The Fate of Springfield Brewery, Mitcham

The Springfield Brewery in Mitcham, South Australia is the little brewery that couldn’t, finally. Too many breweries in the days of unceasing consolidation were absorbed in groups or didn’t even make it to that stage, simply shuttering.

Springfield was one, ending its days in bank-ordered liquidation in 1954. Mitcham is about a 15-minute drive east of central Adelaide, a suburb today but originally with a separate history, connected to a large sheep station.

The Adelaide area once counted, pre-craft that is, dozens of breweries, a lot for the sparse population. Today, apart the craft breweries, there is the inspiring Cooper’s, still family-owned, and the Lion/Kirin-owned West End Brewery in Thebarton, makers of famed West End Draught.

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

The West End facility is operating at only 50% capacity, not sustainable. Production will be moved interstate, to other Lion facilities. Something like this happened to Springfield, except it wasn’t part of a large group, and the beers it made died with the firm.

Springfield is an interesting case, too, in that it did not start in Victorian or even Edwardian Australia. It started in 1939, relatively late given how competition and merger would intensify in Australian brewing.

It was built on the site of the closed Waverly Brewery, product of an early entrepreneur settler, Charles Edward Mallen. A group of Adelaide businessmen refitted the brewery for bottom fermentation, and an Adelaide News report in 1941 lauded a new local hero.

A sketch of South Australian brewing by Dr. John Radcliffe in 2014 pictured the brewery in the early 1950s. The brick tower, an addition to the Waverly facility, still looked new in the South Australia climate.

In 1941 times were heady, the war was on, and the two main products, a Bitter and Stout, were doing well. Its brewmaster, named O’Donnell, had decades of experience in other breweries. All looked set for decades-long prosperity.

15 years later it was all over. While causes were numerous, including a lack of re-investment to upgrade the plant post-war, the immediate cause of closure seems to have been a spate of bad production.

A June 1953 press report contained an uncharacteristically frank admission of the company chairman: early in 1953 the beer had been mostly (80%) bad, even sour, resulting in a significant financial loss.

In a buyer’s market the company sent much of its beer out of the State, to western New South Wales. Then, it found an agent in Sydney willing to take 100% of brewery output. It therefore boosted production, not aging the beer correctly. As quoted in the report:

“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”.

While finding a buyer for all one could produce seems a plus, it points as well to lack of a robust local market. Unless one is set up to be an export brewery, as say Beck’s was in Bremen, Germany, relying on distant markets can be chancy in brewing.

A later report confirmed the company got a handle on the quality problem, see also here. It hired a new brewer with long experience at the historic Cascade Brewery, Tasmania.

He was quoted that elimination of bacteria in brewing water was a key element of the strategy to improve quality. He would not use reservoir water except for process purposes; for mashing malt they used spring water thoroughly boiled.

Together with the chairman’s remarks, this points to a number of quality issues that had to be overcome. In last days the beer flowing was sweet and clean, but it was too late.

Media accounts pointed deeper market issues, however. Many State hotels were in the clutches of other breweries, and too few free houses were buying Springfield’s beer.

The quality problem, abetted perhaps by a too-plain-spoken chairman, could not have helped. It’s a reminder that brewing is never quite vouchsafed the “bad batch”, even today. The bad spirits that so preoccupied pre-industrial brewers have never quite flown.

In the company’s heyday it produced a vatted stout, see the handsome colour labels at the VLBC Society’s Springfield collection. The 1941 news story stated the stout was matured in “oaken vats”, just as was done in England.

(Well, not so much latterly, but brewing must be allowed its heroic tales).

This mix of methods and terminology was characteristic of Australian brewing then. I suspect the light-coloured beers were aged in modern glass-lined tanks, mentioned in press accounts, but it seems a black lager was aged in wood vats, maybe those formerly belonging to Waverly Brewery.

The last sales of beer by Springfield, at a discount, went fast – to locals. The press told the tale. An employee said sales had never been as brisk for a long time, and it was not even the beer season quite yet.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.