The Inspirational Victoria Brewery, Melbourne

A Rare Early Encomium to Beer

The brewery visit was a stock device of 19th century journalism in larger cities. A book could be written, interesting it would be, collecting them.

In the heyday of Australian-made, or “colonial” ale, a Melbourne newsman wrote up a visit to the Victoria Parade Brewery in 1875. Its founder Thomas Aitken originated the famed “VB” brand in the 1850s.

The brewery was a key component of Carlton and United Breweries, a pre-WWI merger of Victoria breweries that later gained a national market. The brands are now owned by international giant AB InBev. VB still has a large market, and is brewed today in Abbotsford, Melbourne  – we saw Abbotsford’s name, vintage later-1800s, on a Yarra hotel the other day here.

The journalist’s account gains interest, not just from the focus on technical details, but his high-flown rhetoric. It’s something unusual in business or general interest journalism. The writer was probably an aspiring literary type, maybe a novelist, working for lucre in a quotidian press room, as so many did, and some still do.

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 finally tastes the ale and makes the argument that a beer tasted at the brewery is “morally” superior. By this he implies, not just that it is better than in the pub or when brought home, but symbolically better, since the brewery is where so much attention and skill are deployed to make a liquor of such “intrinsic merit”.

It is, therefore, all the more satisfying to know that important brewing scientific history played out at Victoria Brewery. Its brewer for many years was Auguste J.F. de Bavay, a long-lived, Belgian-born brewer and scientist. He worked on pure yeast cultures initially for top-fermentation beers – ale, porter, stout – after Emil Hansen in Denmark led the way with his groundbreaking lab work on yeast morphology.

Bavay also identified a wild yeast strain that was contributing to problems with long-stored ale. He turned finally to bottom-fermentation, with its special emphasis on refrigeration, as the most secure route to stable beer.

Bavay should be remembered as part of the VB story, but he also had great influence in Australia in other industries. You may read here some background on him, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

In sum, Victoria Brewery birthed some of the best rhetoric about beer and also some key technology relating to the earthy subject of yeast action. 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.
    -S

  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!
    Cheers,
    -S

    • 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.

      Gary

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