Brewing in Postwar Cairns: the old and new

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

Increased immigration was a key component, with some 1,000,000 immigrants arriving in the decades following 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 Cairns Brewery, first marketed beer in Cairns in 1925.* It had shareholdings 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. Before the war, NAB was purchased by the powerhouse Carlton & United Brewers.

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

The technological focus is reflected in this press story of 1948 that mentions adoption of steel kilderkins, or 18 gal. barrels, to replace traditional wood barrels. This 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 for beer. This was the postwar era, a time suffused with optimism in science and the prospects of growth and progress. A generation would pass before the loss of wood casks would be rued – by some, under influence of 1960s nostalgia for pre-industrial practices.

In 1951, Jane’s column in the Maryborough Chronicle covered the brewery. The industrial tour, of breweries or other plants, or mines, was a staple of journalism since the mid-1800s. The genre has withered in our day with the multiplicity of media, and the green focus since the 1970s.

Yet, the old tour reports are of great interest, both inherently and to show how society was fixed on growth and especially job creation then. A regional brewery like NAB could, in 1951, employ 400 people and the complement was to be increased by 50%, wrote Jane.

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

Sugar, a longstanding ingredient in Australian brewing, was mentioned (via I should add 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 was by now a given. This is only 50 years after more or less frontier conditions still obtained in marginal rural breweries.

I calculated a use of 1:2, sugar to malt. It was consistent with what F.G. Ward of Tooth’s reported in the 1890s, see my previous post.

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

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

Jane described well how the onset of glass-lined aging tanks, and in general new materials, including the aforesaid kilderkins, were becoming industry standard. But in this one instance, though, 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 we now 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 some production uses in older breweries and not just in Antipodes, was given new aesthetic life, at least. by an imaginative designer.

It’s something we would do today, of course. The space age undeniably embraced 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 both before and after c.1950, see in 2010 the remarks of Dr. Brett Stubbs, an Australian brewery historian, here.


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