Fate of Springfield Brewery, Mitcham

The Springfield Brewery in Mitcham, South Australia was the little brewery that couldn’t, finally. In the days of unceasing brewery consolidation or closure of smaller firms that couldn’t keep up, Springfield Brewery met this fate, ending its days in 1954 in bank-ordered liquidation.

Mitcham is a 15-minute drive easterly from Adelaide, now a suburb but originally a large sheep station with a separate history.

The greater Adelaide area once counted, in pre-craft days that is, dozens of breweries, a good many for the sparse population. Today, apart the craft breweries, the inspiring Cooper’s, still family-owned, and the Lion/Kirin-owned West End Brewery in Thebarton, of West End Draught fame, fly the flag for the old days.

Last October it was reported even West End brewery will shut soon, in June. InDaily has the details here. National per capita beer consumption has dropped significantly in the last 10 years, an astonishing 20%.

The West End facility has operated at only 50% capacity, which is not sustainable. Production will leapfrog interstate, to other Lion facilities. Something similar happened to Springfield, except it wasn’t part of a large group, so the beers it made died with the firm.

Springfield is an interesting case in that it did not start in Victorian or even Edwardian Australia, but rather in 1939. This was relatively late given how competition and merger were intensifying in Australian brewing.

Springfield arose on the site of the closed Waverly Brewery, the product of early entrepreneur Charles Edward Mallen. A group of Adelaide businessmen refitted the site for bottom fermentation. An Adelaide News report in 1941 lauded the new local hero. Among the details:

The first move of the Springfield Brewery Ltd., on acquiring the property formerly known as the Waverley Brewery, was to renovate and extend where necessary the buildings and plant, and convert the process of brewing from the old system of top fermentation to the modern type of bottom fermentation.

A sketch of South Australian brewing by John Radcliffe in 2014 shows the brewery in the early 1950s. The brick tower had been added to the Waverly facility, its mien still fresh in the benign South Australia climate.

In 1941 the war was on and the economy in drive so the two main products, a Bitter and Stout, were selling well. The brewmaster, named O’Donnell, came to Springfield with decades of experience. All looked set for decades-long prosperity.

Yet, 15 years later it was all over. While the causes were numerous, including a lack of re-investment to upgrade the plant after the war, the immediate cause of closure appears to have been  spate of bad production. This kind of problem is much lesser today with improved quality control; not so then.

A June 1953 press story reported an uncharacteristically frank admission of the brewery Chairman: early in 1953, 80% of the beer had been mostly bad, even sour, which resulted in significant financial loss.

With a buyer’s market still the company was sending much of its product outside the state, to western New South Wales. It also found an agent in Sydney willing to take 100% of output. Springfiel. The press story quoted the Chairman:

“We then boosted production and foolishly went over the capacity of the plant.” Mr. Parsons said. “The poor quality was caused by insufficient fermentation and insufficient storage. I found some of our beer completely undrinkable in Sydney. It was a dirty, dark, hazy color without much flavor; Some of it would have been a good substitute for vinegar. But it had been warm in Sydney and our agents got rid of most of it. You may ask why we didn’t get rid of the brewer”. A voice: “Which brewer? You have had so many”.

So by this time experienced brewing staff was also a problem. While finding a buyer for all one can produce seems a plus, it points as well to lack of a robust local market. Generally this bodes ill for brewery success unless the brewery is planned specifically to be an export brewery, as say Beck’s of Bremen was until after World War II.

A later news item stated the company overcame the quality problem, see also this account. A new brewer was hired with long experience at the historic Cascade Brewery in Tasmania.

He was quoted that eliminating bacteria in the brewing water was a key to improving quality. He would not use “reservoir” water except for process purposes; for mashing, spring water was now thoroughly boiled.

In last days of operation the beer flowing was sweet and clean. But contemporary media accounts point to yet deeper market issues faced by Springfield. Many hotels, otherwise prospects for business, were in the clutches of other brewers, and too few untied pubs were buying Springfield’s beer.

It seems that as one problem was overcome, another surfaced which doomed the business, that or a combination of factors ended the existence.

In the company’s heyday it produced a vatted stout, see the handsome colour labels in the VLBC Society’s Springfield collection. The 1941 account stated Springfield’s stout was matured in “oaken vats”, “the good old English way”. Indeed that was the practice in Britain for porter, but more in earlier times.

So often a British colonial, or early post-colonial setting as here, replicated a practice by then disused in metropole.

Such a mix of methods, old jostling with recent technology, was characteristic of Australian brewing then. No doubt the pale beers were aged in modern glass-lined tanks (mentioned in some press accounts), but the stout, apparently a black lager, was still aged in wood. Maybe the vats had belonged to Waverly Brewery.

The last sales of beer by Springfield were at a discount, and went fast – to locals this time. News archives again tell the tale. Someone noted business had not been so brisk in a long time, and the beer season hadn’t even arrived.

You don’t know what you have till its gone, the oldest story ever told.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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