The Darwinian Thirst

Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory was, maybe still is, its quintessential frontier city. Settled later than the rest of the young country, it has always been romantic, edgy, devil-may-care. Cities attended regularly by trauma –  the cyclones, Japanese bombs in WW II – can be like that.

The pristine and varied natural surroundings, including scented warm seas and the scarlet-tinted gorges of Litchfield Park, also contribute.

As a tropical outpost on the Timor Sea, and before the AC era, beer-drinking suited the place perfectly, albeit if necessary people drank the stuff warm. Port Darwin always had a reputation for an outsized beer thirst. The famed Darwin Stubby, a 2-litre bottle now in apparent retirement, gave symbolic form to this reality, probably in a self-deprecating way – or so it became over time.

The beer was made locally by Swan, which became part of CUB, and later was brewed in Victoria. Darwin Stubby or no, and even though Australian per capita consumption – beer, not alcohol – is not what it was in the 1970s, a visitor to Darwin will find no shortage of beer.

The craft scene has been slow to develop but it’s started, see this informative report from Bert Spinks of the The Crafty Pint. Spinks also relates some interesting history on the origins of the Darwin stubby.

Through the 20th century, press stories abound of Darwin’s capacity for the malt. They are usually delivered with a slightly apologetic tone, which, considering the bluff attitude to alcohol in the country, is probably saying something.

This story in the New South Wales press from October, 1941 is a good example. In this period, Darwin, much like Halifax in Canada, was stretched to the limit by wartime exigencies. Sometimes beer was scarce, sometimes there were “disorders” in the hotels. But generally the balm poured on and probably a good thing considering the stresses of war and need for soldiers and civvies to chill out occasionally.

An extract:


George Johnston, writing in the Molong “Express,” gives these highly interesting sidelights on the Darwinian capacity for beer: For cosmopolitan colour and for wild, uproarious, incredibly noisy life Darwin stands alone. By contrast, Sydney — once regarded as Australia’s “brightest” city — has the atmosphere of chilly coldness. The national pastime in Darwin is drinking beer. Perhaps the population is still savouring the novelty of getting cold beer regularly. A couple of years ago the pubs charged 2/- a bottle for warm beer, 3/- for cold. Now it is all two “bob” and all cold. Whatever the reason, the three pubs do a roaring trade from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.- Consumption is officially 480,000 bottles a month! That works out to the best part of 6,000,000 bottles a year, and that represents a lot of steady drinking. You have only to see the vast dumps of “empties!” Freight alone costs £48,000 a year. …. There is one pub that extends an entire block and is packed to the wide-open doors and overflowing to the gutters until the inevitable— and punctual— cry of “Time, please, gentlemen.” Round the corner is another pub identical with the “saloons” you have seen in every Wild West film Hollywood has ever turned out — swing doors, “bouncers,” and a roaring crowd.

The fact that the bars looked “western” from a southern standpoint shows how far the country progressed from the 1800s, when the hotel bars in all the states looked pretty much as Darwin’s still did. But being a frontier town where the pace of change is slower, you still had the old-time bars in Darwin.

One of them was the Victoria, which somehow ducked Tojo’s bombs. It still stands but is no longer operating. You see it pictured below in an early period.

Soon, the Japanese bombings were to start, and the city suffered great trauma with much damage and hundreds killed.

Note re images: the first image is from this ABC story on the demise of the Darwin stubby. The second is from the Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Hotel, here. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user. Images believed available for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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