Breaking beer’s tribal boundaries

The amount Australians spend on wine each year – around $1.2 billion – seems small beer (sorry) compared to the more than $5 billion we spend on the amber fluid.

Yet beer drinkers take their habit less seriously than wine drinkers do theirs, demolishing oceans of ale with minimal fuss, pretension, or even discussion over its merits.

Despite a plethora of labels that might suggest otherwise, Australian beer drinkers generally stick within a narrow style band that might be summed up as clean, fresh, bland and a touch sweet.

Brand choice, the marketers say, is determined more along tribal lines than by flavour: most beer drinkers will drink what their peer group drinks. Ice beers, a comparatively recent development, are an exception and appear to cross tribal boundaries all across this parched and thirsty continent.

For that reason a six-pack of, say, Hahn Ice, taken into foreign territory may be a safer bet than potential tribal icons such as VB or Tooheys Draught.

Away from the mainstream, there is a growing demand for variety. What the marketers call the premium and imported beer segment is growing at a prodigious rate, but off a small base. Some say this segment may make up, at the most, five per cent of the current market – a still sizeable $250million a year or so.

Again, lagers – albeit with notably more character than mainstream brands – make up the bulk of this market. But there is an increasing variety of beer styles arriving on retail shelves.

While many of these challenge the Aussie lager-conditioned palate, some consumers seem to be in the mood to experiment with and embrace new flavour sensations.

Acknowledging the trend, this year’s annual ‘Sydney Morning Herald’/Age’ ‘Uncorked’, published last Tuesday, devoted two pages to beer reviews by well-known wine critic, Mark Shield.

Shield recommended a truly catholic selection of beers ranging from Foster’s New ‘Extra’ to mainstream international lagers like the German classic, Beck’s, to the beautifully named Belgian ‘Delirium Tremens’ and full-blooded 9 per cent alcohol Chimay ales, brewed by Trappist monks.

I was particularly interested to read Shield’s reviews as I’d just returned to Canberra after four days’ judging at this year’s Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards in Ballarat.

Now Ballarat may seem a strange place to taste 400 beers in mid winter. But it is the only place in Australia offering University courses in brewing. And it is senior lecturer, Rob Greig who, with the help of the Royal Victorian Agricultural Society, has very quickly made this event the world’s third biggest beer competition.

Originally, the awards were seen as a forum for small makers, but Greig and his team adapted the awards to accommodate mainstream as well as exotic brews as the number of entries exploded. This year the ratio of entrants was 34 small to 41 large breweries.

Last year, when I attended as observer there were 288 entries. This year the number leapt 51 per cent to 436 and, according to Greig, another hundred were turned away after arriving too late.

Forty-five breweries from 24 countries entered beers for judging and the number of international competitors leapt 73 per cent to 296 – a sign of how seriously this Australian event is now being taken.

Entries came from Australia, Korea, Singapore, Germany, Thailand, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam, England, India, Scotland, China, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Indonesia, Tonga, Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Malta, USA, South Africa and Vanuatu.

To do justice to 331 bottled and 105 draught beers over last Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday Greig assembled 11 judges, working as a single panel on small categories and splitting into two for larger ones.

The judges were Tim Cooper (Coopers Brewery, Adelaide), Roger Bussell (Joe White Maltings, Adelaide), Bill Taylor (Castlemaine, Brisbane), Paul Schrader (Eumundi, Brisbane), Johann Steenberg (South African Breweries, Johannesburg) Peter Manders (Carlton and United Breweries, Melbourne), Barry Axon (Dominion Breweries, Auckland), Richard Benwell (Boags Brewery, Tasmania), Rob Rich (Quest International, New Zealand, myself, and chief judge Colin Dowzer (Brewing consultant, Melbourne).

The beers were split into like classes across open, small brewery, specialty and international sections. And so, systematically, one beer at a time in unmarked glasses, the panels judged lagers, ales, stouts, and wheat beers.

We judged everything from the lightest, blandest low-alcohol lagers to an extraordinary, non-sparkling triple bok that poured like licorice, smelled like Vegemite and weighed in at a colossal 17 per cent alcohol.

But as we knew the beers only by class definition and randomly generated entry numbers we will have to wait until later this month for the Award winners to be announced. I will report the judges’ verdict on June 29, along with comments from my own notes.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1997 & 2007