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 1800s. The genre has withered today with the multiplicity of media, and the green focus.

Yet the old reports are of good interest, inherently and to show how growth and especially job creation were considered vital to society then. A regional brewery such as NAB could, in 1951, employ 400 people! And the complement was to be increased 50%, wrote Jane.

The story combines facts and figures with engaging observation. As so often for such reportage then, there is no focus on beer types. Still, it appears the brands I’ve mentioned were still produced, a palette of Australian brewing at the time.

Sugar, a longstanding ingredient in Australian brewing, is mentioned (story I should add Tvia rove Newspapers, as all 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 temperature control is now a given. This is only 50 years after more or less frontier conditions still applied in marginal, rural breweries.

I calculate a use of 1:2, sugar to malt. This is consistent with F.G. Ward’s report in the 1890s, see my previous post.

I suspect that since the “country” brewing days of John Farrell, the sugar percentage had climbed. One-third was likely settled on as the best combination for efficiency and taste.

Jane describes well how glass-lined aging tanks and the aforesaid kilderkins were becoming the industry standard. In this case though we do see I think some tinge of regret for the old wood days. Jane explained how the handsome furniture in the hospitality room was made from what today we 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 was favoured for some production uses in older breweries, and not just in the Antipodes. Here, it was given a new, aesthetic life, by an imaginative designer.

The space age intensified use of gleaming metals, molded plastic and toughened glass – but tradition was remembered in a fashion.

For a continuation 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.