Olaf Hilmer Hedberg (c.1856–1912): Tasmanian brewer and brewing administrator.
In 1880, Tasmania became the first of the British colonies in Australasia to introduce an excise on colonial beer. The Tasmanian Beer Duty Act, which came into effect on 1 March 1880, imposed a tax of threepence per gallon on all beer brewed within the colony, and removed for consumption or sale. The act also created the new position of Collector of Beer Duty, which was filled by a Hobart brewer named Olaf Hilmer Hedberg.
The appointment of Hedberg, from among about seventy applicants, was criticised by some who thought that a serving officer of the Customs House should have been given the new job, but Hedberg had a first-hand knowledge of brewing and of the local brewing industry, and that knowledge would have served him well in the execution of the new job compared to any career public officer.
Largely because his working life encompassed administration of the beer duty as well as the making of beer, Hedberg is one of the more interesting characters of the Tasmanian brewing industry. He crops up frequently in its history, and was a significant player in the industry over a period of more than three decades. This article is based on the aspects of Hedberg’s career that are covered in Very Good Beer and Ale, my recently-published history of the breweries and brewers of Tasmania.
Hedberg, who was born in Hobart in or about 1856, was the second surviving son of Olaf Hilmer Hedberg, who had come to the colony from Sweden about 1840, and had married at Hobart in 1844. Hedberg senior established a store, which he called Swedish House, in Argyle Street, Hobart, and became associated with the wealthy Hobart-based ship-owner and merchant, Charles Seal, whose business he later succeeded to.
Olaf Hilmer Hedberg junior joined the Cascade Brewery as a youth, as early as 1874, and learnt brewing under the supervision of Charles Degraves and probably William Gracie. He had advanced to become the head brewer by 1879, but left that position early in 1880 to take up his appointment as the Collector of Beer Duty. One of Hedberg’s first official tasks in his new role was to visit all the Tasmanian brewing establishments to supply duty stamps and explain the system for their use.
It was one fundamental requirement of the Beer Duty Act that a stamp of the appropriate denomination be affixed to each vessel containing beer before it was removed from the brewery, and another that the stamp must be destroyed or defaced when the vessel was tapped by the retailer. Both through accident and through the deliberate intention to defraud the revenue, these requirements were not always followed, and much of Hedberg’s time was consumed in detecting and prosecuting such cases of evasion of the beer duty.
In 1885, Hedberg served notice on several manufacturers of dandelion ale that their products would henceforth come within the scope of the Beer Duty Act of 1880. A deputation of these brewers immediately sought to have the new law modified, at best to exclude dandelion ale from the definition of beer for duty purposes, or at least to include a definition of the alcoholic strength below which the duty would not apply. On the grounds that normal beer—taxed beer—contained from 4 to 5 per cent, the limit was fixed at 3 per cent. The dandelion ale brewers, however, wanted it set at 4 per cent, the amount, they argued, that was required in dandelion ale so that it would keep.
In December 1890 the colonial treasurer ruled that in future any beverage made ‘in imitation of beer’ would be liable to excise duty, regardless of its alcohol content. The duty would therefore apply to hop beer and dandelion ale and other such ‘teetotal’ drinks. This created an inconsistency between the Beer Duty Act and the new Licensing Act, as the latter did not apply to beverages containing less than 2½ per cent alcohol.
The two acts were brought almost into accord in 1891 when an amendment to the Beer Duty Act redefined ‘beer’ to include only beverages containing ‘two per centum or more by weight of alcohol’. It thereby left unfettered the manufacturers of hop beer, dandelion ale, and other similar ‘light’ drinks. The two per cent limit had been recommended by Hedberg, the Collector of Beer Duty, who had tested several dandelion beers in 1891 and found them to range from nearly one to two per cent alcohol, much weaker than samples tested in 1885.
For several months during 1891, the Cascade Brewery was without the services of its head brewer, Thomas Todd, when he suffered from a severe attack of typhoid fever. Samuel Biggin, a traveller for the company, filled in as brewer until Todd was able to resume his duties. Biggin was advised during that time by Hedberg, who was ‘borrowed’ by the company for the purpose.
With the Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, the collection of beer excise became a responsibility of the new Commonwealth Government, through its Beer Excise Act. Hedberg resigned from his government post, from 31 July 1902, to join George Adams’s Tasmanian Brewery, a new brewing venture in Hobart.
George Adams, already well known as the founder of Tattersall’s lottery, had purchased the buildings and site in Elizabeth Street, Hobart, formerly occupied by Henry James as the Tasmanian Pale Ale Brewery. Adams had plans prepared for an up-to-date building on the site, and in May 1902 was calling for tenders for excavation work to begin.
While the new brewery was under construction, brewing recommenced in the old brewery formerly used by Henry James. The head brewer was Olaf Hilmer Hedberg, while his son, Eric Hedberg (born 1880), was placed in charge of the malting department. Herbert Coomber, formerly a brewer in Scotland and Queensland, was appointed as second brewer.
Olaf Hedberg retired from Adams’s Tasmanian Brewery in mid-1904, at which time his son, Eric, the maltster, also departed. Their departures came shortly before the death in September 1904 of George Adams, who had long been ill and whose death was expected. Olaf bought a farm at New Norfolk and became an orchardist and hop-grower, engaging in yet another aspect of the beer-making business.
In 1905, the hop growers of New Norfolk, who were opposed to any reduction in the duty on imported hops, elected Hedberg to represent their interests before the Royal Commission on the Tariff, which took evidence in Hobart in August that year. Later in 1905, Hedberg was appointed a member and inspector of the New Norfolk Fruit Board, and in 1906 he was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the seat of New Norfolk in the Tasmanian House of Assembly. He died on 6 April 1912, aged only 55 years, and was interred the following day at the New Norfolk Cemetery.
ED: Brett Stubbs, Australia’s leading brewery historian, has just released a book about the early days of the Tasmanian brewing industry: Very Good Beer and Ale – Breweries and Brewers of Tasmania 1820s to 1930s. Watch out for a full review shortly, but it is a must-buy for anyone interested in the true history of the Australian brewing industry. Cost $49 (+p&h). Purchase from Tankard Books.