Britons, Beer, and Brisbane

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

An Englishman returned the favour in 1945 by examining drinking in Brisbane, the account appearing in its press just after the war. The writer was a journalist turned naval officer. He reported his mens’ impressions, all favourable.

Yet, there was no parallel to the Australian’s brusque 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 put it simply, “Some like mild and some like bitter”.

Still, since beer was weak in England during the war and often unavailable the comparative normality of Brisbane bars beckoned to Britishers. In this sense, the two articles are complementary.

Still, in Brisbane, line-ups and stratagems were often necessary to find beer, but the men didn’t mind. They liked the beer, fortunately since only one brand was available, probably Castlemaine XXXX or a lager from Queensland Breweries in Bulimba. The officer mentioned a “tang” in the Queensland beer, maybe it was a sulphury yeast smell, or a different taste due to 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. Adjuncts are today, certainly used in mass market Australian beer. I suspect that XXXX back then was a better beer than the current XXXX Gold.

I once read that out of the country the British will drink any beer with nonchalence. This is true in my experience, and well predates the rise 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 trumped all and a united spirit informs 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.

When you read the fine points of actually getting beer in wartime Australia it could be a chore though. Read this piece from 1944, “How Brisbane Drinks Beer”. It doesn’t sound like much fun. But the English sailors were good with it, probably viewing the hunt as a bit of sport. Maybe too military personnel got favoured treatment, this seems likely in fact.

The Jacks once homeward-bound on vessel argued whether Queensland’s beer was “bitter” or “mild”, but the Aussie stuff probably cut across these ancient English categories. After all, some years later Cairns Brewery further north in the state issued a new beer typed (presumably by the brewery) as a “lager type mild bitter ale” in this story. Well, that covers all the bases, in baseball anyway.

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.

Leave a Comment