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The mysterious Australian Ale

IPA, or India Pale Ale, was not the only beer British brewers exported to far-away places in the 19th century. There was plenty of stout and porter shipped to the East and West Indies – and also the mysterious Australian Ale.

Pulling together the scattered references to the beer, Australian Ale appears to be a name given to “No 3” grade Burton Ale, 1080 to 1085 OG or so, around 7 or 8 per cent alcohol, stronger and, probably, slightly darker and rather sweeter than a Victorian IPA would have been.

In 1841 the Burton upon Trent brewers William and Thomas Saunders advertised in the Liverpool Mercury their “East India and Australian Beer”, “each brewed by them expressly for those markets, also the Australian Strong Ale”, doubtless hoping to catch the eyes of shippers exporting goods from Liverpool to the Antipodes. This is the earliest reference I have found to “Australian Ale” used to designate an apparent style of beer: all sorts of British brewers, including Saunders’ Burton rivals Bass and Allsopp, had been exporting to the Colonies, but none was calling its beer specifically “Australian” (and Burton Ale, brewer unnamed, had been on sale in Australia since at least 1821). This was still a time when the word “ale” generally indicated a less-hopped article than “beer” did (though “pale ale”, specifically, was by now a hoppy brew), so the “Australian Strong Ale” was likely to be less hoppy (but stronger, to make up for the lesser amount of preserving hops) than Saunders’s Australian Beer.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 1850

In April 1856 the Derby Mercury reported that three labourers “in the employ of Messers Bass and Co, brewers”, Thomas Stretton, Charles Carter and Dominic Kilkenny, were sentenced to two months in jail at Burton upon Trent Petty Sessions “for stealing seven quarts of Australian Ale, by plugging the bottom of the cask”. (One of the magistrates who put the three away was Sir Oswald Mosley, Bart., great-great grandfather of the British Fascist leader.) Which of Bass’s beers was “Australian ale”? In the 1840s and 1850s it was exporting both its No 2 (1090 or so OG) and No 3 grades of Burton Ale to Australia. But in December 1862 the medical magazine The Lancet, in a report on that year’s Great International Exhibition in South Kensington, London, talking about the beers on show, said: “Messrs Bass and Co exhibit their strong ale and their No 3 Burton or Australian ale.” The No 3 grade was also the Burton Ale that Allsopp’s exported to Australia.

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