May 19, 2014

Colonial-style Australian pale ale

I've been getting hints at what some of the colonial ales and beers looked like through homebrew recipes and comparisons made in newspapers but most of the time they were either nasty bran & molasses affairs or otherwise very similar to the Burton and pale ales being imported into the country. Our national inferiority complex was in full effect even then and meant that very often our colonial ales and beers were attempts to mimic British beers.

But I found an article which shows something else emerging in Victoria & South Australia in the mid-19th century, something uniquely Australian. It's agenda is to argue for prioritising the use of the abundant colonial wheat in brewing instead of spending money on imported British malt. In the process gives heaps of interesting details about the practice of breweries in the area. I think we're getting an early glimpse of the Australian pale ale, an ale more appropriate to our climate and available ingredients than most of the imported stuff.

The Star (Ballarat), 15 December, 1863

The first gem is an outline of the standard grist used by brewers in the region: the equivalent of 4 bushels of malt per hogshead made up of 3 bushels of malt and sugar equivalent to 1 bushel of malt. 3 bushels of malt/hogshead is, if Wikipedia can be trusted, around 190g/litre. In a 23L batch of homebrew that's 4.35 kilograms of malt. Exactly how much sugar they were able to extract from that malt is not clear up my hunch is that it would be more comparable to homebrew systems than the high efficiency of today's commercial breweries. Assuming 70% efficiency, we're talking about an original gravity of around 1.048 of which 1.036 is from the malt and 1.012 is from sugar.

Use of sugar deserves attention. As I mentioned above, the article suggests that around 25% of the fermentables came from sugar. There were plenty of reasons for colonial brewers to use sugar and I’ll probably have a post up about that soon. Even more than the presence of wheat, the use of sugar was a distinctive of early colonial brewing while the the use of sugar was illegal in Britain until 1847 and only seems to have become popular through the 1870-80s. The use of sugar in these Australian pale ales led to a lighter bodied, more refreshing ale than the majority of the imported ales that were available.

The Star (Ballarat), 15 December, 1863

It's worth noting that they were often using a large amount of wheat. I already posted about Tasmanian homebrewers using wheat in times of plenty but above we've got a report of a brewery in Bendigo relying on wheat malt and only turning to barley once there was no more wheat available. There's also mention of a brewery in Adelaide using wheat when there was a shortage of barley and several others in the Beechworth district and Melbourne were also using it. It doesn't seem like everyone was using it but it sounds as if it was common enough and hints at the beginnings of a unique style of beer – the Australian pale ale.

There's some more gold to be mined from the article as well as more about wheat malt and sugar in colonial brewing that needs to be pursued. Each post leads to way more questions. Well, for me at least.


  1. Keep it coming! I can see a brewday in the future with this information.

    1. Definitely! I just need to try and figure out a hopping schedule. I've found a few colonial homebrew recipes and they generally seem to use a large FWH addition (6-15g/L) and leave it with that so at this stage that's how I'm leaning. I'll post up more of those recipes as I get to them as well.


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