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Book review: Very Good Beer and Ale

July 4, 2014

very good beer and aleHistorian Brett Stubbs, well known for his studies of beer, brewing and breweries in Australia, has again produced a most absorbing account of brewing in colonial times. In Very Good Beer and Ale he recounts in fascinating detail the stories of the many breweries of Tasmania, from its early days to the 1920s. Because of its milder climate, the island colony was, in a ‘pre-refrigeration’ era, better suited to malting and brewing than New South Wales. Consequently, by the late 1820s Hobart had five breweries and Tasmania was exporting significant quantities of beer and malt to NSW. The colony was also the birthplace of Australia’s commercial hop-growing industry.

The book is divided logically into three time periods; c1820 – 1844; c1845 – 1882 & c1883 – 1930 and into two general geographical regions: Hobart and the south; Launceston and the north. The author presents many interesting accounts of the difficulties, both economic and technical, faced by the early colonial brewers, particularly during the first time period, in locations ranging from Belle Vue to Zeehan, and neatly flavours the stories with snippets of local and social history. This first time periods ends with an attempt to introduce legislative control of the growing industry and the second ends soon after the imposition of a revenue tax on beer, the first such tax to be levied in the Australasian colonies.

Although failures and bankruptcies were relatively common, the operators persisted in their endeavours to improve the quality of their products and thus to prosper. The tenacity and resourcefulness of proprietors, managers and technical brewers are well illustrated by the detailed descriptions of the many enterprises that survived until the last two decades of the 19th century. Nevertheless, by the close of 1883, only 12 breweries were in operation in Tasmania – from a peak of about 40 in the 1840s. In 1883 Hobart brewed 59% of the beer and Launceston 36% – with ‘country’ breweries accounting for only 5%. The story of the popularity of Dandelion Ale and other ‘temperance drinks’ in Tasmania and the promotion of them in other colonies in the 1880/90s is but one example of the thorough approach of the author to all facets of brewing.

In providing an account of Tasmania’s brewing industry during the third time period covered, the author documents extensively the significant consolidation which occurred in 1922, when Tasmanian Breweries Pty Ltd was formed to acquire the brewing assets of Cascade Brewery Co Ltd of Hobart and of J Boag & Son (1911) Ltd of Launceston. The plant and premises of both the Cascade Brewery in Hobart and the Esk Brewery in Launceston were then leased to Tasmanian Breweries Pty Ltd – these were the only two operating breweries remaining in the state. To introduce a personal note, this reviewer recalls that in the 1930s – 1940s Cascade Ales were considered by many ‘mainland’ drinkers to be superior beers, thus carrying what would today be known as premium status.

Very Good Beer and Ale is well illustrated by many relevant photographs, maps and sketches and features a very useful bibliography and a detailed index. The book provides a valuable and detailed record of the development of an important industry in a fledging British colony, far away from the Empire’s centre of control in London. It is recommended to all with an interest in beer and brewing or in colonial history and indeed to anyone interested in the stories of our colourful past.

It is perhaps opportune to note that the book is released at a time when the proliferation of smaller – so-called craft – breweries in Australia is impacting on the brewing industry in general, perhaps marking a partial return to the days of many smaller and hopefully viable operators.

Very Good Beer and Ale: Breweries and Brewers of Tasmania 1820s to 1930s
by Brett J Stubbs

Tankard Books, East Lismore NSW; 2013
ISBN 9780980620931 (paperback) 360pp

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