The oddities of local language usage and bar operations mean that, like most places on Earth, ordering a beer in Australia isn't as simple as saying 'I'd like a beer thanks, mate'. The following guide is meant to assist the uninitiated in negotiating the pitfalls of beer service in Australia and avoiding the obvious disappointment that can result when your desired refreshment arrives in an unexpected form. Following this is a short section on buying beer to be consumed away from licensed premises.
The good news for American readers is that the legal age for alcohol service throughout Australia is 18. If you look young you'll almost certainly be asked for proof of age. Another thing to bear in mind is that if you're attempting to enter a registered sporting club or some nightclubs, a dress code applies - usually closed footwear, collared shirt and no scruffy jeans. Pubs have no such prejudice - they'll mostly serve beer to near-naked patrons, and if you're female they may ask you to serve behind the bar in such a state.
Beer-serving establishments range from classic pubs, through bars, to registered sporting clubs and night clubs. Most have a combination of beer on tap and bottled beer. Sometimes you can get the same brew both on tap and bottled. If this is the case, favour the bottled version - it'll cost more, but it won't be as gassy or prone to tap operation errors by bar staff. In the more elite establishments bar staff will decant bottled beer into a glass for you. Other times you'll be asked whether you want a glass with the bottle, or they'll just provide one next to the open bottle on the bar. In addition, it is often possible to order a jug (known elsewhere as a 'pitcher') of tap beer. This is usually a cost-effective way of ordering beer for large groups, but you should always ask about relative prices and do the calculations before settling for a jug.
The sections below deal separately and in detail with the vagaries of ordering beer on tap, in bottles, or to take away.
Ordering Beer on Tap
How Much is That Pony on the Counter?
Beer on tap is mostly mass-produced, large national brewery fare, using gas lines for pressure and carbonation. However, if you find yourself in a boutique micro-brewery, with in-house beers using siphon taps, avail yourself of the opportunity to sample beer as it was meant to be. These establishments are relatively rare in Australia, and often themed to emulate the atmosphere of an 'English' or 'Irish' pub. Visitors from England and Ireland can derive some entertainment from visiting such places to test their authenticity.
Overseas visitors to Australian pubs are routinely subjected to a rather strange interrogation conducted by bar staff involving the proper name for the volume of tap beer they want to order. This is due to a state-based differentiation in descriptions of beer glass measures. Even Australians visiting other states can be victims of this confusion, and so the following is offered in an attempt to assist those wishing to be assured that the size of the ale delivered is as expected.
Table of Relative Beer Measures in Australia
The table below sets out the volumes of glasses available for beer service in Australian states and territories, and their local names.
|Glass size||NSW (+ACT)||VIC||QLD||SA||WA||TAS||NT|
|115ml/4oz||Shetland pony||Small beer|
|170ml/6oz||Small||A beer six|
|285ml/10oz||Middy||Pot||Pot||Schooner||Middy||Ten, or pot||Handle|
- NSW - New South Wales
- ACT - Australian Capital Territory
- VIC - Victoria
- QLD - Queensland
- SA - South Australia
- WA - Western Australia
- TAS - Tasmania
- NT - Northern Territory
Conservatism among drinkers is so strong that in New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory beer measures are still in fluid ounces rather than millilitres. As will be observed, a pot in Western Australia is twice the capacity of one in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland. Interestingly, a pint in South Australia is 5oz short of an actual pint, and a schooner in South Australia is 5oz short of a measure by the same name just about everywhere else. Theories to explain this apparent short-pouring practice abound, mostly involving allegations of puritanism among pub owners in that state, but the fact remains that local drinkers know what they should be ordering - frustration is still largely restricted to visitors from interstate or overseas.
Generally speaking the brewery-owned pubs, typified by a 1960s atmosphere of small green tiles, sticky carpet and old faded cigarette advertisements featuring Paul Hogan, handle a limited variety of measures: 7oz, 10oz and 15oz. Boutique pubs, micro-breweries and 'yuppy' pubs, mostly located in metropolitan centres, sometimes have a wider range of measures, tending to the larger side. In addition, the names detailed in the table above will more often be in current use in rural areas. There has been some standardisation of nomenclature between metropolitan centres in different states over recent years, possibly due to the increasing mobility of bar staff and pub owners between states. However, the situation is still fairly confusing, and so, to ensure a good night's drinking undisturbed by an argument over what a 'glass' of beer might constitute, it is as well to refer to the above table.
Lastly a word about stout. Many bars, pubs and clubs have Guinness on tap. Use your own judgement here, but keep in mind that this brew will mostly be served from gas-line taps, not siphon taps. Until recently the locally served Guinness recipe varied from the original Irish one, so be prepared for old stocks of strange-tasting stout. Also, beware of stout from cans. The cans with the gas gizmo in them are sometimes available across the bar, and will usually be decanted into a glass for service, as is right and proper. Finally, most micro-brewery pubs will have their own house stout, which is always worth a try, and will be served from siphon taps.
Ordering Bottled Beer
Whaddaya Mean I Look Like a 'Stubbie' Man?!
Depending on your taste, the variety of bottled beer available in Australia far outstrips the variety available on tap, which is why most establishments cater for both forms of service. First a word on terminology.
The standard 375ml single-serve bottle of beer in Australia is referred to as a 'stubbie'. You can sometimes also get cans of beer in pubs, clubs, etc, in the same measure, but there exists a kind of beer snobbery that maintains that beer in glass is superior to beer out of a can. So, when ordering bottled beer you should ask for a stubbie. It is rare to see the next size standard bottle (750ml) for bar service, these tend to be supplied at the bottle shop (see below) or other retail outlets. If you want that much beer across the bar, ask for a jug.
For those visiting the Northern Territory, beware the gargantuan 'Darwin Stubbie', a 1.25 litre bottle of beer in the shape of a standard stubbie. Some establishments encourage attempts to beat the record time for drinking a Darwin Stubbie, which is apparently around 1 minute 30 seconds. An unconfirmed report has it that an Alice Springs local regularly downed one in 32 seconds! The size of the Darwin Stubbie may be explained by the outback tradition of measuring long road trips in stubbies rather than time or distance (and in a place as large and sparsely populated as outback Australia, a long trip is long). To keep the stubbie count to a number low enough to be remembered by the inebriated, it is posited, the 1.25 litre Darwin Stubbie was invented. It is worth noting that the legal blood/alcohol limit in Australia is never higher than 0.08% (it varies from state to state), so admitting to a member of the police force that you've just travelled 10 Darwin Stubbies is not recommended. In any case, the empty makes a rather interesting souvenir, and the experience of holding down the entire contents should probably be the full extent of a single outing. Alternatively, you could share it with some friends.
Finally, it is possible to get a variety of imported beer in stubbies across the bar - the more high-faluting the establishment, generally the better the range. A large number of speciality Australian beers are only produced in stubbies, and it's worth considering these possibilities before settling for tap beer - unless of course we're talking about real ale on tap.
Buying Beer for Consumption away from Licensed Premises
How can a Fluid be Served in a Slab?!
In Australia the common name for a licensed purveyor of alcohol to take away is the ever-imaginative 'bottle shop', and in some places they are known as the more straightforward liquor store. Mentioning either term to a local will get you pointed in the right direction. A bottle shop may or may not be attached to a pub (known in the UK as an off-license). Many supermarkets also have liquor sections, separated from the rest of the groceries in accordance with licensing laws.
Beer from bottle shops and supermarkets is sold in 375ml cans, stubbies and 750ml bottles (sometimes referred to as 'long-necks'). For a short time the New South Wales brewer Tooheys marketed a 10-litre take-home 'keg', but apparently sales were slow, and it hasn't been heard much of recently. For the die-hards full-sized kegs can be 'hired' (ie, you return the empty vessel) together with gas-line and tap equipment from some pubs, but if that's the way you want to go you should contact an equipment hirer, who should be able to assist.
It is usually possible to buy a single can, stubbie or long-neck. Cans and stubbies can also be purchased in groups of six (a six-pack), 12 ('half a slab') or 24 (a 'slab'). Long-necks can also be purchased in groups of 12 (a 'case').
The range of beer available from bottle shops is generally superior to that in supermarkets, although some of the latter specialise in a wider range. In supermarkets you may have to go into a cold room to collect a slab or a case. As with bars and pubs, imported beer is generally available, and there is strong representation of local and interstate bottled beer.