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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

beer

To the outsider beer would seem to enjoy almost mythic status in Australia: national drink, passtime and major export. You would have thought that quality would be the major selling point in a crowded marketplace. Sadly this does not seem to be the case. Whilst the fizzy pish loaded with colouring and sweetners that haunts the UK lager market is broadly absent, so is flavour. Don't get me wrong, Aussie beer is in no regard as bad as American "beer" but it still doesn't taste of anything much.


As with a lot of things in Australia that are unexpectedly a problem, the reason behind the phenomenon is that Australia is a very long way from just about everywhere, is quite stupifyingly large and is the driest continent on earth. This means that in its' developing years Australia has had to try and grow critical beer ingredients and attempt the brewing process in conditions far from suitable for either. The resulting product, whilst it probably resembled beer, was actually nothing of the sort.

The beer problem is also a matter of cultural heritage in that the beer early colonials were trying to make would have been a British style ale with light hops and quite a depth of malt, a fact still present in that many Aussie beers are still called "Bitter". Bitter does not drink too well in hot climates, crisp pale ales and lagers are far better in the blazing sun than your average pint of heavy. Unfortunately to make lager you need to use a strain of yeast that ferments most effectively between 10 and 5°C, (5°C is roughly the same temperature as your fridge)*. This kind of temperature is readily available in a Czech or German cellar but a little difficult to find in early colonial Australia. What the colonials would have brewed is something called California Common: lager type ingredients with not quite enough hops fermented with an ale yeast. This produces a fizzier than normal ale with a dry-ish flavour that needs to be served very cold to be palateable. This has had an effect on national tastes and so Aussie beer remains pretty crap, particularly to fussy bugger like me.

As the informed reader will already know and has hopefully been made clear the "Australian" beers available in Britain bear very little relation to the beers actually served in Australia. They are attempts to break into an undiscerning and tasteless British market by Australian brewers who have an insipid and uninspiring product ready to go. Fosters for example is nowhere to be found in Sydney but the biggest selling beer in Australia is brewed by Fosters, this is VB (Victoria Bitter).


VB
is flatter than lager, it is served at lager temperatures and tastes of ...er... well, not very much. It also gives you demon grade hangovers. Unpleasant.

Other brands, many brewed by Fosters, include:


Tooheys New
- this is a fizzy lager-style drink with not enough hops, but tolerable enough.


Carlton Cold
- also a fizzy lager-style drink with not enough hops, unfortunately you can't taste the malt as much as you can with Tooheys.


Carlton Draught
- This is the pick of the beers available on draught. This is much closer to a European lager, nicely balanced hops a good grain flavour, easy to drink. Hangovers still a bit of an issue. You may have seen the ad for this beer kicking round the internet.


Cascade
- Slightly more crisp than Tooheys but not much.


Hahn
- A better effort this one, more hops, a decent grain flavour but still it doesn't have the finish of the European lager it is emulating.


Coopers Pale
- Pretty good, has the advantage of having no artificial colours etc. in it. A very Aussie beer.


Crown Lager
- This is a good crsip clean lager and extremely drinkable. Very similar to Carlton Draft it is available only in bottles. Probably the pick of the litter.

Imported beers do make it to Australia but they are often a bit overpriced because of the distance they have to travel. Lowenbrau actually have a bar in Sydney to lure punters in with the promise of beer that tastes of something. The Aussies seem to like this but the beer is still too expensive so a trip to the Lowenbrau Keller is not an everyday occurence.

Not being the world's greatest lager devotee I have also been trying some of the independant breweries proper beers. Thus far my favourites have come from: The Malt Shovel Brewery, which produces very high quality full-flavoured beers, and on micro-brewery level The Lord Nelson which is a pub/hotel/brewery which has some stunning beers which they serve far too cold (review).

Beer over here comes in some rather strange measures and protocol for ordering varies from state to state. Being your average pom I haven't fully got to grips with it yet but have found this guide to be of some use. To make life even more complicated the Australian Government doesn't use a simple method of measuring drinks either. They have a system of "Standard Drinks" which is annoyingly confusing. A bottle of beer that appears to contain a single serving of beer will often have "Contains 1.5 standard drinks" printed on the label in clear contradiction of the facts, surely they can't be suggesting that you share your beer?*

Among "interesting" beery things to do in Australia, other than drinking it alone, are the Darwin Beercan Regatta, which you've probably heard about and an outback pub crawl, by aeroplane. The latter sounds interesting until you think about: a) what happens when you need a pee and you're only a third of the way to the next pub? b) motion sickness? c) the huge amount of money it costs.

There is good beer to be had here, but you do have to look for it a bit harder than you would expect or would have hoped. I think it may be time to kick off the homebrew over here. Then all I have to do is convince Aussies to drink warm flat beer. Oh well, I needed a challenge...

Click related link for an Australian guide to Australian beer - don't trust the beer reviews but everything else is straight up fact

*Water chemistry comes into this as well but I haven't included anything about this, I wouldn't want to sound obsessive or anything.

**Not that the units of alchohol system used in Britain is particularly clear but at least the units of alchohol are easily worked out: amount of drink in litres multiplied by strength of drink ABV% = units of alchohol. Ergo a pint of beer (0.575l) at 5% is a little under 3 units.