After a long dry(ish) spell during the depression years of the 1930s, beer consumption grew rapidly during the wartime years. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, Aussies drank even more. In 1974-5 per capita beer consumption reached its peak of 140.3 litres a year for every person over 15. By 2013/14, this figure had fallen to 92.37 litres, a 60-year low.
It’s unlikely that this peak was reached because Richmond won its second successive VFL premiership in September 1974, although it may be linked to students celebrating the abolition of university fees in 1975. Or did the subsequent decline have something to do with the end of the Whitlam euphoria and the sobering influence of a Fraser government after the Dismissal of November 1975?
The increase in beer consumption had been making news since the early 1940s. In 1953, the Sydney Morning Herald, invited its readers to visualise the vast amount of beer Australians drank annually. “Pretend for a moment that Martin Place has been made water-tight from Macquarie Street down to George Street, thus forming a huge, oblong reservoir,” it wrote. “Then pour into this imaginary reservoir all the spirits and wine drunk in Australia last year- The spirits would be only two feet deep, the wine 14 feet deep. Finally, instead of spirits or wine, pour in last year’s beer draught. The froth would reach the top of the tallest buildings (150 feet) and continue rising for another four storeys (40 feet).”
The article noted that Australia’s per capita beer consumption had risen from 17.96 gallons (82 litres) in 1949 to 21 gallons (95 litres) in 1953. Prosperity in the post-war years was a factor in the increase. Food prices fell, leaving more disposable income to spend on non-essentials. As the baby-boomers grew up they swelled the ranks of social drinkers. By the mid ’60s, all states had done away with 6 o’clock closing, so the “drinking window” increased substantially. And once women were admitted to public bars, the flood gates were definitely open.
So what happened in the mid-seventies to turn the tide? In 1976, Victoria became the first state to introduce random breath testing (RBT). New South Wales followed in 1982. By 1988, all Australian jurisdictions had RBT in place. Long sessions in the pub became a lot more perilous.
While beer consumption declined, total alcohol consumption remained relatively steady during the late ’70s and early ’80s, then declined. We were drinking more wine, less beer. And perhaps we were more inclined to drink it at home. In 2013/14 the per capita consumption of beer was at its lowest since the beginning of the ’50s. A Roy Morgan survey in 2019 found that the proportion of Australians drinking beer had declined marginally since then (down to 38.2% of the adult population), although in terms of volume it was still the most-consumed alcoholic drink.