How Australia’s first brewers overcame a harsh climate to brew the national drink

The building claimed to be the 'first hotel in The Rocks'
Mikey Lowe looks at the difficulties Australia’s first brewers faced, how they overcame them, and how the craft revolution got started

Story by Mikey Lowe

Britain witnessed a period of intellectual and moral laxity in the mid-18th century, memorably captured in William Hogarth’s 1751 painting, Gin Lane. The residents of Gin Lane were cast as destitute, immoral and poor — except for the gleefully wealthy pawnbroker in the picture. However Hogarth’s Beer Street, painted in the same year, portrays its inhabitants as amiable and useful, both healthy and wealthy — in this painting, however, the pawnbroker isn’t doing so well.

And whether or not Captain Cook accepted the virtues of Beer Street, he did believe in the health-giving properties of a good brew. So much so that, aboard the Endeavour, the good captain carried four tonnes of it and Australia gave cheers to its first beer at Sydney Cove. It was a Tuesday.

But for the colonialists to establish their own Beer Street, they would need to overcome the climate of this Great South Land.

A surgeon and apothecary by the name of John Boston arrived in 1794. He was to become Australia’s first brewer, substituting maize in place of barley and bittering the concoction with the leaves and the stem of the Cape gooseberry (a relative of the tomato).

James Squire was next at bat, establishing Australia’s first commercial brewery and selling his product at the Malting Shovel Tavern located strategically halfway between Sydney town and the burgeoning trade centre of Parramatta.

The problem was that the harsh climate of this land didn’t suit the English-style ales the colonilaists were used to making. They found better luck in the cooler climates of Tasmania and later Melbourne, but they’d have to wait until 1821 for the first proper breweries. The years rolled around, and in 1824 Peter Degraves established Cascade; since then their marketing slogan has proudly claimed to be ‘Australia’s oldest continuously operating brewery’.

With the establishment of each successive colony, a local brewery emerged fostered by a sense of local pride. By the 1860’s breweries were a relatively safe bet and began to multiply. The arrival of mechanised refrigeration brought about a boom in German-style lagers thanks to an enterprising pair of brothers from New York – William and Ralph Foster, who launched Foster’s in 1889.

The Fosters’ brothers cemented the appeal of their clean-tasting and chilled lager by offering free ice to pubs to ensure quality, marking an early example of promotional ‘freebies’ and representing the point in time that Australian palates switched from the colonial English ales of old to the ubiquitous lagers of today.

1889 was also the year that the number of breweries in Australia peaked at 307. This dwindled to just 20 individual players by 1980, as corporate mergers and acquisitions saw the market grow more concentrated, and breweries in each state became national products. Victoria Bitter became the de facto beer of the nation in the late 1980s, when, as The Beer Bible author Willie Simpson claims: “one in every four beers drunk sported the famous red-and-green label.”

But then came the craft beer revolution. The first modern craft brewery — Hahn Brewery — opened in 1988, being rechristened as the Malt Shovel Brewery with the re-birth of the James Squire brand in 1999.

From here the craft revolution has blossomed, aided by our healthy and wealthy lifestyle. Today sees more breweries than ever before; the Craft Beer Industry Association puts the number at just over 400.
With the nation now awash in beer, Hogarth would be pleased to know that the southern colonies finally captured the essence of Beer Street — just don’t tell him about the rise of Australian craft gin.