Brewing in Postwar Cairns: a Meeting of old and new

In the wake of WW II Australia’s economy enjoyed good expansion, assisted by postwar planning that promoted, among other sectors, industrial growth. Britannica offers a good overview.

Increased immigration was a key component, with some 1,000,000 arriving in the decades after 1945.

Most new manufacturing was concentrated in Victoria and New South Wales but Queensland also benefitted. The expansion of brewing in Cairns provides a good example.

Cairns, a harbour city, has a tropical climate, always good for the beer business. And tourism grew steadily after the war, always a good market for beer.

Northern Australia Brewery Ltd. , originally the Cairns Brewery, first marketed beer in Cairns in 1925.* Its shareholdings included interests connected to Tooth’s brewery in Sydney. This 1925 press report provides an overview.

The main brands were “NQ” Lager, Cairns Bitter Ale, and Cairns Stout by our survey. Before the war NAB was purchased by the powerhouse Carlton & United Brewers.

Starting in 1948 fermentation faculties were modernized. A new bottling plant was built by 1952, as during the war only draught beer was produced.

The technological focus is reflected in this press story (1948) which reported the adoption of steel kilderkins, i.e., 18 gal. barrels, to replace traditional wood barrels. It was claimed as a first in Australian brewing. The new containers were lighter, and while not stated, less liable to bacterial contamination than wood.

There was no romantic expression of regret at abandoning the venerable wood container. This was the postwar era, one suffused with the spirit of optimism, growth, and progress. It would take another generation before some would rue the loss of wood casks, an age-old, hand-crafted product for most of its existence.

In 1951 the Jane column in the Maryborough Chronicle toured the brewery. The industrial tour, whether of breweries or other plants, or mines, was a staple of journalism since the mid-1800s. The genre seems to have withered with the multiplicity of media and green focus since the 1970s.

Yet, these reports are of great interest, both inherently and to show the societal focus on growth and especially employment then. A regional brewery like NAB could in 1951 employ 400 people and the complement was being increased by 50%, reported Jane.

The report combines a facts and figures approach with engaging observation. As so often in general reportage, there was no particular focus on beer types, but it appears the three types mentioned were still produced, a typical palette of Australian brewing then.

The use of sugar, a longstanding practice in Australian brewing, was mentioned (via Trove Newspapers, as all news references herein):

Huge stores contain the bags of barley and the 160 lb. bags of sugar — 200 bags of barley and 120 bags of sugar are the basic daily consumption. In following up the processes, we were ushered into rooms of 112 degrees and then into another about 30 or 35 degrees.

Note how mastery over temperature control was by now a given, only 50 years after not much better than frontier conditions still obtained in struggling rural breweries.

By a somewhat wending route (happy to provide details), we calculated a use of 1:2, sugar to malt, in the mash tanks. This was consistent with what F.G. Ward of Tooth’s reported in the 1890s, see our previous post.

I suspect that since the country brewing days of John Farrell the percentage had climbed generally in Australian brewing. One-third was perhaps settled on as offering the best combination of efficiency and taste factors.

(By my searching it seems (crystallized) cane sugar is still used in some mass market Australian brewing, really a topic for another post though).

Jane described well the onset of glass-lined aging tanks and in general how new materials, including the aforesaid kilderkins, were taking over the industry. But here we do see, I think, a tinge of regret for the old wood days. Jane explained how the handsome furniture in the hospitality centre was made from what today we would call re-purposed wood.

What attracted me was the beautiful furnishings including tables and chairs, which had all been made from discarded wooden vats which had done service in that capacity for 25 years before being made into really handsome and solid furniture. The timber was Kauri Pine from New Zealand.

Kauri pine, favoured for certain production uses in older breweries (not just in Antipodes), had been given new aesthetic life by an imaginative designer.

It’s something we would do today. The space age embraced undeniably gleaming metals, molded plastic, and toughened glass, but not always.

For a continuation of this post see here.


*For more detailed information on the period before and after c.1950 see in 2010, Dr. Brett Stubbs, an Australian brewery historian, here.