It Started With Ale
The craft brewing industry has relied extensively on the ale tradition – taking in for convenience stout, porter, saison, Gose, wheat beers, etc. This is in distinction of course to lager brewing.
In the U.S. and Canada where the modern craft industry was birthed, the mass market was – still is – dominated by an international style of lager: light-bodied, with grain adjunct, lightly-hopped. The ales stood as a way to stand out, and were a link to an older tradition. There were exceptions to the “ale” rule, notably Sam Adams and Gordon Biersch, or Creemore in Ontario, but the “heart” of modern craft brewing was and is top-fermented beers. Hence the continuing popularity of IPA.
Ale was also easier to make in a small setting with low capital.
Anglo-Saxons and Ale
In all the Anglo-Saxon countries and even Europe if you go back far enough, top-fermentation brewing was the original method. It was often seasonal due to the inability to make a clean ferment in warm temperatures. Even when an acceptable product was made, it was hard to store it before mechanical refrigeration became available.
In Canada and the northeast U.S., the comparatively cold climate meant for fairly effective ale brewing. I’ve discussed earlier the products of American ale breweries of the 1800s and early 1900s. Many were in business up to 1920 albeit offering by then a niche speciality, within 10% of the market.
In Australia, therefore, top-fermentation ruled from the first settlements until lager became the main type of beer consumed. Australian beer historian, Dr. Brent Stubbs, wrote in the 1999 Food, Power and Community: Essays in the History of Food and Drink, ed. Robert Dare, that even after lager production began (1885) its implantation took time due partly to technical problems.
Lager was bested for a time by the onset of what might be termed lagered ales. These were the brilliant, diamond, or dinner ale-type ales which also appeared in Britain and North America. They were warm-fermented but stored cold for a period and often artificially carbonated. The ales the lagered type displaced were considered inferior and he cites a visiting English brewer who rated the taste “sickly”.
But after 1910, modern lager-brewing – bottom fermentation benefitting from full temperature control – became almost invariable. The Nathan fermentation system, which I discussed earlier, played a role certainly in ensuring lager’s dominance in Australia, indeed the new federation was a pioneer in testing and deploying the method.
Whatever the precise reasons – stability, palate, modern advertising – chilled, refreshing lager, less sweet than the German and Czech models and less bitter, became the beer type in the new country. In New Zealand, too. Warm fermentation, whether the products were lagered or not, yielded to the onslaught of pale lager.
Outlier Coopers’ Brewery
Coopers’ in Adelaide is famously a survivor of the early ale days. It has continued in business since 1862, an amazing run especially considering how bottom-fermentation became so dominant elsewhere in the country.
Still controlled by Coopers’ descendants, it makes a fine range of top-fermented beers, as well as numerous lagers. At 5% of the national market, it holds a position broadly similar to American ale breweries (collectively) on the eve of Prohibition.
That cloudy ale so popular in hipster bars today? Coopers had a brand like that all along, Coopers’ Sparkling Ale – the name was ironic, or so Michael Jackson wrote years ago.
But what were the ales of pre-lager Australia like? Dr. Stubbs writes that almost every town had at least one ale brewery up to about 1885. The cities often counted many more. The Australian and New Zealand thirst existed for the ales no less than the perfected lagers which came later.
Perusing the Australian press of 1880-1920, one finds many comments that are in tune with the English brewer’s opinion. Some refer to the “twang” of “Colonial ale”, which might have been off-flavours from excessively high fermentation temperatures (see below), or possibly the local hops.
In this period, Australian hops including large crops from Tasmania were considered lesser in British circles, even to American hops. When lager use became generalized, the hops used were either a mix or all-imported (Bavarian or English).
Some commentary approved the beers though, perhaps from local boosterism, perhaps on genuine merit. There probably was a good degree of variation among the breweries, too.
As an example of a thumbs up, this article from 1886 contains numerous points of interest. The writer, touring Messrs. H. Leggo and Sons’ Barley Sheaf Brewery in Ballarat, Victoria, liked the ale. He said it was “sharp” but also somewhat sweet, and kept well – he had tasted the beer both new and aged. He liked the porter too, noting that it lacked the “liquorice” taste of most Colonial porter. Now this is a taste familiar to us today, not as inferior, but as typical of much stout and porter. It came from use of black malt, or in some cases probably roasted barley, on a pale malt base.
I think the writer was thinking of the more complex taste that results from using some amber or brown malt in the mix, which the London breweries and Guinness would have done – if Leggo’s brewery achieved that, indeed this spoke in its favour, but even to make what we would consider today good porter was not so shabby.
Some words from this connoisseur:
The beer on draught in the cellar—which is the same as that ordinarily supplied to customers—is a most palatable beverage, clear, with a good body, and neither too sharp nor too sweet. The excellence of the liquor is no doubt due to the fact that the firm provide their own malt, and are, therefore, not compelled to use so much sugar as those who have to buy the former ingredient. Messrs Leggo and Sons are now making a specialty of bottled beer and porter. Concerning the former, we may remark, that even what had just been bottled was an excellent sample of ale; That which had had the advantage of standing for a little while was still better. Clear as amber, lively and sharp, it makes as pleasant a drink as a non-teetotaller could desire; in fact it is as near an approach to the best British brands as could be desired. It is a light ale, and evidently free from any deleterious ingredient. The manufacturers claim for it that “there is not a headache in a hogshead of it.” The porter is also of an excellent quality, free from the liquorice flavor that characterises so many colonial productions of a similar nature.
And so, when she was good, she was very very good. When she was bad, she was … not better, as will appear further below.
Justin Charles MacCartie
Justin Charles MacCartie (1861-1928) was the son of an Irish barrister who emigrated to Australia. At the young age of 23, he wrote (1884) a Handbook for Australian Brewers. The book is a well-written, practical guide to brewing in Australia and also New Zealand, where the author worked for six years at a brewery. This obituary doesn’t mention that he had worked in a brewery or any connection to brewing at all, but states he was a “technical and commercial writer” whose writing included farm subjects, and was also a novelist who had attracted some attention. Another obituary referred to him as scholarly and a gentleman.
Yet, it is the same MacCartie, and proof is found in in this entry in the Bibliography of Australian Literature, Vol. 3, which mentions the brewing volume together with the greater number of creative works he wrote.
Clearly, after his brewing career he took up writing as an occupation. In fact there was some continuity from the brewing, as the introduction to the Handbook states he had contributed significantly to the Australian Brewers Review.
Why the lack of a reference to his brewing past in the 1928 obituary? It’s hard to know, but it refers to his “broken health” in later years. Could this be a veiled reference to alcoholism, in which case reference to his brewing history would have been inapt? There are obituaries, too, in the Australian press for two sons of MacCartie who died from the after-effects of multiple gassings in the First World War. The latter tragedy must have worsened his health even if sound when the sons went to war, but I am speculating again. In any case, we have a case where a professional brewer later became a literary writer of some note – that has to be unusual, at a minimum.
In this review (New Zealand Tablet, 1891) of MacCartie’s novel Making His Pile, the reviewer delivered a vicious verdict. His reference to a knife as metaphor was entirely apposite in the sense that it was he who put the knife in. Maybe this kind of rejection started MacCartie’s health decline, who knows.
I haven’t read the novel, which is a story of society and the underside of commercial life in Dunedin, but would note two things. First, the book elicited a number of even-handed and even complimentary notices in the press. Here is one, from the Daily Telegraph of Hawke’s Bay. Second, reading the Tablet’s assassination which passes for a book review, it makes me think the world of letters, of writing, can be every bit as competitive and mean-spirited as the world of business. (The many in the arts world who presume loftily to criticize the merchant princes might reflect).
No doubt the hard years competing in the brewing business – the 1884 manual refers to some of the difficulties in asides – made MacCartie knowledgeable of the hard knocks. The first-mentioned reviewer claimed ignorance of those ways but it rings hollow when his own article showed all too well how to skewer a fellow writer.
MacCartie On Australian Ale
I’ve digressed a bit, but I’d like Justin C. MacCartie to be remembered for his renaissance quality. And the brewing book is a good one, it shows in every line that he truly knew what good beer was – not all brewing writers do. This comes out in many ways. He supported use of native hops over the “trash” from England, not because English hops were inferior, but the voyage rendered them much lesser to what they were in England. He was prepared to say so when many were not, clearly.
Another example is when he notes that bi-sulphite of lime, when added to beer as a preservative, can react with the Pacific region’s soft water to produce ill-smelling hydrogen sulphide. He says, people praise the taste in imported English ale – this is probably the Burton “snatch” – but it is viewed as a fault in the local product.
In the passage which follows (at p. 73), he frankly attests to the general inadequacy of Australian and New Zealand ale, but explains why. A flash of the literary ability he showed later appears.
English brewers would stare aghast at the idea of pitching their wort at 70 or 72 F. and letting it rise before fermentation was finished to 90 or 92 F., yet these heats are common in Australian breweries.
Beers fermented at these high temperatures and racked, fined, sent out and drunk in a week or ten days, cannot possibly possess much “character” and could never satisfy the palates of those accustomed to drink more matured beers. Hence the large importations of English ales.
These fast fermentations do well enough for light-running ales which are rapidly consumed, but for high-class ales slower fermentation is necessary, therefore it is well to brew the latter in winter and store them away till summer, when even if they do “fret” in the consumer’s cellar, no harm will result, winter-brewed ales always having sufficient stability to withstand a “fret” without going sour.
The taste of beer fermented at a very high temperature can be found in some modern Belgian ale, it’s a kind of root beer or bubble gum taste. Today, such artisan tastes are fussed over but in his day they were considered second-best. Australian brewing finally conquered the problem and MacCartie lived long enough to see it, but perhaps was pained that it took a drink from a different tradition, lager, to do it.
I’d like to have tasted MacCartie’s Dunedin beer. A modern brewer should remember him, and create a tribute. There is plenty of direction in the Handbook how to do that. Ideally it should be a brewer in Dunedin. No yarn.
Note re images. The first was sourced from Coopers’ Brewery’s website, here. The second, from this New Zealand historical amenities conservation site which shows the city’s Octagon, c. 1890. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.