Mr. Byass’s ales Come a Cropper

In a series of earlier posts I explored aspects of Australian brewing history. One facet was the colonies’ unusual social attitudes on beer: largely unfeigned and unashamed. In this vein the press regularly carried pieces on beer, especially its quality, that were notable for being unselfconscious.

To say Australia has always venerated beer is probably not going too far. In the 1970s and 80s the country was noted internationally for an exaggerated attachment to beer. This was seen as a funny, but questionable if not frivolous symbol of maturing nationhood. The Aussies took it all in their stride.

Today the beery image is half-forgotten but press sources from early days show a solid basis for the bluff image.

An example is how the press regularly fretted that “Colonial” beer was wrongly seen as inferior to U.K. importations. By WW I local productions, ale and porter, sparkling ale, and finally lager were more appreciated by the man in the street.

Indeed Australia became a lager nation par excellence. It pioneered deployment of the Leopold Nathan fast-fermentation system, today a brewing standby world-wide.

(I’ve written about Swiss-based Leopold Nathan’s important invention and the man himself, who is rather more mysterious).

At the same time, a concurrent counter-tendency to the hedonism cannot be discounted. Early on the anti-drink campaigners tried to mobilize but had a hard go. Perhaps the colonies’ initial isolation, and the social origins of many settlers (the transported convicts and such), explain the frank embracing of a drinking culture.

Indeed even to call alcohol consumption a “question” seems irrelevant in Australian history. In contrast by the late 1800s most English-speaking places were experiencing upheaval over the role of alcohol in society.

Against this background it is understandable that the Sydney Morning Herald in 1860 carried a detailed piece on beer, in this case depreciating the quality of imports, for which 1860 is rather early. “Cask after cask” right off the ship was no good, it said, sour and often flat. We are speaking here too of the flower of Victorian and Empire brewing, India Pale Ale.

The main shipper accused was Byass, a well-known English agency in the 1800s that specialized in bottling and shipping Bass pale ale. Robert Blake Byass founded the business and had also formed a partnership in the Spanish wine trade with a Señor Gonzáles, scion of an old aristocratic family. A modern legacy of the business is the renowned Gonzales Byass labels: Tio Pepe dry sherry is a star example. The Byass’ have been out of that business for about 30 years, and on the beer side even longer as an ale bottler called Hibbert bought them out around 1900.

The Sydney article chided Byass that if quality did not improve importers would look elsewhere for supplies. In this era and for a long time to come, independent export bottlers supplied the major Burton and Irish brands. So when things went wrong the fault was laid at their feet even though the true cause probably often lay with the brewers.

Red and blue labels of barrelled pale ale were mentioned. The red was clearly the produce of the original, or “old”, Bass brewery in Burton. The blue from was a later brewery Bass built in Burton, for expansion. There was also, or in some markets, a white label Bass, representing yet a third brewery in the Bass system. I’ve not investigated how this colour scheme connects to the later red and blue triangle labels of Bass beer. The red was bottle-matured and the blue a pasteurized, filtered version, but there is probably some connection.

In the mid-1800s – long before single cell yeasts were isolated and before sterile brewery operations were routine – brewing sometimes went wrong. That the beer could be flat on arrival in Sydney suggests possibly a failure of the beer to undergo secondary fermentation. Other reasons might explain why flat beer arrived in the casks (leaks, pilferage, infection, etc.).

The inconsistency and always-higher cost of imported beer would have encouraged the domestic brewers, if for no other reasons. Yet, they too were afflicted with troubles, especially, sources tell us, an off-taste resulting from uncontrollably high fermentation temperatures. The arrival of modern brewing science c.1900 put paid to these problems.

Was the uniformity of Australian lager in the pre-craft era – say, up to the 1990s – too high price to pay? Arguably yes. The survival of the distinctive Cooper’s ales in Adelaide was the great exception to the lager tide, but even Cooper’s ales ended by acquiring a quasi-lager character.

Note re image above: image was sourced at Retrofair here, and is used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.