Craft Pioneer Coopers Brewery of Australia

Craft Before the Name Existed

A recent article by Simon Evans in the Financial Review incisively described a recent reverse for a venerable Australian brewer, Coopers Brewery Ltd. in Regency Park, Adelaide. Sales have dropped in all but its home state of South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia included.

Long-time CEO Dr. Tim Cooper was quoted that the family-owned firm is caught in the crossfire of rapidly growing craft beer and aggressive marketing by the two major national brewers, Lion and CUB, both internationally-owned.

Coopers has 5% of the national market, the two majors, 88% between them. The rest is down to the burgeoning craft market and a few imports.

Tim Cooper has a plan to restore growth by boosting the company marketing expenditure; that together with new products, a Coopers Session and Coopers Dry, hopefully will turn things around.

The company had enjoyed 24 straight years of growth, so the situation is not so dire when looked at historically; and after all ancestor Thomas Cooper set up brewing in Adelaide in 1862.

The company has seen a lot of changes since then, including a period of share ownership by a major national brewer, but the family regained independence many years ago.

Coopers stuck commendably to top-fermentation for a long time, only by about 1970 did it add a lager. True, the ales had evolved in a way to resemble lager to a degree, but still they were traditionalist in a country that had otherwise given up on its British brewing heritage in favour of European lager methods.

I bought a six of Best Extra Stout, in production since the 1800s, in a sunny suburb rather distant from Coopers bailiwick, Boca Raton, FL. That Boca evokes an ethos rather familar to many Aussies adds an oddly satisfying note.

The stout was packaged six months ago per label details but tastes fresh as a daisy, due in no small part to skillful bottling with a yeast addition.

The stout is all-malt, unpasteurised, richly flavoured, in effect a taste of history. It is somewhat similar to the best versions of Guinness, but better IMO. Probably Guinness Extra Stout tasted like Coopers’ before the 1930s.

Coopers benefitted from the post-1970s worldwide interest in quality brewing and was promoted enthusiastically by beer authority Michael Jackson. Exports to the U.S. and Britain followed. The brands acquired a loyal following Stateside which they still have in some areas.

Coopers is one of the original models for craft brewing. Certainly its Extra Stout in any meaningful sense is a craft beer. It is far better than many stouts and porters of similar strength from craft breweries, frankly.

There is no raw scorched grain notes, often associated with use of roasted barley vs. patent barley malt, no black licorice notes (viewed as a fault by at least one 1800s commentator), and no non-hops flavouring. Oh, the bourbon barrels are left to others, as well.

The beer has a pleasant residual sweetness instead of the bone-dry quality of many craft stouts and porters, the latter imparted we believe under influence of the raw barley used in mashing Guinness.

Many pre-craft, smaller breweries that influenced craft brewing transitioned well to the new environment. The symbiosis is entirely apt given their history, if indeed only due to their scale.

Yuengling did it, Saratoga, Cold Spring, Fuller, Samuel Smith, Greene King, numerous Belgian breweries of course, and others. It seems Coopers has not positioned itself this way, yet it deserves the respect and purchasing dollar of the crafterati every bit as much as those.

Need I add that Coopers has its own, now state-of-the-art maltings? That it has long supported home brewing with its widely popular homebrew kits and malt extract line?

If all this does not spell an exemplary brewing heritage, tell me what does.

Support the company, people. Yes, there are countless brews to choose from today but if Coopers loses its independence one day or even disappears from the market – perish the thought – much will have been lost.

In Toronto where I am normally based, I would be happy to buy the beers but we do not get them at present. Even when we did, it was just the Sparkling Ale, certainly an excellent product when very fresh but one of numerous estimable products in the current line. We need to see a range of the beers, hark LCBO.



2 thoughts on “Craft Pioneer Coopers Brewery of Australia”

  1. I think “caught in the crossfire” is only part of Coopers recent problems. Not only were they Craft before the name existed, they were Boutique before that name existed (because that’s what the late 80s uprising in Australia was called. But most of their good beers (red, yellow, vintage) are old and their newer releases have failed to engage the more adventurous drinker. When they released a 150th anniversary beer they could have made a special version of their stout (a 10%er or one aged in Adelaide Hills shiraz barrels for example) or strong ale but instead made just another 5.2% amber. I quite like it but wasn’t ever going to draw attention from the young craft folk. Perhaps the session ale will fare a little better – it at least has (some) newfangled hops.

    The other problem for them was the boycott. In what what might generously be called a misjudgement, Coopers associated themselves with a “polite” debate during the marriage equality campaign, appearing to sponsor two Liberal Party politicians (the Liberals being the major party of the right in Oz) discussing the issue. Many people concluded that Coopers are reactionaries and their beers disappeared from a fair few pubs and cafe fridges. I suspect some permanent damage has been done.

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