Britons, Beer, and Brisbane

Recently, I looked at an Australian’s benign take on the English pub in 1943.

In 1945, an Englishman returned the favour by examining drinking in Brisbane, his account appeared locally just after the war. The writer was a journalist, turned naval officer, reporting his mens’ impressions, all favourable.

Yet there was no parallel to the Australian’s dismissal of his own country’s bars. The British sailors in Brisbane fondly recalled their native pubs, each with its own clientele, particular atmosphere, and choice of mild or bitter ale. As the officer wrote, “Some like mild and some like bitter”.

Still, as beer was weak in England during the war and often unavailable, the comparative normality of Brisbane appealed. In this sense, the articles are a good parallel.

In Brisbane line-ups and stratagems were often needed to find beer, but the ratings didn’t mind. They liked the beer, only one brand was available, it was probably Castlemaine XXXX or a lager from Queensland Breweries in Bulimba. The officer referred to the “tang” of the Queensland beer, which is hard to parse, maybe it was the sulphury lager yeast smell, or different taste of Australian malt.

This 1931 article states that all beer in Queensland was made with 100% malt. So a pronounced flavour of local barley may have been a factor unless malt substitutes were used during the war. They are today, certainly, and I suspect that XXXX back then was rather a better beer than the current XXXX Gold.

I once read that out of the country the British will drink any beer with equanimity. It’s true in my experience, and this well predates the general use of lager in the U.K.

Anyway the British Jacks got on well with the Aussies, and their beer. Occasional rifts between the British and Australians are well-known, but wartime solidarity tended trumped all and a united spirit pervades the 1945 account. As the writer put it:

‘Jack’ likes your hotels, and he likes most of all the ‘blokes’ he meets inside. The spirit of the bar is just the same as back in England. Hail-fellow-well-met is the order of the day, and that suits us.

Getting beer in Oz could be a chore then, read this piece of 1944, “How Brisbane Drinks Beer”. It didn’t sound like a pleasant experience. But the English sailors were good with it, probably viewing the hunt as a bit of sport. Or maybe military personnel got favoured treatment, that seems likely.

The sailors when homeward-bound argued whether the Queensland beer was in the bitter or mild category. This, combined with the reference to their beer discrimination in general, puts the lie to the occasional stories that in the past, manna or muck, people took what brewers sent them. It wasn’t so, people developed palates and made choices and this comes out of the story clearly.

A few years later, a new beer was issued by Cairns Brewery further north in the state, described in this story as a “lager type mild bitter ale”.

No wonder they argued on the bridge whether the Brisbane hotels sold them bitter or mild.

Note re images: the first image above, of 1940s Brisbane, is drawn from Pinterest, here, and the second from the historical page of the famed Breakfast Creek Hotel in Brisbane, here. Copyright belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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