Pre-Industrial Aussie Ales (With Taste Notes)

The Sydney brewery of Toohey, a landmark since 1869, went public in 1901. Thus it entered a second phase, an expansion both of plant and its advertising and branding activities. The founding brothers had died and the brewery was now under professional management. The Sydney Evening News of December 23, 1905 carried a short article/advertisement full of details on Toohey “Mark II”.

The company had recently built its own maltings to replace malt sourced from New Zealand, Tasmania, and Victoria. The new malt was mostly made from Australian barley, and the increasing use of Australian materials was mentioned with pride. It was a sign of the growing maturity and confidence of Australian industry, indeed of the country in general which had become a federation only four years earlier.

I wondered yesterday if, in 1910, Toohey’s flagship sparkling amber ale, a bottled beer, was pasteurized. The 1905 article makes clear it was. The beer was also mechanically filtered and so can be viewed as a modern, packaged ale. Even in 1910 though fermentation was a quick, 30-hour process. Presumably, it was still conducted at a high temperature (>70 F) and in this sense still followed 19th century-practice for “colonial ale”.

Toohey’s ales were aged in cellars in hogsheads before filtering and bottling, but whether at near-freezing, lager temperature is unclear. I’d think that stage had not been reached yet.

In Food, Power, and Community, ed. by Robert Dare (1999), brewing historian Dr. Brett Stubbs confirms that pasteurization and force-carbonation were usual in Australia for bottled beer by 1900. Tooth’s, the other great brewer in Sydney, introduced it, and Toohey’s and others later followed.

Here, from 1907is an example from Maitland Breweries, in Maitland up the coast from Sydney. The ad was for Maitland Crystal Ale and proudly advertised that the beer was pasteurised. The brand was still an ale, so once again an instance of a top-fermented beer, derived from the types originally made in the Colonies, but showing some characteristics of the new lager.

Toohey’s sparkling ale and Maitland’s crystal ale represented an interim phase between “colonial ale” and a later stage of industrial bottom-fermentation. The same thing happened in other countries under British influence, and in Britain itself.

In Canada, beers such as Labatt 50, Molson Stock Ale, and Keith’s India Pale Ale still exist that represent this tradition. Over the years they have become lighter and more lager-like, but an ale character can be detected (IMO) especially when consumed on draft. They show this mainly by an estery quality from warmer fermentation. Still, in Canada too industrially-produced lager became almost universal, at least until the craft brewers restored an older tradition.

But the older, pre-1880s Australian ales – what were they really like? I mentioned J.C. MacCartie’s 1884 A Handbook for Australian Brewers which acknowledged with frankness many faults: inferior, local hops, fermentation at excessively high temperatures, poor sanitation, and lack of sufficient aging. MacCartie was both a brewing writer and a professional brewer who had worked at Dunedin Brewery in NZ for six years, so his views must be taken seriously.

Yet, were beers from the breweries all equally bad? We have some remarkable evidence from a detailed press account in the Melbourne Argus in 1875. The story summarized findings of government analysts who had the police fetch samples of local ales. These were tested to determine alcohol strength, presence of additives, and other characteristics including the “twang” associated with colonial ales. We saw an instance of it as late as 1945 when an English observer used the term for Brisbane beer.

The article is long and there is no substitute for reading it, but some highlights: The average ABV of Melbourne’s ales was 7.5%. Impressively high and showing the influence in this regard of English mild ale brewing. The Fitzroy district showed the same level, and a couple of other areas’ beers were just a point under. When people complained of “soporific” ales by comparison to lager, one can see what they meant. Still, the Aussies clearly liked the beers that way, the pre-AC climate notwithstanding. Australian beer remains relatively strong to this day when compared to the norm in the mother country.

Most of the beers showed fusel traces, which was due to the high fermentation temperatures that MacCartie had noted. One analyst referred to a “fruity” taste resulting from this. Some beers were deemed “rancid”, probably from a putrefactive fermentation or a “fret”. No dangerous additives were detected but some samples showed use of quassia or coriander, deemed harmless but not traditional. One analyst attributed the twang to the local hops and inadequate aging. Another said it was from high fermentation temperature. Probably it was a case of both being right.

Some of the beers were deemed of high quality and one at least was mistaken for Joule’s Stone Ale, a reputed English brand.

One analyst, who would not have approved of Beeretseq’s blending techniques, deprecated mixing local ale with “pricked”, or soured or otherwise spoiled, English ale. He also disapproved when all-local beers were blended to improve one element (even though this was an old English technique). How could he tell there was mixing simply from analyzing samples? I’d guess he had gotten wind of the practice earlier and wanted to issue a pronunciamento.

News articles also reported results of local competitions, as this article from 1880 in the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW). The article is of particular interest as it reports the judges’ taste notes for numerous beers including Toohey’s. Joseph Marshall, father of a noted solicitor in town, did particularly well and received first prize for his very pale, strong ale.

Sample terms in the report: full body, fine hop flavour, cloudy, pale, very pale, light amber, dark amber, nice brown colour.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We discuss beer today in very similar terms.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the website of the Kiama Library, here. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



2 thoughts on “Pre-Industrial Aussie Ales (With Taste Notes)”

    • Thanks, I’ve re-read the post, and good to have your confirmation of the locality. I don’t think I stated differently in the text and meant simply to give some indication what colonial hotels looked like. It seems, today, the Kiama library holds records for the Jamberoo locality some miles distant I understand.

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