Capital Brews

Throughout this year the City of Canberra has celebrated the centenary of its foundation and naming. One hundred years ago, on 12 March 1913, Lord Denman (the Governor-General of the Commonwealth), Andrew Fisher (Prime Minister) and King O’Malley (Minister for Home Affairs) laid the first stones of a commemorative column at the site of the future city, and Lady Denman announced its name, Canberra, pointedly placing the stress on the first syllable.

Such an auspicious year is also a fitting time to consider the history of brewing in the national capital. That history, however, is surprisingly brief. No breweries operated in Canberra or within the Federal Capital Territory (now the Australian Capital Territory) for most of the past hundred years. Canberrans therefore had to be satisfied for seven or eight decades with beer brought in from elsewhere.

Eagle Hawk labelNo provision was made in the liquor laws of the new Territory for the granting of brewers’ licences, an omission that seems to have been first highlighted in 1933 when an application was made to establish a brewery at Braddon. Before the new enterprise could go ahead, amendments to the law would be required, but Cabinet declined to make them. The Methodist minister at the Canberra suburb of Reid preached in his subsequent Empire Day sermon of his relief at the decision ‘not to allow the national capital to be disgraced by the erection within its bounds of a brewery.’

The question of establishing a brewery for Canberra arose again periodically. In the late 1960s, when Canberra people were tiring of paying the then significant sum of 6 or 7 cents more per bottle of beer than was charged in other cities, a local brewery was again mooted. The Territory then had a population nearing 100,000 people, enough to support one or even two breweries, it was suggested. Tooheys, the Sydney beer-maker, came close in the early 1970s to building a brewery at Queanbeyan, just outside the Territory, but it never eventuated.

In 1980, Canberra Draught and Canberra Light Ale were released, giving Canberra its own beer, but these canned products were brewed in Adelaide, by the South Australian Brewing Company, by arrangement with Canberra Wine Supplies Pty Ltd, a Territory liquor merchant. It was not until 1987 that the first brewery was established specifically to serve the population of Canberra and the ACT, but even this was not actually in the Territory, but a little way over the border into New South Wales.

The new brewery was part of the Eagle Hawk Hill Motel, a 200-room ‘resort style development’ beside the Federal Highway near the ACT/NSW border. The complex incorporated convention facilities, bars, restaurant and coffee shop, in addition to the small brewery. Brewing started at Eagle Hawk Hill late in 1987, and the first products were launched early in December. One of the first beers, Joh Bjelke Bitter, was a tribute to the then recently-dismissed long-serving premier of Queensland.

The brewery at Eagle Hawk Hill, and the associated Jolly Brewer bar, were leased from the motel and run by Peter Gill, a former Canberra restaurateur. The brewer was Simon Brooke-Taylor, an Englishman who had worked for Bass at the Hope Brewery in Sheffield before moving down under. He produced 800-litre full mash brews using equipment sourced from English small brewery equipment maker, Inn Brewing.

Brooke-Taylor left Eagle Hawk Hill in 1990, after which brewing was continued probably until early 1992. The equipment was purchased late in 1993 and shipped to Norfolk Island for use by the new Norfolk Island Brewing Company. It began producing beer again in 1994. I have been informed by a reliable source that brewing is still being carried on there, nearly twenty years later. Sadly, I have not yet had the opportunity to see the brewery in operation on Norfolk Island.

Meanwhile, the first brewery within the city of Canberra had opened and closed. It was part of the Parson’s Pint Tavern, itself part of the Glebe Park a la Carte, the international food hall connected with the new National Convention Centre in the city. The food hall and its tavern opened for business in September 1989. The convention centre, and hence its associated food hall and tavern, got off to a bad start when an airline pilots’ strike deprived it of many expected customers.

The founders of the Parson’s Pint Tavern were also connected with a brewpub in the USA, namely Wallaby Bob’s in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wallaby Bob’s was the first brewpub in Cincinnati, and the third in Ohio, when it opened early in 1989. Its brewer, Donald Outterson, was formerly a champion home-brewer who decided to go pro, studying brewing formally at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and graduating there in 1986.

Wallaby Bob’s had a short life, and Don was sent to Canberra after its closure to set up and run the Parson’s Pint. He also helped to sort out the beer excise and licensing arrangements for what became the first licensed brewery in the Australian Capital Territory. When still in the USA, Don had helped to source the brewing equipment for the Parson’s Pint. It had originally been purchased from England for use in a proposed brewery in Canada.

The Parson’s Pint had a brief life, although it lasted a little longer than Wallaby Bob’s. The Canberra brewery closed after less than three years, although I haven’t been able to determine the exact time and circumstances of its demise. It seems to have been still in operation in mid-1991, as the Glebe Park a la Carte, with its ‘eight international style food outlets, tavern and boutique brewery’ was the winner of an ACT tourism award at that time. Don Outterson had by then returned to the USA, and the brewing had been taken over by a talented English-born home-brewer named Richard Pass.

Another little brewery commenced operation in Canberra in 1991. It was within the Australian Pizza Kitchen, a new restaurant at Bailey’s Corner in Civic. The brewery equipment was built and installed by Graham Howard, who had pioneered micro-brewing in Queensland in 1987 when he started the Colonial Brewing Company at the Waterloo Hotel in the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley. Graham installed the brewery at APK and brewed the first batch of beer there in July 1991. The restaurant opened its doors the following month.

The first regular brewer at APK was Simon Brooke-Taylor’s assistant brewer at Eagle Hawk Hill, a Roseworthy-trained wine maker. Her several successors included Chris Elworthy, another home-brewer turned professional, who had been vice-president of the Canberra Brewers Club at the time of his recruitment in mid-1995.

Although the APK pizza restaurant is still in operation, and has run continuously since 1991, brewing at the site has been somewhat erratic. It eventually ceased in 2008, although only ginger beer was produced for the last year or so. An attractive copper-domed brewing vessel still decorates the restaurant, at least it did when I last visited a year or two ago.

Canberra’s third commercial brewery, the Wig and Pen English Pub and Brewery, as it was first promoted, opened in June 1994. It was a joint venture between Richard Pass, the last brewer at the Parson’s Pint, and Lachlan McOmish, with Pass running the brewery, his wife running the kitchen, and McOmish acting as mine host for the pub.

The brewing equipment for the Wig and Pen was sourced from a defunct microbrewery at the Craig Brewery Bar and Grill in the trendy Harbourside Marketplace at Darling Harbour, Sydney. Like the Parson’s Pint and the APK breweries in Canberra, the Craig Brewery brewed from concentrated wort, but Pass and McOmish built and added a mash tun, making their Wig and Pen the first all-grain brewery in Canberra.

Richard Pass left the Wig and Pen in 1998, his brewing job passing to his understudy, Richard Watkins, who remained there until this year. The much-awarded Watkins is presently in the process of starting his own brewery elsewhere in Canberra, while a cloud hangs over the future of the Wig and Pen, due to plans to redevelop the building in which it is housed.

The Wig and Pen was not the last commercial brewery to open in Canberra. In 2006, another home-brewer, Christoph Zierholz, started his self-named brewing business, Zierholz Premium Beer, in the suburb of Fyshwick. As this happened shortly before the closure of the APK brewery, there were briefly three commercial breweries in operation in Canberra simultaneously. There will again be three when Watkins starts brewing again, and perhaps four if Zierholz realises his delayed plan to build his second microbrewery at the student bar at the University of Canberra, currently supplied from his Fyshwick brewery. Canberra beer drinkers, who were long denied a brewery of their own, now are amply catered for, and have even more to look forward to.

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