Food & Drink: Boutique beer? Down under?

If blandness is the aim, why do the Australians care what we think of their brews? By Michael Jackson
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You have upset an entire nation. You could not have done better if you had tried," I was told, more than once. "After doubting Christ's virgin birth, this is the next greatest sacrilege," observed The Melbourne Age.

Having been to Australia before, I knew what to expect. Nowhere else in the world do people quite as insistently ask: "What do you think of our country?" My ready answer should have been flattery enough: "You have fearsome Rugby League players." Ever since an Australian kid at junior school fractured my jaw behind the scrum, I have been unable to close my mouth properly. Perhaps that's my problem.

"But what about Australian beer?" they would persist. The difficulty is that there is no such thing. There is beer made in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, but there is nothing uniquely Australian about it. All the infamous names, from Castlemaine XXXX to Foster's, are international-style lagers. People in Melbourne tend to dismiss Foster's in favour of Victoria Bitter (it is in fact a lager), from the same brewhouse. Foster's and VB start as the same brew, but a dash more hop extract is added to the latter.

The best-known Australian lagers are lightened and cheapened by the use of cane sugar, rather than rice (as in the US) or maize (as in Britain), but none of those three ingredients is anything on which to hang flags.

Foster's subsidiary Matilda Bay has a chocolaty dark lager, which "borrows" the English name Dogbolter. It is not especially Australian, but I tried citing it as a favourite. No one seemed to have heard of it. The potent, Burragorang Bock, the spritzy Redback wheat beer, the nutty Toohey's Old Ale? No one gave a XXXX.

The beer question could not be evaded. That is why I was there: to judge at the Australian International Beer Awards. Recognising that beer is made from grain (and sometimes from cane sugar), the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria organises the event, and the judges are provided by the University of Ballarat, which has a brewing course. The other judges were all qualified brewers, which means that they had learnt more about microbiology and biochemistry than I would ever wish to know.

Like all such judges, they were astonishingly good at saying why they thought a beer was bad: a hint of oxidation (cardboardy flavours); too much diacetyl (butterscotch, death in a lager but desirable in some types of ale); excessive dimethyl sulphide (newmown hay: good in a lager, but it should be only a hint). Positive judgements, on the other hand, tend to be by default: "clean, well-balanced". Once, when judging American "light" lagers, I asked a brewing scientist colleague what flavours we should be experiencing. "None," she answered brightly.

The Australians had invited me, as a writer on beer, specifically to report the good news: the positive aromas and flavours, not so much in their mass-market lagers but in the more specialised beers from smaller breweries. "Boutique" beers are not as well understood in Australia as they are in Britain and the US. The Australians also hoped that my presence as an author with a new book would attract press interest to the judging. That worked.

I had hardly started on Australian lagers (beer No 814: "hint dimethyl sulphide; very dry start; then malty sweetness; spritzy and refreshing" - later turned out to be XXXX) than I had to retire to answer questions from the press.

"What do you think of Australia?" they chorused.

A diligent agency reporter had been at the Web. He had found an article I had contributed to an American magazine, in which I had observed that "the more macho, muscular and tanned a society, the blander its beers. See Deep South and Australia".

The reporter suggested that I was saying that Australian beer was bad. I stressed that I was not. Most international-style lagers were boring; most people liked this kind of unchallenging beer; products such as Foster's, for example, were extremely popular in Britain. I added, by way of backhanded credit, that it was very difficult to make such products. He did not ask why. The answer is that dimethyl sulphide and so on occur naturally in fermentation. They can be masked in a maltier lager, a hoppier ale, a toastier stout, but not in a beer that is intended to be tasteless. If any flavours survive, they can be covered only by extreme cold.

"When in a hole, stop digging," advised the newspaper The Australian, adding that I was a "Pommie bastard". This is a term of affection, I was assured by my remaining Australian friends.

One of them, the actor Paul Mercurio, joined me for a visit to an unbland Australian brewery, Cooper's, in Adelaide. Paul wanted to shoot me there for a pilot of a television series. Instead, he filmed three news crews reporting on the Poms' congenital defect of liking "warm" beer. A fourth crew filmed us drinking the yeastily assertive Cooper's Stout with our lunch-time oysters. "What do you think of Australia, Mr Jackson?" Great Stout, I told them. I was learning fast.

"Let's get beyond the nationwide storm that your comments have precipitated," smiled a more cerebral radio interviewer. "Let's look at the underlying issues. Why is beer so fundamental to national pride?" A good question. "Well, the Czechs and Germans are proud of their Pilsner lagers, the Belgians of their Lambics, the British and Irish of their ales and stouts, the Australians of..." Stop digging. By now, friends in Britain were phoning me to say that the "story" had "broken" in Fleet Street.

When international issues loom, the place to be is the capital. In Canberra, I went for a pint of cask-conditioned bitter at the Wig and Pen, a pub with its own backroom brewery. "The leader of the National Party, Tim Fischer, will be in to see you," promised the pub's owner. "He is also Deputy Prime Minister, by the way."

"So you are the boutique brewery man?" said the Deputy Prime Minister. I told him that I liked all beers, but that more "boutique" breweries might help augment wine tourism in Australia. To my astonishment, I found myself in a series of conversations with the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Tourism, and the chief of staff to the Minister for Finance. One of them asked why consumers liked bland beer.

"No taste to distract from the task of getting alcohol to the brain," I suggested. If stronger beers were more expensive, would that curb excessive behaviour? I was asked. I pointed out that English soccer hooligans preferred Foster's to Thomas Hardy's Ale at three times the strength.

So which is the tastiest beer in Australia? The grand champion and best Australian lager was Sydney's splendidly hoppy Hahn Premium, designed by an American. Champion dark ale was the robust Full Sail, from an American- owned brewery in Sydney. Champion pale ale was the beautifully balanced Best Bitter, infused in a domestic bathtub at Bell's pub, in Melbourne. Awards in the international section went to Samuel Adams's Boston Lager, Old Peculier and the Belgian beer Forbidden Fruit.

My judging technique inspired a final comment from the satirical TV show Good News Week: "The Pommie way to drink beer is take a little in your mouth, then spit it into a bucket. The Australian way is to drink a great deal, then put it into a cab home."