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BRUCE McDOUGALL takes us on a journey through the ages that finishes with a surprising appreciation of a much denigrated brew.

IN the depths of a Covid lockdown and a date with freedom almost as far away as a St George Dragons premiership, a bloke often as not will turn his mind to alcohol. My flirtation with the amber fluid goes back to 1977 when I moved to London – as many young Aussies and Kiwis did and still do (pandemics permitting). In the years since I’ve poured quite a bit of the stuff down my throat all over the world In three years based in the Old Dart, an education fortified by locals, old timers, publicans and anyone else with a love of beer, I could reel off the names of fair swag of tipples. Classic bitter and mild cask-conditioned ales pulled up by ornate handpumps were my poison of choice. I tried to sample every one of them on offer up and down the British Isles and Ireland (where a pint of Guinness or Murphys was mandatory).

Europe was a whole other Aladdin’s Cave of drops in different styles that meant I could have gone on forever. Those were the days of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which became the centre of a serious fight in the beer drinking world as young people turned increasingly to lagers and lighter styles.

Even the traditional pint glass with a handle came under threat as the new generation of drinkers demanded theirs in a “straight” glass. Fullers London Pride, ESB, Youngs, Greene King’s Abbot Ale, Shepherd Neame, McMullen’s AK and Newcastle Brown were among my favourite drops. And I never supped a dud beer in bonny Scotland. I even hopped into the occasional barley wine (really a beer), a favourite with many an old timer, supercharged in strength and with colourful names like Stingo. As traditionalists might say, the classic draught ales of the British Isles might be compared to the pleasures of the red wines of Bordeaux – subtlety of colour, fresh fruitiness, dashes of sweetness, counter-strokes of dryness and sometimes a hint of oak. Today, beer is being refashioned and rediscovered as a drink to be enjoyed for its immense variety of flavours and styles. The craft beer industry has exploded in size and scope giving rise to micro breweries in neighbourhoods all over the place. Zingy pale ales are the go for many drinkers. It’s a revolution to challenge, and complement, the wine industry. Not long ago, pre-pandemic, I was back in London for an old mate’s 60th and was surprised that amid the pig on a spit and gallons of sparkling wine a fair number of the drinkers in the backyard marquee were consuming zero alcohol beer. I soon discovered they were all running a marathon the next day and that the was the reason behind their drink of choice on the night. Zero or low alcohol beer, servicing those who still want taste but are unable for a variety of reasons to cop the alcohol, has been available in Britain and Europe for some years - and now it is sweeping the beer scene in Oz. Sales of non-alcoholic beer and wine, according to a report in the finance pages of The Daily Telegraph, are surging with sales more than doubling at Dan Murphy’s and BWS in 2019-20. I have tried a few of the many beer brands on the market, some of which are going gangbusters. There is a swag of German, Austrian and Czech versions, recognisable brands such as Heineken, Holsten and Erdinger, but also drops with names like Bavaria’s Weihenstephaner (which has claims on being the world’s oldest brewery dating back to 1040), Schlossgold (Austria), Clausthaler (Germany) and Budvar Nealko (Czech). Then there are drops such as own Carlton Zero and Coopers Ultra Light. I have to say that the benefits aside of not waking up with hangover and being able to drive, I was a bit underwhelmed at first by the tipples I tried. Pleasant enough but not a lot of body or flavour, and definitely no kick. Then I found Nort, born amid the Covoid lockdowns out of Mona Vale’s Modus Operandi Brewing on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. According to the Telegraph the brewery took out a silver medal at the Australian International Beer Awards in the first year with a non-alcohol category. Skolling a few tubes of the Nort Refreshing Ale, I can see what the fuss is about. This one really does taste like the new age beers that are all the rage - tangy, tropical, citrusy, call it what you like. I definitely will go back for more. The brewery has since added several more beers to their range with names like Tropical XPA and All Day IPA.

Then there is Hawkesbury Brewing Co’s Prohibition Pale Ale which I haven’t tried but is selling well in the pandemic during which health authorities have warned punters to watch their consumption of full strength alcohol. There is a host of other zero alcohol beers ... too many to mention. The big players of the industry already are involved and smaller neighbourhood operations are popping up all over the place. Once, drinkers may have a been bit coy about drinking low alcohol or “light” beers in full view of their mates. These days, what started as a novelty looks likely to be here to stay as yet another option in the fabulous world of the amber nectar. It’s a great time to be a drinker.

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