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Queensland’s breweries in the 1893 flood

January 13, 2011
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During the present disastrous flood in the Brisbane River, the inundation of January 1974 is constantly being used as the benchmark against which to compare rising water levels. This is perfectly understandable as the 1974 event, besides being arguably Brisbane’s worst flood until now, happened recently enough to have been experienced first-hand by many of the city’s current residents.

The West End Brewery surrounded by flood water, March 1890. Source: State Library of Queensland.

Prior to 1974, it was the ‘great flood’ of 1893 that set the standard for the Brisbane River. This event is memorable, among other things, for destroying the Victoria Bridge and the Indooroopilly Railway Bridge and for stranding three ships in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens.

In the case of beer production, the 1893 flood was most interesting because of its conspicuous effect on several of the many breweries which then operated in and around Brisbane. In particular, it inflicted major damage on one of the city’s biggest beer producers, the West End Brewery.

Of the five breweries in Brisbane at the beginning of 1893, the West End suffered most from the devastating flood in February that year. At the height of the flood, the water had risen up to the windows on the second storey of the tower, and all the dwellings in the immediate neighbourhood were completely or nearly submerged. When the waters receded, the extent of the damage was revealed; the brewery tower remained, but the surrounding timber buildings were completely wrecked. The brewery had been surrounded by water during an earlier flood in March 1890, but compared to the 1893 event, that of 1890 was only a minor inconvenience (see pictures).

The West End Brewery after the flood in early February, 1893. The damaged Montague Hotel is in the background at the corner of Montague Road and Hope Street; it is still standing in 2011. Source: State Library of Queensland.

The Brisbane Courier announced in February 1893 that the brewery, one of the most prominent landmarks of South Brisbane, ‘will be so no longer, for to all intents and purposes’ it had been demolished. This was an exaggeration, as the business continued. On the other hand, there was perhaps more than a touch of bravado in a statement by the proprietors a couple of days after the flood that they hoped to be able to resume work ‘in a week’s time’. Indeed, there was a notable fall off of beer production in the southern district of Queensland in the year ended 30 June 1893 due in part to the damage sustained by the West End Brewery, and the suspension of brewing there for a while. Nevertheless, no time was wasted in replacing the wrecked buildings. Before the end of February, tenders were invited by Messrs Nicholson and Wright, architects, for the erection of brick additions to the brewery.

A curious side-effect of the 1893 flood was an increase in drunkenness at South Brisbane and certain other places, due to the kegs of beer—said to number 500 hogsheads—that floated away from the West End Brewery. Some were taken to the railway embankment, the nearest high ground, and broached. Others washed ashore at the foot of Bowen Terrace, downstream on the other side of the river. The resulting scenes of misconduct were said to be ‘disgusting in the extreme’. Men were seen ‘drinking all they could and then quarrelling for possession of the cask containing the balance.’

Another Brisbane brewery to be seriously damaged by the 1893 flood was the Phoenix Brewery in Fortitude Valley. In fact, this business was dissolved soon after as a direct result of the flood. Although no details are known of the specific effects of the flood on the brewery, it was mentioned in a general report of the disaster that kegs and barrels of beer had floated away from the Phoenix Brewery and were picked up in Fortitude Valley by some thirsty citizens, who consumed their contents with great gusto. Losses resulting from the flood contributed to the insolvency several years later of one of the brewery’s owners, Walter Lanfear.

The Queensland Brewery, one of Brisbane’s biggest breweries in 1893, was unscathed by the otherwise disastrous flood of February that year, despite its river-side position. Although ‘one could jump into the river from the brewery’, its situation beside the Bulimba Reach at present-day Teneriffe was such that the premises were never flooded. Advertisements run soon after the devastating event assured customers that the brewery was ‘above flood mark’ and could continue to supply its ‘well known and favourite Bulimba Beer’.

The modern day XXXX brewery is closed due to flooding.

Upstream at Ipswich, flooding of the Bremer River in February 1893 caused substantial damage to the brewery there. The large stables building and another building associated with the brewery were destroyed. Within the brewery itself, the vats were ‘scattered all over the place’, and the machinery was greatly damaged by mud and water. The roof was partially lifted off the walls, then placed down again, removing and breaking a number of the bricks. The brewing utensils and furniture were completely destroyed, even though they had been removed to the top storey. Before the water entered the building, all the beer was removed to a safer place, but it was nevertheless completely submerged. The Ipswich Brewery was repaired and continued after the 1893 flood, but after it was again affected by flood water in January 1898, its owner, John James Johnston, decided to give up. Instead, he became the Ipswich agent for the Castlemaine Brewery in Brisbane.

By 1974, only two breweries remained in operation in the Brisbane area: the Castlemaine Brewery at Milton, and the Bulimba Brewery at Fortitude Valley. The latter was on an elevated site, above flood reach. The former had been mostly on high ground in 1893, so was unaffected by flooding that year, but it had expanded enormously by 1974, then occupying most of the block from Milton Road down the hill to Black Street. Flood water in January 1974 backed up Black Street and into the brewery grounds, damaging packaged beer and thoroughly disrupting operations.

Early stages of flooding on Milton Road with the XXXX Brewery in the background. Source ABC News.

It remains to be seen what effect the present flood will have on the operation of this huge, but evidently, vulnerable brewery.

Editor’s note: The XXXX Brewery is currently closed and has ceased operations due to flooding on site. A brewery spokesman advises the brewery has been able to move most raw materials to higher ground at this stage.

“While our warehouse in Hendra is currently closed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people, our stock has not been affected. We are closely monitoring flood levels to decide when to commence operations and deliveries again.”

Flooding in the Brisbane suburb of Rosalie. Photo: David Downie/AustralianBeers.com

The brewery will donate $180,000 worth of its beer products to hotels and clubs in flood-affected areas and staff would work with publicans to assess damage to beer systems. Another $100,000 would be donated to the Premier’s flood appeal, with a further donation by matching every dollar donated by staff.  The brewery is working with Queensland Cricket to raise more funds when the XXXX Gold Queensland Bulls take on the Warriors at the GABBA on Tuesday 25 January. They expect to raise at least $50,000 through the event.

UPDATE 9.22am: XXXX has denied some reports on social media that kegs have floated from the site.

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