Britons, Beer, and Brisbane

Recently I looked at an Australian’s (favourable) take on the English pub in 1943. An Englishman returned the favour with an assessment of drinking in Brisbane in 1945. It appeared in the local press just after the war ended.

The writer was a journalist-turned-naval officer who was reporting his mens’ impressions, all favourable. In this case, there was no parallel to the Australian’s dismissal of his own country’s bars, as the sailors fondly recalled their native pubs, each with its own clientele, particular atmosphere, and choice of mild or bitter ale. As the writer said, “Some like mild and some like bitter”.

But because beer was weak in England during the war and often unavailable, the comparative normality of the Brisbane hotels appealed to them. In this sense, the articles closely parallel each other.

In the 1945 piece, the difficulty of finding beer in Brisbane was explained, the line-ups and stratagems needed, but the ratings didn’t mind. They also liked the beer, only one brand was available, probably Castlemaine XXXX or a lager from Queensland Breweries in Bulimba. The writer referred to the “tang” of the Queensland beer, which is hard to parse, maybe it was the lager yeast smell, or different taste of Australian malt.

This 1931 article stated that all beer in Queensland was made with 100% malt, so a pronounced flavour of local malt 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 drink any kind of beer with equanimity. It’s true in my experience, and 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 probably trumped all and a united spirit pervades the piece. 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.

Not that getting beer in Oz was easy then. To get a sense of it, read this piece in 1944, “How Brisbane Drinks Beer”. It didn’t sound like a pleasant experience. But the English sailors were good with it, probably viewing it as a bit of a game. 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.