The Australian alcohol culture conundrum

The Australian alcohol culture conundrum

When a gaggle of Australian backpackers tumbled into a European hostel, I knew they were in for a loud and drunken evening. Young Australians love to travel—and history and culture aren’t often at the top of their to-do list. Attractive young Aussies have acquired quite the reputation for starting parties and frequenting pub crawls on the European and Southeast Asia backpacker trail.

So when I arrived in Australia, I expected the bars to be crowded, the beer to be cold and the parties to be nonstop. And to a large degree, I wasn’t too disappointed: the Aussies certainly love to drink. But I was shocked by the high drink prices  and general lack of drunken escapades in bars.

Anyone working in a bar or restaurant licensed to serve alcohol in Australia must complete a Responsible Service of Alcohol course—so completing it was one of my first stops on my job hunt in Australia.

The six-hour course taught me plenty about the effects of alcohol and signs of intoxication—but more so, it was an insight into Australians and their relationship with alcohol.

I was surprised at the limits placed on drinking, many of which seemed far harsher than what I’m used to in the States. The .05 BAC alcohol level is lower than the .08 in California. Bars aren’t allowed to offer extreme discounts or drinking games—no buck nights, power hours or beer pong games like I loved in college. And the fines are heavy for serving drunk people–up to $11,000 if you serve a drink to an intoxicated person.

Christine enjoying a teapot cocktail in Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia

Now that I’m working in a bar and restaurant, I can see the effects of the RSA. We don’t serve people who are highly intoxicated. I sample our wine list with my two free after-work staff drinks since I couldn’t afford to on my salary. We have intimidating security guards every weekend to keep things under control.

Australia has struggled with high rates of binge drinking among young people, just as America and the UK have.  In March 2008, the Australian Prime Minister declared that binge drinking problems were at “epidemic levels” and earmarked $53 million in a campaign against binge drinking.

In Australia, alcohol is inextricably linked to sport, celebration, everyday life. It’s not a glass of wine with dinner—as is common in France or Italy—but rather a jug of sangria for a Sunday session, many cans of beer for a rugby game, a bottle of wine for a girls’ night out. And if you don’t drink, it’s cause for suspicion.

After paying the absurd prices of alcohol and witnessing the strict security measures, I understand the Australian backpacker a little more. Alcohol is a touchy subject, something that can be incredibly personal and yet a social experience and Australia is a heavy drinking culture with a government infrastructure that tries to limit alcohol intake and the subsequent costs and consequences. So when young Australians go abroad, they’re naturally enjoying the perks in countries with different drinking cultures.

Many of this can also be applied to young Americans as well: those in the 18 to 21 age range take full advantage of being able to drink freely in Europe, Southeast Asia and South America without being carded. But since Australians are also encouraged to travel more while young, they tend to be more visible in the traveling community.

What has been your experience with Australian drinking, whether abroad or in Oz?

Issues related to teen alcoholism take place in just about any country in the world where alcoholic drinks are sold.

  • I love the Australian people – friendly, outgoing and just fun to be around. Traveling Southeast Asia, the big groups of Aussie travelers were inevitably the ones who were making the biggest ruckus at 3 in the morning, usually after more beer than the average rhino could drink (if rhinos drank alcohol). There were definitely times when I dreaded the Aussie roommates because I knew I’d be getting little sleep that night!

    In Australia? I don’t think most people can afford to get that drunk very often. Perhaps the high prices are a bit of a backfire – instead of drinking casually a few times per week, they save their money and go all out in an indulgent haze a couple of times per month.

    But I could be way off base. I’m only on day 2 here, so I’m sure I’ll learn more over the coming weeks!

  • Aussies and their beer sound like English football fans! 🙂

  • Peter from SRA

    That’s an excellent summation of the situation. I run an online RSA course at http://www.rsa-courses.com.au and its nice to hear that these training courses are having an impact and being used by staff both local and folks like yourself from overseas.

  • Very interesting post. When I was in Australia, I realized alcohol was really expensive (so I didn’t understand how people could get that drunk!).

  • Alcohol as everything else in Australia is bloody expensive. The government keep taxing it in an effort to stop people drinking. It never used to be that expensive when I was young and out drinking, and there never used to be so many rigid laws. This country has changed a lot.
    I definitely can say that Australian’s like to drink and party but after travelling the world for as long as I have I think other cultures can drink and party just as much. Australian’s tend to drink for long periods of time, whereas other cultures go hard and fast. We were always amazed how many Americans and South Afrcans would start the night on shots and continue doing so long into the evening. Aussies don’t do that a lot.

    The thing that sets Australian’s apart from others, and I am battling to understand this since I have returned home, is our seemingly inability to handle the alcohol, especially by young Australian men.

    We lived in a college town in the States for four years. We would be out at the bars every weekend, and everyone was drinking plenty. Yet in all that time, we never ever saw one fight. The bouncers were courteous and respectful and even though people were drunk and out of control there was no aggressiveness it was just everyone having a good time.I know this is not what its always going to be like, but that is good odds and a good indication of how people can control themselves. And all of this is with there being no strict RSA laws, no expensive prices of alcohol, beer pong, beer specials and encouragement of binge drinking.
    Australia, on the other hand, is a different story. You have all these rules in place yet what happens–I have never been out in Australia without a fight breaking out. Australian males are angry and aggressive and get them on the drink and they are looking for fights. You can see and feel the tension in the air.
    And even worse is the fact that on the doors controlling the atmosphere on the pubs are ego-tripping roidy bouncers who have absolutely zero people skills and inflame situations where they should be calming them down. They are looking for fights just as much as the drunk people in the bars.
    I don’t know why our culture is this way, but I hate it. I hate it even more now I have lived elsewhere and seen different ways of behaviour.
    Our government is so stupid, they think the solution is to impose more rules, and fines and taxes, completely ignoring the real issues and so doing nothing about it. None of this is ever going to help solve the problem. And what that solution is who knows? But, it is that much of a concern to me, that I now do not want to raise my children in this society. There is too much aggression and anger. Now this is not all men in Oz or all places, but it is significant enough that it bothers me, and it bothers me a lot.
    I have nothing against drinking and partying, as I have done a lot of it myself, but I don’t see why my culture has to take it to aggressive, loud, and rude extremes especially in other countries. Wandering Earls recent post on this on Kuta, Bali absolutely appalled me and made me so ashamed of the disrespect and stupidity that many young Aussies are showing when they visit that country on their annual piss up!

    Sorry for the rant, this is such a strong issue on my mind lately. I just wish I had some solutions!!

  • Caroline Eubanks

    I’ve learned that the older folks are just as bad as the twentysomethings! It’s sort of embarassing to see 45 year old investment bankers taking Jager bombs.

    Agreed that the drinks here are super expensive. And when I pour drinks for Americans or people who have been to the states, they always comment on how little alcohol they get for their money. In the states, we free pour and let people be drunk in bars and don’t have as many fights. Here, we give them one shot per drink, immediately kick them out when they show signs of intoxication (although I like this part) and we see more fights. Ironic.

    Hope you’re enjoying Melbourne! It will be interesting to compare notes on the bar scenes of Melbourne and Sydney! I hope it’s more chill there with less of the “glassing” (never heard of this til my RSA class) that happens in the Cross.

  • Amy

    Interesting perspectives on the culture for sure. I remember experiencing Schoolies (as an outsider) while it took place, and it was pretty crazy the youth going nuts drinking/fighting. It made me understand why there was an increased drinking age in the US. In seeing more recent reports, it’s gotten even more out of hand.

    I didn’t drink in the States before I went to Australia (because I didn’t want to be an under-aged drinker, so goody-two-shoes) – so I can honestly say I “learned to drink” with my mates there. My tolerance when I came home was significantly higher than it should have been, but I could also hold my alcohol without acting ridiculous (minus my first really drunk night). I don’t remember the drinks being that expensive (I was in uni without a job), but maybe things have changed a lot since 2003?

    I did find it fascinating that they actually measured the alcohol going into mixed drinks – as I’d never seen it done like that back home. I remember hearing other people complain about that – but I thought it was a pretty smart idea.

  • They do have some strict rules and I guess with reason. Not buck nights man that sucks but hey the party must go one. Rising the prices on alcohol isn’t really going to stop people from drinking.

  • This is Australia!! I guess you know how embarrassed and mad I am about it. Especially after living in the States, seeing the free pouring, everyone getting just as drunk but never a problem. It is soo bad.

  • Lynda

    Having lived in the US for a while, I was shocked at how cheap alcohol was there compared to back home in Melbourne! At the same time, though, I now earn three times what I was earning in the US, so I guess it somehow evens its self out. Working in hospitality here I’m sure you’ve recognized the higher rates of pay here in comparison to a US-based hospitality job. I had friends on $4 an hour waiting tables in the US… My brother waiters here in Melbourne part time and is on $20 p/h, so it’s all relative I guess.

  • I’ve got a different outlook on drinking and having fun in OZ having grown up there myself. I grew up in a little country town where drinking was a bit of fun and never experienced all the fighting others have talked about.

    Then again in Melbourne as a student my friends and I went out to party but saw very few fights in the times we went out (and we were out a lot). Perhaps its more related to the place you are living or just younger people now I don’t know.

    It could be a sunday session, drinks with mates at home or an all out party night. I’ve always had fun, some good banter and a heavy head the next day. Sure us aussies like to drink and a certain group can give us a bad name but thats true for all cultures.

    I had a particularly bad experience with some american lads while in Europe last year and now in london I’ve seen my share of fights after too many a pint.

    One thing I do know though, it is bloody expensive to drink back home compared to abroad.

  • Lauren Fritsky

    Just wrote about the same topic this week — interesting you’re seeing it so soon into your stay.

  • Anonymous

    I definitely know how you feel about the crazy Australian roommates–I encountered quite a few while in Europe. However, I also had a few who absolutely hated the crazy Aussie backpacker reputation and who were pretty awesome–so I guess it all depends.
    I’m working in a bar/restaurant here, and I don’t think the prices are much of a deterrent. I think the general cost of living is much higher, so it doesn’t bother them quite as much–as far as I can tell, they certainly drink casually (as in with their meals) as well as binge on the weekends. You’ll have to let me know what you observe over the next few weeks–we can chat about it on Monday!!!

  • Anonymous

    There must be something with our Anglo cultures–American, Aussie, English and Irish cultures all seem to have the same problems with binge drinking leading to aggressive behavior!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely learned a lot! It was a really valuable experience as an outsider to learn more about the Australian drinking culture.

  • Anonymous

    It’s shocking how much they spend! Spending a couple of hundred dollars on a big night out doesn’t seem to be that uncommon–I used to just take $20 out with me!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely know how you feel! I worked on an anti-binge drinking advertising campaign in college, so we looked at a lot of these issues first hand. I certainly think that America has the same issues with young aggressive men getting in fights and such–although we certainly don’t have “glassing” to the extent that we have a specific term for it!
    Sometimes I think that whenever more restrictions are placed on something, people are more keen to do it. That’s why underage drinking thrives in America!
    It’s a difficult issue. Some of it is part of the culture that makes Australia great: the ability to relax with a beer and friends after a long day or for a Sunday session! I think the worst part is how it makes Australia look in the rest of the world–but obviously, Americans don’t exactly have the classiest reputation either. We just don’t travel as much!
    We’ll have to chat about this more over one (or mayyyybe two) pints sometime 🙂

  • For the last time, I’m sorry for smashing the beer bottle over your head. Will you let it go already!?


  • This is really interesting and not something I thought about too much on my trip to Oz, but it’s true. Alcohol is freaking expensive over there. I was in a camper van so we used to buy our beer by the case (XXXX or Pure Blonde usually) and then carefully ration every drop.
    When I was in London I lived with three Aussie guys who were absolutely bonkers. I expected to see a lot more wild and crazy party behavior in oz, but even those guys seemed much more sedate than I remember. I guess Australian’s really just go wild abroad, then come home to act like grownups.

  • It’s interesting how the Australian, or U.S. or nearly any Anglo government for the matter still can’t seem to understand the psychology behind prohibiting things. The interesting thing is that even though Spain’s drinking culture is traditionally different from that of the States, more and more youths are partaking in “botellons” which are mass groups of people drinking in outside places. They are particularly rampant in the south where I live…they actually try to set records between cities. It’s not uncommon for THOUSANDS of people to congregate for a night of drinking outside. Last weekend, a man was stabbed to death in Sevilla at a botellon.

  • Choco_mademoiselle

    hmm.. ! love the post! 🙂 I haven’t known some of these things up until now, thank you for sharing! 🙂

  • I find that in Australia there are to many laws and regulations and that is the reason behind binge drinking. When you look at cultures like France and Italy, where people are allowed to drink from a young age in moderation. Alcohol becomes part of there culture and they learn to respect alcohol. I think that Australia is going down the wrong path with law enforcement and taxing alcohol. It is to bad we are following America and not Europe and relaxing our laws and educating school kids, rather than just telling kids that you shouldn’t drink alcohol.

    Our drinking culture is what I love and hate about my country. There is nothing better than having a couple of beers with your mates at a BBQ, but I get pissed off when I have been told I have had to much to drink by a bouncer when I have just arrived and had a couple of beers and being a little loud. Bouncers have to much people for being such unskilled people. I guess that is why young Aussies tend to go wild when they go on there first trip overseas. I know I did when I traveled to Thailand for the first time at 20. Thanks for a great post 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I definitely agree with your last sentence–they seem to party much harder when they’re traveling!

  • Anonymous

    How crazy! I know that they’re starting to have more binge drinking problems with France’s youth as well, although really not on the same scale as the US or Australia. So interesting that the same problems plague most of the Anglo governments–Puritan roots!

  • Anonymous

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Anonymous

    Glad you enjoyed it! I certainly see a lot of similarities between how the American and Australian government and culture approach drinking, and clearly, the approach isn’t working. It’s unfortunate, especially after traveling in France and Italy–you know there’s a better way!

  • xcski

    Excellent Post! But once again ,a sure sign of the government getting involved in our affairs. I think we would all be better off making our own decisions, and pay the consequences if necessary. The thought of a bouncer or politician telling me I can’t have another beer is laughable!

  • Anonymous

    Laughable, but totally possible in Australia!

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  • Harry

    Carlita ??

  • Karolina

    Here, in Czech Republic, you can drink wherever you want to (expect places where  usually a lot of homeless people is). You can buy alcohol everywhere, not only in special markets. Every restaurant, bar or disco can sell the alcohol (they shouldn’t sell it to very drunk person or person under the age of 18). Absinth which has around 70% alcohol or austrian Stroh which has 80% are not restricted too and most of the restaurants and bars have these. It is more likely exception when they don’t have at least Absinth.  There is only age restriction and “only one small (0,3 l) beer before driving” restriction. I must say that I don’t think we have a problem with locals, only with British people who go here just to drink because it is cheap and no regulations. Beer is one of the highlights in our culture so when you come to small local pub in village, for example, beer is cheaper than other non-alcoholic beverage. Draft beer (pint) costs around a euro (1,5 AUS or USD), water or juice (0,33 l) around 1,5 eur (1,9 AUS or USD). When you are around 15 years old, you usually drink a small beer (0,3 l) with your parents or just tasting. My first tasting of beer was when I was 6 years old. Of course, I didn’t like it. It was too bitter. And voilà I am not alcoholic. 

    I would say: ” Forbidden fruit is the sweetest.” 

  • This is a really interesting point. I travelled around south Mexico for a while at the end of last year and was always surprised at how many Aussie backpackers they were – But they were always always ALWAYS big drinkers, partying, off their faces on booze and drugs like ecstasy. It was the first time I’d ever been around Aussies and the fact that they were all ravers was kind of off-putting.

  • camorose

    It’s crazy–it’s definitely worse when they’re abroad but they definitely drink plenty when they’re home too.