THE HOME OF VB
A BOTTLED HISTORY
1854-1884: Thomas Aitken’s brewery
The discovery of gold in 1851 caused a rush of commercial activity in Victoria. With plenty of thirsty miners, brewing was the business to be in.
Thomas Aitken arrived from Scotland in 1842 and operated the Corio Brewery in Geelong and then Melbourne’s Union Brewery. In 1854, he set up a brewery on Victoria Parade.
By using first-class equipment and ingredients, Aitken produced ales that rivalled the quality of imports. Some won awards and were a welcome change to early colonial ales, which were sometimes fatal brews laced with bacteria and fusel oils.
1884-1904: Growth and decline
After Thomas died in 1884, his son Archibald ran the brewery until the Nation brothers took it over. They formed a public company and floated it in 1888. It was an era of booming prosperity that soon faltered.
Beer drinkers now demanded lagers instead of ales. Breweries that could not supply lagers closed. Others , such as Fosters Brewery in Collingwood installed specialised equipment and storage cellars and survived.
Victoria Brewery almost closed in 1892 but was rescued by London investors. To keep up with the lager trend, renowned architect William Pitt designed a striking fortress-like cellar based on German brew halls. The first lagers rolled out in 1896 but business only picked up from 1904 up under a new manager, Emil Resch.
1905-1954: United by a company merger
The bigger the brewer, the better their chance of surviving. After Victoria Brewery combined with Fosters and four others in 1907 to form Carlton & United Breweries, the new company dominated the local market. Even drinkers overseas enjoyed Fosters – brewed and exported from Victoria Brewery after Fosters closed.
The plant steadily expanded and output grew with more cellars and brew towers. The castellated facade of the site became a familiar local landmark. Assisted by a large workforce and mechanisation, brewing continued around the clock.
1954-1983: Restrictions and closure
From mid-1950s, the brewery switched from producing kegs to bottled beer. When local residents complained about noise in the 1960s, the council banned night work. It was the beginning of the end.
Bulk handling and mechanisation replaced manual labour. Equipment maintenance continued and structures were modified, giving the site a temporary reprieve.
In 1983, Victoria Brewery finally closed after 129 years of continuous operation. The site was used for warehousing and distribution until it was sold in 1985. The unused buildings steadily decayed while developers made plans.
A WORKING BREWERY
Many brewery functions have been obscured or removed to make way for redevelopment. Little remains of the brewery’s equipment except for some pieces in Brew Tower No. 1. These include:
BREW TOWERS: steam-powered plant hoisted raw ingredients to the top and gravity drew them down each floor for processing. From the ground floor, a non-alcoholic extract called wort was pumped to other processing areas.
COOLING AND FERMENTATION: yeast was added to the wort after cooling and piped to fermentation tanks. The vacuum cellar building housed an early refrigeration system and areas for cooling the wort and cultivating yeast.
CELLARS: lager production required large areas for maturing and cool storage. Buildings such as the Cohen Cellar were adapted and others were purpose-built, insulated cellars. The fermented liquid was filtered and carbonated after cellaring.
PACKAGING: the bottling hall was built in 1909. Bottles were washed, refilled, labelled and packed into crates for delivery. After 1954, bottling capacity doubled.
COVERED YARD: deliveries to and from the brewery were thoughtfully protected from Melbourne’s fickle weather by the arched iron and steel roof of the covered yard.
THE BREWERS & THE WORKERS
The early colonial brewers were regarded as socially inferior. Neighbours complained about smelly premises. Poor malt and hot weather created brewing havoc when fusel oil tainted beer, which could cause delirium and death. Wild yeasts, contaminated water and bacteria only added to the poor reputation.
The chief brewer between 1884-94, Auguste de Bavay, scientifically improved beer and as a result the status of brewers. He developed Australia’s first pure yeast strain – Australia No. 2 – and cleaned up Melbourne’s water supply. De Bavay believed that Melbourne’s fire plugs allowed typhoid bacteria to enter the water supply.
Under the wise counsel of its manager and brewer, Emil Resch, Victoria Brewery became a success in the 1900s. Resch installed a laboratory, replacing trial and error with scientific brewing methods.
CUB maintained a sense of loyalty and belonging among its workers through social activities and company magazines. Family picnics, competition sports and company balls were must-attend occasions.
BEER, GLORIOUS BEER
Not everyone loved beer. Temperance crusaders wanted alcohol banned. For them, the demon drink caused drunkenness, violence and moral decay. Coffee palaces – alcohol-free hotels – offered an alternative.
There were also calls to abolish brewing during World War II. During the war, most Australians endured shortages but brewers kept up supply by using brown sugar instead of refined, and malt made from wheat, bot barley. It was an era when neighborhoods echoed with the call of the ‘bottle-o’ collecting empties for reuse.
During the war, beer sales were rationed to the public. Victoria Brewery was in full production supplying troops stationed in Australia and overseas. Backyard brewing boomed and kids were sent to sly-grog shop for illicit supplies.
ANCIENT BREWING-A HAPPY ACCIDENT?
The Sumerians, who lived over 6,000 years ago in land that is now Iraq, are believed to have been the first brewers. Ancient relics reveal their discovery – that barley bread, crumbled into water made a fermented drink. The accidental beverage made people feel ‘exhilarated, wonderful and blissful’.
There were laws that required Babylonian priestesses to give workers a daily beer ration. The ancient Egyptians improved their beer by using dates. Wine was the preferred drink of the Romans, who thought that only the barbarians on the fringes of the Empire drank beer. According to the historians the Germanic tribes made a horrible brew from grains.
In the Middle Ages, brewing was women’s work until monks took over the role. Beer provided a nourishing drink, especially during the fasts when people could drink but not eat. A commercial trade in beer began when Belgian and Dutch monks sold their excess production to the public.
Failed brews were blamed on brew witches, provoking witch burning and superstitions such as “thistles laid on a beer barrel prevent re-fermentation during a thunder storm”. Herbs were also tried but many were poisonous. Hops were added for taste and as a preservative – and are still used.
THE ‘ATO ALMOST-Z’ OF BREWING!
ALE: produced by the top-fermenation process; popular with Australian drinkers in 1800s.
BARREL: wooden casks bound by metal hoops. Capacity of 36 gallons/164 litres; a firkin held nine gallons/41 litres, and a hogshead 54 gallons/245 litres. Barrels were replaced by kegs made of stainless steel.
BITTER: a well-hopped beer, characterised by a pleasant bitter flavour.
BOTTOM-FERMENTATION: the method used to brew lager beer during which used yeast sinks during fermentation.
COOPER: a maker and repairer of wooden barrels and casks.
DRAUGHT: beer drawn straight from the barrel under pressure, through a pipe and served from a tap at the bar. It is also used to describe a beer style available in cans and bottles.
FERMENTATION: activity generated when yeast breaks down sugar, releasing alcohol and carbon dioxide.
GRIST: crushed barley malt that is mixed with hot water to form a mash.
HOP: Humulus lupulus, a perennial climbing plant that grows in cool climates. The flowers – or cone – are added in brewing to produce aroma and bitterness.
LAGER: bottom-fermented beer that is stored – or lagered – at cold temperatures for conditioning. Most modern Australian beers are lagers.
LAUTER TUN: a large vessel with a perforated false bottom that is used to strain the wort from the spent grains after mashing.
MALT: barley grain softened with water and germinated to produce enzymes and sugars, followed by kiln-drying and crushing. Wheat and rice were sometimes used.
PILSENER: a light, bottom-fermented beer named after the Czech town of Plzen (or Pilsen in German) where it was first brewed.
PORTER: a mixture of ale and stout, favoured by hard-working English market porters.
STOUT: a brew made using a darker roasted malt, but with the same strength as regular beer.
TOP-FERMENTATION: a traditional brewing method in which yeast rises to top during fermenting.
WORT: the sweet non-alcoholic liquid produced during brewing process; yeast is added after it is boiled and cooled. Wort is pronounced ‘wert’.
YEAST: a living, single-celled fungal organism that causes fermentation.