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As a nation of beer lovers, it is perhaps unsurprising that our brewing history began mere decades after Captain Cook’s initial discovery of Australia’s eastern shores and just ten years after the arrival of the First Fleet. Australian beer has come a long way since the days of ordering either a draught or a light - the range of styles and flavours that are now being brewed by both large breweries and microbreweries is so huge we’re spoilt for choice. Time to get tasting...!
A brief history of Australian beer
With a history of beer drinking that began with the very start of our colonial history, beer was always going to be an important part of Australian lives and of our heritage. In 1768 Captain Cook took four tonnes of beer on board the Endeavour for the voyage which would ultimately lead to the discovery of Australia’s eastern shores and the ship was almost dry barely a month later. Two decades later, when the first Fleet arrived in Australia, Captain Philip toasted the colony with a porter. John Boston is credited with brewing the first beer, a malted maize brew bittered with the leaves and stalks of the Cape gooseberry, in 1796. Eight years later a freed convict by the name of James Squire was the first to successfully brew beer with hops.
Although beer was being drunk in early colonial Australia at the end of the 18th century, it has rum to thank for the surge in its popularity. Rum was being consumed at such vast rates that drunkenness was becoming a real issue. So much so that beer was promoted as a healthier alternative and the fledgling colony was supplied with ‘ten tonnes of porter, six bags of hops, and two complete sets of brewing materials’ (Lord Hobart in a letter to Governor Philip King on 29 August 1802). In 1804, the same year Squire launched his hop-brewed beer, Australia’s first government-owned brewery began production and was soon joined by another rival brewery.
This was the start of a brewery boom in Australia and many of the country’s well-known breweries, including Tooth’s, Emu, Coopers, Fosters, Castlemaine, and Australia’s longest operating brewery to date, Cascade (est. 1822), were established in the 19th century. After a prediction by the Australian Brewers Journal that Australia’s hotter climate would demand a longer, more refreshing drink, the first lagers began to be brewed in 1885 - their prediction was right as it is now by far the most popular type of beer in Australia.
Pre-Federation, in 1901, Australia was made up of a network of separate colonies, each with their own laws, including those that regulated the production and sale of alcohol. This, plus the fact that before the railways connected the cities by land all bulk goods had to be transported by sea, meant that each region had their own brands that were almost solely drunk by those that lived in that region. Although much has changed since then, strong loyalty to those brands still persist. Below is a guide to the most well-know breweries in each state:
Victoria: Carlton Draught, Victoria Bitter, Melbourne Bitter
New South Wales: Tooheys, Hahn, James Squire, Reschs, KB Lager, St Arnou
South Australia: Coopers, Southwark, West End
Queensland: Castlemaine XXXX, Powers
Western Australia: Emu, Swan, Kalgoorlie
Northern Territory: NT Draught
Tasmania: Boags, Cascade
In a country with an enviably warm climate, it is perhaps unsurprising that around 95% of all beers produced in Australia are lagers. Cool and crisp, with a refreshingly bitter finish, they are well suited to hot weather. One of the largest selling beers in Australia is Victoria Bitter, first brewed in Melbourne in the early 1900s - a brew made with bittering hops and pale malt to create a full-flavoured bitter lager that, unlike English bitters, is designed to be served cold. New South Wales’ Toohey’s is probably Victoria Bitter’s fiercest rival. Found across the entire country, its most popular brand is Toohey’s New, a classic, easy-drinking lager with a mildly hopped, malty character. Castlemaine XXX, Carlton Draught, Mid, and Dry, and Pure Blonde are all also popular but there are many others. Pilseners - a mild flavoured lager with a medium hop flavour - also slip down well on a hot day. Look out for Hahn Premium, James Boag’s Premium, Wils Pils, and Matilda Bay Pils.
Australian Lager Beer
Although relatively few ales are produced in Australia, the top fermented English-style beers have a devoted following and a few stand-out brands. Coopers Pale Ale and its Sparkling Ale are probably the best known. With its full bodied flavour and fruity undertones, Coopers Sparkling finishes with a refreshingly soft effervescence and a malty taste. Light, fresh and fruity like a Belgian pale ale but a little less sweet, Coopers Pale Ale is a lighter version of its Sparkling Ale. Tooheys Old is another classic, but this time a darker ale - a robustly flavoured, dark ale crafted from roasted barley malt which has a subtle hoppiness and hints of coffee and chocolate.
Being a darker, heavier beer, stouts aren’t as popular as other beer styles thanks to Australia’s hotter climate. Despite this, most breweries produce them, as do many craft brewers. Craft brewery Nail’s Clout Stout, a complex Russian Imperial stout, is one of the finest of Australia’s offerings, and its Oatmeal Stout, which uses six specialty malts, is of similar quality. Along with many other examples from craft breweries, look out for stouts from Coopers, Southwark (whose Old Stout remains one of Australia’s favourite dark beers), and Cascade. Do you know the difference between stout and porter?
Australian Ale And Stout Beer
Craft beer and microbreweries
Australia certainly hasn’t been left behind in the craft beer fever that has overtaken the beer scene around the globe. There’s somewhat of a beer revolution sweeping each and every state, with microbreweries popping up everywhere and at an incredible rate. To date, well over 100 microbreweries dot the nation. The beer culture in Australia is fast changing and today you can find a huge range of exciting brews, including old recipes reinvented, new styles created, and experiments with weird and wonderful flavours. Some of the more famous craft beer brands include ranges by Malt Shovel and Matilda bay, Little Creatures (its Pale Ale was so popular it is credited with being one of the catalysts for the explosion of the craft beer scene), Bluetongue, Feral Brewing, Mountain Goat, Nail Brewing, and St Arnou.