August 30, 2000


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Australian brewers hope for Olympics bonanza

Sonali Paul in Melbourne

When hundreds of thousands of foreigners pour into Australia next month for the Sydney Olympic Games, they are as likely to see Crocodile Dundee look-alikes sipping Chardonnay as a traditional beer.

It is an image that Australian brewers are desperate to change. The brewers are on an aggressive push to stem the tide of wine drinkers siphoning off their market.

They are crafting more profitable premium and light beers and trying to get beer back on the dinner table, where it reigned in the 1960s.

Australia's second largest brewer, Lion Nathan, went so far as to serve a bottle-fermented, corked, "vintage beer" in a champagne bottle at the millennium celebrations and launched a new vintage beer last month.

Taking the more tried and tested route, market leader Foster's aims to cash in on pumping the official beer at the Olympics.

"It's a really big event," said Paul Kennedy, vice president of marketing for Foster's beer division Carlton and United Breweries.

Foster's is counting on sports fans to cheer on their heroes and toast wins at the Olympics with beer, lifting its sales by 10 to 15 percent in September over the same month last year and breaking an overall fall in Australian beer drinking.

"Clearly Australians and international visitors here will reach a lot of very emotional points when celebration is clearly the appropriate thing to do. And what better way to celebrate than with a nice, cold....," he said.

Australians are not the beer guzzlers they once were, sinking less than 95 litres of beer a head annually, compared with 100 litres seven years ago and a peak of 135 litres 20 years ago.

They would be drunk under the table by the world's top beer lovers, the Czechs, who down more than 160 litres per head of population.

Lion Nathan's chief brewer Bill Taylor laments that life has changed since the 1960s, when everyone headed straight to the local hotel -- Australian for pub -- after work, and wine drinkers were scorned.

"It wasn't the hard working Aussie ethic to drink that stuff," he said.

Wine has stolen most of beer's fallen share, with Australians now sipping about 20 litres of wine a head annually, about half the amount quaffed in France and Italy, up from 15 litres in 1979 and just eight litres in 1969.

Beer growth turned sluggish when tough drink driving laws were introduced in the late 1970s. Australia's wine industry, led by its port and muscat makers, blossomed as Australians got richer.

With the drink driving laws came growth in the sales of light beers -- low alcohol, not low calorie like in the United States.

As on the beer front, where Australia's balmy weather favours pilsners over heavy ales, Australians imbibe more white wine than red. But that is rapidly changing.

"Within the next year, it's more than likely to be one for one," said Rosemary Eastwood, marketing general manager for Southcorp Wines, Australia's largest wine maker.

Red wine was becoming more popular because Australia makes good reds, and drinkers were becoming more sophisticated and hearing about the health benefits of red, she said.

About half the wine drunk in Australia is from casks, but that share is slipping as tipplers acquire a taste for higher quality wines.

"Good economic times in recent years have worked in favour of wine consumption," said Lawrie Stanford, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation's manager of information analysis.

Those good economic times are fuelling growth in premium beers, too, with brewers chasing the same dollars as Australia's vintners and creative chefs.

"Premium beer is actually growing a lot faster than wine," said Kennedy from Foster's.

Lion Nathan's Taylor believes in taking risks and challenging drinkers with new tastes, hosting dinners matching hoppy premium brews with spicy Asian dishes or caramelly ales with red meat and roast vegetables.

"We're just trying to stimulate people to think outside that frosty cold glass of lager and get into some really flavoursome beers," he said.

"And coming out with this vintage 2000, which is a bottle of beer at A$13 (US$7.65), the most expensive beer in Australia, you'd have to say that's high risk."

The taste for beer may be changing but Australia still remains a cosy duopoly between Foster's and Lion Nathan, which is 45 percent owned by Japan's Kirin Brewery Co.

Outside Australia, beer drinkers know Foster's Lager and Lion Nathan's Castlemaine XXXX, but at home the drinkers are more parochial.

Victorians prefer a pot of Victoria Bitter or VB, Australia's biggest selling beer, while Queenslanders stick mainly to a schooner of XXXX.

In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, the drinkers are less choosy, going for Lion's Tooheys, VB and Foster's Lager.

"They're not as big and tough as some of the European beers. But they've probably got a bit more flavour and impact than some of the American and Mexican beers," Taylor said.

On the premium side there are also foreign beers and Tasmania's James Boag, recently bought out by Philippines brewing giant San Miguel, but Foster's still rules.

"I think given the climate that we've got and the outdoor living that we do, those golden refreshing lagers are really well suited," Taylor said.

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