The use of sugar in beer-making in Australia has a long history. Ever since brewing began in this country, a significant part of the fermentable material in most of our beers has consisted of sugar in one form or another. Even that most famous of early Sydney brewers, James Squire, used sugar when the price of grain was high, sometimes using half-and-half grain and sugar, and sometimes brewing entirely from sugar.
In recent years, brewers and beer-drinkers have increasingly shunned this common brewing adjunct. More and more brewers of the home and craft varieties are embracing all-grain brewing and renouncing the use of sugar. Beer drinkers, now more interested than ever in knowing what ingredients and additives go into their beverage, are favouring all-grain beers, and questioning the need for the ubiquitous adjunct.
The extent to which sugar—especially cane sugar—is entrenched in the mainstream Australian brewing industry was highlighted three years ago when Lion Nathan announced its ‘natural beer’ pledge. The company promised to use ‘only five natural ingredients’ in its leading beers : water, malted grains, hops, yeast and cane sugar. The latter is considered by some to be just a cheap way to boost alcohol content, but Lion Nathan will continue to use it, maintaining that the inclusion of sugar is traditional, and that it has the advantage of making beer ‘slightly less filling and more drinkable’.
Close examination of the history of brewing with sugar in Australia reveals that it is not only in recent years that the practice has been contentious; present-day craft brewers and all-grain home-brewers are clearly not the first to denigrate it. In the early 1830s the agriculturists of New South Wales were calling for legislation to prohibit the use of sugar in brewing, or at least to place a high tax on beer made with that substance. Their chief argument for all-malt brewing was that it would encourage the growing of grain in the colony, and save a lot of money spent on the importation of sugar, most of which then came from Mauritius. In addition, all-malt beer was considered to be a more wholesome beverage. The fact that the use of sugar was banned in the public breweries of England at the time must have lent weight to the arguments of the colonial farmers.
A similar campaign against sugar beer erupted a decade later in Tasmania. A bill prohibiting the use of sugar ‘in the brewing of beer, ale, and porter for sale’ was passed unanimously by the Tasmanian Legislative Council. When the new law was subsequently disallowed by the home government, the colonists were outraged, claiming that East and West Indian sugar interests had influenced the decision. It was suspected that some of the great London brewers, too, had wielded their authority, fearing the loss of export sales should the colonial breweries begin producing better beer. The more direct cause, however, was probably the home government’s reconsideration, for purely political reasons, of its own long-standing ban on brewing with sugar. This resulted in an Act sanctioning the practice in 1847. Clearly, it would have been inconsistent to allow the Tasmanian statute while changing British law in the opposite direction.
Sugar beer was in the news in Victoria in the 1890s when that colony’s parliament was considering the re-introduction of a beer excise. The resulting act differentiated between all-malt beers and ‘sugar beers’, imposing a lower rate of tax on the former. About the same time, the supporters of all-malt beer in England were attempting through a Pure Beer Bill to create a legislative definition of beer which would exclude beverages made from malt substitutes, such as various forms of sugar. They did not seek to reinstate the old ban on brewing with sugar, but merely to provide consumers with a way of knowing whether or not they were buying ‘pure beer’.
The Pure Beer Bill was withdrawn, but the interests of the pure-beer lobbyists were advanced in 1900 when thousands of beer drinkers in northern England became ill, and dozens died. Initially attributed to alcoholism, the cause was soon traced to arsenic-contaminated sulphuric acid used for the conversion of starch into glucose, and cane sugar into invert sugar, for brewing purposes.
In Australia, beer taxation became a matter for the new Commonwealth Government after federation in 1901. The federal excise followed the Victorian differential model, with a lower rate for beer made from malt and hops only, to encourage brewers to make beer without the inclusion of sugar. This would assist the barley growers, and supply the public with what was considered to be a superior, healthier beverage.
The adoption of the reduced rate for non-sugar beers was, however, wholly idealistic. The system in Victoria had failed to alter the established practice of brewing with sugar, and it was considered unlikely ever to do so. In 1900 less than four per cent of beer manufactured in the colony fell into this category, despite the excise concession. Brewing with sugar continued unabated under the federal excise, and on the eve of the First World War the average Australian beer was brewed with about 40 per cent sugar (meaning the proportion of fermentable extract that came from sugar). Nationwide, less than four per cent of beer was brewed without sugar, and a few years later the excise concession for all-malt beers was dropped.
Australian brewers adopted sugar with such great zeal that its use here in 1914 was far in excess of the levels complained of in the United Kingdom. There in 1880 the average beer was brewed with around ten per cent sugar. A change of the beer taxation system that year, with excise duties shifted from malt to beer, led to English brewers increasing their use of cane sugar and sugar derived from unmalted forms of grain, chiefly maize, but by 1914 these made up less than 20 per cent of the total brewing materials.
The sugar used in Australian beer now is still largely cane sugar, but since the 1960s has increasingly included sugar derived from wheat starch and other grain sources. The proportion, however, is generally less than it was in 1914, partly due to the prevalence today of low-alcohol beers, which are mostly all-malt. Nevertheless, it is still high enough to disturb many purists. Maybe we should consider adopting some of the ideas of the English ‘pure beer’ campaigners of the 1890s. They sought to distinguish beer ‘made exclusively from barley-malt, hops, water, and yeast’ (although with a small allowance of sugar for priming bottles) from other fermented drinks made ‘in imitation’ of beer, by requiring containers to be labelled accordingly. Such a practice, while novel in the nineteenth century, would not be even slightly out of place these days when it is usual for package labels to disclose in great detail the composition of most other food products.