I wasn’t expecting this. A strange, sudden swelling in my chest. Could it be … pride? I can’t remember feeling this way about a beer before. Certainly not a beer I don’t even drink.
I’ve just spent a day inside Carlton & United Breweries’ huge Abbotsford brewery on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River, discovering why the company’s iconic beer brand, VB – Victoria Bitter – tastes the way it does. Eight hours in a high-vis vest and safety specs, smelling yeast, tasting hops. No wonder I feel overwhelmed.
Victoria Bitter is the perfect single brand to tell a broader story of Australian beer, because unlike other historic Australian brands – Queensland’s XXXX, NSW’s Resch’s – it has truly nationwide appeal. During its heyday in the 1980s, one in every three beers sold across the country was VB.
There’s another reason why I wanted to get closer to the heart of the brand. Like millions of other people, I have a deep-seated, sentimental attachment to this beer.
Christmas 1977. Nine years old. Backyard Sydney family barbecue. The sun blares and the sound of cicadas rips the air. Everything feels raw and over-exposed, and I watch as squinting uncles and sunburnt cousins rip ring-pulls from can after can of Victoria Bitter.
Another Christmas, early ’90s, returning from a trip to London. One day tramping through slush and biting cold, the next smothered by Sydney humidity. As the kitchen fan whirls overhead, I open the fridge and look for a midnight snack. A couple of minutes later, I’m tucking into a leftover roast lamb sandwich and washing it down with a cold can of VB. I’m home.
More memories. Lugging cases of VB longnecks into the cool room at a drive-through bottle shop in Fitzroy, selling six-packs of stubbies to students in flannos, the first proper job I got after moving to Melbourne, the year Essendon won the flag. Drinking jugs of VB in the front bar at the Esplanade Hotel at sunset, listening to mates’ rock bands. Visiting my step-father, an actor, backstage after a show, him nursing a can of VB in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
That was a long time ago, though. Over the past 25 years, like many Australians, I’ve become far more interested in craft beer. Now, I would much rather drink a dark ale – a chocolate porter, perhaps – brewed by some bearded hipster than reach into the fridge for a can of bland industrial beer brewed by a corporation.
I could understand their suspicion. As a drinks writer, I flaunt my beer snobbery.
So, when I contacted CUB to see if I could arrange a tour of Abbotsford and they asked me how I felt about VB myself – did I drink it? – it stopped me in my tracks.
“Yes … well, not for a while. I mean, no. But I used to.”
I could understand their suspicion. As a drinks writer, I flaunt my beer snobbery. I have been openly critical of various CUB products at times, and downright hostile at others. If I were CUB, I’d be wary of me, too.
So I was surprised when the communications manager got back to me with a suggestion. “I’ve been speaking to a senior brewer at Abbotsford who’s had an idea,” he said. “Instead of doing just a tour, do you want to help brew some VB from scratch?”
Claude Nyaguy has been working for CUB for 40 years. He looks like a tall, enthusiastic Hungarian-Australian Harrison Ford. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm for his job, for VB. “But I reckon they only hired me because they wanted me in the CUB footy team,” he says, smiling.
We’re in CUB’s small Research Pilot Brewery inside the Abbotsford compound. Claude hands me a knife to cut open a sack of pale malted barley, and he scoops out a handful of grains for me to chew on. The barley tastes faintly of sweet biscuit, like one of your nana’s Milk Arrowroots. It’s not a strong flavour. Clean, simple.
This is exactly what CUB is looking for. When someone pours a glass or opens a can, when the ice-cold beer enters the mouth of the drinker, it needs to taste exactly as everyone involved expects it to taste: easy to drink. Beer marketers call this quality “sessionable”. What it really means is it’s a beer that people can drink a lot of, long after their thirst has been quenched.
Next, Claude hands me a glass-measuring cylinder half full of dark golden, slightly viscous liquid. It’s hop extract, an intensely concentrated form of the compounds found in hop flowers that give beer its astringency and bitterness. He wants me to add this liquid to the brew. But before I do, I ask him if I can taste it.
This, I think, is the beating heart of VB, extract of Pride of Ringwood, a variety of hop bred especially for CUB in the 1950s. What better way to understand the beer than to taste the hop in its essential form – even if the extract is several thousand times more bitter than it will be once it’s diluted in the brew. “Are you sure you want to do that?” says Claude, incredulous. “You’ll still be tasting it on your tongue next week.”
Despite the warning, I dip the end of my little finger into the golden fluid and dab a tiny droplet onto the side of my tongue. For a millisecond, my mouth fills with the intensely aromatic resinous flavour of hop flowers. Then the drying, rasping roughness of the hop oils kicks in. While not quite hanging around for a week, the taste is still with me when I go to sleep that night.
The final component in the VB “recipe” was the launch in 1968 of its now-legendary television advertising campaign: “A hard-earned thirst needs a big, cold beer.” You can probably hear the tune in your head. The first ad featured a succession of blokes, jackaroos, steelworkers, footy players, doing blokey things, working, sunbaking, sweating. This formula continued into the 1970s and ’80s. Lots of blokes. All very Anglo-Aussie.
Women seldom made an appearance – sometimes not at all – and when they did appear, the gender roles were usually well-defined: the husband downs a Vic while his wife does the dishes; an older man drains his pot while a young woman looks up at him admiringly.
The tone began to shift slightly in the early 1990s: one ad featured a bloke working up a sweat as he did the dishes, while his long-suffering wife looked on. But during the 2000s and 2010s the tone of the campaign changed to become a series of ads riddled with cringe-worthy misogyny, overt ockerism, crass sport tie-ins or hypermasculinity: deeper and deeper voice-overs, lots more sweat.
The more money CUB spent on these ads, and the further they drifted from the original, simple concept, the less effective they seemed to be. The shift in tone coincided with other changes. Sales of mainstream beers were steadily declining. Craft beer was on the rise.
In 2018, the CUB marketing team decided it was time to refresh the brand. They changed the packaging, made it look more like it did in its heyday. And, half a century after the first VB ad went to air, they brought back the classic formula for a new series of commercials: the old theme tune, images of people hard at work, a baritone voice-over by actor William McInnes.
But this time, a few strands of diversity and inclusion were woven into the fabric of the brand. One ad featured a rock band with a female, Asian lead singer. Another ad showed hospitality workers – male chefs, a female waiter – enjoying a few beers together after knock-off. The voice-over talked about the modern flexibility of knock-off, “a time-honoured tradition that no longer has a time”.
The message was clear: even though we’re not living in a white-bread, nine-to-five world anymore, you can still rely on good old VB.
The brew day is over. I hand my high-vis vest, safety goggles and earmuffs back in at the front office and walk out of the gates. It’s a beautiful, crisp Melbourne spring afternoon and I’m thirsty. So I walk around the corner for a beer.
When I started writing about booze in 1992, you could count the number of small, independently owned Australian craft breweries on two hands. The market was almost entirely dominated by a few very large companies, such as CUB. Since then, hundreds of craft breweries have opened. One of them, Moon Dog, is literally in the shadows of CUB’s Abbotsford behemoth.
My new-found respect for large-scale Australian beer production will stay with me after leaving CUB. Later that evening, on the tram, I’ll look differently at the bloke carrying a six-pack of big-brand beers he picked up at a bottle shop on his way home. But this afternoon, here at Moon Dog, I walk past the bearded boys and tattooed girls and order a pint of dark, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying porter.
Edited extract from Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia, by Max Allen (Thames & Hudson, $33), published this month.
Max Allen is The Australian Financial Review’s drinks columnist. He is an award-winning journalist and author who has written about wine and drinks for close to 25 years.