Drinking by Aussie rules

After the Irish pub, the Oz pub. Jack O'Sullivan reports on a cultural shift in our drinking

If you drop in for a pint at the recently opened Bar Oz, you'll encounter boxing kangaroos on the walls, surf boards and diving suits over the bar.

A lifeboat hangs from one ceiling and there's wall-to-wall sport (this pub has not one but two satellite dishes). The bar food - sorry, "tucker" - is served up in billy-cans and signs warn of wombats and emus for the next 60km. The ladies has been rechristened "Sheilas" and photographs of cricketing heroes such as Greg Chappell and Denis Lillee stare down on the rough wooden floors and huge barrels that serve as tables. A series of clocks will tell you the time in Perth, Adelaide and Sydney. Oh, yes, and you can also buy Antipodean beer, a full two degrees colder than in most British pubs (and about twice the price charged down under). And - "skull'em if you dare" - there's plenty of New World wines for tipplers.

The Oz theme is the latest commercial ploy to get us drinking. It is taking over from the Irish pub, and could soon - as the punter and producer seek more gimmicks - be replaced by Eastern European pubs, radio pubs or eco pubs. Well, how can you be expected to drink in a pub without a theme?

Bar Oz in west London is the proud creation of Howard Elliot, marketing manager for Scottish and Newcastle breweries. He has never visited Australia, but he reckons his pub is pretty authentic.

"You won't find Alice Springs here," he explains seriously, to mark out the sophistication of his product as more than just Wagga Wagga revisited. "This is about urban life, places like Sydney and Melbourne. This is the country that will host the Olympics in 2000. Our pubs are not about hats with corks on, or Crocodile Dundee."

The pub has had a major facelift since its days as the Moscow Arms, when it was a temple to punk rock. Bar Oz is the latest attempt to find a new pub theme, as last year's craze for Irish bars begins to pall. But the aim is to draw on the same elements which has made Oirishry hip - music, a strong beer-drinking tradition and a culture that is young and fashionable. Throw in the Aussie passion for sport, and Mr Elliot thinks his company has a formula for success. "Sure, we're interested in Australia, but what we are really selling is fun, food and sport."

A deep knowledge of Australian culture wasn't needed, it seems. The Aussie aphorisms on the walls come from a book of Australian colloquialisms (example: man sitting on outdoor privy, alongside caption - "Sport so good, you'll have to leave the dunny door open". And Aboriginal art gets only a minor look-in: there is a bit of painting on the way, as it happens, to the men's dunny door.

However, the customers, mainly a mixture of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans and Canadians, seem to like it. "It's the first place I've found that has Cold Chisel on the juke box," says Catherine Austin, 20, from Sydney, who has just downed her rucksack, picked up a cold Crown lager and tuned in to her favourite rock band.

The southern hemisphere gang seem to flock together for big sporting occasions. But Bar Oz is too decorated and self-conscious to be an authentic Australian watering-hole. "You can't set up a pub on the other side of the world and say it is truly an Aussie pub," says Andre Dempers, 25. "It's the locals that make a pub."

Other brewers are cashing in on the Aussie craze. Pubs with names such as Roobars, Sheila's Bar Barbie and Ned Kelly's are opening up in competition. After all, there are not many great beer-drinking cultures left to be celebrated, after the makeovers of the past decade - English traditional, American, Irish, and sports. The Seventies' fashion for German bierkellers could be revived, but Germany isn't really fun in the way that Sydney and Dublin seem to be.

Eastern Europe offers some possibilities for the next generation of bars. With Boris Yeltsin as cheerleader, they certainly have a drinking culture. And the "Revolution" bars, based on vodkas, have caught on in the North- west. But the problem for marketing men, as they plunder world culture, is that big profit comes from beer, not spirits.

One possible next step is the radio pub, says Paul Day, editor of the Stockport-based Theme magazine. In Newcastle, a local radio station already broadcasts from a pub called FMs. Liverpool has the Cafe Jazz Bar, linked to Jazz FM, and there is a Capital Radio Cafe in London. Capital's purchase of Virgin Radio means that it could now take the concept nationwide.

Another option could be a Seventies revival - we may soon be nibbling prawn cocktails, with flared trousers instead of football shirts on the walls, and a bar that looks like a huge platform shoe.

But the smart money is on the eco-friendly pub. Next week the Rain Forest Cafe opens in London's West End. It promises decor of "simulated tropical rain-forest", and the menu includes "Rumble in the jungle" and "Rasta pasta".

There is even something for those who worry about what they're drinking even when out on the town. It doesn't quite have the wildness of a tequila slammer or the sophistication of a Singapore sling. But perhaps in a few years, sad people that we are, we'll all be heading down to the pub for a "Don't panic, it's organic".

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