Carlton United Breweries

In 1858 Rosenberg & Co started the North Melbourne Brewery at Bouverie St, Carlton.  It failed within the year.  John Bellman bought the operation and failed even quicker.  His creditors forced a sale in 1864.  One of those who attended the sherriff’s auction was Edward Latham a recent immigrant from Liverpool, England.  He bought the brewery, renamed it the “Carlton Brewery” and immediately expanded its premises and production.  In 1884, Latham sold the Carlton Brewery to the Melbourne Brewing and Malting Company.  He used the funds to engage in land speculation.  First he made a tidy profit but soon the market collapsed and he was forced to make a composition with his creditors.  He is said to have ended up with less money than he brought with him to Australia in 1864.

And so begins the story of Carlton Brewery the “C” in CUB (Carlton & United Breweries) which today is one of the world’s largest brewing companies.  But before continuing with the history of the “C”, let’s consider the origins of the “UB”, the other breweries which united in 1907 to form CUB.  These others were the McCracken, Victoria, Shamrock, Foster’s and Castlemaine breweries.

McCracken Brewery had been established in 1851 by Robert and Peter McCracken and James Robertson on Collins Street across from the Rialto buildings.  The Victoria Brewery was set up by Thomas Aitken in 1854 and was famed for its majestic buildings including a clock tower and battlements.  The Shamrock brewery began as Graham’s Brewery in 1865.  It was founded in East Collingwood by Thomas Graham. 

The origins of Foster’s and Castlemaine are recounted elsewhere on this site.

Following the great economic turmoil of the 1890s there was intense competition in the beer market which, together with increasing beer taxes and increasing use of tied houses, caused the number of breweries to dwindle. 

The major Melbourne breweries responded to these forces by coming together in 1903 as the Society of Melbourne Brewers.  They set a minimum price for beer raising the price by almost 12% overnight.  The independent hotel owners (ie. those who did not run tied houses) fought back by starting their own brewery – the Abbotsford Co-operative.  Its success kept prices in check. 

By 1907 the Society of Melbourne Brewers amalgamated to form CUB.  The man responsible for bringing these breweries together was Montague Cohen, a lawyer and chairman of the Foster’s Brewing Company.  He had been involved in the public listing of the Swan Brewery in 1887.  In January 1913, CUB became itself became publicly listed on the stock exchange.

Emil Resch became the first general manager of the newly formed CUB.  He hailed from Wurtemburg in Germany.  He was certainly right when in 1913 he stated that “there is now more beer consumed all over the world, because it is recognised amongst all civilised people as man’s natural beverage”.  Unfortunately he was wrong when he said “A war between England and Germany would be unprecedented and almost inconceivable”.  World War I broke out the next year.

Men flocked to sail to Europe to fight as Anzacs.  The nationalist fervour helped to increase the sales of local lager, in particular Foster’s, at the expense of imported German brews.  The Australian Brewer’s Journal wrote:

The Teutonic brands which have been exported here by the enemy are taboo.  Our lagers are equal if not better than their fancy brands”

There was a lot of anti-German sentiment.  When Emil Resch returned from Germany he was given a large payment and told that his services were no longer required at CUB. 

Seventy-five CUB employees served in the war and were still paid wages by CUB, fourteen died.

In 1924 CUB bought out the Abbotsford Co-operative brewery which had been set up by hoteliers in 1903 in an attempt to curtail the market power of CUB’s predecessor – the Society of Melbourne Brewers.  The takeover was possible because the hoteliers that had set up Abbotsford had sold off their shares one by one until only a few wealthy men owned the brewery. It was no longer a co-operative by 1924.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s not even the now gargantuan CUB was spared.  Beer consumption in Australia fell by a quarter.  It was suggested that 10% of the workers would have to go.  But the workers agreed to a pay cut and not one job was lost.

In 1931 CUB bought Northern Australian Breweries Limited to gain control of the North Queensland market.  NAB brewed Cairns Bitter Ale and NQ Lager.  This was CUB’s first but by no means last acquisition outside Victoria.

In between the wars, lager continued to increase in popularity at the expense of ales.  CUB adjusted its output and production facilities to ensure that supply met demand.

During and after World War II, CUB had trouble keeping up with the thirst for beer in Melbourne.  Beer had to be almost rationed during the war and in the early post-war years.  There were unhappy days where there was no beer to be sold at all.

In 1949 the famous Reginald Fogarty became the general manager of CUB and radically modernised and reorganised the entire operation ruling with an iron fist.  Wooden kegs were replaced by steel.  Almost all the plant was replaced with modern equipment.

Around this time, working conditions at CUB were pretty good.  An employee was entitled to a pot of beer at morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and before he went home.  Strong unions ensured that it was almost impossible to be fired.

In 1956 CUB set up the first brewery in Darwin.  The first local beer, Carlton Draught, was brewed on 13 October of that year.  Bottled CUB beer continued to be shipped from Melbourne.  Because of the logistics of shipping bottles such a long distance, it was decided that a bigger bottle would be used – a 2.25 litre giant which became known as the “Darwin Stubby”.  It was appropriate that the biggest beer bottles in the world were used in the city with the biggest beer consumption per capita in the world.  The Darwin Stubby of NT Draught immediately became a hit with tourists who took them as souvenirs.  You can still buy a Darwin Stubby but the price is prohibitive at about A$20.00.  They are now just a tourist gimmick, not something for the local drinker.

In 1958 CUB bought out the Ballarat Brewing Company which originated during the gold rushes that swept through that area at the end of the nineteenth century.  Ballarat Bitter had, since 1927, had a little old brewer on its labels.  He was affectionately known as Ballarat Bertie.  After the bottling operations in Ballarat were closed, it was thought that Bertie’s services were no longer required.  He was removed from the label.  This sparked a massive outcry in Ballarat and Ballarat Bertie was promptly restored to his rightful place.

In 1961 CUB took over the Queensland Brewery Ltd and Thos McLauchlin & Co Pty Ltd in Rockhampton.  In 1962 it bought the Richmond Brewery in Victoria and abandoned its brands.  Loyal drinkers of brands such a Richmond Tiger Beer and Richmond Special Export Bitter were understandably upset but powerless.  At around this time CUB had also attempted to take over Brisbane’s Castlemaine Perkins but the offer of non-voting shares was not attractive enough; had things turned out different then XXXX may have perished too. 

In 1966 CUB dominance was challenged for the first time.  Courage, Barclay & Simonds Ltd, British Tobacco Company (Aust) and some independent Victorian hoteliers formed a new brewing company in Victoria.  In a show of defiance, they drove 25 trucks bearing the Courage logo past the Carlton brewery.  A war was on.  Apparently the first brews of Courage tasted identical to Carlton, experts couldn’t taste the difference.  Consequently Courage did not fare too well.  Tooth & Co eventually bought it out in 1978.

CUB responded to the Courage challenge with a huge marketing campaign including beer commercials on television.  Until now, CUB had stoutly refused to use the new medium.  Market research was done and the brands were given their personas which linger to the present day for some: Victoria Bitter was the working man’s beer, Melbourne Bitter was the beer of the country, Foster’s the distinct beer with some feminine appeal, Abbots Lager was the white collar-worker’s beer, and Carlton Drought was a reward for arduous work.

1973 was the next step in the never ending monopolisation of Australian beer markets.  Swan had been the other brewer with a presence in Darwin.  In that year Swan and CUB merged to form Northern Territory Breweries Pty Ltd.  In 1981 CUB bought out Swan’s interest leaving it in sole control of the Northern Territory beer market.  Damage to the Darwin brewery stopped production for sometime and led to the emergence of VB as the drink of choice “up North”.

In 1974 Queensland attacked the tied house system.  Castlemaine Perkins had been threatened by CUB’s acquisition of 190 hotels in Queensland.  The Queensland Parliament led by Joh Bjelke-Peterson ended this threat by passing legislation requiring hotels to stock multiple brands of beer.  This contributed to the demise of CUB breweries in Toowoomba and Rockhampton.

In 1981 CUB acquired a shareholding in Cascade Brewery bringing its interest up to 17.85%.  The rationale was to acquire some debts to make CUB a less prone takeover target in the predatory 1980s.  John Elliot, the young Chairman of Elders IXL had other plans.  In case you’re wondering IXL stood for “I excel”.  John Elliot masterminded a takeover of the CUB through complicated deals and when the dust had settled he was in control of CUB.

In 1982 CUB bought Sydney’s Tooths & Co Limited for $160 million.  Tooths had been founded in 1835 by John Tooth and his brother-in-law Charles Newnham.  In 1929 Tooths had bought Resch’s Brewery.  Tooths had breweries at Waverley, Lismore and Broadmeadows.  It had failed to modernise rapidly enough and the quality of its products had suffered.  The end of the tide house system diluted its market share.  And most seriously perhaps, its advertising was no match for the brilliant campaigns of its Sydney rival, Tooheys.  The “I feel like a Tooheys or two” jingle is stamped on the minds of all who were exposed to it.  As part of the takeover CUB secured the brewery at Lismore and the almost complete modern plant at Kent.  It continued to produce the most popular Tooths brands: KB, Resch’s Draught, Resch’s Pilsener and Tooth’s Old.

Early in 1983 Ron Brierley of Industrial Equity Ltd attempted a takeover of CUB.  John Elliot reacted quickly and brought up more CUB shares.  Ron Brierley gave in and sold his shares to Elliot at an $8-$10 million profit.  By the end of 1983 CUB was a wholly owned subsidiary of Elders IXL and was de-listed from the Australian Stock Exchange.

In 1985 Elders IXL attempted to buy Allied Lyons the giant British brewer which was four times its size.  The bid failed but Elders IXL made a nice profit of $83.5 million out of the venture.  However, John Elliot’s ambitions were not satisfied and in 1986 Elders IXL made a successful $3.3 billion bid for Courage in the United Kingdom.  The very same company that had impudently sought to challenge CUB’s dominance in Victoria exactly 30 years earlier.  CUB became one of the ten largest brewers in the world.  Courage was sold to Scottish and Newcastle in 1995.

Elder’s IXL continued to expand internationally.  In 1987 it took over Canada’s Carling O’Keefe which it later merged in 1989 with Molson Breweries.  The Aussie giant retained a 50% stake until 1998 when it was sold for $1.1 billion.

In 1990 Elders IXL underwent a company reconstruction and was renamed the Foster’s Brewing Group.  In the following year it purchased the Grand Metropolitan PLC (GrandMet) in the USA and the UK.  It also merged the pubs owned by GrandMet and Courage into the Inntrepreneur Pub Company Limited.

In 1992 BHP, Australia’s largest company, became the biggest shareholder of Foster’s Brewing and Ted Kunkel was appointed to the top position in the company.  

CUB was also expanding nationally just as its parent company Foster’s Brewing was expanding internationally.  In 1992 CUB entered into a joint venture with Bernie Power’s eponymous Power Brewing in order to brew CUB brands in Queensland.  In the next year CUB bought all of Power Brewing.  In 1993 it entered Tasmania by acquiring the Cascade Brewery.  And in 1994 CUB had acquired a foothold in Western Australia by taking over the Western Australian Matilda Bay Brewing Company Ltd.

Meanwhile between 1993 and 1995 Foster’s Brewing opened three breweries in China.  It also purchased two breweries in Vietnam in 1997 and one in Samoa in 1998.

In 1996 the Group moved into the wine market by purchasing Mildara Blass and The Rothbury Estate. 

Close to a century after its formation CUB is still responsible for brewing and selling all of its brands in the Australian market.  It has three divisions.  The Australian Leisure and Hospitality division is in charge of retailing and manages CUB’s 150 hotels and 90 detached bottle shops.  The Carlton Special Beverages division manages the importation of international beers and spirits.  And Brew Tech is the research arm of CUB with responsibility for advancing brewing technology.

Without a doubt, CUB is one of Australia’s most successful companies.  Its history is one of corporate mergers, acquisitions and continual growth.  Whether or not this sort of activity has always been in the best interests of the average Aussie beer drinker as opposed to the shareholder is open to doubt.  But it is all part of ongoing corporate sagas that will continue for generations to come.  Let’s hope that all our favourite brands continue to be available to those future generations.  Each time a label disappears after a takeover, a little bit of Aussie culture disappears with it.

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