Introduction: The Australian alcohol palette is changing. Beer, a long-time fixture of the Australian alcohol market, is decreasing in popularity each year as more drinkers turn to wine, spirits and, increasingly, cider. While constituting only 4% of the alcohol market in Australia in 2011, cider sales grew by 30% during the same year. It is clear that the growth of the cider market reflects broader changes in the alcohol tastes and preferences of Australian consumers. However, less is known about the drinking behaviours and beliefs of the drinkers driving these changes and whether this should be of concern to public health authorities.
Alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia, and while many drink responsibly, a significant number of Australians drink at harmful levels. In 2010, two in five (41%) Australians aged 18+ consumed alcohol at least once in the previous 12 months, in a pattern that placed them at risk of an alcohol-related injury from a single drinking occasion. Overall it has been estimated that alcohol use and misuse costs Australians up to $15 billion annually.
Due to this, one area of policy and research focus has been on whether particular types of alcoholic beverages are associated with a greater risk of harm relative to other products. Most notably, in 2008, the Australian Federal Government enacted a price increase on ready to drink spirits (RTDs) due to concern that these products were fuelling rates of binge drinking among young people. While there was a subsequent drop in consumption of RTDs among this group, it remains to be seen whether this constituted an overall reduction in drinking rates, or whether consumers moved onto other products.
More recent research has made comparative assessments between the types of alcoholic beverages Australians consume and associated short- and long-term impacts upon health. From this, full-strength and home brew beer appear to have the strongest association with harmful drinking behaviours, followed by spirits, premixed drinks and cider (Mathews & Callinan 2013).
However, Australians’ alcohol preferences are far from static. Although traditionally known as a nation of full-strength beer drinkers, consumption declined by 13% over the last decade, with drinkers switching to premium, imported, low carbohydrate and craft options. Wine consumption in Australia during this period has been rising steadily, from 2.94 litres per person in 2000 to 3.56 litres per person in 2009, driven in part by changing consumer tastes, improved availability and sharp declines in the price of wine relative to other alcoholic products. While some of these changes have been driven by price, some have suggested that this is indicative of a change in the Australian drinkers’ palette.