This statement has raised a few eyebrows on both sides of the world, but of all the places I visited in Australia, Canberra was my favourite. Maybe it’s just my contrary nature, as everyone I spoke to about Canberra seemed to apologise for its very existence, but on my last day in Australia, looking out over Lake Burley Griffin towards Black Mountain, I felt I was in one of my favourite places in the world.
Like San Diego, one of my other favourite places, Canberra was almost entirely planned. Sydney and Melbourne were hot favourites to be Australia’s capital city but there was too much rivalry between them, so like a harassed parent, the government decided that if they couldn’t stop squabbling then neither of them would get to be capital, and they would just build a new one on what had been Ngunnawal land for about 21,000 years, and had been settled by white people in the 1820s.
Something which immediately struck me about suburban living in Australia is how far you have to go to find a bar. I can walk for fifteen minutes from my house in England and pass four pubs, but the closest to my brother’s house in Lawson, a Canberra suburb, was a good half hour walk and was actually a club, not a pub or bar as such.
Clubs seem to be much more prevalent outside of cities than local pubs or bars. Having experienced these first hand I thought it would be easy to come back and do some online research but it seems not – the one in Lawson doesn’t even appear on google maps. It seems that the club is similar to what we know as a sports, conservative, labour, or working men’s club, and restrict the sale of alcohol to members and guests in return for not paying certain taxes.
Because of the dearth of pubs within a walkable distance, and the cost of drinking in bars (remembering that a pint was averaging out at £4.85 even in a small suburban bar), home brewing is popular in Australia. My sister-in-law had brewed a red ale which I helped bottle while I was there, and considering that your only real option is buying from the bottle-o at about £2 a bottle, or driving to a bar, it’s a low cost way to have a drink at home.
Despite spending a good ten days in Canberra, I visited a grand total of two pubs all the time I was there. The first was one I designated as my new local, Shorty’s on Bunda Street. I chose Shorty’s for two reasons; it was next door to where I got my morning coffee, and it had lunch specials. I could go on for a long time about why someone’s favourite pub is not necessarily the closest, or the most attractive, or the one with the best beer, but the one that you feel at home in. I felt at home in Shorty’s because it was half empty most of the time, and the people were nice to me.
A ‘shorty’ was the name for a young man whose job it was to keep an eye out for police back in the country’s early days when street gangs were a thing. Shorty’s is an American style neighbourhood bar and grill which looked like it was making more on food than beer, but they had a good number of craft beers on tap and an extensive menu of cocktails with names like Left, Right, Goodnight and Punch Drunk.
The second pub was within the Australian National University’s music department building, a brew pub called the Wig and Pen. The pub was in jeopardy about two years ago when the building which housed it, Canberra House, was redeveloped. They managed to find a new home in Llewellyn Hall, home of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. At the time, objections were raised about the prospect of young music prodigies coming into contact with pub patrons ‘at various stages of inebriation‘, but nevertheless they relocated, and conserved the wall of the former Green Room, which had been signed by a number of celebrity performers and visitors including Nelson Mandela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. On the Wednesday night I visited there were about a dozen people in there, and chairs were being stacked on tables at about eight thirty PM, so clearly the fear of choirboys turning into raging alcoholics were unfounded.
The beer was fine, their Best Bitter being the.. best. The barman seemed rather bored to be there until I commented on the Angram beer pump – these are ubiquitous in the UK but I had not come across one in Australia. His face lit up. “Nobody else has one, we’re the only ones. It’s original!” he declared. Incidentally this was one of the very few places I was able to buy a pint of beer, a schooner wasn’t even offered, which pleased me immensely.
Canberra has some excellent attractions for sightseers interested in Australian history. This may be an odd compliment, but it has the most wonderful war memorial I’ve ever been to. At the National Museum of Australia there was a significant focus on indigenous people and how they attempted to educate the white settlers, but were often ignored. (There’s a great story about an English naturalist commenting that the ‘damn fool Indians think the platypus lays eggs!’) It was thought for a long time that brewing was something that white settlers introduced to Australia, but a new study will investigate preliminary findings that Indigenous Australians have been fermenting alcohol from the flora for over 20,000 years. The study will specifically look into certain types of plantlife to see whether its extracts can be fermented and where the yeast would have come from.
The National Gallery of Canberra had a fantastic exhibition of art by Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, some of it examining the effects of alcohol on Indigenous communities. The information from the study into early fermentation suggests that it would yield drinks with a low alcoholic content, and when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, they brought with them huge amounts of strong alcohol and also the knowledge and equipment to brew more. The alcohol was sometimes used to barter, and to exchange for sex or work with Indigenous people, therefore flooding the communities with a much more potent alcohol than they had been used to. There have been studies suggesting that alcohol intolerance is genetic in Indigenous people, and just as many suggesting that it isn’t. Certainly the normal factors of disenfranchisement and poverty, which can lead to binge drinking, alcoholism and alcohol related deaths, are present in most Indigenous communities thanks to the systematic racism and imperialism those communities have experienced. However, Australia has a drink problem as a whole, and Indigenous people are statistically more likely to be abstinent than the white population. It’s hard to see where the truth lies, as you can never be confident that even the Australian government line on Indigenous alcohol consumption isn’t framed by racism.
Tune in next time for part three, featuring brewery taps aplenty, cellar doors, and what happens when an English woman wins the grand prize in a small town meat raffle.