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Beer arrived in Australia at the beginning of British colonisation. In 2004 Australia was ranked fourth internationally in per capita beer consumption, at around 110 litres per year; although, the nation ranked considerably lower in terms of total per capita alcohol consumption. The most popular beer style in modern Australia is lager.
The oldest brewery still in operation is the Cascade Brewery, established in Tasmania in 1824. The largest Australian-owned brewery is the family-owned Coopers Brewery, as the other two major breweries Foster's Group and Lion Nathan are owned by the British-South African SABMiller and the Japanese Kirin Brewing Company, respectively.
Within an alcoholic beverage market worth some $16.3 billion, beer comprises about 48% compared to wine at 29% and spirits at 21%. Within the beer sector, premium beers have a 7.8% share of the market; full strength beer has 70.6%; mid-strength holds 12%; and light beer has 9.6%. 85% of beer is produced by national brewers, the remainder by regional or microbreweries. Microbreweries manufacturing less than 30,000 litres receive a 60% excise rebate.
The history of Australian beer starts very early in Australia's colonial history. Captain James Cook brought beer with him on his ship Endeavour as a means of preserving drinking water. On 1 August 1768, as Cook was fitting out the Endeavour for its voyage, Nathaniel Hulme wrote to Joseph Banks with a recommendation:
"a quantity of Molasses and Turpentine, in order to brew Beer with, for your daily drink, when your Water becomes bad. … [B]rewing Beer at sea will be peculiarly useful in case you should have stinking water on board; for I find by Experience that the smell of stinking water will be entirely destroyed by the process of fermentation."
— Letter to Joseph Banks 1768
Beer was still being consumed on-board two years later in 1770, when Cook was the first European to discover the east coast of Australia.
The drink of choice for the first settlers and convicts was rum, as represented in a traditional convict song:
Rum was so popular—and official currency was in such short supply—that it became a semi-official currency for a period of time (see Rum corps), and even led to a short-lived military coup, the Rum rebellion in 1808. Drunkenness was an significant problem in the early colony:
"Drunkenness was a prevailing vice. Even children were to be seen in the streets intoxicated. On Sundays, men and women might be observed standing round the public-house doors, waiting for the expiration of the hours of public worship in order to continue their carousing. As for the condition of the prison population, that, indeed, is indescribable. Notwithstanding the severe punishment for sly grog selling, it was carried on to a large extent. Men and women were found intoxicated together, and a bottle of brandy was considered to be cheaply bought for 20 lashes... All that the vilest and most bestial of human creatures could invent and practise, was in this unhappy country invented and practised without restraint and without shame"
As a means of reducing drunkenness, beer was promoted as a safer and healthier alternative to rum:
"The introduction of beer into general use among the inhabitants would certainly lessen the consumption of spirituous liquors. I have therefore in conformity with your suggestion taken measures for furnishing the colony with a supply of ten tons 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
The first (official) brewer in Australia was John Boston who brewed a beverage from Indian corn bittered with cape gooseberry leaves. It is likely though that beer was brewed unofficially much earlier. The first pub, the Mason Arms was opened in 1796 in Parramatta by James Larra, a freed convict.
Although modern Australian beer is predominantly lager, early Australian beer were exclusively top-fermented and quick-maturing ales. Lager was not brewed in Australia until 1885. Early beers were also brewed without the benefit of hops, as no-one had successfully cultivated hops in Australia and importation was difficult. James Squire was the first to successfully cultivate hops in 1804, and he also opened a pub and brewed beer. The Government Gazette from 1806 mentions that he was awarded a cow herd from the government for his efforts.
In September 1804, a government-owned brewery opened in Parramatta, followed by a rival privately owned brewery three months later. The government brewery was sold two years later to Thomas Rushton, who was its head brewer. As of 2013, the Parramatta brewery remains the only government-run brewery in Australia. Brewing rapidly expanded in all of the Australian colonies and by 1871 there were 126 breweries in Victoria alone, which at the time had a population of only 800,000.
Notable events from this period include:
By 1900 the number of breweries had begun to dwindle as a result of the recession of the 1890s. In 1901, just after Federation, the new federal government passed the Beer and Excise Act. This act regulated the making and selling of beer and made homebrewing illegal. The provisions in this act, regarded by many as draconian, led to the closure of many breweries. In Sydney 16 out of 21 breweries closed either immediately after the act's introduction or soon afterwards. The remaining breweries began a process of consolidation, with larger breweries buying out the smaller ones. Within a short period of time, only two breweries remained in Sydney: Tooths and Tooheys. In Melbourne, five breweries merged in 1907 to form the giant Carlton and United Breweries.
As of 2013, Lion Nathan and the Foster's Group own every major brewery in Australia, with the exception of Coopers. Boag's Brewery, previously owned by San Miguel, was sold to Lion Nathan for A$325 million in November 2007. In 2006 Boag's Brewery reported total revenues of A$92 million.
Although Foster's Lager is not a popular domestic beer in the 21st century, its popularity internationally has grown and the product is made mostly for export. In January 2005, the brand was one of the ten best-selling beers globally.
The introduction of the Tap King product by Lion Nathan in mid-2013 caused controversy due to the perceived impact upon alcohol venues. The product is a home draught beer dispenser and raised concerns regarding lower patronage rates for venues due to a greater incentive for consumers to drink beer in home environments. The product is sold with a CO2 gas chamber that is cooled for eight hours prior to use.
Before federation in 1901, Australia was a patchwork of separate colonies, each with different laws regulating the production and sale of alcohol. In addition, until the late 1880s when the rail network began to link the capital cities together, the only means of transporting foods in bulk between the colonies was by sea. This prevented even the largest breweries from distributing significant amounts outside their home city. This allowed strong regional brands to emerge and although all but one of the major regional brands (Coopers) are now owned by multinational companies, loyalty to the 'local' brewery remains strong today.
In recent years, mixing of beer tastes due to a more mobile population, major campaigns by the larger breweries to spread their brands outside their home state and the growth of the 'premium' beer market have started to erode the traditional loyalties. Despite this, the brand loyalties are still strong with only Tooheys and Victoria Bitter gaining any significant market share outside their home state. The premium beer market does not follow the state loyalties with the major premium brands being available nationwide.
The Brewery on the external Australian territory of Norfolk Island is one of few places left to brew and sell cask-conditioned ale. Its varieties include Bee Sting (a bright ale), Mutineer (similar to a British bitter) and Bligh's Revenge (a dark ale).
While the overwhelming proportion of beer produced is lager (approximately 95%), dark beers and stout are still made.
Guinness has a strong following in many states, based on the growth of Irish theme pubs and the Irish roots of many Australians, and is increasingly available on tap. Guinness made and sold in Australia is around 6%, considerably stronger than that in Ireland and Britain.
In general, despite the fact that most Stouts are produced by Australia-wide combines, they are not readily available beyond their State of origin, nor are they aggressively promoted even within their own region. As a result of this lack of commercial promotion, they may not be well known even within Australia, let alone internationally.
Most of these varieties claim to be made by "traditional" methods, using quality ingredients.
Speciality brews in Australia are produced by both major brewers and microbreweries, and include a wide variety of ales. Microbreweries exist throughout the country, including small towns, but the availability of such beers on-tap in venues is often limited. The Mountain Goat Brewery, located in Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria is a notable Australian microbrewery. As of 2012, Mountain Goat exports to the United States (US) and co-founder Dave Bonighton explained to a Los Angeles publication in September 2012:
We're a small brewery run by by two former homebrewers who, for 15 years, have been making the kinds of beers that we like to drink. Most breweries brew to a formula, something born in a focus group or in a marketing team meeting. We come up with our ideas at the bar.
Microbrewery Nail Brewing, from Perth, Western Australia, produced a beer in 2010 using water from an Antarctic iceberg, and sold it at auction for US$1,850. The batch of 30 bottles was created to raise money for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which assisted with the procuring of the ice.
Imported premium beers have started to gain market share in Australia. The two Australian corporate brewers responded to this by signing licence agreements with foreign brands to brew their beers here. Foster's Group brews Guinness, Kronenbourg and Carlsberg in Australia; while Lion Nathan locally produces Heineken, Beck's, Stella Artois and Kirin. Brewers claim that their locally produced product tastes better because it is fresher, and local operations are overseen by the parent brewers using strict guidelines. However, groups such as the Australian Consumers Association say that such beers should have clearer, more prominent labels to inform drinkers.
Prior to metrication in Australia, one could buy beer in glasses of size 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 15 and 20 (imperial) fluid ounces. Each sized glass had a different name in each Australian state. These were replaced by glasses of size 115, 140, 170, 200, 285, 425 and 570 ml. As Australians travel more, the differences are decreasing. In the 21st century, most pubs no longer have a glass smaller than 200 ml (7 imp fl oz); typically available are 200ml, 285ml and 425ml, and increasingly many pubs now have pints (570 ml, 20 imp fl oz).
Many imported beers are served in their own branded glasses of various sizes, including 250 millilitres (8.8 imp fl oz), 330 millilitres (11.6 imp fl oz) and 500 millilitres (17.6 imp fl oz) for many European beers.
A request for a "Pot of Gold" may sound like a joke, but in Queensland it is a 285 ml glass of XXXX Gold.
Names of beer glasses in various Australian cities[n 1][n 2][n 3]
|115 ml (4 fl oz)||–||–||–||–||-||small beer||–||shetland|
|140 ml (5 fl oz)||pony||–||–||pony||pony||–||horse/pony||pony|
|170 ml (6 fl oz)||–||–||–||–||–||six (ounce)||small glass||bobbie/six|
|200 ml (7 fl oz)||seven||–||seven||seven (ounce)||butcher||seven (ounce)||glass||glass|
|285 ml (10 fl oz)||middy||half pint / middy||handle||pot[n 5]||schooner[n 6]||ten (ounce)/pot||pot||middy/half pint|
|350 ml (12 fl oz)||schmiddy[n 7]||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|425 ml (15 fl oz)||schooner||schooner||schooner||schooner||pint[n 6]||fifteen / schooner||schooner[n 8]||schooner[n 8]|
|570 ml (20 fl oz)||pint||pint||pint||pint||imperial pint[n 6]||pint||pint||pint|
Until the introduction of the National Trade Measurement Regulations in 2009 there were no Australia-wide standard measures for serving beer.
South Australia in particular has some unusually named measures:
Note that the SA "schooner" and "pint" are considerably smaller than the measures of the same name used elsewhere:
Usage and understanding of these names is now generally restricted to people born before about 1960. (i.e. "Baby Boomers" and before.) In contemporary SA pubs and restaurants, the most frequent measures are the "schooner" of 285 ml, (an "imperial half pint"), and the "pint" of 425 ml. "Imperial pints" are also increasingly popular. Also increasingly popular inside pubs and restaurants is the sale of "premium" and non-locally-brewed beer in bottles in the size range 300ml to 375ml.
Prior to metrication, beer bottles were frequently 1⁄6 of an imperial gallon - 26.667 imperial fluid ounces (758 ml); a carton of beer contained a dozen bottles, and hence 2 gallons of beer. With time, bottles "shrank" to 26 imperial fluid ounces (739 ml), but with metrication they became 750 millilitres (26.4 imp fl oz), with a carton containing 9 litres. (2 imperial gallons = 9,092ml.) With the use of aluminium, cans of 375ml became increasingly popular, and then 375ml bottles, named "stubbies" because, compared to "traditional" bottles, they were "stubby". A carton of 9 litres of beer in stubbies (24 bottles) became known as a "slab" because, compared to the more cube-like shape of the "traditional" cartons, they were flatter and hence like slabs. Traditional bottles subsequently became known as "long necks", to distinguish them from stubbies.
In the 21st century, most bottled beer in Australia is sold in either 375 ml (Stubby) or 750 ml (Long Neck) sizes. Carlton United briefly "upsized" to 800 ml; however, this has since been reduced to the original 750 ml. Bottle sizes of 330 ml (and to a lesser extent 345 ml and 355 ml) are becoming increasingly common, particularly among microbreweries, so-called "premium" beers, and imported beers. (The common 12 US fl oz bottle contains 355 ml.) In the Northern Territory, the once-common "Darwin Stubby", a large (2.0-litre) bottle, is now sold largely as a tourist gimmick, but very successfully.
Most bottles are lightweight "single use only", though some are still reusable, and in some cases (e.g. Coopers 750 ml), breweries are reintroducing refillable bottles. In South Australia, container deposits on beer bottles and cans, and some other types of beverage containers, support a well established network of recycling centres, providing significant environmental benefits as well as generating employment opportunities for unskilled workers.