Sarsaparilla in old Sydney

The Australian press in early 1948 was full of breathless stories about a weeks-long beer strike in Sydney. This stopped deliveries, but not production, from Tooth’s/Resch and Toohey’s, the city’s main brewers. A smaller firm, Millers continued deliveries but was swamped by demand.

The strike was by maintenance workers, not production staff, but this was enough to parch Sydney’s version of Australia’s legendary beer thirst.

Some beer came in from Adelaide and elsewhere, but Sydneysiders were desperate while the strike lasted. A report in Adelaide’s The Mail on May 1, 1948 (via Trove Newspapers), conveyed the angst in mordant language. Brief sample:

…wine saloons are now crowded, noisy places, where the regulars are a mere protesting minority, while the pubs for the first time in living memory are places where people may talk in ordinary tones and still be heard.

Evidently an early form of wine bar existed in Australia, not surprising considering the long history of viticulture there. It seems it was socially demarcated from beer pubs by a few notches.

Australian reportage of this period, as I showed by at least one other example, had a notable drollery and wit: Old World literary flair married to New World brashness.

I cite the item here, though, to show the revival in Sydney bars, likely short-lived, of a 19th century staple, sarsaparilla. Some Sydneysiders deprived of their usual drink resorted to the nostrum, here with soda. This was the sarsaparilla pop beloved of old Western films and American TV shows such as Chuck Connors’ The Rifleman.

An international generation grew up in the 1950s and 60s, of which I was one, thinking it was an old American drink and nothing else.

In fact, sarsaparilla once had widespread use in the Anglosphere. Mixed in drinks it was considered a general pick-me-up or tonic, in the adroit phraseology of Victorian marketers. It was often sold in concentrated, sweetened form.

In fact, the smilax root, sourced ideally from South and Central America, was thought a remedy for everything from Ague to Zoster. In a time of few genuine drugs, it took its place with many other barks, herbs, and spices as a hoped-for cure-all.

An article in the Sydney Mail on March 11, 1876 described the natural history of sarsaparilla, attesting to its importance in British and Colonial trade. The contributor quoted the medical writer Pereira on its wellness attributes, as we might term them today:

“….Its best effects are seen in those depraved conditions of system which are ascribed to the presence of a morbid poison, or to a deranged condition of the fluids. Hence it is frequently denominated a purifier of the blood”.

Nothing equals the ingenuity of 19th century writers to laud the effects of the Earth’s natural larder. Whether those who traded in the commodity really believed it all, who knows, and at least some early sarsaparilla was macerated in alcohol, as common in home remedies then.

There is no suggestion from the 1948 Adelaide report that it was mixed with beer, after all too beer was short. Yet we know sarsaparilla was blended with stout at the bar into the 1980s in parts of Australia. Tasmania-based home brewer Steven Clark mentioned this on Twitter recently, a personal recollection.

Another way I think we can tell stout was blended in this way, is from the website of Murray Breweries, located in Beechworth, Victoria. Despite the name, the output is a range of non-alcohol drinks, one is Sarsaparilla Cordial.

The page linked suggests its use in various drinks including lemonade, soda water, and cola. While no form of beer is mentioned, the cola suggestion likely is a echo of the earlier practice to lace stout with sarsaparilla.

Billson’s is another name by which sarsaparilla is merchandised in Australia, in this case with soda or vodka. This form also issues from the Beechworth facility. Billson’s and Murrays Breweries appear to be related lines, but perhaps Australian readers know more.

I would think in other parts of the world similar extracts of sarsaparilla, and Indian sarsaparilla in some cases (a similar taste but not smilax), are sold. If I can get some I will add it to porter or stout to approximate a 19th century sarsaparilla stout.

Some craft brewers already make one, each with its way to impart the characteristic flavour. The taste is often likened to root beer, itself not flavoured by sarsaparilla today or sassafras, but that is a different story.*

I discussed recently Halo Brewery’s stout in Toronto which uses Indian sarsaparilla, but may try my hand at it if I can find the essence.

*It is beyond my scope here but I should add some modern root beer uses a concentrate of sassafras from which the safrole has been removed. This is the agent thought to cause cancer under some conditions.


Sarsaparilla Porter of old New York

I wrote earlier of Toronto’s Halo Brewery’s stout flavoured with Indian sarsaparilla. This is not the American (smilax) sarsaparilla, which is not permitted in foods today due to its safrole content, associated with increased cancer risk.

Indian sarsaparilla is close enough in taste and lacks the safrole, so is a permitted substitute in beverages and other comestibles. It is often sourced from India where it has a long history in folk medicine.

In fact a sarsparilla porter was brewed in the 1830s in New York, so the idea to use the flavour in beer is not a craft beer invention. But first, did the UK brew something similar in the past?

British Faux Sarsaparilla Porter

Based on checks in British historical newspapers, I have not identified a historical example of sarsaparilla stout or porter in the UK, except for one or two products ca. 1900 that in fact were not beer. One maker advertised a sarsaparilla (presumably smilax) porter together with a dandelion porter.*

These and further non-beer drinks were manufactured by Brothwell and Mills of Fletcher Street, Workington, and advertised in the West Cumberland Times on August 8, 1896.

The ad read:

BROTHWELL AND MILLS Beg to call attention to their justly famed AERATED WATERS.








Dandelion Porter, and Brewed GINGER BEER.







Bottles from the firm are still collected, see for example the handsome ginger beer and soda siphon bottles in this Flickr page.

The Flickr source includes a biographical note on founder George Henry Brothwell, written by Russell Barnes, who states Brothwell was a Temperance promoter.

One reason a commercial stout version cannot be traced in Britain is, sarsaparilla would have been excluded from the permissible ingredients in beer. Hops of course were allowed, sugar since 1847, malt, and malt adjuncts since the Free Mash Tun Act of the 1880s, but I doubt sarsaparilla would have been permitted (question mark perhaps for licorice, and salt).

Such flavourings might appear in a home-made beer, not subject to the legislation that governed commercial, licensed brewers, but that is a different thing.

An example along the lines just mentioned is the sarsaparilla beer for which the 19th century English chemist and author Arthur James Cooley gave recipes in his Cooley’s Encyclopedia.

One involved mixing a decoction of sarsaparilla with multiple cups of “India ale” . This was one of his “medicated ale” nostrums (see p. 78), not a commercially-sold product.

American Commercial Sarsaparilla Porter

The May 29, 1839 Morning Herald in New York advertised the sarsaparilla porter of Whiting & Babcock, a firm located at 31 Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan.

I was not able to trace a brewery under this name, or recognizable variant, but this is long ago and small brewing firms existed that are not traceable today. The firm might come up in a business directory search, interested readers are free to check.

Perhaps the firm was an agent or distributor, not the brewer itself. Brewers even in America, where no law precluded adding sarsaparilla to beer as far as I know, would not have wanted, generally, to trumpet a non-traditional ingredient in their beer.

The Albany, New York, state-led inquiry of the 1830s into beer adulteration, shows, were proof needed, the public was skittish enough about what went into beer.

[Note added August 8, 2022: reader Tim S identified a firm of this name at 21 Liberty Street as selling “drugs” in 1839. This is the firm in question, and not a brewer, as when I checked the ad again in the 1839 Morning Herald, the address stated is 21 Liberty Street, not 31 Liberty as I originally wrote. See his Comment and my additional remarks].

The 1839 ad made clear the porter taste was not effaced by the additive (presumably the full Monty smilax was used back then):

SARSAPARILLA PORTER—A new and healthy beverage.—This porter is manufactured by the subscribers from ingredients perfectly inoffensive, there being no narcotic used in the composition. It combines an agreeable tonic, with an alterative, admirably calculated to invigorate aad produce a healthy action throughout the system.

The most delicate can use it without the possibility of creating an undue excitement, at the same time derive all the advantages from its tonic properties that can be obtained from the best London porter.

The Sarsaparilla (introduced into the porter) has long been celebrated as a renovator of the system, purifying the blood, eradicating cutaneous diseases, etc.

For a summer beverage for health it is believed that this porter is unsurpassed by any article ever offered to the public it being highly carbonated and very grateful to the palate.

Sarsaparilla in Today’s Beer

I like the effect of Indian sarsaparilla in Halo’s version, as it doesn’t clash with the porter flavour but somehow complements it. In this sense it seems similar to the 1839 example. And I say this as one who doesn’t generally like non-hop additives in beer.**

A number of craft breweries have issued a sarsaparilla porter, examples may be found online.

It is also easy to find more information on Indian sarsaparilla, this article at Golden Poppy Herbs is a good start.

Below you see me evidently in good mood enjoying draft Halo stout with Indian sarsaparilla, last winter al fresco in Toronto.



See my post following for a sequel.

*Clearly, as seen from the advert included, a (non-alcohol) dandelion porter was made. The sarsaparilla mentioned in the hop bitters section seems either a sarsaparilla porter or perhaps simply a hopped drink with sarsaparilla, not sarsaparilla porter as such. Either way these were hopped beverages flavoured with sarsaparilla that were not real beer. The hot sarsaparilla mentioned in the cordials section was evidently a cordial of some kind, another Temperance drink by all evidence.

**A little ginger is okay, or coriander or other orange flavouring. Peppermint, too.



British India Greets the English Pub. Part VIII.

Disappeared Old-School Pubs of Bangalore

Zac O’Yeah – I would presume a nom de plume, but am not certain – is an accomplished, Bengalaru-based detective novelist and journalist.

He has an earlier history in Europe as rock musician and music producer. You may learn more of him from his website, and biographical notes in Good Reads.

See also a sampling of his journalism collected in The Indian Express.

He is Swedish-born and -raised but has long resided in Bengalaru, known still to many in the west as Bangalore.

He has, from my gleaning, re-invented himself as an Indian resident and writer, giving his unique slant on the east and cross-cultural phenomena such as Scandinavistan.

He writes in both Swedish and English.

Bangalore is one of India’s prominent urban communities, counting almost 9,000,000 people and nerve centre of Karnataka state in the South.

In my previous post I discussed Dewar’s, a now-defunct, British-type bar in Bangalore that originated between the two world wars, hence relatively late in the British Raj.

Modern pub culture in Bangalore dates from the 1980s, as also discussed in my previous post.

Dewar’s dated from before that time, when Indian pubs still reflected, in decor, drinks, and patronage, the British period.

O’Yeah has written an article that memorialized Dewar’s and other disappeared pubs of that earlier period in Bangalore.

(The scope of this series does not permit to address the course of alcohol policy in India since Independence in 1947. Suffice to say it has gone throught different phases, e.g. an early one of discouragement if not repression. Bangalore was it seems an exception, due probably to a marked history of British brewing in the city).

Probably inadvertently, and quite apart the value of the piece as general journalism, O’Yeah has provided an undoubted service to beer historical studies.

His article, entitled “Last orders at Beer-Uru’s Classic Watering Holes”, appeared in The Hindu Business Line on January 15, 2018.

He collected a half-dozen of the old school beer pubs of the city, offering pungent and otherwise informative memories and other information. Consider this article-opener:
“Where did they go?” I gently lament as I tread on, with the high-altitude Deccan sun, augmented by global warming and shrinking green cover, hammering down on my balding pate. The name Bengaluru is, according to local lore, Kannada slang for ‘beer galore’. If you were ET and landed anywhere in town in the 1990s, there’d be a handy watering hole within 333 metres of your UFO, as attested to by statistical data (three per sq km was the norm), which made this city attract lots of aliens who wished to get ‘Bangalored’.
Of Dewar’s he wrote:

… I spent so much time lounging in the cane chairs at Dewar’s in Bamboo Bazaar that some drunks mistook me for the portrait of Queen Elizabeth that hung behind the bar — I am unapologetically nostalgic. Dewar’s, born in 1933 and gone in 2010, was like a caring mother, a homely bungalow where those in lungis mingled with khadi-clad intellectuals, and everybody felt safe, as the rosewood tables were too heavy to be used in bar battles. The beer snacks were excellent, too. Apparently the bread-crumb coated fish fillets were introduced by an Irishman who manned the kitchen until he went home after Independence.

Among the establishments he canvassed was Sarovara on Lavelle Road, “an unpretentious beer hall”. He notes that in 1995 the site formed the set for the “epic bar fight scene” in “the gangster classic OM (1995)”.

He adds the property was later sold to an upscale hotel chain, and today only a filmic record exists of Sarovara (at least publicly, I’d infer).

The hugely popular film earns regular re-release. The famous fight sequence has been uploaded to YouTube, you may view it here. Indeed clear images of the bar appear, in what seems perhaps an eastern pastiche of a Europa-era beer hall.

The name Sarovara appears at the outset, in red letters on a white canopy over the bar counter.

A broad, undivided hall is shown, painted white with shades of pastel;  an outdoor component also appears. Some scenes picture drinks on the bar: glasses of beer in apparently two shades,* and bottles of liquor.

Another stroke of fortune for beer historical studies.

I will never sit in the fraying cane chairs of a Dewar’s, never place a drink on its rosewood tables the colour of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, sent from prewar Malaya.

I will never know the ambience of a Sarovara.

But these resources help to get some sense of it, and that has value in itself, I hope you will agree.

*Unless one is whisky-and-soda or similar.