461 South Road, Regency Park, SA 5010
The Adelaide Football Club, may consider themselves to be the ‘pride of South Australia’ but they are well down on the list compared to many of the wineries and Coopers Brewing. I consider Coopers to be almost the flagship of brewing in Australia, with a selection of fine crafted brews that have remained true since I became of drinking age (and I suspect long, long before that). I remember my first glass (actually it was a pint) of Coopers Sparkling as if it was yesterday. It was in 1986, at the Rifle Brigade Hotel in the Central Victoria town of Bendigo. They had Coopers on tap, and one of my drinking companions decided that my life was not complete because I had not sampled a Coopers Ale. Another first, was that this was the first time I had ever drank a pint — but first let me tell you a little bit about glass sizes in Australia (which is not easy to do).
As many regular readers may know (I talk about myself often enough), I grew up in rural Australia on the border of Victoria and New South Wales. Now each state (just to be contrary) has devised its own glass measuring system. In Victoria it was traditionally to order either a ‘glass’ (200mL) or a ‘pot’ (285mL). That was it. Times have changed and there is much more diversity now, but back then that was all most pubs served. In New South Wales, however, they had the ‘pony’ (140mL), the ‘middy’ (285mL) and the ‘schooner’ (425mL). You can imagine my embarrassment as a fifteen-year-old boy (yes I was under-age drinking), after a football game just across the border in NSW, walking into a pub with a host of my team mates and ordering a ‘pot’, and then being rebuked by the bar staff for not asking for a ‘middy’. Yes, these discrepancies can happen within a 50 kilometre distance from the border. But, I learnt my lesson. If you think that’s confusing, over the width and breadth of Australia beer glasses can also be called fives, sixes, sevens, eights, tens, fifteens, shetlands, horses, bobbies, butchers and schmiddys. And it’s always reassuring to know, that there always be a member of the barstaff, who will make you feel like a complete idiot if you order the wrong one.
As I said above, times change. Pubs started to struggle to make ends meet and had to find new ways to get punters through the door. Also at this same time, there was a concerted push by many International beer brands into the Australian market. The result was the ‘theme pub’. Pubs that had traditionally been tiled from floor to ceiling (a throwback to the days of the ‘six o’clock swill – but I’ll talk about that some other day), were now decked out as ‘Bali Bars’, ‘American Bars’ or ‘English Pubs’. The worst, however, was the ‘Pokies Hotel’. Suddenly pubs were allowed to install Poker Machines, and now large chunks of drinking area were chopped off and turned into damnable Pokie Lounges. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go out, I like to drink, dine and chat with friends. But ‘Pokies’ – c’mon!!! All you are doing is sitting face to face with a retched machine. Where is the social interaction in that? By that same token, I hate televisions in bars too. If you want to watch TV, stay at home and sit on your couch.
Anyway, where was I…oh, yes, the Rifle Brigade Hotel in Bendigo and enjoying my first pint of Coopers Sparkling Ale. The Rifle Brigade Hotel, which was situated opposite the old army barracks (hence its name), in a sense themed itself as an ‘Olde Australia Pub’ – which in essence means it modelled itself on old English and Irish pubs but didn’t push traditional English and Irish Beers. In fact, it set up its own micro-brewery and started pushing out its own brews — but in all honesty, I was too young to experiment, and taste wise, wander off the beaten path (today, that is almost shameful and regretful, but I’ll pass it off as the ‘folly of my youth’).
My experimentation was limited to Coopers Sparkling Ale, which was a marvel to behold. Unlike the lagers I was used to drinking, here was a beer, while being golden in colour, when you held it up to the light, you could not see from one side of the glass to the other.
Now if you’ll let me digress once again, and in the interests of educating anyone who plans to visit Australia and sample some of the amber nectar, let me explain labelling means SFA (‘Sweet F#ck All’) in Australia. Firstly, let’s deal with the Foster’s issue. Foster’s Lager may be one of the top six beer brands in the world, but it only accounts for about 1% of the Australian market – and may I suggest, the flavour that you get overseas will not reflect the flavour in the average can of Aussie Foster’s. But at least it is honest and calls itself a Lager. Australia’s biggest selling brand, which is Victoria Bitter – or more affectionately known as ‘VB’ is also a Lager in a very similar style. The name is a throwback to the 1800s when it used to be Victoria Bitter Ale. Likewise, Carlton Draught is a Lager. Draught, originally implying it was a beer originally only available on tap. Melbourne Bitter too, is not a Bitter Ale, but a Lager. The majority of Australian beers are pale golden lagers that are highly carbonated (especially when compared to English brews). I would suggest most untrained palates, will not be able to tell the difference between these beers.
Coopers Sparkling Ale, on the other hand is not a bottom-fermented lager, but a top-fermented ale. It’s also rare to find Coopers on tap. Mostly it comes in bottles, and the thing that puts many unseasoned drinkers off Coopers in the natural sediment that is found in the bottle. This sediment is a part of the secondary fermentation process which takes place in the bottle, and is what gives Coopers its cloudy appearance. An old advertising campaign for Coopers used the phrase ‘Cloudy but fine’, and that is the perfect description of this beer.
I have met people who refuse to drink down to the bottom of a bottle (or stubby) of Coopers. That’s silly. What you do, before you open the bottle is gently turn and twist the bottle, so the sediment (yeast) is shaken free, and for want of a better term, dissolves into the beer. It doesn’t really dissolve, it floats through the beer — but don’t worry, you won’t taste it.
I would suggest that Coopers Sparkling Ale is in the top two mass-produced beers in Australia. On its day it may be number one (I have a soft spot for Toohey’s Old but I’ll talk about that some other day). But it is a heavy beer, with a strong, bitter aftertaste. Definitely not a quaffing beer. Due to its fuller body, it’s probably not your first choice on a day where the temperature reaches over 30 degree Celsius either. It could seem a bit heavy and bloating. But on a fine spring or autumn day, where you can sit outside with friends — maybe with an anti-pasto or cheese platter, this beer is — dare I say it — one of the finest in the world of its kind.
Coopers Sparkling Ale is exported around the world, and although may be difficult to find, it is not impossible to find for those who are adventurous enough to tackle it.