Monday, May 14, 2007

Beer as a Badge

Today’s topic concerns a phenomenon which began in Victoria during those heady, leg warmer-clad mullet wearing days of the eighties. Before this time, beer drinking was a simpler pastime. Working men and their mates had two choices; VB from a stubby or a can, and private school poofters in big business could choose between Crown Lager and Fosters.

What you drank said more about you than where you drank or what football team you supported. Melbourne Bitter was the staple of older blokes who wanted a bit more bitterness, Abbot’s and Invalid Stout was for the even older blokes who you were too scared to talk to and Crownies were for the bloke whose horse came in or whose missus just left him. And anyone drinking Tooheys’ or Castlemaine Perkins was here on holiday. And they must’ve brought it with them.

Mostly, beer was an egalitarian symbol, almost like a badge of sameness - a beacon which signalled that ‘I’m no better or worse than you or your mate.’ Chances were that the drinking establishment was populated by a hundred blokes just like you. The thing is, you were not really aware of any of this.

The advertising of these beers was as straightforward as the drinker and the beer itself. Your beer was all you really needed after ‘ropin’a cow, pullin’ a plough or shavin’ ya brow’. Its livery was simple – drinking by colour – green for VB, red for Melbourne, blue for Fosters and yellow for Fourex. Keep it simple. You only drank ‘foreign stuff’ like Tooheys’ New or West End Draught or Cascade when you yourself were on holiday and wanted to be daring – or if they were out of VB.

Then came the revolution. Beer began to change. The birth of the international beer signalled a change in drinking habits that has morphed into a disturbing social trend. The Badge Drinker. The likes of Alan Bond and John Elliot, among others, brought more beers to the masses. Western Australian beers were all of a sudden available in bars around Sydney, Melbourne and even Adelaide. Tasmania’s long hidden treasures were coming across the Strait and all manner of imports were suddenly everywhere thanks in part to distribution and licensing deals with the multinationals.

This was a great thing for the adventurous drinker and for the bloke who woke up one day to discover that blind brand loyalty was a misplaced virtue. New experiences and tastes and flavours and aromas and bottle shapes and labels and colours and everything were now available in bottle shop and bar. And, like new kids in the playground need to try new things if they want to be noticed by the big kids and the popular kids, new beers need to advertise differently to attract their target drinker. But, rather than selling the taste, many new kids went for the image marketing.

A certain type of person drank this beer or that beer and women would fawn and coo and mates would back-slap say things like ‘good onya, mate!’ and sporting contests could be won and business deals, both boardroom and bedroom, could be sealed by the man with the right can. Or stubby. So that is just what some blokes did. They chested the bar and demanded a stubby of ‘Image Lager’ and proceeded to neck it with a successful swig and a satisfied ‘Aaaahh!’ and made sure everyone could see that he was an ‘Image Lager kinda guy’. Just like on the telly.

But I ask you, blokes and blokettes, what really is the point of paying a premium for a beer with a bit of character, maybe some hop aroma and full malt flavour and then not letting the bloody thing breathe!? Look for this bloke next time you visit your local and – making sure he’s not the bloke in the mirror- raise the glass into which you have thoughtfully poured your beer and give him a knowing nod.

But don’t pity him; he was once one of us. And if we all keep to the path, he just might return to the fold once more. For now, though, he’s a bit of a tosser.

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