PEOPLE need identities, and I suppose that is why nations do. Unable to decide whether it is a Californian beach resort or a Surrey suburb between the wars, Australia colludes in the notion that it is all parched outback full of thirsty larrikins, and waves a wild republican flag (Foster's over four Xs, perhaps?).

It has thus won itself a popular reputation for its tins of chauvinist cheer, though few of them would attract anyone seriously seeking nectar. In search of something more satisfying I emerged from Perth airport and experienced eclipse of the stomach. That is to say, my comfortable girth was put in the shade by a passing one immeasurably larger, bearing the legend 'Body Active'. Was this a cryptic warning to someone planning to drink his way across Australia?

I bought a newspaper. The lead story concerned a party of refugee boat people who had washed up on a remote shore of Western Australia and wandered for a hundred miles or more, living on grubs - 'bush tucker', as the paper put it. A policeman, admiring their powers of endurance, was quoted as saying that they 'made Superman look like a Sheila'.

The Californian side of Australia emerged as the cab rolled through the sunny burbs. The Perth coastal strip is ephemeral millionaire country. I was looking for something older. In most corners of the New World the oldest buildings are breweries, erected to quench the thirsts of pioneers. Australia is no exception. 'What is that building?' I asked the cabbie. 'It's the old Swan brewery - they've moved to a new site out of town.'

I asked if the old building was to be preserved. 'Only if the Abos have their way - they say it's a sacred site.'

Swan has more to answer for. It gave Australia 'light' beer. The brewer responsible, Philip Sexton, decided this was not why he had come into the industry, and repented. He left Swan, bought a Victorian pub in nearby Fremantle and started making his own 'boutique' beers there. He then began the small Matilda Bay Brewery.

His most successful product was a tart, quenching wheat beer, Redback, named after a poisonous spider. How come that Matilda Bay is now also making a beer called Redback Light? 'Because we ran out of money and had to sell the brewery to Foster's'

At The Sail and Anchor pub in Fremantle I had a fruity, cask-conditioned bitter (a rare 'real ale' in Australia) and a gently roasty Brass Monkey Stout. At Matilda Bay, still a little jewel, with a second-hand brewhouse from French Flanders, I spurned the light and enjoyed a regular Redback and a chocolatey dark lager called Dogbolter, a name pinched from the Firkin breweries in Britain.

Mr Sexton has moved on to other boutiquery. He has the Captain Sterling inn - despite its name, slightly Italianate in architecture and fare. Then there is an espresso-and-desserts place called Oriel and a deli and coffee-roasting shop named Dome (another borrowed name).

I headed south to the Margaret River wine-making region and found a vineyard that brewed beer. Near the beach community of Yallingup, the Kidepo Valley vineyard grows chenin blanc and semillon, but also produces the astringent, spiced Moonshine Pale Ale and a slightly sweeter bitter for consumption on the premises. I sustained myself with a snack of filo pastry stuffed with spinach and ricotta. No bush tucker so far . . .

The first of several kangaroo dinners was in Adelaide, South Australia. I found the red meat soft and chewy, but with no obviously distinctive taste. I washed it down with the local Cooper's Sparkling Ale, a splendidly misnamed brew, yeasty and heavily sedimented, that has long been one of my favourites. In the town's best beer bar, the Bull and Bear (in the basement of a bank), I tasted the fuller, richer 'Scottish' Ale.

Australia's competitive instinct was in full clatter on the fruit machines at Adelaide's casino, which occupies seven or eight rooms on three floors of the Twenties railway station. 'Persons wearing smart casual attire which is in a good state of repair will be admitted', proposed a sign, sounding a trifle unsure of itself.

Gentility takes odd forms in Adelaide. A pub in Port Adelaide, closed by a bible-thumping preacher, became instead a bordello. It is a pub again now, making its own beers, including one called Old Preacher, which in both name and taste reminded me of the famous brew from Theakston's in Yorkshire.

Melbourne still has a Victorian edifice called The Yorkshire Brewery, but it has long ceased to function. Perhaps the 'Abos' saved it. Maybe they can do the same for the castellated former Victoria Brewery. Or the bluestone facade of the 1864 Carlton Brewery. All are now owned by Foster's.

Foster's Lager is so omnipresent that the young and fashionable in Melbourne will not be seen dead drinking it. A lager despite its name, Victoria Bitter was for a time the approved replacement. Then there was another misnamed lager, Melbourne Bitter. Now several amber-red lagers are having a fling. Foster's makes them all, in the same 'production facility', as it was termed by the man who gave me a tour.

The young and single were feverishly drinking these beers at The Geebung Polo Club, another splendid Victorian pile, ignoring the creamy Razorback Stout, brewed on the premises. Can boutique beers survive in the face of such disregard?

To the north, past Hanging Rock, I enjoyed a flowery potion caller R. I. P. Lager, made at the Rifle Brigade pub and brewery in Bendigo, an old gold-mining town. To the east, on the Gippsland peninsula, the Grind Ridge Brewery had a potent barley wine, once again called Moonshine. The British brewer had originally called it 1080, after its original gravity, until someone explained that in Australia 1080 is a brand of rabbit poison.

In Hobart, Tasmania, I had a beer at the Hope and Anchor, said to have been founded in 1807, and claiming to be the oldest pub in Australia. The Cascade company, which began as a sawmill in 1824 and became a brewer in 1832, claims to be the oldest surviving beer-maker. It has just fallen under the control of Foster's. Across the island in Launceston is the Boag's brewery, and between the two are many of Australia's barley fields and hop gardens. I saw a hop kiln, called the Text Kiln, which was built by a man named Ebenezer Shoebridge and decorated with biblical texts.

In Canberra, I avoided running down a wild tortoise and visited the Australian Pizza Kitchen, which has a working brew-kettle on the bar counter. The darker of its two lagers is made with grains roasted in the pizza oven. For a moment, I seemed to be drifting back to California. Mary-Lou Dalzell, a wine-maker turned brewer, took me to a motel with its own brewery, just north of Canberra at Eagle Hawk Hill. It was owned by a Croatian-Australian, but its slightly chocolatey Old Ale had been created by a British brewer, Simon Brooke-Taylor, cousin of the actor Tim.

There were odder conjunctions. Farther north in the old wool-gathering town of Goulburn, I met Fr Michael O'Halloran, a Catholic priest who has set up a project for disabled people to revive a brewery that was built in the mid- to late 1830s and made beer for a century. Fr O'Halloran has written about the architecture of the Goulburn Brewery, which he says follows the rules of the Tuscan Order and may have historical links with the church of St Paul, Covent Garden, London. The good father has installed a tiny new brewhouse, and sent me on my way with a pint of dry stout and a pork pie with mustard pickle.

I came across the godly sounding Deo Gratias Lule, who was born in East Africa and educated in Edinburgh, in the coal-mining town of Picton. He was brewing an immensely strong, rich, dark lager called Burragorang Bock Beer at an 1830s pub called the George IV. I remember tasting the brew but not much after that. Next morning I woke up in Sydney, to see the bridge, almost close enough to touch, from my bedroom window. I was staying at the Lord Nelson hotel, which has its own brewery. John Clanon, born in Vacaville, California, had studied psychology at Berkeley and worked on vintages in Napa, Sonoma and three states of Australia before becoming the resident brewer at the Lord Nelson.

That night, the pub hosted the monthly meeting of a club called The One-Eyed Beer Tasters. Among the guest beers I tasted the hoppiest bitter I found in Australia, from The Pumphouse brewpub in Darling Harbour. This establishment previously generated water pressure to operate the lifts in the city's buildings.

A friend, worried that I might be homesick for my native Leeds, took me for a breakfast of bagels, coffee and poppy-seed cake, followed by a few hours of Rugby League Sevens in rain and intense cold. I warmed myself with a Bundaberg Australian rum, and headed north to the land of sugar, ginger, mangoes and jacaranda.

The cane beetle is a nuisance to sugar growers in Queensland, so an exotic giant toad was introduced from South America to eat the pest. No one stopped to think that toads cannot fly, and are therefore unable to reach the beetles. Queensland now has not only cane beetles but also very ugly toads. This was explained to me because Cane Toad was the name of a strong, malty lager I greatly enjoyed at the Sanctuary Cove brewpub, between the Gold Coast and Brisbane.

Big Red, I discovered, is a variety of kangaroo. It is also a dryish lager from Power's, a Queensland brewery now controlled by Foster's but set up to challenge the giants, especially Castlemaine. I sampled Castlemaine straight from the keg at the Breakfast Creek hotel in Brisbane. It was retained in that form at the behest of 'wharfies' (dock workers), who do not like their lager too gassy. I also discovered at the brewery why Australian-brewed Castlemaine had always seemed marginally more tasty than some of its contemporaries: it uses a slightly more characterful style of malt; hop flowers instead of pellets; and a yeast with a dash more personality. Unfortunately, the passionate brewer who has been the guardian of these elements was retiring, to tend his vineyard. Win some, lose some . . .

(Photographs and map omitted)