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What is the real history of Crown Lager?

July 16, 2012
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Even though craft beer drinkers like to say, “it’s the liquid, not the label, that matters”, the label does indeed matter.

More accurately, it’s what the label captures. The back story, the personality of the brewers, their story of struggle or how the beer itself was originated all factor in to how we feel about what we drink.

Studies show that how we feel about what we drink actually does make it taste better, or at least make us think that it does — which is arguably the same thing — and increases our enjoyment of it. If you’re too busy to read the link, here’s the Brodie’s Notes version:

Researchers scanning the volunteers’ brains while they drank confirmed they enjoyed the pricier wines more. The experiment helps explain how marketing practices can influence both the preferences of consumers and the enjoyment registered by their brains, said Antonio Rengel, one of the study’s authors.

“The lesson is a very deep one, not only about marketing but about the human experience,” said Rangel, an associate professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “This study shows that the expectations that we bring to the experience affect the experience itself.”

This might be why breweries love to have history for their beer. If you can’t be new and exciting, be old and venerable. If a brewery doesn’t have a history, they can just adopt a history and make us feel that it’s theirs. Just ask Malt Shovel.

Perhaps the best use of a beer’s history — and a label — has been Crown Lager. That gold-foil-wrapped, distinctive-shaped bottle that just screams, “Be impressed, I’ve spent a few bucks extra on my beer.”

The official history of the brand, at least the history appearing in CUB’s current media releases, reads:

Crown Lager has a longstanding history dating back more than 90 years. Crown Lager was first created in 1919 but was crafted only in limited quantities and reserved exclusively for visiting diplomats and Australian ambassadors. Then, to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s inaugural visit to Australia in 1954, Crown Lager was made available to the Australian public and pioneered the premium beer market in Australia.

Man, that’s impressive. This beer doesn’t just have history, it’s exclusive and we’re lucky to be able to be having it ourselves now,” is how the PR copy is meant to make us feel.

I’ve always thought the story reads a little odd. Did the Department of Foreign Affairs — or some other body capable of giving diplomatic sanction to a beer — really commission a special beer just for diplomats and ambassadors? Were Parliament House fridges stocked with Crownies reserved solely to refresh visiting diplomats after intense discussions about pig iron shipments to Japan or the foundation and make up of the UN? Did sealed diplomatic eskies criss-cross the globe keeping our envoys lubricated? Or did one of Australia’s largest breweries really set aside a portion of its brewing capacity to make this special beer in the hope that a relatively small number of visiting diplomats would come to the brewery’s back gate, whisper “Diplomatic Immunity” and be allowed to purchase a carton or two of Crownies to take back to their Embassy?

It always raised so many questions that never seemed to be answered, but I always filed it under, “look into”.

Newspaper advertisement, 21 August 1914

Even when I came across ads in old newspapers mentioning Foster’s Crown Lager, newspapers that dated before 1919, I made a mental note but never followed it up. Until recently, when I was contacted by a Brews News reader who has also looked into the history and sent me a copy of the same ad (right), as well mentioning he had seen it in newspapers from such exotic diplomatic posts as Colac in 1916 and Townsville in 1920. It even appeared in the Victorian Government Gazette in 1949.

My interest piqued, I started looking into it. My first port of call was the website of the rather grand sounding Crown Company, which says:

The Crown Company.
Australia’s Finest Since 1919.

The Crown Company is a distinguished family united by a dedication to brewing excellence and has been recognised as Australia’s Finest since Crown Lager was first commissioned to honour visiting dignitaries and royalty in 1919.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Crown Lager was first offered to the Australian public to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. To this day, The Crown Company consistently produces the best examples of Australian brewing capability.

Characterised by a passion for the highest quality ingredients, the most experienced Master Brewers and a unique longer maturation process, The Crown Company prides itself on delivering the smoothest tasting premium Australian lagers.

Even comparing the ‘offical’ histories, differences are apparent. Suddenly the beer was born following a ‘commission’ and the customers are now royalty, not just dignitaries. Also, it suggests the public release celebrated the Coronation in 1954. Now, 1954 was the year that Her Majesty first visited Australia. Her coronation was 1952, remembering we have just celebrated her diamond — or 60th — anniversary of that event.

This just raised more questions. Who commissioned it? Was it released to the public for the Coronation or two years later for the visit?

Figuring Foster’s would have celebrated the 50th anniversary, I searched its website and found a speech made in 2003 by then Foster’s President and CEO Ted Kunkel in which he declared that year as Crown Lager’s 50th anniversary. Hmmm, we have yet another date.

Looking elsewhere I found a very complete telling of the story in the very grand sounding 2004 book, Superbrands IV, which appears to be no more than a vanity publishing exercise for multinational companies. Still, it is as thorough a look at the Crown story as you’ll find. It includes the passages:

Crown Lager had an auspicious start. It was launched to the Australian consumer in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Prior to that it was only available to an exclusive group made up of diplomats and visiting dignitaries.

A little later it notes that:

On July 3rd 2003, Crown’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in style at fashionable Sydney Opera House restaurant Guillaume at Bennelong. The venue was bathed in golden light, the glow of which could be seen from the long approach along Circular Quay. Guests included the who’s who of fashion, art, media, television, sport, hospitality and, of course, the Carlton & United Breweries staff who helped make Crown Lager the success it is today.

It must have been a hell of a night, because only a few years after, none of those staff can remember the year in which they celebrated the anniversary and 1954 starts to be commemorated.

So now we have a beer publicly advertised in 1914, but not commissioned until 1919, but then launched to the public to celebrate both the coronation (1952) and the first royal visit (1954). While the company now says the launch to the public was 1954, it marked the 50th anniversary of that date in 2003.

Perplexed, I sent a query to CUB asking the source of their various ‘official’ histories. Though promised an answer for almost two weeks, none has come.

Label printed in Keith Dunstan’s book.

Changing tack, I went looking for a ‘commission’ for this special beer. I started with the advice that it had been mentioned in the Victorian Government Gazette. This official government record does indeed mention it, but not in any ambassadorial way. It is mentioned in the 1949 schedule fixing the price of beer for sale to the public.

I consulted one of the more authoritative histories of CUB, Keith Dunstan’s The Amber Nectar, published in 1987. Even though it is not an official company history, and it expressly states it’s not an exhaustive look at every brew, I thought it might mention an auspicious beer brewed exclusively for diplomats and ambassadors. The only mention though is the inclusion of a label (right) with the caption, “The Crown Lager label of the early 1950s celebrated the Coronation.” Assuming this rough date to be correctly associated with the Coronation, it dates the label to the year of the Coronation: 1952.

I consulted Brews News’ resident beer historian, Dr Brett Stubbs, who advised:

I checked the Dunstan book. I see where he mentions the Coronation, but I’ve got my doubts about this. Certainly Crown Lager was released for the Royal Visit in 1954 (see Melbourne Argus 10 February 1954, [detailed view]), but I can find no evidence of any earlier special release for the Coronation. Maybe the two events have become confused in the company’s history. As for the label illustrated in the book, this would seem to me to be much older than 1950s, unless it remained unchanged for a long time. I have seen ads (below) from 1920 showing a bottle with the same Fosters Export Crown Lager label.

Townsville Daily Bulletin, Friday 24 September, 1920, page 7

So, we can fix the date of a release, but the Argus certainly doesn’t attribute anything special to the beer, such as that it will be released to the public for the first time. It just notes that it is ‘specially produced’. This, of course, may have been no different to the many special releases we have seen from CUB over the years to commemorate grand final victories or even such momentous events as 50 years of Ansett, or Bert Newton’s 25th anniversary at GTV9.

When I asked Dr Stubbs about the possible origins of the beer, given the earliest mentions seem to be 1914 not 1919, Dr Stubbs explained:

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, lager imports to Australia from Germany were immediately discontinued (trading with enemy, and all that). This gave great impetus to lager production in Australia, where very little was produced. In Victoria, CUB launched Foster’s Lager Beer in 1914, possibly to replace a German import of the same name (Crown Lager Beer). The Foster’s Lager Beer would have been made at the Victoria Brewery, another of the CUB components, as the Foster Brewery at Rokeby Street, Collingwood, had been closed by that time (in 1908, I believe).

As far as I can gather, Crown Lager continued to be made by CUB after the war, then was repopularised in the 1950s for the Royal Tour in 1954. When the Foster’s brand was dropped in favour of Carlton I could not say (at the moment).

It seems German lager was indeed prized by ‘Colonials’ in the late 19th Century, commanding a substantial premium over ‘colonial lager beer’ as this article recounts. Demand for imports even gave rise to a trade in counterfeit German beer. The Foster Brewing Company, which went on to join with other breweries to form Carlton & United Breweries, was even caught up in this when it was alleged customs officers found fifty dozen bottles of colonial beer being passed off as imported Schloss beer on its premises. It was noted that the company selling the beer to publicans, Messrs Lange and Thoneman, charged “10s. 3d. per dozen for it, as compared with 4s. 6d. per dozen which they had given for the same beer under a colonial name”.

Looking into the war I saw that Dunstan makes mention of that period, noting the attitude of the time that “the old belief that German lagers and German ingredients were always better was nonsense.”

By October (1914) CUB had launched an advertising campaign throughout Australia for Foster’s Lager. ‘The Teutonic brands which have been exported here by the enemy are taboo. Our lagers are equal if not better than their fancy brands’, reported the (Australian Brewers’) journal.

Dr Stubbs has written about this period, noting:

The anti-German hysteria that pervaded Australian society during the First World War caused some Australian lager producers, especially those with German-sounding names, to distance themselves from the beer’s Teutonic origins. Carlton & United Breweries discontinued its Bismarck, Rheingold and Strasburg brands of lager beer in 1914. The more English-sounding Foster’s Lager was retained, but wartime advertising emphasised that it was ‘not manufactured or sold by Germans’ and that it was ‘manufactured and controlled purely by British people’.

The appalling height to which this hysteria rose is well illustrated by the 1917 internment as an enemy alien of prominent Sydney brewer Edmund Resch. Resch had migrated to Australia from Bavaria in 1863 and had been a brewer in country New South Wales for many years before he moved to Sydney in the 1890s. He had become a naturalised citizen in 1889. Edmund’s younger brother, Emil, who emigrated from Wurtemburg in 1881, was general manager of Carlton & United Breweries when the war began. He was not interned, but he did resign from his position in 1914.

The Daily News, Perth. Tuesday 8 December 1914, page 4

Soon afterward, CUB dismissed all remaining employees who were German or of German extraction. Back in Sydney, Edmund Resch had to assure the public that his ales, lagers and stout were ‘brewed by Australians for Australians’.

The tone of the earliest Foster’s Crown Lager ads, in August 1914 (right), seems to match this history perfectly.

The name Crown may even be CUB’s attempt to give their beer a patina of European flair, with crowns being common on European brews, as the 1916 ad for Carlsberg shows. Fortunately, CUB didn’t add the Teutonic swastika to its beer as well.

I have been unable to find mentions of Foster’s Crown Lager prior to August 1914, though there are mentions of a various Crown lagers as early as 1886, when the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin mentions a Crown Prince brand as coming into favour. This appears to be an import. On 14 July 1900 The Queenslander mentions Lager Beer: Crown Brand for sale, but it is not clear if this is domestic or imported. In other issues of this newspaper it is referred to as Lager Bier: Crown Brand, which may indicate it was a German import. If it was imported, the Foster’s Crown Lager that arrives on to the scene in 1914 may support Dr Stubbs’ suggestion that it was a new creation to capture a market in the jingoistic anti-German early war years.

From the objective evidence it is impossible to absolutely determine exactly when Crown Lager was first brewed, but it is clear that its history predates the officially claimed 1919 date by at least five years.

It is also clear that the beer was widely available to the public as far afield as Cairns and Perth, and Colac in between. It was available, at least periodically, from its inception until at least 1949. Where the ‘reserved for ambassadors and diplomats’ suggestion of the company’s history comes from is unclear, as is when Fosters first made this claim in its advertising. As the television ad below shows in the 1960s it was a special occasion beer making no mention of its supposed exclusivity, though was by then Carlton Crown Lager.

Is this a case of poor research? Based on the records above, CUB has at best drawn very selectively from it. The company certainly has recent form for selective advertising about its leading premium beer.

Of course, there might be more to the story if one had access to the brewery’s own archives. But given the contradictory public statements about its own history — and its failure to answer the questions posed — it is unlikely. Until they do provide more information about the brand’s history, I suggest that “Australia’s Finest since 1919″ might be more accurately expressed as “Australia’s Most Exaggerated since (circa) 1914″.

The good news for CUB is that, on the basis of the above records, they only have two years to wait until they can celebrate a real anniversary — the century of Fosters Crown Lager first being brewed. For once they even have an ad that (inadvertently) captures its origins. It even pays tribute to the language and the sentiment of those first ads 98 years ago.

Sydney Morning Herald Friday 3 October, 2008 pp34/5

Protect, Promote & Grow

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7 Responses to What is the real history of Crown Lager?

  1. Peter Currie on February 5, 2013 at 11:54 am

    I heard an interview on ABC radio with a retired head brewer from CUB. He said that the current bottle and label were packaged for the Queen’s visit in 1954 (not the coronation). The intention was to sell the beer for a year and then retire it. The sales were so good however that they kept it going. He also mentioned that the contents were identical to either Fosters or Calton Draught (I cant remember which).

    • Editor on February 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

      Hi Peter — when was that interview? Would be interested to hear it.

    • Jack Wilks on February 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Peter,
      Yes Crown Lager was re-released in 1954 for the Royal visit, 500,000 half bottles, however, not in the current bottle shape which did not arrive until circa 1964, and certainly not the gold label, rather an oval label, as used on most CUB products until mid 1960’s.
      From another retired CUB brewer, it is Fosters Lager analysed as coming closest to spec., e.g dissolved oxygen, residual protein etc.,
      Known by brewers overseas as an adjunct beer, i.e other fermentables as well as barley malt.
      I could go on, but I’ll leave it there

  2. Chris Pickles on December 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I should point out that the Coronation did take place in 1953, after all these things do take some time to organise.

    I thought the same thing about Michelob the first time I saw a Crownie.

  3. […] Queen has inspired a number of beers over the years and although the story behind some of this might be questionable, I’m looking at you Crown Lager, the story behind Red Hill’s latest brew is clear. It is […]

  4. Jack Wilks on July 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    The change from Fosters to Carlton (Crown Lager) occured in the mid 1960’s along with the change from 13 1/3 fluid ounces to just 13 fluid ounces.
    CUB had produced a Crown Lager, a very plain red and white label with no mention of Foster’s. I think the addition of “Fosters” would have been because of the war. There were a various “Crown” lagers imported at that time

  5. Ian on July 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Arriving here from the US,the first time I saw a Crownie I thought — “Hm,the Aussies are importing Michelob”. Any idea when Fosters started using the same bottle shape and general label design? The Michelob bottle design dates from 1961.



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