Once upon a time, in a big, brown and thirsty land, there were Sydney beers (Tooheys New), Melbourne beers (VB and Carlton Draught), Queensland beers (XXXX) and WA beers (Emu Export, or "Bush Chook").
Over time these loyalties gave way to a national brand mentality driven by the big brewers, but the stigma remains – despite many mainstream beers sharing styles and flavours. Beer expert Pete Mitcham says: "Most drinkers would struggle to identify a Tooheys New from a VB, or a Carlton Draught from a XXXX or even a Crown Lager in a blind taste test, but the rivalries – fired by sport or who has the better tourist attractions – will live long after the brands eventually merge into a single multi-national super brew."
The rise of craft beer has thrown up more subsets, with its legion of new brewers and beer types that as much appeal to one person as repel another. And traditional country pubs, such as the Cobram Hotel, which has dedicated Saturday night craft sessions, are getting on board. "We are always a year or two behind the city, but craft beers are attracting of lot of attention now," says owner Adam Rudd. "People are asking for them so we are giving them what they want."
But how to distinguish who drinks what? Here are 20 brews that showcase the diversity of our beer-drinking community.
VICTORIA BITTER (CUB)
You're a seasoned drinker of the "vile brew" (one of the more family-friendly nicknames for the nation's most popular beer), and, save for a brief period in the 1990s when you switched to Carlton Cold, it's been an ice-cold constant. With "all those funny beers" crowding the shelves now you pine for the simpler times of loaded eskies at the 'G and "you can get it …" ads. You're a hard-working family man and, just maybe, a bit of a sadist, because for all the off-the-scale hangovers, you keep returning to the iconic green can.
CARLTON DRAUGHT (CUB)
Like a Holden Commodore, a Cold Chisel best-of and footy in winter, Carlton Draught is a comfortable fit; drinkers know exactly what they're getting. Like Tooheys New in NSW, it's losing a little ground to smaller players, but remains a stalwart. "Carlton Draught epitomises Victorian beer history," says Colin Ross, venue manager at Club Kilsyth. "It appeals to a wide audience of drinkers due to its non-polarising palate, availability, brand marketing and consumer association."
JAMES BOAG'S PREMIUM (Boag's Brewery)
Admit it: the "pure waters of Tasmania" ad sucked you in. Better water, better beer? Or perhaps you'd been searching for something other than the usual suspects brewed out of Richmond, and similarly priced? Either way, you switched in the late noughties and haven't looked back. You're a businessman who must present well, so you'll often a throw a few Premium Lights – arguably the most flavourful of Australia's commercial light beers – into the mix. Guilt-free swilling.
CROWN LAGER (CUB)
If there's a micro socio group that remains oblivious to Australia's craft beer scene, it's the Crown Lager drinker. You probably noted the recent billboards – "If you could bottle Christmas …" – and, indeed, in the eyes of many, it's the quintessential "special occasion" beer. (Daryl Kerrigan probably wouldn't drink one; he'd banish it to the pool room.) Chris Thomas, co-founder of Club Brewing Co., an outfit that home-delivers exclusive beers brewed collaboratively with local and international brewers, believes it's now a much cleaner beer, following some recipe changes. "It's almost become a traditional pilsner rather than lager," he says.
ORIGINAL PALE ALE (Coopers Brewery)
You're a patriotic South Australian, but perhaps one with more substance than is afforded you by some of the "Mexicans" in the footy-mad neighbouring state to your east. Coopers' ever reliable ale is cloudy, yeasty and refreshing – and, as its distinctive green label suggests, original. Favoured by happy-go-lucky types as well as morose creatives, it's equally palatable at a wintry and overcast gathering as by the pool in the height of summer. "It's the ultimate crossover beer," Thomas says.
MELBOURNE BITTER (CUB)
A vintage beer that has found its way into the hearts and hands of a cross-section of beer lovers. There's the sticky-carpet types; the punk-rock-T-shirted share-house dwellers who rarely venture out of St Kilda's Fitzroy Street. There's the inner-city hipster, partial to plaid shirts and rustic pubs and over-priced longnecks that their dads and uncles once drank for pittance. That irony equates to hip-pocket pain: it's priced similarly to craft beers now that it's finally on tap in pubs.
CARLTON DRY (CUB)
You were born in the 1990s, you occupy a space around the fringes of the healthy-living brigade, and you're a regular at music festivals. When visiting Uncle Dan's you'll buy a slab of whichever is cheaper out of Dry or Pure Blonde: less calories and preservatives and all that. "Draught is still our No. 1 beer on tap, but there has been a shift to Carlton Dry, particularly in the younger generation and female clientele," says Rudd. "People are chasing beers with lower carbs and looking to wake up so much better as well."
GREAT NORTHERN SUPER CRISP LAGER (CUB)
It was created by tropical Queenslanders for tropical Queenslanders, but this mellow-flavoured beer with the distinctive marlin insignia continues to infiltrate pubs and fridges nationwide. While squarely aimed at cracking the youthful Tooheys Extra Dry market, it's a mid-strength that's shaken the unshakeable habits of older drinkers. "It's performing almost as well as any heavy beer we sell in our bottle shop," says Rudd.
150 LASHES PALE ALE (James Squire)
For many, the James Squire range was their first foray into the world of microbreweries and beer menus. There's a brewhouse in each capital city (the Crafty Squire in Russell Street flies the flag in Melbourne) and with decent pub fare and big screens, they elevated the "local pub" experience. For beer historians, the man himself – a First Fleet convict credited with the first brewing of beer with hops in Australia – is a demigod. Either way, the liquid spawned from the Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney's Camperdown continues to educate and quench the masses. "Their 150 Lashes pale is a safe choice without too many confronting flavours; a natural segue into craft beer," says Ross.
PALE ALE (Little Creatures, Fremantle)
"It's the beer world's equivalent of the Mambo T-shirt – once a wunderkind that was unique, small and uber-cool before catching on and being snapped up by a big fish," Mitcham says. The beer that kick-started the new wave of craft in the early 2000s, its drinkers are professionals whose beer choice switches between this and similar crossover-crafts like Mountain Goat and premium international labels that say: "I can drink as I feel rather than as I can afford." They might also favour Tim Winton's catalogue, The Triffids' Born Sandy Devotional and white sandy beaches.
FAT YAK (CUB)
Mitcham theorises that Fat Yak, "once a cracking version of a solid pale ale", has become a beer that suburbanite drinkers like because it still seems "craft", but is more approachable. "It's a bit like that band you discovered a decade back," he says. "The sound was new and cool and, best of all, no one else knew about them. Then they went on Australia's Got Voice-Factor-Talent and went all mainstream. Now they're a corporate franchise under the banner of Yak Ales with each member – Fat, Lazy and Wild – all competing for your attention with catchy tunes and familiar arrangements that all sound pretty much the same."
FURPHY REFRESHING ALE (Little Creatures, Geelong)
You'd been trying hard to like craft beer; you really had. But it was all a bit much. Too hoppy. Too citrusy. Too expensive. Too … removed from lager. This masterstroke from Little Creatures' Geelong brewery, then, is a godsend. There's no big whack of flavour, and yet, like it says in the title, it's refreshing, and – unlike some beers that make out to be but simply aren't – sessionable. "It's a massively accessible beer that hits the spot in summer," says Thomas. With links to Geelong and Shepparton, it's a beer steeped in local tradition, and, most importantly, you can get a slab for under $50.
PACIFIC ALE (Stone & Wood Brewing)
Stone & Wood embodies the concept of "Livin' the dream", with the brewery's three masterminds all leaving behind the corporate beer jungle to set up in the Pacific-lapped headland of Byron Bay. Having boomed since opening in 2008, it's now second only to Coopers as Australia's largest independent brewer. Their flagship beer, Pacific Ale, is simple, refreshing, shareable, desirable and all-embracing. Mitcham quips: "It's the liquid equivalent of: 'Come in! Nah, don't have to take your shoes off. Here, have a beer. You know everyone?' "
BEECHWORTH PALE ALE (Bridge Road Brewers)
Bridge Road Brewers have been pumping out high-quality beers from modest digs in Victoria's High Country for over a decade. Their drinkers are trustworthy, loyal and reliable. They are optimists. They have liked Bridge Road beers from the start and have never seen the need to turn away. They probably drive the same Toyota Corolla that used to be Mum's and barrack for Richmond or St George. "Their Pale Ale is an unassuming toiler; almost shunning the limelight. Then, come awards nights, it never fails to surprise," says Mitcham.
KOLSCH (4 Pines)
Kolsch is the beer of Cologne, Germany, and is quaffed religiously by everyone from the Lord Mayor to the bloke who cleans the toiletten after Oktoberfest. 4 Pines, hailing from the sunny shores of Manly, are leaders in the field of Kolsch-like beers, which are often labelled as "Golden Ale", "Summer Ale" or even "Steam Ale". "Those who drink 4 Pines Kolsch are the kind of blokes – and, increasingly, blokettes – who go with the flow and are just happy to be a part of something special without feeling the need to share it on Facebook at every opportunity," Mitcham says.
GOLDEN ALE (Two Birds Brewing)
Mitcham says the Golden Ale is a classic example of simplicity of style and skilful execution. "Brewing an easy-drinking ale is walking a fine line between brilliance and disappointment: get the balance wrong and your glass – and heart – is filled with a watery 'what-could-have-been'. Get it right and, WOW!" He says Two Birds drinkers are an indulgent, giving lot. "They tend to live in the inner suburbs and love their music festivals 'on the green' and their music on vinyl. They change their social media profile to support a cause and would, in theory, travel long distances to seek the perfect coffee – were it not brewed in a hole-in-the-wall at the end of their street."
The iconic Mexican import is now as representative of Australian summer as cricket, the beach and chip-chasing seagulls, and its exquisitely marketed bottle is consumed in big numbers by all types. It's often referred to as a beer for women and "lightweights" who don't like beer but this is rubbish: a former housemate of mine at a decrepit Moonee Ponds pad was a whole-chicken-devouring straight-shooter who also swilled Coronas. Lemon or lime – but never without either – line it up against anything else on a scorching day and it's hard to go past.
PERONI NASTRO AZZURRO
We'd been quick to adopt many Italian indulgences, but a little slower with their beer. Peroni's premier birra changed that. It's a beer that's equally at home in a pizza restaurant – served in a specialty glass, of course – or in the hands of kid-flanked parents at park catch-ups. It's decently priced, and, despite being mainstream (and another overseas label that's brewed here by licence), oozes that necessary smattering of sophistication. "Peroni drinkers like the finer things in life," says Ross. "They possibly drive a European car, wear polo shirts and holiday on the Peninsula."
ASAHI SUPER DRY
Like Peroni – which Asahi purchased in 2016 – its canny marketing, including presenting as a "food beer", has appealed to our urbane and cosmopolitan set. Its drinkers know their way around an upmarket Japanese restaurant, where they'll eagerly show off their knowledge of sake. "More body than most similarly priced international beers," says Thomas. "Refreshing and smooth – a perfect pairing for summer."
STELLA ARTOIS LEGERE
You once did the UK working visa, where you hung out with other Aussies in Earl's Court and drank pints of Stella because, at 5.2 per cent ABV, it was better bang-for-buck. Bang, alright; in the head! It's below 5 per cent now, but that doesn't prevent shudders from some whenever they see its emblem on tap or bottle. That the Belgian lager remains a big seller despite the "wife-beater" tag means it's a stayer – like its nomadic guzzlers, who chip in for discounted cartons and make plans to travel to Europe, "for one last crack".
Upcoming beer festivals
Next week: Ballarat Beer Festival
Staged at Ballarat's City Oval on January 21, this year's event is the biggest ever with more than 200 beers from over 40 brewers, and live music headlined by veteran local rockers Dallas Crane. Other highlights include the Beerllarat Olympics, local beer launches and beer-education classes. Regional wines are available. Festival director Ric Dexter says: "It's relaxed, it's calm, the crowd is beautifully well behaved and it's a fantastic event for everyone – not just those who have a passion for great beer."
Tickets start from $49; ballaratbeerfestival.com.au
Later in the year:
Great Australian Beer Festival, Geelong – February 18, gabfgeelong.com.au
Bendigo Craft Beer and Cider Festival – March 25, bendigocraftbeerfestival.com.au
Good Beer Week, Melbourne (various locations) – May 12-21, goodbeerweek.com.au
Brewsvegas, Brisbane – March 10-18, brewsvegas.com
Port Macquarie Beer & Cider Festival – September 23, portmacbeerandciderfestival.com
Sydney Craft Beer Week – October (TBC), sydneycraftbeerweek.com