isn’t stronger than most ice beers brewed by the major beer companies.  In fact, the last several years has seen “extreme” brewing take off as a fad among craft and microbrewers, bringing alcohol content levels to 7% or more percent, and occasionally getting up over 15% abv.

No, Australian beer isn’t “stronger,” generally, than American beer.  At least, not 21st Century American beer.  It is, however, true that Australians are sensitive to the effects of alcohol, and hence produce beers that include less alcohol than “standard” beer.  Beer comes in three strengths; full-strength, mid-strength, and light.  Here is where Australian “light” beer falls.

On my last planned day in Sydney, I ordered a Cascade at the pub.  The bartender looked at me and said, “You realize that’s a light beer, right?”  This was not my first Cascade, and I wanted to comment to her, “No lighter than all the rest of the beer here.”  I immediately remembered that she was indicating, nay WARNING me, that the beer was not full strength, and probably had an alcohol content of something like 2.5%.

I wouldn’t say that the beer in Australia was bad, for the record.  It simply lacked the tremendous diversity which we enjoy in the U.S.  The beers I had were almost universally light, crisp, thirst-quenching beers.  I wouldn’t necessarily slander one over another, but I am very excited to return to the U.S. and enjoy a nice, rich Sam Adams Boston Lager, or a Red Oak, or a hoppy Sweetwater 420.


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