Tim Cooper on Coopers, as told to Matt Kirkegaard. Article first published in 2007
Beer occupies an important place in Australian society. It also occupies a fairly important place in my family’s history. So it is exciting to see how vibrant the Australian beer scene is at the moment including the rapid growth of craft and specialty brewers. It’s an exciting time for Coopers too; outside of South Australia we have experienced growth of about 25 per cent this year alone.
It’s not the first “beer bubble” that’s come along since I have worked for the family brewery. In many ways Coopers’ fortunes have mirrored those of the wider Australian economy. We had a similar rapid expansion in the late 80s, which ended with the recession of the early 1990s. In what were fairly desperate times, one of the things that kept the company afloat was our home brew business – even in a recession Australians need their beer!
Maintaining our traditions and our quality in a brewing landscape that has seen much consolidation and fierce competition hasn’t always been easy. Most recently we saw off a particularly hostile attempt by Lion Nathan to take over the company. This was a difficult time, both for the company and, I am sure, for the extended family of shareholders. It was a difficult time personally as well. As Managing Director of a family company I don’t think that I take my obligations and duties any more seriously than my counterpart in a public company would, but the family ties do add an extra dimension and I think you do feel the challenges a little more innately at times.
In some ways I am an accidental brewer. My father encouraged me to pursue a career outside of the brewery during the turbulent times of the 1970s. I originally started out on a career in medicine. Both with the success that the company is currently enjoying and during the stormier times of the early 1990s and the takeover battle, I have watched my medical contemporaries and reflected upon what life might have been like if I had pursued that career. I know that my wife has been heard to say jokingly (or perhaps that’s half-jokingly) that she married a doctor and not a brewer!
With our long brewing traditions, it’s been interesting to watch as people have joined Coopers from other breweries. They have been staggered to appreciate the complexity of brewing naturally conditioned beers. But of course, we have 145 years of experience on our side. We have also gone through changes in the way that we have brewed to make the brewing and conditioning process more reliable.
When I first came to the brewery we were still transferring beer around in rubber hoses and connecting to manual valves. We now operate a closed system that has helped us maintain the hygiene of the process. In the late 90s we also switched from a dual strain of yeast to a single, more robust strain that has provided more predictable and reliable results for our brews. Then again, if you were to speak to my uncle Maxwell, who was chief brewer before me, he would also say that it was more consistent in the late 1980s than when he first started too. It was Maxwell who did away with the use of the old wooden puncheons and introduced the centrifuge in the late 70s, which improved the reliability of the natural conditioning process as well.
Staying true to our brewing traditions has been both a challenge and an asset to Coopers.
Being regarded as traditional – as an ‘old man’s drink’ – has weighed heavily against us at times. Even when I first joined the company in 1990 there was concern about what would happen when the last generation of ale drinkers died off.
In attracting a new generation of beer drinkers we were able to rebrand our product without changing the beer’s quality or traditional style. The “Cloudy but fine” series of ads re-established Coopers as being interesting and quirky and attracted a younger drinker.
We were also assisted, inadvertently I’m sure, when Lion Nathan purchased South Australian Brewing in 1993 and sold off their portfolio of 120 hotels. Prior to that Coopers had struggled to get keg beer (which we only started producing in 1983) into South Australia’s tied pubs. Suddenly we were in a position to sell beer through these hotels where they were taken up by a generation looking for something ‘new’.
We are now reaping the benefits of keeping with tradition as Australian drinkers are again looking for beers with more complexity and flavour than mainstream lagers have typically provided. There has been a resurgence of interest in our naturally conditioned beers as this new generation of beer drinkers rediscover the Coopers ales and place a value on the fact that they are not mass-produced, but brewed in a traditional way without preservatives and additives.
So it is a very exciting time for the brewing industry and for Coopers. This financial year we will have brewed almost 54 million litres of beer! With so much change in the industry, I am extremely proud – and I hope you are a little reassured – that Coopers Sparkling Ale is still brewed largely as it was when my great, great-grandfather Thomas Cooper brewed his first batch of Coopers from four bushels of English malt and eight pounds of Kent hops in 46 gallons of water on 13 May 1862.