Beer and war in Australia

Last century’s two World Wars thoroughly disrupted most aspects of Australian life, not least among them the making, selling and drinking of beer. On the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, beer was by far the post popular form of alcoholic beverage in Australia. The ‘average Australian’ in 1913 consumed around 75 litres of beer, five litres of spirits, and a miniscule two litres of wine. Beer accounted for around sixty per cent of the total alcohol intake.

Ad for popular German beer, Girl Lager: Bulletin, 18 December 1913

Most of the beer consumed in Australia in 1913 was made here, but a significant amount—around eight percent—was imported, mostly British ales and German lagers. As soon as the First World War began in 1914, the importation of beer to Australia from Germany ceased. Imported bottled lager had become fashionable during the preceding decade. Beck’s and Holsten, among other brands, were popular during the summer of 1913-14. When the wartime ban on trading with the enemy brought lager importation to a sudden halt, the unfulfilled demand for this type of beer encouraged local brewers to step up production, or to begin making it if they weren’t already. This required major investment in new plant, so it was no trivial matter, but once done, lager became a permanent part of the beer scene in Australia.

Lager beer brewing had been introduced to Australia in the 1880s by people such as Samuel Marks in Sydney (1882), the Cohn brothers in Bendigo (about 1882), and the American brothers Ralph and William Foster in Melbourne (1888). These early attempts at lager brewing were not very successful, and by the start of the twentieth century little lager was being produced in Australia. It was not until the big brewing companies—the likes of Tooth & Company in Sydney and Carlton & United Breweries in Melbourne with their enormous chains of tied hotels—moved seriously into lager production that this style of beer really took off. Tooth & Co. started selling its first lager beer—KB—in 1917.

The anti-German hysteria that pervaded Australian society during the First World War caused some Australian lager producers, especially those with German-sounding names, to distance themselves from the beer’s Teutonic origins. Carlton & United Breweries discontinued its Bismarck, Rheingold and Strasburg brands of lager beer in 1914. The more English-sounding Foster’s Lager was retained, but wartime advertising emphasised that it was ‘not manufactured or sold by Germans’ and that it was ‘manufactured and controlled purely by British people’.

The appalling height to which this hysteria rose is well illustrated by the 1917 internment as an enemy alien of prominent Sydney brewer Edmund Resch. Resch had migrated to Australia from Bavaria in 1863 and had been a brewer in country New South Wales for many years before he moved to Sydney in the 1890s. He had become a naturalised citizen in 1889. Edmund’s younger brother, Emil, who emigrated from Wurtemburg in 1881, was general manager of Carlton & United Breweries when the war began. He was not interned, but he did resign from his position in 1914. Soon afterward, CUB dismissed all remaining employees who were German or of German extraction. Back in Sydney, Edmund Resch had to assure the public that his ales, lagers and stout were ‘brewed by Australians for Australians’.

The First World War also gave anti-drink campaigners new opportunities to exercise their own brand of intolerance. A movement for the early closing of pubs had gathered strength gradually across Australia during the early years of the twentieth century, but it was boosted to great heights by a wave of war-inspired patriotism. In New South Wales, public attention was further focussed on the ‘liquor question’ by a riot of drunken soldiers at Liverpool early in 1916, assuring overwhelming support for six o’clock closing in a referendum held in June that year.

Six o’clock closing was intended as a temporary wartime measure, but it was continued after the cessation of hostilities, making the six o’clock rush an enduring feature of drinking in Australian pubs. It was intensified by the Second World War, which turned closing hour drinking from a mere rush to an out-and-out swill.

Pub cartoon: Bulletin, 7 June 1944

Wartime limits on beer production were imposed in March 1942, requiring breweries to reduce their output to two-thirds of previous levels. The resulting beer shortages led to widespread profiteering and black-marketing. Some hotel keepers diverted beer from public bars to lounge bars where it was sold at inflated prices. Others more unscrupulous withheld beer from their customers, and passed it on at greater profit to the black-market.

Beer shortages also encouraged the illegal activity of home-brewing, and many home-brewers were convicted of making beer without a licence. Among them was a 66-year-old man who was found in 1941 at his house in Sydney with sugar, hops, malt, galvanised vats, and more than one-thousand bottles of beer. He copped a larger fine than most home-brewers of the time because he was selling his beer.

Although wartime restrictions on beer production were lifted in March 1946, it took many years for the breweries to recover. Beer shortages persisted well into the 1950s, caused by delays in repairing or replacing worn-out equipment, and by continuing raw materials and labour shortages. Crown seals, for example, many of which had to be imported, were still hard to obtain in the mid-1950s.

Post-war beer shortages spawned several new small breweries, and revived some old ones, but most of these survived only as long as it took for the big breweries to resume full production. A notable exception was the Grafton Brewery, in northern NSW, which started in 1952, was acquired by Tooheys in 1961, and continued to operate until 1997.

The most enduring effect of war, insofar as beer in Australia is concerned, was probably its damaging effect on the image and reputation of the beverage. Second World War shortages and black-marketing set against the background of early closing of pubs, a First World War imposition, stigmatised beer, and especially its consumption in pubs. Through the immense up-welling of interest in beer which presently engulfs us, however, this damage is gradually and persistently being undone.

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