Mr. Byass’s Ales Come a Cropper in Australia

In a series of earlier posts I explored numerous aspects of Australian brewing history. One facet looked at the colonies’ unusual social attitudes toward beer, which were largely unfeigned and unashamed. In this vein, the press regularly carried pieces on the importance of beer especially its quality.

To say that beer was venerated is probably not going too far. In the 1970s and 80s Australia was noted internationally for its exaggerated attachment to the malt, it was a symbol of its maturing nationhood. Today this image is half-forgotten but a perusal of press sources from early days into the mid-1900s demonstrates a solid basis to it.

Hence, the press regularly fretted over the supposedly lesser “Colonial” ales vs. importations from the mother country. Finally by WW I local productions were more appreciated, first for ale and porter, then the lager-ale hybrid known as sparkling ale, and finally for lager proper.

Indeed Australia became a lager land (lake?) par excellence including by pioneering deployment of the Nathan fast-fermentation system, now a brewing standby everywhere.

(I’ve also written about Leopold Nathan’s important invention and the man himself, who is rather more mysterious. It is good that Jay Brooks will soon offer additional information on the German-Swiss brewing technologist, as he confirmed here).

At the same time, I didn’t neglect the counter-tendency in the Antipodes to beer hedonism, in a word the temperance impulse. Australia demonstrated it but the anti-drink campaign had comparatively little influence there. Perhaps the colonies’ initial isolation, and/or the particular social origins of many settlers (the transported group and such) explain the frank embracing of a drinking culture. Indeed even to call alcohol a “question” seems out of place in Australian history, whereas by the later 1800s in most other English-speaking places the situation was opposite or at least more nuanced.

Against this background, it is understandable the Sydney Morning Herald (1860) carried a detailed piece on beer, but in this case it deprecated the quality of imports. “Cask after cask” right off the ship was no good: sour and often flat. We are speaking here of that flower of Victorian brewing, India Pale Ale.

The main shipper indicted was Byass, a well-known English agency in the 1800s which specialized in bottling and shipping Bass. Robert Blake Byass founded this business and also formed a partnership in the Spanish wine trade with a Señor Gonzáles, scion of an old aristocratic family. A modern legacy of that business is the renowned Gonzales Byass labels, Tio Pepe dry sherry is a star member. The Byass family have been out of that business for about 30 years, and for much longer on the beer side: an ale bottler named Hibbert bought them out around 1900.

The article chided Byass that if quality did not improve, importers would look elsewhere for supplies. In this era and for a long time to come, independent export bottlers supplied the major Burton and Irish brands. So when things went awry the fault was laid at their feet even though the true cause probably lay with the breweries, often.

Red and blue labels of cask pale ale were referred to. The red was clearly the produce of the original or “old” Bass brewery in Burton. The blue from was a later building Bass built, for expansion. There was also, or in some markets, a white label, representing yet a third brewery in the Bass complex. I’ve not investigated how this colour scheme connects to the later red and blue triangle system of Bass, where red was bottle-matured and blue a pasteurized, filtered version, but presumably there is some connection.

In the mid-1800s, long before single cell yeasts were isolated, before sterile brewery operation was an article of faith, things sometimes went wrong. That the beer was flat on arrival suggests a failure of the secondary (brett) element in the multi-strain. Or maybe there was another reason.

This kind of inconsistency and the higher cost of imports must have encouraged the domestic industry. Yet, it too was afflicted with attributed ills, particularly an off-taste resulting from uncontrollably high fermentation temperatures. The arrival of modern brewing science c. 1900 put paid finally to these problems, but one wonders if the uniformity of Australian lager in the pre-craft era was a high price to pay. The survival of the distinctive Cooper’s ales of Adelaide was the great exception to the lager tide.

Note re image above: image was sourced at Retrofair here, and is used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.