Poetry and Pints: John Farrell

Versing the Public on Ale Brewing

I don’t think many brewers have also been fiction or poetry writers. Some have writen on beer or brewing for academic journals, or consumer or trade media.

Graham Greene, a pre-eminent English novelist of the last century, did have a connection of sorts to brewing. From Wikipedia:

Greene was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire into a large, influential family that included the owners of the Greene King Brewery.

To my knowledge, he did not work in brewing at this storied brewer. In contrast, Australia has produced the novelist-brewer Justin MacCartie, whom I discussed here. I‘ve just learned there was a second brewer-writer in Australia, John Farrell.

Farrell, who died in 1904 at 52, was important enough to have earned an entry in the Australian Dictionary of National Biography. In one of the many memorials printed on his passing, the Adelaide Critic noted:

His parents were Irish, but he was born at Buenos Ayres on December 18th, 1851—twelve months before his parents emigrated to Victoria. There, after an invigorating, if rough, youthful experience, in early manhood he worked at farming, mining, and bullock-driving in the Loddon district. He even had some brief experience as a sailor. Eventually, above all things, he became a brewer, and served an apprenticeship to the art at Bendigo, Albury, and Goulburn; then started as a brewer on his own account at Queanbeyan … I fear that he gave more attention to books than to business. I remember him saying to me once: “Some of my best stuff was on the head of a cask. No—you need not say anything about my fountain of inspiration—I rarely drank my own beer.” Farrell was the most undeviatingly sober man of letters I ever met.

Most of his brewing career was in New South Wales, where he worked in small country breweries. He decided to leave brewing in his early 30s for a career in journalism and writing. For a time he was editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, and remained connected to it until his death. His poetry collection How He Died and Other Poems was published in 1887. It made him known throughout Australia.

Self-made to a “t”, Farrell was sometimes called “the people’s poet”. His place in Australian literary history is assured albeit not considered a major figure in Australian literature.

It is for poetry and public campaigning, especially for a “Single Tax” and land reform, that he is remembered, not the brewing.

I want however to point up his contribution to Australian brewing literature, not hitherto examined it seems. It took the form of a three part article, in 1887, in the Daily Telegraph, linked at the foot hereof. The title is “Brewing Colonial Beer”.

It is clear Farrell had learned practical brewing in-depth. He is careful to note that the scale he worked on differed from the large breweries in Sydney. Temperature control was a key factor to differentiate the two approaches. He states wort in Sydney was rapidly cooled with the new heat exchanger vs. the wood or iron open cooler still used in the country, with the greater risk the latter entailed.

Despite numerous challenges Farrell asserted he was able still to make excellent beer. By my calculation, on the lower end of his range his wort was about 1055 OG, finishing close to 7% ABV. A strong beer with very minimal body.

In Farrell’s terms: 20-22 lbs OG, 1-3 lbs FG. Half-English malt, half-Antipodean (NZ, Tasmania, Victoria). 2-2.5 bushels malt, 30-40 lbs cane sugar, added to kettle. 2.5-4 lbs/hhd hops, so something over 1.5 lbs per barrel.

Sugar, at 40 lbs average for a bushel of malt, is 25%+ of the mash.*

In today’s terms, that’s an unusually dry pale ale.** Perhaps the low attenuation was meant to minimize the risk of acetic or other fretting (re-fermentations). Of course too, more alcohol can be produced at less cost this way. He states the staple beer of Sydney was even stronger.

Sometimes the temperature for fermentation was too high in summer – hot days and short, warm nights. He would shorten the primary fermentation and transfer beer to casks in cellar to complete the working.

In Part III Farrell refers to brewing a 17-18 lb gravity beer, so he had a weaker class as well, perhaps around 5%. Its finishing gravity was likely higher than for the other. This makes sense given the light bitter then emerging in the English-speaking world.

Farrell’s directions are worth comparing with statements in testimony by F.G. Ward of Tooth’s in 1899 in London, see here. They are largely consistent but Ward adds interesting details. He states the proportion of sugar is 37.5%, which seems higher than Farrell used. It seems more a third by the figures Ward gives in the same testimony, e.g. 20 lbs sugar to a 40 lb bag of malt, but I think Ward likely intended to indicate an average for Australia, as he indicated some brewers used more sugar than his firm.

Farrell occasionally used gentian, an herb, to supplement hops, an improvement, in his view, not an expedient. He invoked the same rationale to add salt or lime sulphate to brewing water, so denying an intent to increase the drinker’s thirst. In general though the beers, for 1899 and 1887 no less, were malt, sugar, hops, yeast, as discussed by these men.

Farrell is refreshingly bluff on water in brewing, stating that almost any type will do, and water merits are exaggerated by mendacious brewers.

Part III is a melancholy plaint about the travails of country brewing. There was the need constantly to “shout”, or pay for drinks, often for cadgers, when taking orders. The lack of care given to casks in the cellar by grasping hotelmen, especially in smaller centresm was noted. He comments on the tied house as the preserve of large city brewers, with its concomitant of excessive rents. This led in turn to other abuses.

Farrell felt the tied house contributed to drunkenness through combining the wholesale and retail aspects of beer distribution.

Added to these pressures was a recent, burdensome tax law.

From Part III:

The average migratory hotelkeeper regards the brewer as his prey. When that unhappiest of men calls round for his weekly order, tow-headed and sticky miscreants surround him, and he has to “shout” for the crowd in a royal manner, although the iron is in his soul. Unexpected strangers and improbable ruffians congregate as if by magic in each bar, and he meets the same faces, grown beerier and more swollen, in other bars, for they follow him up. He has to “shout” everywhere, and generally for all who come in each bar. Then the hotelkeeper wants donations towards several different objects, and he has to shell out liberally. The hotelkeeper’s wife has a bazaar in hand, and he has to shell out again towards clearing the debt off the Presbyterian Church or
helping to build the convent. The hotelkeeper’s daughter, who is a daughter of the horse leech, also cries “Give!” At Christmas piratical levies called Christmas boxes are made upon the brewer, and, with a smile on his face and black malice in his heart, he presents a silk dress or a gold watch to someone whose good graces he must preserve. In addition to this, he is at the mercy of the retailer in the matter of “returns.” If beer in rendered unsaleable by the stupidity or gross carelessness of the hotelkeeper it has to be allowed for in the bill, just as though the fault were the brewer’s. Owing to all these things and the imposition of the beer duties, brewing is no longer profitable in the country districts.

Part III forms a pensive tale, one that resonates through the modern history of brewing to our very day.

Farrell had to confront the hard realities of a difficult business. For the poetic, literary soul, that he was, thismade it all the harder. Brewing good beer was something John Farrell understood well; the business of brewing was a matter best left to the less sensitive.

In a final passage, he actually expresses the wish that society one day will altogether banish alcohol. This is surely, or in part, an index of the frustration he experienced in his bootless years at brewing.

Posterity has the gain, if not of a brewery or brands descended from John Farrell, then his poetry and social campaigning, for which he is still remembered.

At Trove Newspapers, see  Farrell brewing series, 1887, Part I, Part II, Part III.

*See 1899 testimony by Wade, infra in text. Even in recent decades see Briggs, Hough, et al. in their Malting and Brewing Science, here.

**Brut IPA, you can call it.