Poetry and Pints: John Farrell

Versing the Public on Ale Brewing

Few brewers, I believe, have pursued creative writing (fiction or poetry) as opposed to academic, trade or consumer writing about beer.

Graham Greene, a pre-eminent English novelist of the last century, did have some connection to brewing. From Wikipedia:

Greene was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire into a large, influential family that included the owners of the Greene King Brewery.

To my knowledge he did not work in brewing at this storied brewer. In contrast, Australia produced the case of novelist-brewer Justin MacCartie, whom I discussed here. And I’ve just learned there was a second brewer-writer in Australia: John Farrell.

Farrell, who died in 1904 at 52, is important enough to earn an entry in the Australian Dictionary of National Biography. In one of the many memorials printed on his passing, the Adelaide Critic stated:

His parents were Irish, but he was born at Buenos Ayres on December 18th, 1851—twelve months before his parents emigrated to Victoria. There, after an invigorating, if rough, youthful experience, in early manhood he worked at farming, mining, and bullock-driving in the Loddon district. He even had some brief experience as a sailor. Eventually, above all things, he became a brewer, and served an apprenticeship to the art at Bendigo, Albury, and Goulburn; then started as a brewer on his own account at Queanbeyan … I fear that he gave more attention to books than to business. I remember him saying to me once: “Some of my best stuff was on the head of a cask. No—you need not say anything about my fountain of inspiration—I rarely drank my own beer.” Farrell was the most undeviatingly sober man of letters I ever met.

Most of his career in brewing was in New South Wales, where he worked in small country breweries. He decided to leave brewing in his early 30s for a career in journalism and writing. For a time he was editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, and remained connected to it until his death. His poetry collection, How He Died and Other Poems, was published in 1887 and made him known throughout Australia.

As someone who worked his way up, self-made to the “t”, Farrell was sometimes called “the people’s poet”. Today, his place in Australian literary history is assured despite that he is not assigned major status.

It is for this and his public campaigning, especially for the “Single Tax” and land reform, that he is remembered, not the brewing.

I want however to point up his contribution to Australian brewing literature, not hitherto noticed from what I can tell. It took the form of a three-part article, in 1887, in the Daily Telegraph, all linked at the foot hereof. The title: “Brewing Colonial Beer”.

It is clear Farrell had learned practical brewing in-depth. He is careful to explain that the scale he worked on differed from that of large breweries in Sydney. Temperature control, he wrote, was a key factor to differentiate the two forms. He gives the example that wort in Sydney was rapidly cooled with the new heat exchanger vs. the wood or cast iron open coolers still used in the country, and the greater risk the latter entailed.

Still, despite the numerous challenges, Farrell asserts he was able to make excellent beer. By my calculation, I get on the lower end of his range, about 1055 OG, 1003 finishing, so close to 7% ABV.

In Farrell’s terms: 20-22 lbs OG, 1-3 lbs FG. Half English malt, half Antipodean (NZ, Tasmania, Victoria). 2-2.5 bushels malt, 30-40 lbs cane sugar, added to kettle. 2.5-4 lbs/hhd hops, so something over 1.5 lbs per barrel.

Sugar, using 40 lbs average for a bushel of malt, is 25%+ of the mash.*

In today’s terms, an unusually dry pale ale.** Perhaps the low attenuation was meant to minimize the risk of acetic or other fretting (re-fermentations). Of course too, more alcohol can be produced at less cost this way. He states the staple beer of Sydney was even stronger.

Sometimes temperature at fermentation was too high due to summer conditions – hot days and short, warm nights. He would shorten primary fermentation and transfer to casks in cellar to complete the working.

In Part III Farrell also refers to brewing a 17-18 lb gravity beer, so he had a weaker class as well, perhaps around 5%. Its finishing gravity was likely higher than for the other. This makes sense given the light bitter then emerging in the English-speaking world.

Farrell’s directions are worth comparing with statements in testimony by F.G. Ward of Tooth’s in 1899 in London, see here. They are largely consistent but Ward adds interesting details. He states the proportion of sugar used as 37.5%, which seems higher than Farrell stated. It seems more a third by the figures Ward gives in the same testimony, e.g. 20 lbs sugar to a 40 lb bag of malt, but think Ward likely intended to indicate more an average for Australia (industry as a whole), as he stated some brewers use more sugar than his firm.

Farrell occasionally used the herb gentian to supplement the hops, an improvement, in his view, not an expedient. He invokes the same rationale for adding salt or lime sulphate to water, hence denying the intent to increase the drinker’s thirst. In general though the beers, for 1899 and 1887 no less, were malt, sugar, hops, yeast, as discussed by these men.

Farrell is refreshingly bluff on water in brewing, stating that almost any type will do, and water merits are much exaggerated by mendacious brewers.

Part III is a melancholy plaint about the travails of country brewing. The need constantly to “shout”, or pay for drinks, often for cadgers, when taking orders. The lack of care given the cellar by grasping hotelmen, especially in smaller centres. The tied house, the preserve of large city brewers, with its concomitant of excessive rents, which in turn caused other abuses.

Farrell felt the tied house contributed to drunkenness via combining the wholesale and retail functions of beer vending.

Added to these pressures was a recent, burdensome tax law.

From Part III:

The average migratory hotelkeeper regards the brewer as his prey. When that unhappiest of men calls round for his weekly order, tow-headed and sticky miscreants surround him, and he has to “shout” for the crowd in a royal manner, although the iron is in his soul. Unexpected strangers and improbable ruffians congregate as if by magic in each bar, and he meets the same faces, grown beerier and more swollen, in other bars, for they follow him up. He has to “shout” everywhere, and generally for all who come in each bar. Then the hotelkeeper wants donations towards several different objects, and he has to shell out liberally. The hotelkeeper’s wife has a bazaar in hand, and he has to shell out again towards clearing the debt off the Presbyterian Church or
helping to build the convent. The hotelkeeper’s daughter, who is a daughter of the horse leech, also cries “Give!” At Christmas piratical levies called Christmas boxes are made upon the brewer, and, with a smile on his face and black malice in his heart, he presents a silk dress or a gold watch to someone whose good graces he must preserve. In addition to this, he is at the mercy of the retailer in the matter of “returns.” If beer in rendered unsaleable by the stupidity or gross carelessness of the hotelkeeper it has to be allowed for in the bill, just as though the fault were the brewer’s. Owing to all these things and the imposition of the beer duties, brewing is no longer profitable in the country districts.

Part III is a pensive tale, one that resonates through the modern history of brewing to our very day.

Farrell had to confront the hard realities of a difficult business. For the poetic, literary soul he was, these were made harder. Brewing good beer was something John Farrell understood well; the business of brewing had to be left to the less sensitive.

In the final passage, he actually expressed the wish that society one day will altogether abandon alcohol. This is surely, or in part, an index of the frustration he experienced in his bootless years at brewing.

Posterity has the gain, if not of a brewery or brands descended from John Farrell, then his poetry and social campaigning, for which he is well-remembered.

Via Trove Newspapers, the Farrell brewing series in 1887: Part I, Part II, Part III.

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*See 1899 testimony by Wade, infra in text. But even in recent decades, see Briggs, Hough, et al. in their Malting and Brewing Science, here.

**Brut IPA, you can call it.