The Inspirational Victoria Brewery, Melbourne

Brewery visits were a stock device of the 19th century journalist in larger cities. A book could be written, and most interesting it would be, collecting these with commentary.

In 1875, heyday of the Australian “colonial ale” era, a Melbourne writer wrote up his visit to Victoria Parade Brewery, later known as Victoria Brewery. The founder Thomas Aitken originated the famed VB brand in the 1850s.

The brewery was a key component of Carlton and United Breweries, the pre-WWI merger of Victoria breweries which later crossed state lines to become a big national. The brands are now owned by AB InBev/SAB Miller. VB still has a large market, and today is brewed in Abbotsford, Melbourne  – you saw the Abbotsford name, vintage later-1800s, on a Yarra hotel the other day.

His account gains interest, not just from the good technical detail conveyed, but some high-flown rhetoric – rather unusual in business or general interest journalism. The author was probably an aspiring novelist or highbrow type working for lucre in the raucous mills that were – are, no doubt – the world’s press rooms.

Consider this elegant, unerring formulation:

The art of making beer is one of the most ancient known to man. From the earliest ages the desire implanted in the human mind to drink deeply of beer has been ministered to, and intoxicating preparations of barley have been brewed at periods far anterior to that to which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. Beer, happily for its cosmopolitan character as a respectable, sober, and every-day liquor, had no mythological god, under whose auspices the drinking of it formed a religious rite. The worshippers of Bacchus thought, no doubt, they were doing their devotions in proper, orthodox style, and probably felt as virtuous as though they were going to meeting in their Sunday clothes, when they drank themselves red in the face and purple in the nose with the juice of the divine wine ; whereas, the lovers of beer drank in the past, as they drink in the present, from no sense, of religious feeling, but simply to gratify a profound instinct of an earthly nature.

Beer has never been considered a romantic liquor. Its praises have not, like wine, been sung by the poet; and the painter does not love to depict scenes of revelry where it is the standing drink. The progress that beer has made in the affections of mankind is due solely to its own intrinsic merit. No factitious help is given to its consumption. It stands, speaking metaphorically, on its own bottom, and flourishes now in spite of the abuse, the enactments, and restrictions against it, as it did in the far past ages of our Saxon ancestors.

The writer goes on finally to taste the beer, and makes the argument that beer tasted at the brewery is “morally” superior to that drunk elsewhere. By this he implies, not just that the beer is literally often better than in the pub or when brought home, but is symbolically better as it were, since consumed in the place where so much attention and skill are deployed to make such a special thing.

Indeed, important technological and scientific history played out at Victoria Brewery, whose brewer for years was Auguste J.F. de Bavay, a long-lived, Belgian-born brewer and scientist. He developed pure yeast cultures, initially for top-fermented beers, after Emil Hansen in Denmark led the way with his groundbreaking work. Bavay also identified a wild yeast strain which was contributing (sometimes) to troubles in stocked ale. He finally turned to bottom fermentation as the most secure route to stable beer.

Bavay should be remembered as part of the VB story, but also had great influence in his adopted country in numerous industries. Here is some background on him, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Victoria Brewery can be said to have birthed some of the best rhetoric about beer and also key technology pertaining to the eminently earthy matter of yeast. The profane, the sublime, not a bad trick.

4 thoughts on “The Inspirational Victoria Brewery, Melbourne

  1. Food and drink – all quite expensive. With one odd exception (for me): the Melbourne Cricket Ground (cap. 100,000) where the prices were reasonable and the meat pies delish! A refreshing foil to the typical Canadian arena/stadium refreshments experience.
    Staying mainly in wine-soaked Mornington Peninsula, we had more wine than beer, to be fair. But there was no shortage of craft brews about.
    I’d go back to Melbourne in a heartbeat. Friendly people, incredible food, beautiful city. One resto’s kitchen re-opened long enough to make me a Greek street food staple (fish & bread) and happily served me a frosty pint while I waited. Why? Simply because I had just shared my disappointment in learning that there are so few Greek eateries left on the historically “Greek” street. I sat alone (all the other tables and chairs removed) on a sidewalk patio and ate/drank like a king.

  2. Another great post, Gary. Thanks! We just spent 3 weeks in Aus, mostly in Melbourne. Fell in love with it. Enjoyed an unspecified amount of Melbourne Bitter, which at one pub cost $11.50!

    • Sean, nice to hear all this, thanks.

      I’ve heard of the prices there, food too I think.

      What were the beers like compared to our craft and mass market styles?

      Tell more about Melbourne.


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