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.

Against that evidence, however, The Lancet also reported that “Amongst the samples shown by Messrs Salt and Co” (Thomas Salt, a “second division” Burton upon Trent brewer) was “a bottle of their No 1, or six guinea, Australian ale, which had been brewed eighteen years and which had been in bottle fourteen years.” There was a small fuss about this beer, brewed in 1844 and bottled in 1848:

This, Messrs Salt allege, the Jurors took, broke off the neck of the bottle, in place of drawing the cork gently so as not to disturb the sediment, which always subsides, and then proceeded to pour it out. Of course, ale thus treated could not be otherwise than somewhat turbid. We have examined a bottle of this ale, which is now in course of analysis: it is obviously as sound as the day it was brewed, and nearly as free from that hardness and tartness which characterize most old ales.

It was not just Burton brewers who were exporting Burton Ale to Australia. In September 1858 the South Australian Advertiser carried a small advertisement for “Marrian’s No 3 Burton Ale, in hhds [hogsheads]” from James Robin & Co of Grenfell Street. Thomas Marrian was a Sheffield brewer, whose business was then around 20 years old, and this is a doubly fascinating ad, since it is the oldest mention of a Burton Ale being brewed by someone outside Burton that I have been able to find, as well as more evidence of No 3 Burton being a popular style in Australia. It may be significant that Marrian’s premises were known, later at least, as the Burton Weir brewery: did the owners think this gave them a right to call their beer Burton Ale? Or was this already the name of a style, rather than just a geographic descriptor?

Marrian also exported to New Zealand: in the Daily Southern Cross in Auckland in July 1860 a local wholesaler, OR Strickland & Co, advertised that it was “in constant receipt of monthly shipments” of “Marrian’s No 3 Australian Ale” – an even earlier example of No 3 being called Australian Ale, not just Burton Ale – “in 5, 10 and 60-gallon casks”. (Strickland also sold “Worthington & Robinson’s Celebrated Burton Ale”, “Bass’s Ale” and “Barclay, Perkins Stout”.)

Still, in the Melbourne Argus in July 1856, alongside advertisements for Allsopp’s No 3 “bulk ale”, Bass’s No 3 “old brew” and Marrian’s “celebrated No 3 Ale” there is an ad for “Burton Brewery Co’s No 1 Australian Ale, just landing”. No 1 was usually the designation for the top-of-the-range Burton Ale, around 1100OG or more: the Burton Brewery Company was another “second division” Burton upon Trent brewer, considerably smaller than Bass and Allsopp.

The best evidence for No 3 Burton’s popularity in Australia comes from an ad in the Melbourne Argus in May 1857, a few months after the Romford, Essex brewer Ind Coope had opened a branch in Burton upon Trent, in premises built 10 years earlier. The first beers brewed by Ind Coope in Burton were just arriving in Australia, and one of the local wholesalers took out an ad declaring: “Ind, Coope and Co’s No 3 Burton Ale – We beg to call the attention of consumers of Burton Ale to this new brand. Messers Ind, Coope and Co have long been celebrated for their brewings at Romford, and finding that the large Australian demand centered upon Burton, they have established a brewery there for the purpose of meeting the colonial taste.”

Even if half true, that is fascinating: the general assumption has been that Ind Coope opened a brewery in Burton because it could not make the increasingly popular India Pale Ales and bitter beers with Romford water. That statement in the Argus may be advertising copy flam designed to flatter Australian consumers, or it may be that the move to Burton genuinely was, in part, to brew and supply Burton Ale as well as a better pale bitter ale. Two years earlier, in 1855, before it opened the Burton brewery, Ind Coope had been advertising in the Liverpool Mercury its “Romford Pale Ale” range, which included something called “NSW Australian Ale” at 76 shillings a barrel, implying a huge OG, above 1100. Had Ind Coope been trying to export its pale ales to Australia via Liverpool, failed against the Burton breweries, and then bought a site in Burton to give itself a better chance against Bass and Allsopp? The evidence against is that, in its earlier incarnation as a company, Ind & Smith, its porter and ale had been on sale in Sydney since at least 1838. (The other beers Ind Coope was advertising in 1857, incidentally, were East India Pale Ale at 62 shillings a barrel, XK bitter ale at 50 shillings a barrel and AK light bitter ale at 44 shillings a barrel.)

Daily Southern Cross, New Zealand, 1860

Despite all the competition from the Burton brewers, Marrian’s maintained an export beer business to Australia until at least the 1890s: when Alfred Barnard visited the brewery in Sheffield in 1890 he tried “a sample of Australian beers four years old, which we found very delicious but far too strong for our Cockney taste.” Barnard commented that the brewery’s founder, Thomas Marrian, had built up “an extensive trade in the Colonies, where his beer gained a great reputation, and commanded the highest price in the market.” In confirmation, in 1879 the Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier declared that Thomas Marrian and Company “has for about twenty five years been considerably the largest exporter of bulk beer to these colonies, in all parts of which the beer is well known and justly appreciated, as a proof of which it invariably commands the highest price in the different markets.”

Marrian was not the only Sheffield brewer to make Australian ale: Bradley & Co of the Soho brewery, Sheffield, for example, sold No 3 Australian Strong Ale in the 1860s, at 1s 8d a gallon, implying an OG of 1080 or more. HJ Dearden’s High House Brewery, Hillfoot, Sheffield, sold a beer called Bushman in 1888 in bottle and cask. Alfred Barnard also visited Thomas Berry’s Moorhead brewery, Sheffield, in 1890, and this too, “at one time did a large export trade to the Cape, Australia and New Zealand”, Barnard wrote. Indeed, “Berry’s No 3 Burton Ale” appears in an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1869, alongside “Bass’s No 4 ale” (sic).

Not all beer exported under the name “Australian” appears to have been Burton Ale-style. Ashby’s brewery, in Staines. Middlesex, for example, according to an advert in The Times in 1843, sold “Australian Pale Ale” which it had been exporting to “the Australian colonies” since 1829 and which “resembles the East India pale ale in flavour and colour, with rather more body.” Similarly Tetley’s brewery advertised in the Leeds Mercury in July 1853 “Export East India Bitter & Strong Australian Pale Ales” which, “owing to the unusual length of the brewing season this year” (a poor, cold start to summer, presumably) “Messers Tetley & Son are still able to supply [for export] to a limited extent”. In March 1859 the Stowmarket Brewery Company in Suffolk advertised its “very superior Australian Pale Ale” at 60 shillings a barrel (suggesting, again, an OG north of 1080), which it said was “a most recherche article”.

The Daily Alta, San Francisco, 1853

There is also the fact that No 3 Burton was exported to other places than Australia and New Zealand: the Daily Alta in San Francisco, California in November 1853 was carrying ads for T Salt & Co’s No 3 Burton Ale and Allsopp’s No 3 Burton Ale. Indeed, San Francisco at this time actually had two places called “The Burton Ale House”, on Kearney Street and Jackson Street Wharf, which, together with The Old Ship on Pacific Street and The Old Ship’s Anchor on Front Street, advertised themselves in the Daily Alta as “the Only Houses in the city” where “this particular English Ale – pre-eminently the finest in the world – may be had”, at 12 and a half cents a glass. That’s the equivalent of $3.64 today for whatever “a glass” was – 12 fl oz?

Alfred Barnard’s mentions of Australian Ales in Sheffield in 1890 appear to be about the last cry for the beer as a named style. References now dry up completely: it looks likely that a new generation of drinkers in Australia no longer wanted the sweetish, strong ales of old England. That same year, 1890, an advertisement appeared in the Argus, Melbourne, indicating the way Australian tastes were trending: “FOSTER’S LAGER BEER is certain to become the national beer of Australia.”

25 thoughts on “The mysterious Australian Ale

  1. Everytime I begin to think have a handle on this stuff, you uncover something new! Amazing.
    I was reading recently about the beer actually brewed in Australia called “Australian Ale” and evidently it was held in pretty low regard compared to the beers coming from England.

  2. I wonder why sweetish strong ales, and IPA-types with “more body”, could be shipped to Australia and found favour there but neither such factor (we are told usually, due to climate or taste preference) played in East India. Is the climate that different in Australia? Pretty hot in both places.

    Was Australia settled earlier such that old habits died harder than in India with its more varied population and cultural mix?

    Another thing: often the export market wants a description tied to the exporting country, to show authenticity of origin. Burton Ale, Scotch Ale, Romsey Pale Ale, etc. Here the market seemed happy to take the beer with the destination’s name.

    The more I read about beer, the more the mysteries grow than shrink, but good work as always.


    1. While most people think of Australia as a hot, dry place, a fair amount of it is actually temperate. Certainly there’s plenty of Victoria and Tasmania where I’ve often wished they would serve the ales warmer in winter!

      1. yup I’m in Melbourne right now, its bloody cold and I wish the ales would be served a little warmer in winter (rather than needing to order 2 and let one warm up)

  3. Maybe just a re-branding ploy?, as to make the”old Burton”new again for the Australian market. Interesting still is the fact you found them clearly importing “Burton’s 1, 2 and 3 ” and calling them just that, which contradicts the former Australian Ale theory. I have never seen a Bass called “Australian ale” before either, a mysterious ale indeed.

  4. Fascinating stuff. I always think that strength can to some extent be dissociated from flavour, because of the different drinking habits which are associated with beers of different strengths (e.g. imperial stouts and double IPAs vs ‘sessionable’ bitter, mild, lager and stout). On that basis I can understand Australians losing the taste for Burton ale, but I do wonder what happened to the taste for *strong* beer.

  5. Whereas in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, they were more fond of Barclay, Perkins and Co’s Imperial Double Stout Porter…

    Back to Australian Ale, I’ve been meaning to pester Ron about this for a while, especially considering the link with the Sheffield breweries (nearest city to us) and also because we have an Aussie brewer on our team.

    Don’t suppose anyone could unearth the original Bradley No 3 Recipe, or how I might go about it?

    Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery

    1. Now, that IS an interesting reference – Hobart is a very long way from St Petersburg! And still called “stout porter” in 1822, as well.

      The No3 would almost certainly be a standard Burton Ale recipe, aimed at around 1080OG: think Marston’s Owd Rodger or Young’s Winter Warmer, ramped up, or Bass No 1 toned down a bit.

      1. as my winter brewing time table isnt set and I love brewing IPA’s I think I need to do an old school Australian Ale, add some history and local relevance to my brewing. Appart from it being around 1.100 OG and not as hoppy as an IPA (old style English) my guess is mostly pale malt, but perhaps some black and crystal, and keep it simple on the hops, mostly EKG in the boil but also some dry hops in the cask (keg) either for aging or at serving, about 60 IBU’s?
        Any more info on a recipe Martyn (or anybody else)???

        1. This might get you close to what you are looking for Darren…
          17.75 lb Pale Malt, Maris Otter
          14.50 lb Pale Malt (2 Row) UK
          4.50 lb Amber Malt
          1.50 lb Brown Malt
          1.25 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt -120L
          6.00 oz Goldings, East Kent [(120 min) 34.0 IBU
          3.75 oz Goldings, East Kent (20 min) 11.8 IBU
          3.00 lb Dememera Sugar
          10.00 gal Burton On Trent, Water
          Measured Original Gravity: 1.112 SG
          Measured Final Gravity: 1.038 SG
          Estimated Color: 20.3 SRM
          Bitterness: 45.7 IBU
          ABV: 9.74 %

          Or 1902 Bass’ King’s Ale
          34lbs Pale Malt ( 2 row) UK
          12 Oz East Kent Goldings , 6oz at boil , 6 oz 6 hours into boil
          12 Hour Boil

          1. Cheers Arcticalchemy,
            I like the look of the first one, minus the 12 hr boil. I think I’d have to ad a bunch of dry hop though (and do it with a 1 hr boil). Any chance of some batch sizes to go with those numbers (litres or gal?), or just give me the % of the malt bill, OG and IBU’s
            Where did you find this lot?

          2. These would be for a US 10 gallon batch, sorry to not include that info Darren. Indeed dry-hopping would improve the aroma with the first recipe which is an old Bass Burton #1 circa 1870’s ( which they actually called a Barley Wine ), I included the King’s Ale recipe as a comparison to achieving virtually the same result with only one ingredient ,which I find remarkable.
            Indeed, the 12 hour boil is a bit much for me too, no need for coloring/flavoring malts with King’s Ale. I also think King Edward VII would have not “stuck around ” after he moved the valve to start the mashing on this ale.

      2. Tasy is a cold bastard of a place so something warming and dark would fit.
        But Martyn is there actually 1 Australian Ale or were there a range of styles sent out here?

        1. Darren, there appears to have been one beer which was most frequently given the name “Australian Ale”, which was No 3 grade Burton Ale, like the beers Chris has given the recipes to above, but aiming at an OG of around 1080. Other beers were occasionally called “Australian pale ale” and similar, but those were rare: No 3 Burton was the regular “Australian Ale”.

          1. It all sounds like a long way from S&N’s Younger’s No3 I remember from the early ’90s (that left a certain taste’ in my mouth).

            Chris bringing up the King’s Ale has me thinking though. Presumably the royals of yesteryear were a little less distracted by attempting to be ‘of the people’ than some of the present heirs to the throne (there is a nice link to the fact Ted 7 was heir apparent for an unbelievably long time a little like the current Prince of Wales who has his own beer). In which case it seem fairly clear that these massive beers weren’t the ale of choice for commoners, surely they were rather expensive.

            Brewing was underway in the antipodean colonies from early on and any cargo arriving must have been precious and costly. Australian Ale must have cost a pretty penny, and even though Melbourne was for some time reckoned to have been the richest city in the world I believe (due to the aundance of gold), but these beers must have been beyond your average cobber. Perhaps the cycles of drought and depression put an end to importation of No.3 as much as changing tastes?

  6. The increasing availability of spirits in Australia may be the answer, and in Britain and America as well, indeed almost everywhere. E.g., when spirits were banned by law in Belgium, strong beers (circa 1919) emerged to take their place. When jenever and other spirits came back, strong beers survived but only vestigially.


  7. Well, the more temperate parts of the Antipodes is where the beaver hats mentioned in that ad may have gone!

    Beaver hats and Imperial Stout – conjures an era but indeed one more associated with the other side of the world.


  8. Cheers to both Martyn and Arcticalchemy, I think I have enough to work from here, bit of a blend of the two recipes malt bils ( I’m prety sure I can get some floor malted stuff), targeting an OG of around 1.080-90 all EKG for about 50 IBU, I may stretch the boil to a 2 hour boil but that will really push my patience.

    I’m guessing if I put this beer in a home brew comp it’ll be in the barley wine category but I’ll still be calling it an Australian Ale.

    1. OK this is a reall overdue response piglos, but the beer came out pretty well, but took it a while to age into its self,initially I would have liked it to be hoppier and it was a bit rough when young. The recipe is here and it recieved a 3rd place in the Victorian Home Brew comp a few weeks ago, scoring an average of 39 across 3 judges. Its off to the Australian Home Brew comp now

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