Friday, April 13, 2007

Australians & Beer - history


Part One

Written by a Beer Bloke, not a qualified historian. You have been warned.

Australia has a rich brewing tradition for a country so relatively young. It follows, then, that we have a rich beer drinking tradition. Or, we drink a lot, therefore we brew a lot. Chicken or egg. I’m no cultural anthropologist. Or poultry expert. But it got me thinking; does our history influence our drinking choices or do we really just drink what we’re given?

Our beer past was shaped by events of a magnitude never before seen by such a young country - remember, we were not even a nation until 1901 - but we were spared wars, both civil and international as a basis for our birth as a cultural identity. Instead it was two principle events - the establishment of Australia as a giant, continent-shaped prison and the discovery of gold that were to mould our identity, build our cities and create our people-ness. Maybe it also shaped our beer landscape.

Captain Cook can take some credit for trying to bring the first beer to Australia. Leaving England on August 26 1768 he was advised to take supplies to brew beer on board in case the water turned bad. He took molasses and turpentine to brew with - so how bad must the water have been! Now when you hear the expression, “getting’ on the turps”, you know whence it come. Cook himself thought beer very beneficial to the health of his crew and reports of the Endeavour’s stock list shows four tonnes of beer on board. Despite this massive quantity, the ship ran out of the stuff just a month into the voyage. Do you still wonder why we are a nation of piss heads?

To the first settlers. A motley collection to say the least and despite management successfully getting nearly all the boarded guests around the world safely, they really had no idea what to do with the land once they got here. Hmm, remembered to bring all the dregs and no-hopers with us, forgot the farmers and the blokes who know about animal husbandry and stuff like that. And someone who can make beer. That might have been handy. It’s a wonder we even drink beer today, given the start.

Early attempts at brewing were fairly spectacularly unsuccessful. Without hops the beer makers - I don’t think we can label them brewers just yet - had to improvise. Cape gooseberry leaf was a popular flavour additive but I guess we can take that from the lack of cape gooseberry leafbeer around today it was none too successfully marketed. John Boston was the colonies first noted brewer. Corn was used for sugar so maybe that is why so much of our modern day beer is a bit thin and pissy.

Now, if you are going to brew beer (even shitty beer) you are going to need a pub. Australia’s first was built in Parramatta in 1796 by James Larra. Larra was a Frenchman who was transported for nicking a tankard. He was obviously thinking ahead. I’ve never been to a French Pub and, again, there aren’t any French themed pubs thriving today so maybe he was rubbish at it, as well. Probably wouldn’t let anyone in if they had thongs on or spoke too commonly and didn’t speak French. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the French - some of my best friends are rude and arrogant.

James Squire is probably Australia’s first brewer of note. He successfully cultivated the first hop crop and will go down in some book of records for winning a cow from the governors herd as prize for growing hops. Rumour has it that the cow went on to become Australia’s first counter meal and bar mat. Squire was nicked for chicken rustling and may have been planning the first Parma & Pot promotion for the front bar. Not totally rehabilitated, he copped an extra 150 lashes for stealing Government supplies of horehound, presumably to use for bittering beer. Now that’s what I call taking one for the team.

He went on to become one of the fleet’s first success stories. A farmer and landowner, his hops were so successful that, while other breweries around him failed through crap beer, his survived and it was another twenty years before another hop farm was established. He then made a logical step that one might make if they wish to protect their investment. He became a copper. Now that is a true Aussie success story. And it’s all thanks to beer.

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