‘How did we get here?’
A Short History of Brewing in Brisbane
“What’ll it be, mate? A XXXX or a Carlton?”
- Brisbane Bar Tender (c1961-1995)
For many long years these were the only options available in most Brisbane bars. The taps were dominated by offerings from the XXXX/Carlton & United brewing duopoly. In many Brisbane watering holes, sadly, this is still the case. Our tours visit bars that offer a lot more variety and choice.
In a beer loving city, how did we come to have a choice of only two breweries?
In the beginning…..
Brisbane was established as a prison colony in 1825 and the first known bar was The Green Man at Queens Wharf (now in the shadow of the Treasury Casino). Over the first 20 years of settlement a dozen other bars popped up over time. Not too bad for a town of less than 2000 people.
These bars were situated mainly around what is currently the city centre and Southbank. The pubs were supplied with imported English ales and later from breweries in and around Sydney.
The first beer was brewed in the city 6 years before Queensland even existed as a state. A draper named John Stuart Beach decided to throw in the towel on the curtain business and try his hand at something a little more interesting. He set up what became known as the Brisbane Brewery in what is today the Queen Street Mall and went about making his dreams come true. Like the many who would follow though, Beach learned making beer is tough and the financial viability of his venture ended his dreams in 1855.
Gaining a Foothold
Beach, perhaps knowing the heavy English ales that prevailed in early Brisbane bars did not go down well in the heat of summer, made his next brewing venture in the colony a cider but this also quickly went out of business.
The next person to try their hand at brewing in Brisbane was James Bonney who set up the Brisbane Spring Brewery located near Breakfast Creek, strangely, near a spring in the area. The Brisbane Spring Brewery opened in 1863 and had closed by 1864 but five years later it was revived as the Breakfast Creek Brewery. 1869 saw the end of the Breakfast Creek Brewery but it also heralded the establishment of one of the first successful brewing ventures in town - The City Brewery near the corner of Albert and Mary Streets.
What exactly The City Brewery did that made them a success is a mystery, but the inner city brew house was soon producing a popular and profitable brew that caught the attention of an Irish immigrant named Patrick Perkins and he took over the operation in 1872. Perkins had previously set up a successful brewing operation in Toowoomba and acquiring The City Brewery rid him of competition and gave him direct access to the Brisbane market.
Perkins expanded the relatively small building into a 5 story structure and The City Brewery became Brisbane’s first large scale brewery, eventually pumping out over one million litres of beer a month.
The City Brewery was eventually taken over by Castlemaine brewery; the same company that brews XXXX in Brisbane today. The City Brewery is the oldest piece of the oldest brewery in Brisbane. The brewery operated in town until a fire destroyed it in 1937 after which its operations were moved to Milton.
Birth of an Icon
In 1870, a year after The City Brewery opened its doors, a man by the name of W. Samuel established a distillery at Milton. He no doubt suffered the curse of a lack of income and eventually partnered with and was then bought out by Robert Forsyth who made rum and sold wine out of the premises.
Queensland’s oldest and most iconic brewery began life as a rum distillery.
By 1877 the distillery was bought by a group of people – some brewers and some importers. The brewers were the Irish-born Fitzgerald brothers and Quinlan & Co. were the importers. Nicholas and Edward Fitzgerald had operated successful brewing operations in the Victorian mining town of Castlemaine and they decided to name their new Brisbane venture after their Victorian brewery.
The Fitzgeralds operated breweries in Sydney, South Melbourne and Newcastle and although their company was a large, multi-state operation, the beer they endeavored to brew was produced specifically for the warm Queensland climate.
The first Castlemaine brew was the XXX sparkling ale and by all accounts, it was pretty good.
At about the same time, a German brewer and tobacco importer named John Hocker tried his hand at brewing traditional Germanic beverages but the challenges of the Brisbane summer got the better of him and he eventually sold his Victoria Brewery.
From Little Things Big Things Grow
By the late 1870’s the two dominant breweries in the city were the Milton based Castlemaine and the Perkins’ City Brewery. The landscape of Brisbane brewing had progressed from a few amateur beer lovers trying to make their hop dreams come true to large-scale commercial operations.
Another small brewery however, originally called the Eagle Brewery, popped up in 1882 only to become bankrupt and sell out. Robert Tooth’s brewery would go onto bigger and better things as it spawned three future Brisbane brewing successes. Firstly, head brewer Albert Lanfear went on to start the highly successful West End Brewery. The Bulimba based Eagle Brewery produced a landmark beer in Brisbane’s brewing history – Bulimba Gold Top and the operation was renamed The Queensland Brewery, moved to Brunswick Street in 1906 and stood at the North-East end of the Story Bridge until CUB moved it to Yatala in 1993.
Likewise, another small start up known as the Phoenix came and went but from the ashes of the Phoenix rose the head brewers of what would become Queensland’s three biggest breweries: Walter Lanfear headed up Castlemaine, John Nicol went to Perkins City Brewery and Albert Tribe ran the Queensland Brewery.
West End’s Best
At the same time that Walter Lanfear and John Nicol were setting up the Phoenix Brewery the Fortitude Valley, across the other side of town their close relatives Albert Lanfear and Bruce Nicol were setting up the West End Brewery at the corner of Montague and Merivale Streets.
This venture was highly successful and only five years after opening the West End brewers started a price war. Wholesale beer was measured in hogsheads (238.48 litres). The wholesale price for a hogshead of beer was 4 pounds (about $560 in 2012 terms). Do the math…..go on……okay, so that works out to be about $2.35 a litre. The West End Brewery almost halved that price for its beer and this displeased the other big brewers greatly.
The other breweries thought these low prices would send them to the wall so The City Brewery cut their prices even lower selling hogsheads for 2 pounds just to teach West End a lesson. It worked and beer prices soon returned to ‘normal’.
1893 saw the largest flood in the Brisbane River since European settlement. The rickety but successful wooden sheds that housed the West End Brewery were washed away as was over 100,000 litres of beer. When the kegs started floating up along riverbanks around the city the residents must have thought they had died and gone to beer heaven and there were reports of wide-spread boozing and even fights over half-empty kegs of beer.
The operation was rebuilt into an imposing brick structure. At it’s peak the brewery was rumored to be producing 3 brews a day and only 1 year after the flood it claimed to have the largest output of any brewery in Queensland.
Brisbane’s West End Brewery had withstood a price war and the worst flood the city has seen but inexplicably the West End Brewery shut up shop in 1913 never to be heard from again. The premises was turned into a bottling factory.
The Scene is Set
The final years of the 1800’s saw at least four other attempts to establish brewing operations in Brisbane however by 1913, even before the start of the First World War, Brisbane was home to only three breweries: Castlemaine at Milton, The Queensland Brewery on Brunswick Street in the Fortitude Valley and The Perkins City Brewery at Mary and Albert Streets in the City.
By 1923 there were only 9 breweries in the whole state of Queensland with ‘the big 3’ in Brisbane producing 76% of the states beer.
Closures, Take-Overs and the Death of Diversity
1925 saw the Perkins City Brewery join forces with Castlemaine’s brewing operation and the Castlemaine-Perkins brand was born. Queensland’s smaller regional brewers however continued to make a small but valuable contribution to the states range of beers.
Brewing isn't easy though and the Great Depression of the 1930’s heralded the close of brewing operations in Bundaberg, Charters Towers and Maryborough while the Cairns brewery was bought up by CUB in 1931. The independent Fitzroy Brewery in Rockhampton survived alongside The Queensland Brewery and a Toowoomba operation up until 1961 when all three were bought out by CUB.
By the end of 1961, the Queensland brewing duopoly was complete. With the take over of The Queensland Brewery, CUB now owned 4 out of the 5 beer producers in the state. Only Castlemaine-Perkins stood as the lone competition to the ‘invaders from the south’.
For another thirty years the only readily available commercial choices for beer in Brisbane were the offerings of either CUB or Castlemaine-Perkins. Queenslander’s blind loyalty to XXXX is a little easier to understand when you consider that it was the only alternative to the Victorian CUB owned beers. This is ironic as the Castlemaine-Perkins breweries were originally founded by Irish-Victorians.
The Castlemaine-Perkins City Brewery continued operation up until 1937 when the Mary Street premises was extensively damaged by fire. After the fire the entire company moved to Milton.
The 1930’s also saw laws changed to allow corporations to own pubs and bars. In 1935 it was decided that no more licenses to sell alcohol were to be issued in Queensland and that the existing licenses did not have to be reviewed. The large breweries quickly seized this oppertunity and bought out as many small independent bar owners as they could afford.
The ‘Beer Barrons’ and the Dark Ages of Brisbane Beer Culture
The big breweries took hold. Castlemaine-Perkins tripled it’s investment in hotels and The Queensland Brewery followed suit. By the 1940’s, about 80% of hotels, pubs and bars in the city were owned by the breweries.
This was a boom time for the breweries and their shareholders. Between 1939 and 1944, beer production in Queensland grew a massive 40% with annual production in 1944 being over 42 million litres (17 Olympic swimming pools) of beer. Almost every bar in town had its taps tied to one of the two big breweries and the lack of diversity was literally palpable.
Both of Brisbane’s two big breweries were public companies, owned by shareholders. Many of these shareholders hedged their bets by owning holdings in both breweries. For many shareholders then, it didn’t matter which beer was more popular as they would reap the dividends no matter what beer people spent their hard earnd money on. These share holders, who had their fingers in both pies, became known as the ‘Beer Barrons’ and they profited greatly from extortive prices of the 1940’s.
These Beer Barrons saw beer prices driven up as well as the rents for the hotels and pubs that their breweries owned. If you wanted to lease or operate a pub in the city you would have to pay huge rents, have no choice over what beers you served, and have to charge premium prices for an inferior product.
The moral climate of the time contributed to limited opening hours with Queensland bars closing at 8pm each afternoon. They were not even legally allowed to open on Sundays. Most people worked from 9am to 5pm and with such a small window of drinking time after work each day drinking conditions in Brisbane became intolerable.
Queensland pubs were described as “degrading and disgusting” (Courier Mail, May 16, 1944) while Brisbane beer drinkers were labeled “A mob of pushing, milling, beer hunters like sardines in a sewer” (Sunday Mail, March 5, 1944).
Serious questions were raised about the quality of the beer, the pubs themselves and the conditions for the workers. Beers were often pre-poured and sat stale until they were ordered, glasses were poorly washed or not washed at all and it was common for the beer from drip trays to be poured back into glasses and served to patrons. Bar work was dangerous too and bar workers were denied life insurance or put into the same category as mine workers.
The poor quality beer, terrible pubs, woeful drinking conditions, brewing monopolies, inflated prices and limited opening hours would continue up until the 1960’s when opening hours were relaxed.
Thanks to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, home brewing became legal in 1972 and this allowed the knowledge of brewing process to be utilised by the masses rather than the small number of master brewers employed by big breweries. The 70’s also saw the end of the wooden keg as the industry moved towards more practical steel kegs.
During 1976, CUB closed down its Fitzroy Brewery in Rockhampton as well as Toowoomba brewery leaving Queensland with only 3 breweries. Expensive but unprofitable pubs were sold off in 1986 as CUB held the ‘Auction of the Century’ as they offloaded over 100 hotels in Queensland and then closed its Cairns brewery in 1992.
CUB then took over the upstart Bernie Powers’ brewery at Yatala in 1993 before finally closing The Queensland Brewery in the Fortitude Valley and moving all of its Queensland operations to Yatala.
The 90’s to Now
By the 1990’s little had changed: Brisbane still had only two choices: CUB or Castlemaine-Perkins beers. XXXX and CUB themselves were taken over by larger corporations in the 90’s but their offerings remained fairly stagnant.
The big brewery take over of their smaller competition continued and while a great many bars are stilled owed by large breweries, other corporations like Wesfarmers and Woolworths have also taken over many bars and bottle shops.
Although the beer market in Australia is shrinking, the number of small breweries in Australia is flourishing with Queensland home to the Blue Sky Brewery, the Burleigh Brewing Co, Mt Tamborine and Sunshine Coast Breweries among others. Brisbane City has the offerings of the Brewhouse and The International Hotel to proudly call its own and interest in a wider diversity of beers is growing….
Various documents from the Heritage Collection of the John Oxley Library, Brisbane - A big thanks to the fantasic staff there.
Australia's preeminent beer historian Dr Brett J Stubbs - Author of Beer, Mines and Rails: a history of the brewing industry in Queensland to the 1920's and regular contributor to the Brew News.