The Darwinian Thirst

Darwin, located in Australia’s Northern Territory, was a classic frontier outpost. Settled comparatively late in a country young to begin with, the romantic, edgy, and devil-may-care have always attended Darwin.

Cities regularly afflicted by trauma, including in this case cyclones and Japanese bombings in WW II, can be that way. Hundreds of civilians and military were killed or injured in these attacks (1942-1943), with a degree of uprooting and panic that was rarely seen in Allied cities.*

Its pristine and varied natural surroundings, not least the warm scented sea and scarlet-tinted gorges, enhance the exotic quality.

The tropical weather of the remote Timor Sea, especially before the air-conditioing era, encouraged beer-drinking to the max, but if necessary people drank the stuff warm. Port Darwin always had a reputation for outsized thirst. The famed Darwin Stubby, an unlovely two-litre bottle apparently now retired, gave symbolic form to this reality. The container initially was pragmatic but over time people took an inverse pride in it: the ugly duckling turned a peacock.

The beer was made locally, by Swan Brewery, which became part of the CUB group. Later the “Draught” was brewed in Victoria. While Australian per capita beer consumption has fallen since the 1970s, Darwin today features no shortage of beer, and the taste for it endures.

Craft brewing has been slower to develop but has started, see this informative report by Bert Spinks in his “The Crafty Pint”. Spinks relates some interesting history on the Darwin Stubby as well.

In the heyday of Darwin’s thirst press stories abounded on its capacity for malt beverage. They were usually written in slightly apologetic tone. Considering the bluff attitude to alcohol in Australia that is saying something.

This story in New South Wales from October 1941 is a good example. In that period, Darwin, much like Halifax, Nova Scotia, was stretched to the limit by wartime exigencies. Sometimes beer was scarce  and “disorders” in hotels, not infrequent. But the beery balm poured on, surely a good thing for a population, civil or military, under considerable, never-ending stress.

From the story:


George Johnston, writing in the Molong “Express,” gives these highly interesting sidelights on the Darwinian capacity for beer: For cosmopolitan colour and for wild, uproarious, incredibly noisy life Darwin stands alone. By contrast, Sydney — once regarded as Australia’s “brightest” city — has the atmosphere of chilly coldness. The national pastime in Darwin is drinking beer. Perhaps the population is still savouring the novelty of getting cold beer regularly. A couple of years ago the pubs charged 2/- a bottle for warm beer, 3/- for cold. Now it is all two “bob” and all cold. Whatever the reason, the three pubs do a roaring trade from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.- Consumption is officially 480,000 bottles a month! That works out to the best part of 6,000,000 bottles a year, and that represents a lot of steady drinking. You have only to see the vast dumps of “empties!” Freight alone costs £48,000 a year. …. There is one pub that extends an entire block and is packed to the wide-open doors and overflowing to the gutters until the inevitable— and punctual— cry of “Time, please, gentlemen.” Round the corner is another pub identical with the “saloons” you have seen in every Wild West film Hollywood has ever turned out — swing doors, “bouncers,” and a roaring crowd.

The fact that Darwin’s bars could look “western” to the reporter showed how the country had changed since the 1800s, when most Antipodean hotels looked as Darwin’s still did. In a frontier where the pace of change was slower, old-timey buildings had simply lasted longer.

The Victoria Hotel in Darwin, which somehow ducked Tojo’s bombs, typified the genre, see here. The “Vic” still stands but is no longer a bar.

Note re image: the image above is from this ABC news story, on the demise of the Darwin Stubby.  All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to the lawful owner. Image used for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*This recollection from the Australian war Memorial Site provides a sobering reminder.

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