Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Australia's bad beer, and cold flats in Portugal: Does YOUR country have Seasonal Self-Denial?

Melbourne has bad beer.
I'll explain this outrageous statement in a moment, but first, Portugal.

A hot country, everywhere, all the time

Portugal in November, bright but chilly.
Also pictured: me, age 24
My first couchsurfing experience was in Lisbon in November 2007. I stayed with a lovely Brazilian girl who drove me around and showed me awesome places I would never have found by myself in a foreign city.

But it was November, and while the days were sunny, the nights were cold, even indoors in her flat.

"Why aren't there any radiators? Do you have any heaters?" I asked innocently. I hadn't yet found out that central heating is actually pretty rare around the world.

"Of course not," she said, very straightforwardly. "Portugal is a hot country!"

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Seasonal Self-Denial.

New Zealand, where fresh air is important, all year round

Rich houses in New Zealand are more likely to have underfloor heating than insulation or double-glazing; poor houses are usually made badly, from bad materials, are riddled with holes and damp, and have louvre windows. In fact lots of houses in New Zealand have louvre windows.

Louvre (jalousie) windows were usually built in the bathroom/toilet of a New Zealand building, on the basis that noxious poo smells are more dangerous to human health than cold air which brings damp and mould into your house. This means they are excellent for getting young children started on respiratory diseases which should have been eradicated dozens of years ago.

This might not really matter if New Zealand was a hot, dry, inland country... so it's a shame then, that all the NZ architects forgot that it's an island nation, where the fresh air is full of moisture, and where it actually gets cold in winter. Surprise!

If this is the state of beer in Melbourne, then...

Let's be clear. I'd rather have beer in Melbourne than anywhere else in Australia. Melbourne: Australia's big, cultural, creative city! If the beer's going to be good anywhere, it's here. And yet...

At a nice restaurant on Saturday, I asked the waiter (nicely) how come the menu had 9 beers - 9 fancy bottled craft beers - and none of them were dark. Golden ales, lagers, pale ales*, even Weiss beer, but nothing dark or even brown.

"Oh, well, we did have some," he said happily, "back when it was colder. But it's summer now, so it's hot."

Let that sink in. If you don't get what's funny, here's some relevant facts:
  • Melbourne has a famous reputation for terrible, unpredictable weather (because most Australians have never been to Wellington).
  • Famous New Zealander Neil Finn from famous Australian band Crowded House wrote a famous song about how bad Melbourne weather is, called "Four Seasons In One Day". It's not a joke or a love song, it's a real thing.
  • In the previous 24 hours, Friday to Saturday, the temperature had dropped 25 degrees - from 44 at the end of Melbourne's record-long 40+ heatwave, straight down to a cool 19.
Rare breed: a dark Australian beer.
White Rabbit's owners, famous brewery
Little Creatures, brew 6 beers...
none of them dark.
But this nice man, who knew lots about good food and drink, was just repeating what every Australian knows. This is a hot country. We drink light beer because it's hot. Everywhere, all year round.

The thing is, it would make perfect sense to make tasty dark beers like porter and stout more available in Australia, and definitely Melbourne, and not just hide them secretly in specialist bars like the St. Kilda Taphouse. This is especially true of NZ and Australian dark beer, which (unlike dark British ales) are cold, crisp and very refreshing in all seasons.

And of course, let's not forget air conditioning. Bangkok has at least one Belgian beer bar. Even Laos makes a dark beer!

Try and see past the whinging pom

I know what you're thinking. Yes, I've been spoiled by the ale culture of Britain and the recent craft beer explosion in Wellington and New Zealand. Yes, I've only been here for 4 weeks. Yes, I should adjust and enjoy the new things in a new country instead of comparing it to other places.

But temperature and weather are relative, and how we act is affected by the stories we tell ourselves.

In Thailand in November, you see tourists wearing shorts because it's hot and locals wearing jeans because it's cold - in the same room together. The locals aren't just Thais either, they're ex-pats too. They live there. After 38 degrees in May, 25 is nice and chilly for anyone.

So I put it to you, Melbourne and Australians, to have more confidence in dark beer, and to you, Portuguese, to have more faith in heating. And to you, New Zealand, to have more faith in windows that actually keep the air out. Because everywhere gets cold outside sometimes.

Incidentally, I just moved into my first house here in Australia, and look what I found in the toilet. Brilliant.

At least it wasn't a spider

* Dear god so many pale ales in the world right now. It's been the Sauvignon Blanc of craft beers for several years already - everyone is making it, and the quality is dropping. Craft breweries are too afraid to make anything else, and punters only see wall-to-wall pale ales. End the madness. Let something else be trendy.


  1. A great post that should be more widely shared. BTW, sign for The Crafty Pint's newsletter for the lowdown on the craft beer scene.

    As for trendy new craft beers, people are starting to get into sours more.

  2. Interesting reading - despite the apparent fashion for pale ale I am still constantly amazed by the craft beer scene in various countries.

    Some American friends are coming over later in the year and I am actually concerned that they are going to be plain disappointed by the beers on offer in most places over here. After going to the states, and obviously visiting NZ, other countries put us to shame with the popularity of mass market lager in England.