Brewing in Postwar Cairns

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

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 sold 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 mentioned 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 those of wood.

There was no romantically expressed regret at abandoning the venerable wood container. This is the postwar era, a time suffused with optimism in science and the prospects for growth and progress.

A generation would pass before the loss of wood casks in brewing would be rued – and even then they have made only a very limited return.

In 1951Jane’s column in the Maryborough Chronicle described the brewery. The “industrial tour”, of breweries or other plants, and mines, was a staple of journalism from the 1800s through the 20th century.

The genre seems to have withered by now with the multiplicity of media, and green focus.

Yet, the old reports are of good interest, both inherently and to show how business growth and especially job creation were considered vital to society. A regional brewery such as NAB could, in 1951, employ 400 people. And the complement would rise by 50%, said the article.

The story combined facts and figures with engaging observation. As often for beer reportage then, there is no focus on beer styles. Still, it appears the brands I mentioned were typical of Australian brewing then.

Sugar is mentioned, a longstanding ingredient in Australian brewing, is mentioned. Via Trove 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 a given. This is only 50 years after basically frontier conditions applied in marginal, rural breweries.

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

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

“Jane” described well how glass-lined aging tanks and the kilderkins were becoming the industry standard. In this case, though, we do see some regret for the old practices. Jane explained how the furniture in the hospitality room was made from what we call now 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 ensuing space age intensified use of gleaming metals, molded plastic, and toughened glass – but older traditions were recalled with nostalgia, in this case.

For our follow-up, see here.

*For more detailed information pre- and post-1950, see the remarks in 2010 of Dr. Brett Stubbs, an Australian brewery historian, here.