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.