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SMOOTH OPERATOR

Like angels dancing on your tongue.

Matt Mullins is a partner in Sand Hill Road hospitality group

A close mate of mine recently received some terrible news. As he tells it, the doctor leant in, brow furrowed, and uttered the horrible words: “I’m sorry, but you can’t drink beer. Ever. Again.”

Now I know in the grand scheme of things a lifetime ban on beer is not the worst prognosis you could ever hear from a doctor. But for a footylovin’, hard-livin’, 40-somethin’ Melbourne publican, it ain’t the best either! And to add insult to injury, his gluten intolerance also prohibited the consumption of pizza. (Admittedly, its normally the over-consumption of beer one night that leads to the need to eat pizza in subsequent hours, so it could be argued that cutting out the beer could well lead to a commensurate decrease in pizza consumption the following day. But that’s no consolation for this bloke.)

Needless to say, its been a struggle. For most Australians, particularly — but by no means exclusively — men, beer is an important part of our culture and our lives. Beer first arrived at our shores on the Endeavour, believe it or not. In 1768, as Captain Cook was preparing his ship for the big adventure that would ultimately establish the world’s biggest island-pub, he decided to load molasses and turpentine, with which to brew beer while at sea. (You can only wonder at the quality of the beer brewed with molasses and turpentine, but I’m picturing something like Coors Light.) Anyway, the idea was that in the event of the fresh water supply turning septic, get brewing and feed the men beer. (The other upside being that the odours of fermentation easily overpower the fetid stench of septic water aboard a small timber boat on the ocean.)

A NATION MADE FROM BEER

Forty years later, the penal colony of Sydney was awash with drunkenness and debauchery bought on by the consumption of bootlegged rum (its just so Australian isn’t it? The Americans had a Tea Party, we had a Rum Rebellion…). The Governor’s answer to this spate of unholy rum-induced violence on the streets of Sydney? 1am lockouts? 3am closing? Hell no. He decided to brew more beer. Cos as everyone knows, the best way to cure a rum problem is to create a beer problem in its place.

Two hundred years on and beer makes up the largest chunk of the $16 billion alcohol market in Australia. In fact, almost half the alcohol we consume in this country is beer. Wine is about 30%, and spirits the remaining 20%. Of the beer market, full-strength makes up 70%, light beer 12% and mid-strength about 10% (and from my time in Central Queensland, I reckon most of that is consumed between midday and 9pm every Friday night in Rockhampton). As we all know, beer’s share of the overall market is under attack. Wine has been gradually increasing its piece of the pie chart, as have spirits. On top of that, the staple Aussie beers like Carlton Draught and Tooheys New have been losing ground in this dwindling beer category to craft beers and internationals, as we’ve all got more uppity and snooty. That said, we’re still the world’s fourth highest consumers of beer per capita, punching above our weight in the beer stakes — we’re way below that on overall alcohol consumption, conclusion: we love our beer.

CRAFT MARKET

My mate Ali Carragher at the Great Northern in Carlton, runs the best beer pub in the country. He “curates” beer (my word not his — he’d bloody kill me if he knew I used a word so wanky to describe what he does!). Having already built and sold a successful brewery, he’s like an artist who’s decided to expand out of painting, into the gallery business.

He gathers great brewers around him, and displays their work in his pub in row after row of beautifully balanced, carefully positioned beer taps. And he and his staff know and love these beers like their favourite works of art. They take pride in explaining the subtle differences between them, in describing the brewery at which they were produced, and matching a beer to your taste, your meal, or your mood. This level of variety and expertise is having an effect on the product mix at Ali’s pub, an intensified microcosm of the effect across the entire beer category: after three years of educating his market,

of enticing and cajoling them to try something new, finally a craft beer just knocked off a mainstream mainstay as the most-drunk beer in the pub. I’ve always been amazed at the loyalty beer brands manage to foster. I remember about a decade ago when Lion Nathan made its big push into Victoria, buying up inner-city pubs and showering them – and their not altogether welcoming patrons – in Tooheys New. At the Commercial Club Hotel in Fitzroy, we often conducted blind tastings putting Tooheys New up against Carlton Draught. Very rarely could even the most seasoned Carlton drinker pick which was which, despite previously swearing black and blue that “Tooheys tastes like dog’s balls.” So I’m not convinced all that brand loyalty stems from taste. I’m also intrigued how otherwise loyal one-brand beer drinkers happily get stuck into other beers when they move jurisdiction. Have you ever seen an Aussie bloke in Bali who wasn’t perfectly happy smashing down Bin Tang by the bucket load? Have you noticed how content Melburnians are drinking XXXX Gold while sunning themselves on the beach in Noosa? And let’s be honest, no one ever goes to Fiji without dancing late at night to a bad cover band after having drunk 40 Fiji Bitters. Up against a genuine willingness to drink whatever beer is most readily available wherever we may be in the world, I think its amazing the loyalty the big brewers have managed to instil in us when we’re at home.

POT OF COMFORT

But its no accident. Just like a great suburban pub can stand as a proxy for home, providing security, comfort and familiarity, drinking a pot of your favourite beer in that pub only heightens the sense of belonging. There’s a time for trying something new, and then there’s the rest of the time, when we want the opposite of new — we want what we’re used to. In the end, as venue owners we don’t have to be too concerned about the product mix our patrons are seeking. Lead them were we can, respond quickly where we can’t. A bit less beer, a bit more cider, a bit more craft or a bit less mainstream. (Although as the Governor discovered in 1821, if your crowd’s getting rowdy, less rum and more beer is probably worth a try!)

 

 

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