World Beer Week celebrates the best of beer around the world, and Australia is a proud member of the beer drinking family, with more beer drunk per capita than the USA. That's even despite a slump of beer consumption as the people Down Under go for more wine and cider in recent times. The truth is that Australian craft beer is probably two decades behind the US. Most generic pubs and bars will have mainstream brews on tap and won't offer a true craft beer unless they're purposefully seeking that market of discerning drinkers.
Bottle shops are the only stores in Australia licensed to sell beer, with supermarkets and corner stores unable to sell liquors, wines, or beer. Beer is reasonably expensive, with taxes on alcohol driving a high cost to the consumer. A 24-pack of a decent beer would retail for at least AUD $45, or about USD $34, while a higher-end craft beer, outside the major brands, or an import, could be closer to AUD $60 or USD $45.
Most macro Australian beer is lagers made from Australian malt, Pride of Ringwood hops (or similar varieties), with comparatively large amounts of dextrose for a mild flavor and mouthfeel. The most consumed beer is XXXX Gold, a mid-strength beer low on complex flavors and high on being an easy drop to drink. It's similar to a Bud Lite - well marketed by the largest brewery, popular across the board, and is generally appreciated by brewers for being remarkably the same no matter where you buy it.
Australia's beer market has always been dominated by large brands, which have whittled down to two major players: Carlton & United Breweries, and Lion. Carlton & United are now owned by London's SAB Miller, while Lion is owned by Japan's Kirin. Both have changed hands and re-branded over the past decades. Slowly but surely, the diversity in commercial beer owners has diminished, even if most brands have been retained. The big brands exert their forces on pubs and bars, with many forced into strict contracts which prevents competitors establishing taps.
Beer brands in Australia are fiercely territorial, mostly divided into states. Tooheys New is the drink of New South Wales and can be found in any pub on tap. Carlton Draught, from Victoria, is a keen rival, and is found on every tap in Victoria. A rough graphic of geographic preferences by state is above, with my notes showing which brewery owns which main state or territory beer:
Lion holds five major states, while CUB manages Victoria and the Northern Territory. But that’s not the whole story. These major brands also own the licenses to import or locally brew international favorites like Heineken, Carlsberg, Guinness, Peroni, and many more.
The Future of Beer in Australia
There is hope though, and there’s certainly a huge push for new, innovative brews.
South Australia could soon be claimed by Coopers, Australia’s only family owned brewery, producing a number of lagers and ales. The main two are a Pale Ale and a Sparkling Ale, which are increasingly popular across wider Australia, are bottle conditioned, and have far more flavor.
Microbreweries do exist in major cities, with Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmanian breweries available on tap in craft beer pubs and in specialty bottle shops.
If you do visit Australia, I’d strongly recommend starting off just trying the local mainstream beers, just to sample where things start off. Trying something far nicer and properly craft might be offered by a Stone & Wood Pacific Ale beer from the Northern Rivers of NSW, a highly rated all-year round beer. Galaxy hopped, it’s fruity, tasty, and a fantastically smooth beer. Highly recommended, if you can find it.
Another strong flavored and popular craft beer is the Hop Hog India Pale Ale. It’s won many awards and in the style of an American India Pale, will make North Americans feel right at home and appreciating the best of Down Under. Finally, a Mountain Goat Beer, Hightail Ale is an English influenced ale, a big beer that offers plenty of kick.
One more thing - no one in Australia drinks Fosters! The ‘oil tins’ are export beer only and Australians only get to try them on flights, or in specialty bottle shops.
Don't forget to check out day one of World Beer Week on Kent England