WA's Beer History To Star In New State Library Exhibition

February 16, 2024, by James Smith

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WA's Beer History To Star In New State Library Exhibition

“I knew from the start how wonderful this project was.” 

Guy Southern has been covering the WA beer scene for The Crafty Pint for years, and occupies a unique space in the state's beer community that takes in retailer, educator, judge and more.

His knowledge of and passion for WA's beer history was recognised last year when he was approached by the team at the State Library in Perth to put together an oral history of beer in Western Australia. The result of his endeavours feature at Liquid Gold, a new exhibition opening this weekend – complete with a beer created by Otherside Brewing – so we asked him to take us behind the scenes of this unique project.


Kanowna Brewery. Cask room and filling section. Unidentified man holding up a sample, 1907. Photo credit: State Library of Western Australia BA342/2779

 

“Part of the State Library’s remit is to collect and share material that reflects the social and cultural history of Western Australia, and breweries have had a significant place in this.”

Students of modern Australian beer will be well aware that WA – and in particular the activities of a few mates in Fremantle in the early 80s – is acknowledged as the birthplace of what became known as craft beer. But this has merely proven the latest chapter in a story that stretches back much further, as acknowledged by Andrew Meredith, the creative programs officer at the State Library of Western Australia who researched and curated the Liquid Gold exhibition covering nearly 200 years of brewing history and culture.

“The starting point for me was when I was looking at old photos of my hometown, East Fremantle," he says. "There’s a great photo of the foreshore from circa 1903 which showed two breweries near where the Stirling Bridge goes through now.

"I had no idea they’d existed, even though I went by there all the time. It got me wondering what happened to them and what other breweries used to exist in WA.”

 

Bond Brewing control room, Swan Brewery, Canning Vale, Western Australia, 9 June 1988. Photo credit: State Library of Western Australia 369485PD

 

Once Andrew started down the rabbit hole, he discovered a treasure trove related to WA breweries at the library: Swan Brewery company records and photographs, iconic advertising, recipes and stories of people who worked in breweries and pubs. 

“There are plenty of surprises in the exhibition," he says. "One of the standout items for me is a homebrew recipe from about 1830 titled ‘Cheap Beer’ that we found among some family papers. Showing it to some brewers, they remarked how much it reminded them of their early ventures into homebrew.

"It’s great to have a record from the early colonial period before any breweries were really established here in such great condition."

While he unearthed plenty of material dating from earlier in the 20th century, there was little covering the past four decades, and the arrival of a colourful new beer culture. Hence inviting Guy Southern to create a series of ten hour-long interviews to bring the period to life.

“When taken as a whole," Guy says, "Liquid Gold reflects Western Australia’s evolving economic and cultural identity from early settlement to modern day. The period from the colony through to Swan Brewing’s dominance in the late 1970s and 80s was marked by smaller regional breweries and eventual consolidation, such that Swan was one of the state’s biggest employers and bank-rolled Alan Bond’s WA Inc affairs, much to the dismay of its employees. 

“Its massive scale basically forced the former Swan brewer Phil Sexton and the Matilda Bay team to develop beer styles that were different, and offer them in self-owned pubs, due to being locked out of nearly all of the taps available. 

“While this proto-brewpub model is critical in the West Australian, and Australian, brewing development and history, it was the attitude and sheer will which inspired the like of Nail, Little Creatures, Feral and more in the years to come. This owner / producer environment also set out a template for consumer education in the years ahead."

 

Left: Roger Bussell enjoying a Rogers'. Right: Rhys Lopez of Otherside Brewing with Gilded Ale, inspired by an old recipe and debuting at the exhibition's launch.

 

Visitors to the Liquid Gold exhibition will be able to enjoy an edited version of the interviews, with the full versions archived for future researchers. Each interview explores an era or key moment; as the project took shape, Guy found these were less about the beer itself and more about the people and community that surrounded it.

“I knew from the start how wonderful this project was," he says. "However, after every interview the filmmaker Fi Mulholland would look over and say something like, ‘I felt like I was a fly on the wall for that one.’ His recognition that this project was something very special only added to the buzz.”

The exhibition comes with its own beer too: Otherside Brewing head brewer Rhys Lopez worked with the State Library researchers to develop a modern take on a 1913 Emu Brewing recipe called Gilded Ale. 

“We had wanted to use an earlier recipe from 1833," Rhys says. "But it was a homebrew with very little documentation on ingredients or process. It featured a lot of treacle and sugar, and probably wouldn’t be considered ‘beer’ legally today. The records show that the early brewers were just trying to get by with whatever they had available."

Even the recipe was squished onto the page.

"Every margin filled with writing," Rhys adds, "because basics like paper itself were at a premium.”

 

Kalgoorlie Brewing Company, Beer delivery, ca1900. Photo credit: State Library of Western Australia 085712PD

 

As for those to feature in Guy's interviews, they represent a roll call of those who have shaped – and continue to shape – the state's beer landscape.

“Just thinking about interviewing Roger Bussell while drinking Little Creatures Rogers’ – he's one of two Rogers bestowed upon the now iconic beer – makes me smile," Guy says. "Pinch yourself stuff.

“What’s been interesting, though probably not surprising, is the sense of community: the stuff around the glass. Hearing stories of Swan employees sending ingredients to Matilda Bay via taxi to help a mate out despite the intense competition at the time is a telling example of the West Australian beer fellowship. 

“As an industry we talk about Little Creatures Pale Ale as an epiphany beer or point zero for a new era, but what’s most fascinating – and its biggest impact – is not what, but how. 

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“In the early 2000s, the Little Creatures team changed Australian hospitality culture by saying there’s no uniform and you don’t need a name badge. Come as you are as long as you’re a good operator. And do it in a defunct, harbourside crocodile farm where the brewery tanks were part of the experience.

"This drew deeply from boho Fremantle itself and the intent has rippled outwards ever since."

The deeper he explored, the more pieces in the jigsaw that is beer today slotted into place.

“I’d urge anyone with the time to listen to what Hugh Dunn has achieved, not only with Edith Cowan University, but also in malt. Working with farmers, then creating a small-scale malting at the university to speed up regulatory sign-offs ready for next year’s crop. Then specialty beer use that would never otherwise have happened.

"Beyond his guidance to West Australian beer, these small-scale maltings are as punk rock as Hop Hog.

 

Guy with Howard Cearns and Ken Arrowsmith at Little Creatures in Fremantle.

 

“Likewise, Hamish and Mel’s Rocky Ridge interview features some of the most in-depth conversation about the environmental impact of brewing in Australia, and their brewery’s drive to achieve net zero emissions."

There were plenty of moments that will stick with Guy for the rest of his life – beyond which the interviews will stick around as a document of this amazing period for beer, not just in WA or Australia, but globally too.

“Getting Ken Arrowsmith to autograph his own likeness on an unopened Emu Bitter mini-keg from 2001 at Little Creatures with Howard Cearns – the brewery's co-founder and the man that put Ken on the label in the first place – was a real money-can't-buy moment," Guy says.

As for the man who invited him to create the oral histories, Andrew adds: "The interviews speak to social and cultural change in that period. So it’s great that we’ve been able to keep these stories for the future.” 


Liquid Gold launches on February 17, 2024, with a panel discussion on the history of WA brewing plus interviews with Guy Southern on the new oral history recording, and Rhys Lopez talking about the Gilded Ale launching on the night. Free tickets for the launch available here.

Photo at top of article: Swan Premium airship above London, England, 1985. State Library of Western Australia 243953PD
Some photos have been cropped to fit the site.

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