Matilda Bay Brewing Company has celebrated the first anniversary of their new home in Port Melbourne by commissioning a new brewhouse that has replaced the old equipment brought over from their former home in Dandenong one year ago. When the new mash tun and kettle were turned on for the first time late last month, the brewers christened it with the brewing of Matilda Bay’s youngest beer, I.G.P, followed by an old favourite in Redback Pale.
Unlike the Red Back Original Wheat that you buy in bottle at liquor outlets, Matilda Bay’s Red Back Pale is unfiltered and only available in draught form, providing a cloudy weizen beer. It is hard to find, with only a handful of bars tapping the pale version, including the Matilda Bay brewery bar in Port Melbourne, Mitre Tavern and Three Below in Melbourne city and at the Pig ‘N Whistle in Riverside, Brisbane.
I love the story of Matilda Bay, not because of the questionable claim as “the first/original craft/microbrewery in Australia (since the war)”, but because of its importance to the modern microbrewing industry in Australia. Matilda Bay was born through the passion of beer loving mates who sought to resurrect flavoursome beer and diverse styles in Australia during a time when the market was dominated by generic lagers. The brand is
the one one of the very few remaining success stories of the 1980s brewing boom.
The company and its beers are vastly different from the Matilda Bay of the 1980s, but that is not something that current owners, Carlton & United Breweries (SABMiller), shy away from. The current brewers continue to produce an excellent range of accessible, characterful and enjoyable beers, now on a much larger scale. The brand has a strong and active history, unlike many of the beers lost to time.
A recent email from Matilda Bay’s PR team about the Port Melbourne anniversary and Redback Pale sparked my beer history curiosity through the inclusion of the following line: “Redback Pale is also the brew that kicked off Matilda Bay’s brewing career back in 1988 and is no stranger to award accolades.”
Alarm bells rang in my head at this claim when I saw “first” and “1988” together. My understanding was that Matilda Bay Brewing Company began in 1984. Surely they had produced many beers before 1988? Was Redback actually the first Matilda Bay beer?
Recently, the company’s marketing has been very positive about embracing and recalling the full history of the Matilda Bay, from its beginnings with Phil Sexton to its change in ownerships, beers and locations. It has been a refreshing PR approach in contrast to the back story of the competing James Squire brand, which bears no relation to the history of the brewery.
However, was this generally accepted claim about Redback a sign that an abridged Matilda Bay history may now be falling the way of Crown Lager lost history?
Holding onto Matilda Bay’s rich history provides the brand with its strength in the craft beer industry. Diverging away from the true story, intention and character of the beers will only diminish Matilda Bay’s role as a modern brewing icon.
My curiosity to fill this gap in my knowledge of Aussie brewing history drove me to delve into the archives (aka the internet), along with some essential assistance from Brews News historian Dr Brett Stubbs. Using Google and Brett’s extensive knowledge and records, I was able to easily piece together the following facts about Matilda Bay and Red Back Beer (sic) circa 1983 – 1990, which highlighted a rich brewing career for Matilda Bay before the birth of Red Back.
Here is a chronological list of milestones from the recorded history of Matilda Bay Brewing Company:
- Former brewer for Perth’s large Swan Brewery, Phil Sexton, along with Garry Gosatti, John Tollis and Ron Groves, and financed by Peter Briggs, formed the company Brewtech Pty Ltd to commercially brew and release beers inspired by Phil’s experience of beers whilst studying in the UK and travelling around Europe. The main connection between the founding members of Matilda Bay Brewing was the University of Western Australia Water Ski Club. They skied on the waters of Matilda Bay.
- With a lack of interest and support from Perth hotels pubs to sell their beer, Brewtech purchased and renovated the Freemasons Hotel in Fremantle and reopened it as Sail & Anchor with an in-house brewery that produced beers from late 1984 under the banner of Anchor Brewing Co.
- Willie Simpson has published a number of articles in Fairfax media that quote MBBC founder Phil Sexton recalling the first Matilda Bay beer as “a dark, copper-coloured, traditional ale” called Anchor Ale.
- In 1985 Brewtech opened their second venue, The Brewery Alehouse on the Stirling Highway in Nedlands.
- Brewtech also purchased a building at 31 Carrington St Nedlands WA which housed the Matilda Bay Brewing Company and began producing beers in 1985.
- Reports from former bar staff and drinkers at Sail & Anchor in the 1980s suggest that Anchor Brewing focused on producing ales whilst the Matilda Bay brewery produced lagers.
- Brewtech purchased and ran several more venues as outlets for their beers.
- A March 1986 newsletter (Vol 16, No 2) of the long-running Victorian Beer Label Collectors’ Society, a fantastically rich and respected source of Australian brewing history from the last 40 years, shows a label for a Matilda Bay Brewing Co India Pale Ale and an Anchor Steam Beer. The November 1986 issue (Vol 16, No 6) shows the Matilda Bay Special Bitter and the Anchor Brewing American’s Cup Ale.
- In a 1989 interview with Matilda Bay brewer Janice McDonald published in Melbourne’s The AGE newspaper, she explained that that Matilda Bay drinkers had “the choice of dogbolter (a term which means the strongest ale in the house), traditional bitter, pilsener, dark lager, weizenbier or wheat beer (later named Redback), brass monkey stout, or milk stout”.
- In 1986 Brewtech and Matilda Bay Brewing Company lodged preliminary Class 32 trade mark queries and applications on: DOGBOLTER, OKTOBERBRAU and EASTER EGG, whilst “WEIZEN” was recorded in July 1987. The word “REDBACK” and the image for “RED BACK BEER” was not registered until July and September 1987 respectively.
- During 1986 Matilda Bay released a beer called Summer Wheat, a seasonal ale for the summer: See – Stephen S. Holden. (2011) “Three cheers for new beers: Marketing insights from the birth of boutique brewing in Australia“.
- Dr Brett Stubbs provided the following text from the Brewtech Price List of Winter 1986: “Matilda Bay Weizen (Wheat Beer) – A rarely brewed beer obtained from using malt blend comprising 60% wheat and 40% barley in the mash. Pale beer with a white head. This delicious beer (4.7% alc/vol) is Australia’s only wheat beer and is very elegant, crisp and intended as a thirst quenching summer drink. Try adding a slice of lemon!”
- Business marketing specialist and academic Stephen Holden consulted for Matilda Bay in 1985-87 and was involved in the development of the original Red Back Beer brand. In his 2011 confernece paper, Stephen recalls: “I rejoined the MBBCo team to help in the launch of the RedBack brand in 1987. By this time, the company had established a new, bigger brewery in Nedlands, had established a further three pub-outlets in Perth in areas that I had identified as suitable and were driving forward to develop their packaged beer sales. One product that was proving to be very popular was a wheat beer launched in 1986. In a brandbrainstorming session in early 1987, the name RedBack was advanced by Garry. As so often happens, there was an extended discussion about the brand name, possible negative connotations, etc. One of the concerns was that the brand might be associated with redback spiders. Despite a current view of some that the brand was named after the spider (e.g., Wikipedia), MBBCo went to great lengths to minimise any such associations. Hundreds of variations on the proposed RedBack logo, a red paint streak across a beige diamond outline were developed – just to find the one where the paint streak across the diamond was just right! The RedBack brand was not created for the America’s Cup Defence despite this claim at the MBBCo website. The brand was created after the Cup had finished. RedBack beer flourished and in 1989, another even larger brewery was opened. Now the major brewers were interested!”
- In 1987 Brewtech Pty Ltd changed to Brewtech Limited then made the decision to consolidate their business under the Matilda Bay Brewing Company name.
- 3 Sept 1987: RED BACK BEER label design trade mark is lodged.
- In 1988 Red Back Beer, the summer wheat ale, was released as part of the core range of Matilda Bay beers for the reinvigorated company.
- Brett Stubbs has Redback labels with both “Brewtech Limited” and “Matilda Bay Brewing Co” on them. The labels’ Best Before dates are in 1988.
- In 2005, then Matilda Bay head brewer, Brad Rogers, tells Willie Simpson that the main change to Redback from when it was brewed in Perth “ includes fermenting Redback in the original brewery in Fremantle, and using horizontal tanks, rather than the more common vertical tanks, which, Rogers says, accentuates the fruity characters in the final brew.”
So Red Back’s status as the first Matilda Bay seems to be mistaken history. It was a flagship brand of the reinvigorated Matilda Bay Brewing Company that arrived in 1988 along with a 20% stake acquired by Carlton & United Breweries. However, many beers from Matilda Bay were released before the Red Back ancestor was first brewed as a weizen in 1986.
The real first beer of the Matilda Bay Brewing Company could just as easily be any of the IPA dogbolter*, traditional bitter, pilsener, dark lager, weizenbier, brass monkey stout, milk stout or more!
To be absolutely factually accurate, we would need to find out exactly which beer was first brewed and released from the Matilda Bay brewery in Nedlands back in 1985. Does anyone know?
It has also been interesting to unveil the fact that the Redback beer brand has nothing at all to do with the redback spider, a common misconception.
Nonetheless, today’s incarnation of Redback Pale is a wonderful beer to rediscover. Awarded a Gold Medal and the Champion Trophy for best wheat beer at this year’s Australian International Beer Awards, it has the credentials to confirm it’s status.
Wheat beers remain a mostly underrepresented style on today’s Australian beer market, from big and small brewers alike. Synonymous with Germany and Belgium, the AIBA often see the Champion Wheat Beer awarded to a beer from Europe with a long history. Prior to this year’s win, Redback also managed to secure the AIBA award in 1993 and 2008 as well as a Gold Medal in 2003.
Redback is a beer Australia should very proud off. It was once an Aussie craft beer icon. Today, Redback simply sits quietly within the Matilda Bay range of beers. Let’s hope that Redback Pale can once again capture the attention of drinkers from the west to the east of Australia.
The above history was compiled through reading the online resources listed in the below references, primarily the 2011 conference paper published through Bond University by Stephen Holden.
Stephen S. Holden (2011). “Three cheers for new beers: Marketing insights from the birth of boutique brewing in Australia” Australian & New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference ANZMAC 2011. Perth, Western Australia. Nov 2011.
Brett Stubbs (2007). “”DO BREWERS KNOW THEIR OWN HISTORIES?”, Brewer & Distiller International vol 3(1), January 2007 – a modified version of this article was published in the May 2007 newsletter of the VBLCS (Vol 36, No 3).
Liz Porter (1988), “Brews designed by a good witch” – The AGE (Epicure), Tuesday 23 August 1988
Willie Simpson (2004), “Beer born again“, The AGE (Epicure), January 27, 2004.
Willie Simpson (2005), “What a bottler“, The AGE (Epicure), August 23, 2005.
Toni Flanagan (2007), “Where the Ducks Bark and the Beez have Neez“, 3rd Degree , May18, 2007. Edith Cowan University Communications Programme.
Brett’s quotes in a Brews News article about the closure of the Sail & Anchor brewery – Australian Brews News (2010), “Woolworths kills off iconic WA brewer“, March 10, 2010
Willie Simpson (2010),”Pioneer brewery suffers for its craft“. Sydney Morning Herald (Good Living), March 23, 2010, page 22.
AustralianBeers.com (2010), “A Quiet Beer with Phil Sexton“.
*You may also be surprised by the journey and complex history of the beer we now know as Matilda Bay Dogbolter. Today it is a very different brew to the first Dogbolter of the Anchor Brewing Co.