So something I’ve been meaning to get around to since… one of the lockdowns, I forget which, is sampling and reviewing Australia’s Favourite Beers. Not as judged by a poll so unregulated and highly influenceable (and therefore ultimately meaningless) as the Hottest 100, but by something that TNG fans have been clamouring for since the eighties: Raw Data.
With that in mind, here are … sigh… Australia’s best beers, as voted by your (yes, your) $$’s and sheer sales volume. It’s worth noting that this is not for on premises sales – if that were the case, at least I could enjoy a cheeky pint of Balter XPA. No, this is for packaged beer. They are, in order:
- Great Northern
- Carlton Dry
- XXXX Gold
- Pure Blonde
There are 2 beers on that list which I would drink by choice. There is one other that I would happily accept if someone passed it to me and didn’t expect any money for it. Most of the rest I would grudgingly accept at an obligatory social event, and there are one or two I would politely decline in favour of, say, a soda and fresh lime or a good swift kick in the nuts if they were my only other choices.
Well, let’s get to it.
NB – all of these beers were poured into a straight-sided schooner glass before consumption, with plain bread and soda water to palate cleanse between rounds. They were drunk alone. One after another. Pray for Mojo.
1. Great Northern
Can, 4.2% ABV $4.59
The Prejudice: Insipid, a bit manky, like if you accidentally rinsed out a half full beer bottle, realised what you were doing and then drank it anyway. Only to be drunk if you’re a real man or a true Australian, whatever the fuck that might mean.
The Verdict: Pours pale, honey blonde and as clear as amber glass. White fluffy head. Smells like a certain sort of pub, or the less appealing aromas of a bakery before the baking begins. Very light flavour, disappears while your palate is still searching for it, with a little bitterness at the end. Has a light biscuity note and that faint red-berry aftertaste lagers tend to develop sometimes. Aside from that I am absolutely struggling to pick out a flavour, any flavour at all. Body is thin and dries out exceedingly rapidly, but not so quickly as to make you forget you just had some beer. But nearly. The same conditions could probably be met by drinking some soda water through a mouthful of brown bread. It is absolutely the averagest beer in the world. It’s not too hoppy, not too malty, not too fizzy, not too full bodied, not too flavoured. Yet it has some of all those things. I could drink this again. I probably won’t, but I could. Surprisingly OK, surprisingly palatable. This tinnie is certainly better than the last schooner I had of Great Northern. If all you want from a beer is the wetness, the coldness, the refreshingness and the drunkenness, this may be the beer for you. If you want the flavour, look elsewhere. It’s inoffensive. Offensively inoffensive. I can see why anyone could drink this – it doesn’t stand out in any direction.
2. Carlton Dry
Can, 4.5% ABV $4.19
The Prejudice: Beer for the “I don’t like beer, but don’t want my manly manfriends to mock my manliness for it, so I need something I can drink to pretend to be like them” crowd
The Verdict: Pours almost exactly the same as the Great Northern, though fractionally lighter. Pale, clear, light, fluffy white head. Smells disconcertingly like a pub toilet – sadly, this is not a joke. Tastes very crispy, quite strongly bready, elements of something like damp straw. Fresh with a slightly metallic, not entirely pleasantly bitter finish. Very thin, lightly fizzy. Has that wet-dog profile that I just now remembered Carlton tends to favour. You can see that it has been engineered not to be delicious, but certainly to be light and easy drinking. Just enough fizz to barely give a gentle rasp, enough malt and hops to let you know it’s a beer. Other than that – wholly unremarkable. I can see drinking this when it’s hot or you feel bloated or something. I can’t see craving the taste at all, but at least it does have some – dry malt for flavour and hops for bitterness, not so much complexity or detail in between.
3. XXXX Gold
Bottle, 3.5% ABV $4.29
The Prejudice: Beer for sticking down your neck as quick as possible before it gets warm: no complexity or flavour must get in the way of sculling this before the sticky northern heat renders it (more) undrinkable
The Verdict: Pours more of a yellow-brown, like both poos and wees, (added in drunken edit – no apology) as clear as but slightly darker than the previous entries. White head, rapidly subsided. Smells a little like if beer had been spilled into an ashtray, but one in which someone had stubbed out a joint. I can’t tell if this is promising or not on the hops front. So far this is the most richly flavoured entry, and this only a mid-strength. Has a very savoury note, faintly meaty, a hint of onions – quite genuinely like a very bready sausage roll. Touch of party pie. Am I just dredging up long subsumed memories of a Pattie’s Party Mix that may or may not have been served alongside this brew to me some 20 odd years ago? Served is the wrong word – better to say ‘drunkenly heated up and plonked centrally on the coffee table after midnight’. And alongside is also the wrong word. Better to say ‘at the same time as this, when this was all that was left in the esky’.
Am I just hungry? No, there’s definitely an almost meaty savouriness to this. Has a little bit of a hop dankness, surprisingly – not much, but it’s there. Body is light, bordering on thin but feels quite full compared to the previous ‘dry’ entry. Bready, with a little weedy hoppiness before it fades to a vegetal, overboiled cabbage bitterness. Ironically, given the prejudice, the most flavourful and complex so far. Not… in a great way. So far though, weirdly, this is the closest to a beer that I could almost like, nearly. Though the others would be less offensive and thus easier to consume, and therefore probably what I might go for if these were the choices, I have to give full credit to the XXXX for trying to do some flavour. Also: bonus points for including trivia under the cap.
4. Coopers Pale
Can, 4.5% ABV $4.79
The Prejudice: Happy memories and a long history, possibly going so far as to mask the faults actually present in this brew.
The Verdict: As the name would imply, pours a very pale straw yellow, murky and utterly unseethroughable. It’s a word, look it up. “Just say ‘opaque’ instead“? Go fuck yourself. Smells a little like a fruity, perhaps banana-y yoghurt, which carries through in the flavour profile also. It’s a complex flavour and a rich mouthfeel, followed by a fairly strong, bitter finish. Though there is a light malt element to the brew, a faint biscuitiness that sits at the back, every bit like a spine to hold the framework of everything else: that bitter hop finish, the fruity and floral yeastiness. The beginning has an almost caramel feel, despite not advancing to anywhere near sweetness. The yeast is strong, but it doesn’t quite stampede down the expected route of spice or banana or bubblegum, but rather hovers somewhere around yeasty apricot instead. Then it ends, right at the back, with a similarly hop-fruity bitterness to the previous lagers, and a little of the butyric sort of vomitiness, but not in an overwhelming way.
By far the most nuanced, flavourful brew of the list, but I can see why people may not like it so much. One of the less ‘refreshing’ of the top ten, it has a sort of wooliness that the crisply sharp lagers lack entirely, a light sourness that sits along the hop bitterness to provide a tongue smacking edge, and all those complex fruity yeast esthers that are so hard to pin down the flavour of, exactly. It reminds me of twenty some odd years of parties, dates, concerts, movies, picnics, nights out and general good times. Hard to be objective.
5. Victoria Bitter
Bottle, 4.9% ABV $4.49
The Prejudice: Bogan’s brew. For a hard earned-thirst. For getting drunk by necking in a manly man-ner: not for enjoying
The Verdict: The only beer from the list where I chose the bottle over the can. Because the can preserves the flavour better, while the bottle allows it to deteriorate. Nah, just kidding, it’s because I remember the grenade, a proper stubbie being one of the more satisfying tactile experiences when it comes to beer in the hand. Even before I open it, I have an automatic and unbidden sense memory of shredding my finger by the end of the night: opening the screw tops in the same place on the same hand for several hours, the skin softened by repeated delving into the water of the esky. Back in my CUB drinking days, I had a decent callous built up there on my right forefinger. Ah, memories.
First pull from the bottle has that grainy, rice-and-corn sort of flavour like non-cheesy Twisties*. Contrary to its nickname, the jade elixir pours a window-pane clear, light toffee colour. It’s hard to say how well the head lasted, because I had my first pull from the bottle which may have influenced things. Retains that graininess in the glass – like a cracker full of seeds, it has a rice and corn and sesame seed sort of profile. Lashings of hay or dried grass or something similar too. Quite savoury but ends on an unsweetened peach sort of a flavour – a decomposing peach, almost? No so bad as that, but something there has that …ness.
*Or, as the Italians call them, Fonzies. Another memory that rises unbidden from the murky depths of 2009. Ah, bless – here on the fifth full strength, the beer is kicking in 🙂
I think that drinking all these beers in order was a good call because I’m enjoying this a lot more than I expected to, and certainly more than if I just drank them sporadically and drew out the experience. There’s a throat-catching but not tongue-coating bitterness, and the whole experience is significantly less painful than I remember. Though I must confess, I do catch myself wearing a grimace I didn’t realise I had borne the entire time I had been drinking this beer.; there is definitely a somewhat unpleasant element. Mostly the bitterness, I guess – the hops without fruit or flower on top of what is essentially a glass of unseasoned liquid crackers. I don’t know – I truly don’t hate this stuff as much as I assumed I would, but I can’t really see myself eating another glass sandwich of it any time soon. Bonus for a subcap factoid.
Bottle, 4.5% ABV $5.19
The Prejudice: Mexico’s finest(?) Light and inoffensive. Anything that uses the bludgeoning subtlety of a citrus wedge to
mask enhance its true flavour must be good.
The Verdict: Right, I’m freshly returned from a dinner break between the last one and this one and I’m ready to go. The cap comes off with a satisfying pop and phwoomph. It is probably the lightest and clearest lager so far, and its head rapidly subsides. Smells like a very, very thin layer of jam on multigrain toast. Doesn’t taste much like that though. No, it does have the barest sort of jammy flavour with the slightest hint of a little yeasty phenolic to make it interesting, though no sweetness or breadiness. It has a very light malt profile, but a fair hit of hop bitterness. Somehow, I thought this one was one of the least flavoured beers on the list, but it is coming through with a bit of a showing. Has that lengthy hoppy profile – not the flower and the fruit of the hop, but a sort of rolling bitterness that goes through a few iterations before it settles on just… a bit bitter. Also has a corn & rice sort of a characteristic. Still very light and easy to drink – quite uncomplicated. I think of all the beers so far, this one had one of the most ‘false’ profiles; it tasted like a beer flavoured beer, rather than a beer with a flavour. Add the lime and it becomes a cartoon again – inoffensive, enjoyable, nothing to take seriously. Smashable on a hot day with friends, sure, why not.
7. Tooheys Extra Dry
Bottle, 4.4% ABV $4.19
The Prejudice: Piss. Fuck off back to Sydney, ya wanker.
The Verdict: 7 beers in and we reach the one I was looking forward to the least. Hooboy. Well, here we go. Pours as light as most on this list but skews a little more towards golden. Fluffy white head. Smells somewhat mushroomy, a little like that unclean funk of a teenage boy’s shower. And sugar cookies, or gingerbread. Gah. Doesn’t taste great. Like raw pizza dough, with a little added graininess and a bitter finish. Has the kind of savoury note that you might get from the scent of rotting rosebuds. If this beer was a person, you know it would still be wearing a popped collar polo shirt and probably be a bit of a sex pest.
It’s getting hard to describe all these generic, baseline lagers without running out of words for bready, biscuity and grainy. It is those things, a Tip-Top, white-bread sort of way, in an uninteresting, uncomplicated sort of way, but it has just enough flavour that it would impede a proper quick sessioning. The fungal flavour, like spent grain too long in the tub in a hot brewery, is pervasive. At it’s best, its like mushrooms on toast, or mushroom broth with croutons. At its worst, it’s like drinking mouldering rice or somesuch. This stuff is piss. It can fuck right off back to Sydney. Wanker.
8. Hahn Superdry
Bottle, 4.6% ABV $4.49
The Prejudice: Full disclosure, I probably haven’t drunk any Hahn since the nineties. I remember it sucked. A friend keeps trying to get me to drink Hahn Superdry with him. I’m not sure why we’re still friends.
The Verdict: Pulling this out of the fridge, the green bottle looks like it’s filled with water. Pouring it changes the look somewhat – it has a very clear, yellow colour, with a very fulsome white head. Has such a light odour, but the closest I can come up with to its aroma is that of a freshly baked loaf of bread that someone’s dropped in a stagnant pond. Not in such an offensive way – as I said, it’s very light, but that’s the only thing I can liken it to. This beer has retained the straight edge of graininess from beer, with the very faintest trace of molassses and literally nothing else. It’s like a bread crust if that was a weightless liquid. It’s… a pointless beer. It has the plain grain flavour even while it lacks the fizz or body to be properly refreshing, and that’s it. If 2021 was a beer, it would be this. At best – flat and disappointing, at worst, a literal blight on humanity. Bonus points for putting a conversation starter under the cap.
9. Pure Blonde
Can, 4.2% ABV $4.19
The Prejudice: More like Pure bland, ammiright? Haha! No, seriously, this beer has no flavour or body. It’s like drinking the ghost of a beer. A beer that died by drowning. In a musty puddle.
The Verdict: Pours very light, very pale and very clear. Patchy, spidery white head. Smells like cold. Like a haunted beerglass. I could smell the nectarines in the fruit bowl a couple of metres away more than I could smell anything coming from directly under my nose. It tastes like a drawing of beer, if you used a very slightly bitter ink. If you had a white bread flavoured mineral water, this would be it. If you described beer to a teetotaller using only colours and temperatures, this is what they would imagine. If you drank some well-water in a wheatfield, it might bear a great deal of resemblance to this.
I’m halfway through and yet to pick up a single flavour in this beer. If you had someone pour a San Pellegrino into your mouth through a wicker chair, this would not be a million miles away from that. If you shut your eyes and asked someone to tell you a story about a Ukrainian wheat farmer, while you held a mouthful of water from the kettle some hours after it had been boiled, it may taste something like this. If you boiled some rice or barley, washed that pot out and rinsed it a final time before drinking that water, you’d get a pretty close approximation. If you had a homeopath take a rich, full-flavoured beer and dilute it 30 times, then – yo. Right here. If you drank some water from the rut of a tractor tire through an actual piece of actual straw from a field, that is a pretty close reckoning.
Do I need to go on? The similes will just keep coming until this can is gone. About a fifth to go. If you ever felt thirsty while looking at a British pastoral painting, it would taste like this. If you ever washed down some plain water crackers with some plain water – right here. If you had contaminated water and the only way to filter it was lengthwise through two or three day-old loaves of sandwich-sliced white bread from the Bakers Delight, it would come out a lot like this. One last sip. Ah, that went down like sucking the remains of a beer off the outside of a melted ice cube.
It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, is what I’m saying.
Can, 5% ABV $5.69
The Prejudice: The beer that turned my head back towards lagers. Crisp, dry, refreshing, welcome under most circumstances, and associated with some very happy travel memories, though some fairly negative ‘still being employed’ memories.
The Verdict: Good job, dickhead – save the biggest, booziest can for last. Sigh. At least I like this one. Shockingly, it pours on the orange side of clear amber with a fluffy white head. Smells like wheat or barley, a little briny, but not much of either and not much else. Tastes light and crisp – presumably more from rice in the malt bill than the ‘blonding’ enzymes I’ve spent so much time with this evening. Has a certain richness in the form of its maltiness and a certain bitter hoppiness that lingers pleasantly. But it is, ultimately, an inoffensive lager like any other. It could be anything. But it has something. A certain… karakuchi? It changes enough as you drink it, as it layers, as it warms, to be interesting and worth tracking. It’s tasty without being very flavourful, and it’s bitter without being puckering.
It’s a chameleon brew, because it would fit anywhere. In the pool on a hot day. Hot bath on a cold day. With food, or on its own. At the beach, or after a day in the snow. It’s not powerfully flavoured enough to be offensive, but it isn’t insipid enough to be worthy of derision. It’s a light, clear, clean, easy drinking lager. To quote Stan Lee – “ ‘nuff said.”
So, in conclusion – I have given over 5 odd hours, 40 some odd dollars and a good portion of my evening (and presumably also tomorrow morning) to arrive at the same conclusion that lazy, hacky British travel writers arrived at fifty years ago; Australians have shitty taste and tend to favour bland, cold, easy drinking lagers.
Still, it’s not all a loss – I have had a tremendous amount of fun doing my due diligence** here on the most popular beers in Australia. I am now aware that I have judged some things a little harshly, and some things… exactly right, actually. I’m unlikely to change my broader drinking habits, I think, but I also think I now have a more nuanced understanding of those things I sometimes find myself being overly judgemental towards.
**Drinking ten beers on a Thursday night because reasons? Get out of town!
It’s important to revisit your opinions on occasion, to make sure that you are viewing the world correctly rather from some weird, skewed perspective. You hate pineapple on pizza?*** Try a slice of Hawaiian every now and then to make sure that you aren’t just buying into the internet hype. Hate cantaloupe? Try a slice here and there to make sure that you aren’t just nursing some weird childhood grudge. Hate Tooheys? Well, there’s no good argument against that. Fuck Tooheys. But still, worth revisiting these things from time to time.
One thought on “Australia’s Favourites”
With the exception of Great Northern, which didn’t exist back then (great marketing there by CUB), I used to frequently drink all those Australian lagers in my undergraduate and early PhD days. And also too much Tooheys Thirsty Dog. In Queensland, I imagine we drank more Tooheys than in Victoria.
And I remember us thinking Carlton Draft was good and Coopers amazing. We used to know which pubs in Brisbane served those beers. In recent years in Melbourne I almost avoid pubs that sell those two beers (one pub in North Fitzroy and another in Fitzroy, near Smith Street, with very similar beer selections.)
I still have fond memories of drinking Coronas in Mexico, as a backpacker, and in New Mexico, attending a summer school, where I met another fan of beer, although American. A couple of years later we went out to some beer bar in NYC that had many beer bottles in the fridge. I ordered a couple Coopers Pale Ale. He was not impressed. To be fair, he, as American a few years older than me, was the more mature one in terms of beer. I would also occasionally drink Asahi for a light lager, especially in Europe.
This reminds me of a certain witty Queensland mate whose beer tastes have also matured over the years. In his marketing degree, the students did a blind taste test in an attempt to distinguish between XXXX, Tooheys, and I forget which other ones. He was the only one in the class who got all the beers right. He used to be proud of that achievement, though I doubt he still is, given the beers he drinks now…