The Pre-Industrial Aussie Ales (With Taste Notes)

The Sydney brewery Toohey’s, a landmark since 1869, had gone public in 1901. It had entered a second phase, an expansion both of plant and for advertising and branding. The founding brothers had died and the brewery was now under professional management. The Sydney Evening News of December 23, 1905 carried a short article/advertisement full of details on Toohey’s Mark II.

The company had recently built its own maltings to replace the malt sourced previously from New Zealand, Tasmania, and Victoria. The new malt was mostly from Australian barley and the increasing use of Australian materials was mentioned with pride. This was a sign of the growing maturity and confidence of Australian industry, indeed of the country in general which had federated only four years earlier.

I asked yesterday whether by 1910 Toohey’s flagship sparkling amber ale, a bottled beer, was pasteurized. It was, as the 1905 article makes clear. As I discussed yesterday the beer was also mechanically filtered and so can be viewed as a modern form of packaged ale. Even five years later though (1910) fermentation was still a quick, 30-hour process. Presumably it was still conducted at a high temperature (> 70 F) and in this sense followed 19th century practice for “colonial ale”.

The ales were aged in cellar in hogsheads before filtering and bottling, but whether this occurred at near-freezing, lager temperatures is unclear. I’d think that stage had not been reached yet.

In Food, Power, and Community, ed. by Robert Dare (1999), brewing historian Dr. Brett Stubbs confirms that pasteurization, and force-carbonation, was usual in the country for bottled beer by 1900. Tooth’s of Sydney, the other great brewer in the city, introduced it and Toohey’s and others later followed.

Here, from 1907is an example from Maitland Breweries, in Maitland up the coast from Sydney. The ad was for Maitland Crystal Ale and proudly advertised the beer was pasteurised. The brand was still an ale, so once again an instance of a top-fermented beer, derived from the types originally made in the Colonies, but showing some characteristics of the new lager.

Toohey’s sparkling ale and Maitland’s crystal ale represented an interim phase between “colonial ale” and the later hegemony of industrial bottom-fermentation. The same thing happened in other countries of British influence, and in Britain itself.

In Canada, beers such as Labatt 50, Molson Stock Ale, and Keith’s India Pale Ale survive which represent this tradition. Over the years they have become lighter and more lager-like, but still an ale character can be detected especially when consumed fresh on draft. They show this mainly by an estery quality from warm fermentation. Still, in Canada too industrially-produced lager became almost universal, at least until the craft industry gave some blowback.

But those old, pre-1880s Aussie ales … what were they really like? I’ve mentioned J.C. MacCartie’s 1884 A Handbook for Australian Brewers which set out frankly many faults: inferior local hops, fermentation at excessively high temperatures, poor sanitation, and lack of sufficient aging. MacCartie was both a brewing writer and a professional brewer who had worked at Dunedin Brewery in NZ for six years, so his views must be taken seriously.

Yet, were beers from the specific breweries all bad? We have some remarkable evidence from a detailed press account in the Melbourne Argus in 1875. The story summarized findings of government analysts who had the police fetch samples of local ales. They were tested to determine alcoholic strength, presence of additives, and other characteristics including the “twang” that famously attended colonial ales – indeed we saw an instance of it as late as 1945 when an English observer remarked on it for Brisbane’s beer.

The article is long and there is no substitute for reading it, but some highlights: The average ABV of Melbourne’s ales was 7.5%. Impressively high and showing the influence in this regard of English mild ale brewing. The Fitzroy district showed the same level, and a couple of other areas’ beers were just a point under. When people complained of “soporific” ales by comparison to lager, one can see what they meant. Still, the Aussies clearly liked the beers that way, the pre-AC climate notwithstanding. Australian beer remains relatively strong to this day when compared to the norm in the mother country.

Most of the beers showed fusel traces, which was due to the high fermentation temperatures that MacCartie had noted. One analyst referred to a “fruity” taste resulting from this. Some beers were deemed “rancid”, probably from a putrefactive fermentation or a “fret”. No dangerous additives were detected but some samples showed use of quassia or coriander, deemed harmless but not traditional. One analyst attributed the twang to the local hops and inadequate aging. Another said it was from high fermentation temperature. Probably it was a case of both being right.

Some of the beers were deemed of high quality and one at least was mistaken for Joule’s Stone Ale, a reputed English brand.

One analyst, who would not have approved of Beeretseq’s blending techniques, deprecated mixing local ale with “pricked”, or soured or otherwise spoiled, English ale. He also disapproved when all-local beers were blended to improve one element (even though this was an old English technique). How could he tell there was mixing simply from analyzing samples? I’d guess he had gotten wind of the practice earlier and wanted to issue a pronunciamento.

News articles also reported results of local competitions, as this one in 1880 from the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW). The article is of particular interest as it reports the judges’ taste notes for numerous beers including from Toohey’s. Joseph Marshall, father of a noted solicitor in town, did particularly well and received first prize for his very pale, strong ale.

Sample terms in the report: full body, fine hop flavour, cloudy, pale, very pale, light amber, dark amber, nice brown colour.

Sounds familiar, eh?

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the website of the Kiama Library, here. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.