Australian for beer?

by Steve Renshaw

Last November, my wife and I had the holiday of a lifetime in Australia. We saw lots of iconic sights: Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef and kangaroos. But one Aussie icon we didn’t come across was Foster’s Lager.

If the advertisers are to be believed, everyone we met should have been drinking the “amber nectar”. However, Foster’s Lager does not enjoy widespread popularity in Australia and, since the early 2000s, the Foster’s Group has tended to promote Carlton Draught and Victoria Bitter.

Foster’s latest ad campaign over here mentions the brand’s heritage. And, yes, it is true that it was first brewed by William and Ralph Foster in Melbourne in 1888.

Early brewing in Australia was based on English methods of top fermentation. However, in the latter part of the 19th century, the new lager style from Germany became popular because the brewing process was better suited to the climate. The Foster brothers moved to Australia from New York in 1886 with a German brewer and a refrigeration engineer. They built a modern brewery and produced their lager, which was well received.

However, importers of foreign lager were unhappy about the competition so they reduced their prices and squeezed the Fosters out. After only a year, the brothers sold up and returned to the US.

By 1907, the business had been swallowed up in the series of mergers that created Carlton and United Breweries. Over time, CUB bought up smaller brewers – that sounds familiar! And then, in 1983, CUB was bought out by a giant Australian conglomerate. In 1990, the company’s brewing arm changed its name to Foster’s Group, to reflect the name of their most internationally recognised product.

In 2011, the Foster’s Group was acquired by South African megabrewer SABMiller, and Foster’s Lager is brewed under licence in a number of countries. Heineken International owns the European rights. Different recipes are used depending on the market – in Europe the ABV is 4%, in Australia it is 4.9% and in the United States it is 5%.

Foster’s Lager was first imported into the UK in 1971 and it is now this country’s second best-selling standard lager, behind Carling. The Foster’s drunk here now is brewed in Heineken’s giant beer factory in Manchester, rather than Melbourne. The Royal Brewery in Moss Side, which previously produced Kestrel, McEwans and Harp, now pumps out the largest volume of Foster’s Lager in the world.

So what about the beer in Australia? If you want to play safe, you can find global brands such as Stella, Corona and Peroni – brewed under licence down under – in most bars. The mainstream Australian beers, such as Castlemaine XXXX, Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught and Toohey’s New, are all fizzy lagers. And, because they’re served very, very cold, they don’t taste of much. Fortunately, there’s a booming craft beer scene and, in the main cities, there are plenty of bustling bars where you can find interesting and flavoursome beers from small, independent breweries.