Foster’S is known internationally as the quintessential Australian beer brand. However, it is curiously less popular in its homeland than it is around the world.
Ironically, Foster’s was created by two Americans who arrived in Melbourne, Australia, from New York in 1886. The most popular beer style at the time was India pale ale, which, like most beers, was imported. But beer suffered in the extreme Australian heat, and few attempts were made to cool it. This led the Australian Brewers’ Journal to claim, with remarkable foresight, that lager beer, “supplied in the proper way, in bulk, cold and fully charged with carbonic acid . . . will be the drink of Australia.”
W. M. and R. R. Foster were not the first to brew lager in Australia, but they went at it with a scale of commitment not seen before. They arrived in Australia with a German-American brewer who had studied in Cologne and a professional refrigeration engineer. They spent £48,000 ($76,690) building a very modern brewery that kept the beer cold and matured it for 6 weeks.
Foster’s Lager launched in November 1888 and was widely praised. In the hottest month of the year, it was delivered to hotels (bars) with a free supply of ice. But importers of foreign lager simply dropped their prices to squeeze the Foster brothers out, and after only a year they sold the brewery to a syndicate of businessmen for less than it had cost them to build and returned to New York.
The new Foster Lager Brewing Company continued to struggle, and it soon merged with local rivals Carlton, Victoria, Shamrock, Castlemaine, and McCracken to form what eventually became Carlton and United Breweries (CUB).
Within the CUB portfolio, Foster’s—only available in bottles—was seen as a premium brand. It first went international when it was shipped to Australians serving in the Boer War in South Africa and steadily began to build a widespread reputation as a quality Australian beer.
Back in Australia, further acquisitions by CUB saw Foster’s competing against other brands in the portfolio. When Foster’s Brewery was closed, the brand almost disappeared, but it had already begun to cross state lines in Australia’s famously parochial beer market, and orders from Queensland and Western Australia ensured its survival.
But Foster’s was dwarfed by draught brands such as Victoria Bitter (VB) and Carlton Draught. With the domestic market stagnant, it launched in the UK in 1971 and the United States the following year. As an Australian export, it was a remarkable success.
With the help of Australian comedian Barry Humphries and his character Bazza McKenzie, Foster’s became a cult import brand in the UK. In 1972, the Bazza character appeared in a film that, although critically reviled, made him a household name. By 1975 Foster’s accounted for 80% of Australian beer imported into Britain. In 1981 a deal was signed with UK brewer and pub owner Courage to brew the brand under license in the UK. Launched with another Australian comedian, Paul Hogan, Foster’s became incredibly popular, and by promoting an ongoing “No worries” Australian attitude, it remains the second largest UK beer brand overall. The lager itself is an unremarkable light international pilsner at 4.1% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Foster’s launched in the United States in 1972 and soon acquired a cult reputation thanks to its 750-ml (25.4-oz) cans, which quickly became dubbed “oil cans.” Patronage from stars such as Paul Newman and Robert Redford helped it become America’s third most popular imported beer for a time, and its continued popularity was again assured by humorous advertising, claiming that “Foster’s is Australian for beer.” The brand is available today in two variants: a 5% ABV lager and a 5.5% ABV “premium ale.”
The European rights to the beer are owned by Heineken International, who brew and sell it in most European countries. In the United States and India, rights are owned by SABMiller, and Foster’s is brewed in Canada under license by Molson Coors. In total, it is now available in over 150 countries.
Although the Bazza McKenzie film was banned in Australia, it became a cult hit that helped Foster’s gain popularity. A merger between CUB’s rivals Castlemaine, Swan, and Toohey’s prompted CUB to reposition some of the brands in its portfolio, and Foster’s was launched on draught as the quintessential Australian beer, transcending state boundaries. This was supported by a huge marketing spend, including Grand Prix, Olympics, and Aussie Rules Football sponsorships. By the late 1980s Foster’s was Australia’s best-selling beer.
But with this aggressive promotion, Foster’s lost its premium image. Australian drinkers, still fiercely territorial, bridled at the simplistic reflection of themselves it fed back to them, and they migrated back to strong provincial brands such as Castlemaine (Queensland), Tooheys (New South Wales), and Foster’s’ own stable mate, VB (Victoria). Although state boundaries are now being eroded, particularly by VB, Australians abroad are quick to point out that, far from being “Australian for beer,” Foster’s is now increasingly anonymous at home.