Australian Beer History Week

Australian Beer History Week – Day Four


Having read several accounts of Thomas Cooper and the brewery he started in 1862, there’s one fact that gets touched on briefly. In 1872, 10 years after starting his brewery Thomas’ wife Anne died, leaving him to look after their seven children while running the brewery. How did he manage that? It’d be tricky enough for two parents to look after seven kids, but to do it on your own? And run your own business? How the hell did he manage that?

Yes, it probably doesn’t get much coverage in these accounts because they’re writing about beer, not child-rearing, but seven children. Seven. Jeez. He married Sarah Perry two years later and had another eight kids – though only five survived infancy. So it would seem that Thomas loved being a father. Or at the very least loved the act that set the whole fatherhood thing in motion.

As far as brewing goes, Thomas didn’t start out that way. In Breweries of Australia Keith M Deutsher, says he arrived in Adelaide in 1852 but didn’t start commercial brewing for 10 years. In the interim he was a shoemaker, worked for a stonemason and became a dairyman. He has an interesting enough past that Coopers could do what James Squire does and include a history of the man on their labels – only Coopers would have some legitimacy as Mr Squire has no connection to the beers that bear his name.

In the first 10 years he supplied private customers only and bottled his beer in whatever bottles he could lay his hands on (sounds like homebrew). But these brews were inconsistent (again, sounds like homebrew) and he had to sell them cheap, which caused financial problems for the brewer and his family . Despite this he managed to score a loan to build a brewery, a year before Anne’s death.

The beer got better, due to the efforts of Thomas’ son John, who came aboard. They were still just bottling beers at this time, rather than sending stuff to pubs and hotels. When Thomas died in 1897, John took over and soon started selling to pubs. That saw a huge increase in sales by the early 20th century.

Since then the business has steadily grown, with 1977 being a big year. That was the year they launched their first homebrew kits, after the practice had been made legal by Gough Whitlam. The sales of kits and canned extract have managed to boost Coopers’ bottom line during lean periods (perhaps because, when times are right and people stop buying beer, they try to save money by making their own – so Coopers wins both ways). Incidentally, half of their brews are used to create malt extract, for brew kits but also to sell to a range of food producers – there’s apparently a bit of Coopers in Corn Flakes.

The other recent moment in Coopers history occurred in 2005 when Lion launched a hostile takeover, offering as much as $310 a share at one stage. The shareholders (most of whom I assume had Cooper as their surname) fought them off and managed to change the brewery’s constitution to remove the provision that allowed the Lion challenge in the first place. It’s a nice little story of a smaller brewer battling a bigger one – and winning.

One thing I couldn’t discover is why there is no apostrophe in the company’s name. Surely it should read Cooper’s, or even Coopers’ rather than Coopers. Just like Resch’s (well, at least until they started calling themselves Reschs) and Foster’s. What is it with breweries and apostrophes?

One of their well-loved beers is Coopers Sparkling Ale, better known as Coopers Red. With the yeast sediment left in the bottle it predates craft brewers on that score by yolks. It might say sparkling ale on the label, but I’ve always thought this more of a wheat beer.

Part of that is the beer’s aroma, which is slightly fruity, with hints of banana. Flavourwise, it’s mildly fruity with some sweet malt at the back end. It clocks in at 5.8 per cent, which must have made it even more different standing alongside Australia’s macro lagers in years gone by. People talk of Matilda Bay or Little Creatures as being Australia’s first craft brewers but, really, Coopers has more of a claim to that title.

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