However, it is also synonymous with the most famous Australian beer not packaged in a bright blue can and not featured in the Crocodile Dundee films.

Many international beer writers who have covered Australia over the last twenty years have tended to limit their comments to something along the lines of ‘Australian men really like to drink enormous amounts of ice cold lager out of a confusing variety of glass types and usually accompanied by shrimps fresh off the barbie.’  They also tend to laugh openly at six o’clock closing. [1]

In his breakthrough book “A man walks into a pub: a socialable history of beer”, Pete Brown noted Australians have been “long known for their fondness for the odd pint.”  Brian Glover, in his World Encyclopaedia of Beer, records “the image of beer drinking in Australia has often been ice-cold lager firmly clenched in the fists of macho men.”

Similarly, both cover the swill.  Glover called it the “legendary six o’clock swill that forced drinkers to knock back their beers in double-quick time.”  Brown gets quite lyrical with his description of classic Aussie drinkers who “rammed the bars to bursting point and for sixty precious minutes focussed with astonishing single-mindedness on pouring as much beer down their necks as possible.  An hour later the pubs spewed mobs of paralytic, pissed off blokes into the streets with a whole evening ahead of them and nothing to do.”

The legendary Roger Protz, in The Taste of Beer, noted that despite this reputation, Australia actually had “a split beer personality.  The early settlers took an ale culture with them but it was supplanted by lager in the twentieth century.”  Brown says that “when German submarines killed off British pale ale exports for good in the First World War, Australia became and remained a nation of enthusiastic lager drinkers.” [2]

Despite this growing tide of fizzy yellow lager, Protz described the Coopers brewery in Adelaide as one commercial company that “kept the flickering ale flame alive in Australia.”  For him, Coopers Sparkling Ale became a “national cult drink.”  Glover called the same beer a “classic of the continent.”  Michael Jackson, the greatest beer writer of all time, had both the Coopers Sparkling Ale and Extra Stout in his vastly influential Great Beer Guide: 500 Classic Brews. [3]

That does not mean it was always plain sailing for the famous South Australian brewery.  Australian writer Willy Simpson said that for most of its 150 year history it was “regarded as a quaint family-run brewery specialising in cloudy bottled ales.”  Even Protz, a big fan, wrote that for years Coopers Sparkling Ale “was drunk only by a handful of aficionados and was considered a joke by most beer drinkers, especially as the heavy yeast sediment meant that it was cloudy rather than sparklingly in the glass unless poured with enormous care.’

Today however, Coopers operates out of one of Australia’s most modern brewing plants and sales of its Pale Ale and Sparkling Ale keep breaking records.  It is credited with leading the revival of craft brewing in Australia in the 1990s along with J Boag and Sons.  Significantly, it has remained family-owned after seeing off a determined takeover bid from Lion Nathan in 2005.  Coopers is currently one of the biggest brewers in Australia, trailing only the big two and vying with Boag’s (acquired by Lion Nathan in 2007) for third place. 

Glover tells the story of how Coopers began:

“Thomas Cooper, a shoemaker, emigrated to Australia from Yorkshire in 1852 with his wife Alice.  She was the daughter of a publican and when she fell ill, asked her husband to make her some beer as a tonic, giving him the recipe from her sick-bed.  According to family legend, this brew was so successful that Thomas Cooper went into brewing full-time in 1862.  However, as a devout Wesleyan, he regarded pubs (but not beer) as evil, and so restricted his trade to direct deliveries to private houses.”

Like most beer stories, the details vary.  Thomas is variously described as a shoemaker, stonemason or lay preacher.  Glover says he was a Wesleyan, Jackson says he was a Methodist while the official Coopers site is silent on their founder’s denomination.  The stories tend to skip over the subsequent death of Alice and that the modern Coopers family are largely descended from the children of Thomas’ second marriage.

Coopers began exporting in 1963 and the Sparkling Ale became an underground international hit in beer circles.  Their beers have not been readily available in New Zealand until comparatively recently but now Coopers are making a concerted move into the market and bringing in more of their ever burgeoning range.

Malthouse has just begun a Coopers Beer Showcase which sees six Coopers beer available.  Those are the Sparkling Ale (a world classic and quite extraordinary on tap), Pale Ale (my personal Coopers quaffer – fruity yet sessionable), Coopers Mild (a golden pale ale of moderate strength but a surprising amount of flavour), Coopers Dark (new, interesting and chewy), Coopers Extra Stout (rich, dark and full of iron – at least according to the rumour it is recommended by the Australian blood service for post-donation imbibing) and a rare sighting of Coopers Vintage Ale on tap (2009 – a complex and interesting drop).

Having quoted a number of reputable beer writers [4] it is time to end with one of the most inaccurate statements in a beer book ever.  American Duane Swierczynski [5] published the Big Book of Beers which states that the way to say cheers in Australia is to clink glasses and say “kia ora!” 

[1] Even English beer writers do this even though their archaic licensing laws mean that pubs there tend to have to shut whenever you are thirsty.
[2] I had to double check this statement.  Despite being an avid war nut, I had thought that submarines had made little impact in World War One.  I was wrong.
[3] The first beer book I ever bought and one which I dip back into every few weeks.
[4] And Willy Simpson…
[5] It is pronounced exactly like it is spelt.


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