Cascade Brewery

Surely the Cascade Brewery is more beautifully situated than any brewery in the world… built, not for a day, but in the old solid European style for many generations.  I dare say it will be standing a hundred years hence, its pale ale as popular a drink as in these days.

Julian Thomas, Tasmania, 1895

The famous Cascade Brewery

Cascade is Australia’s oldest brewery - and the most beautiful.  It has been around since 1824 making it Australia’s oldest manufacturing enterprise.   It is the pride of Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state in land area but definitely not in beer heritage.

The story of this majestic brewery starts with Peter Degraves.  An Englishman of French heritage who was schooled in engineering, architecture and law.  In 1821, this entrepreneur left England to make his fortune in the new world by establishing a sawmilling operation.  Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was known in its colonial days) was his destination.  Unfortunately, fate played him a bad hand in those early days.  The ship he had chartered to take him to the Apple Isle was damaged and forced back to England.  Then he became embroiled in a battle with creditors.

In 1824 he finally arrived in Van Diemen’s Land only to be cast into prison in 1826 for allegedly not having paid his debts in England.  He protested his innocence and wrote to numerous people including the Lieutenant-General of Van Diemen’s Land:

I wish to impress on the mind of Your Excellency that, with a family of eight children, I have now endured eleven months’ imprisonment at the suit of there plaintiffs to whom I am not indebted one single shilling, and impatience under punishment so severe an unmerited is but natural, feeling, as I do, that I am here chained up like a dog, unheeded and forgotten.

This would not be the last time that a man born in England who came to Australia to make his fortune and made a significant impact on brewing in this country would be cast into prison by his creditors - Alan Bond would repeat this feat about 170 years later.

Whilst in prison, Degraves spent his time redesigning the prison buildings for the colonial authorities- certainly not an idle man.

Peter Degraves was 51 when he emerged from prison - his age did not prevent him from energetically starting afresh and soon becoming one of the richest and most respected men of the young colony.  In the Thirty-three Years in Tasmania and Victoria, a nineteenth century work, George Lloyd writes glowingly of him:

There are few residents or visitors of the Tasmanian capital who have not shares in the public benefits or partaken of the open-hearted hospitality of that model English gentleman, 'Peter Degraves, of the Cascade'. 

Clearly, you cannot keep a good man down. From 1824 he built saw and flour mills, a water supply for the city, Hobart’s Theatre Royal, and of course - the real gem of the South - the Cascade Brewery.

Julian Thomas’s description of the Cascade Brewery (which is quoted by Cyril Pearl in Beer, Glorious Beer) cannot be surpassed (1895):

Surely the Cascade Brewery is more beautifully situated than any brewery in the world. … Massively built of granite, four and five stories high, the brewery only wants towers instead of chimeys to play the part of a castle.  The pillars of the gates leading into the brewery are surmounted by imitation casks hewn out of stone.  They bear the date of 1824, the year the new wing was erected.  This date takes one back to the ancient history of Victoria.  It is almost bewildering to think that when the site of Marvellous Melbourne had been untrodden by white man this massive building was erected.  But the Cascade Brewery was built, not for a day, but in the old solid European style for many generations.  I dare say it will be standing a hundred years hence, its pale ale as popular a drink as in these days.”

105 years after this was written, the Cascade Brewery still stands.  And happily, you can still enjoy a Cascade Pale Ale. 

In 1834, Cascade published its first advertisement:

“CASCADE BREWERY AND MALT HOUSE.  At this Establishment Publicans and Private Families can be supplied at all times with GENUINE BEER from Malt and Hops, either in Cask or Bottle, and of very superior quality.  The local advantages possessed both as respects Water and other conveniences enable the Proprietors  to perform the whole operation of the business in a manner that cannot be excelled in this Colony, and by which means they supply a beverage upon moderate Terms fully equal to the best London Manufacture.

Orders left at Mr. Pinker’s, Elizabeth-Street, directed to Mr Degraves, will receive immediate attention.

The growers of English barley of good quality are invited to make Tenders of their produce, and for which the highest market prices will be always given

NB. - Bakers regularly supplied with the best  Yeast.

Cascade continued to rise in popularity and became the colony’s premier beer by the 1850s.  This was no mean feat – competition was vigorous.  In 1850, Tasmania boasted 48 breweries.

Degraves died in 1852.  His four sons continued his businesses but unfortunately they all died without heirs and the Degraves name could not be carried on.

The trustees of the Degraves estates decided to sell the brewery.  John Symes, a Scotish lawyer who had immigrated to Melbourne, was instructed to reconcile the breweries accounts.  He recognised the brewery’s potential and bought the brewery in 1881.  In the next year, Symes and his three partners, bought out three competing breweries in Hobart.  There were no anti-monopoly laws back then so it was inevitable that near monopolies arose, particularly in such a small market.  

In 1883 the breweries are incorporated into a public company with 34 subscribers which is named the Cascade Brewery Company Limited.  It paid a healthy 10% dividend in the first year.

Not only was the company a profitable one, but it also had some healthy industrial relations practices that ensured worker satisfaction.  Julian Thomas wrote in 1894: 

But the most interesting to me is the assemblage when the bell rings at 3.50 for ‘beer time’.  Then work is suspended, and the hands all flock with their billies, and each man has his pint of beer, which he drinks as he smokes until the bell signals 4 o’clock.  The same programme takes place in the morning, and at midday and evening the men can each take home a pint of beer to their meals.

It certainly did sound like a great place to work!

The company continued to grow and in 1905 it leased the Adams Brewery and numerous hotels from the estate of its founder, George Adams.  By 1911, the Cascade Brewery Company controlled over 90 hotels.

In 1922, it made an extremely important and strategic acquisition - the James Boag’s Brewery.  

In 1927, the Cascade brewery was extended fitted out with the latest Swiss lager making plant.  This was done at great cost and, together with the impact of the Great Depression, put the company into some financial difficulty – no dividend was paid until 1930.  It is encouraging to know that even in these difficult times, the head brewer Jin Stonor, supplied a free Cascade each afternoon to the unemployed of Hobart, provided they brought their own drinking vessels.  Some of the beer mugs that we brought are said to have been very large indeed.

Despite the ban on the sale of beer interstate and the new federal income tax – the business did very well during the Second World War.  A 12.5% dividend was paid in 1943.

On 7 February 1967, on the day that rip-top cans were first being used in Australia, at the Cascade Brewery, disaster struck.  Massive bushfires closed in on the brewery and engulfed it.  The blazing fire almost entirely destroyed the complex.  The restoration work began immediately and within 3 months beer was being bottled again at the site.  In the meantime, the slack was taken up by increased production at the Boags brewery.  CUB also helped out by producing and bottling beer for Cascade.

The tied-house system, its acquisitions of smaller brewers such as Boags, and good understandings with its rivals had placed Cascade in a comfortable market position.  However, this comfortable existence came to an end with the advent of Trade Practices Legislation which was, among other things, aimed at increasing competition and punishing anti-competitive practices.  From a beer consumer’s perspective, it was much needed.

In 1969 Cascade was the first brewery to have proceedings commenced against it under the Trade Practices Act 1965-1968 (in fact the action was brought against its wholly owned subsidiary – Tasmanian Breweries Pty Ltd).  The subsidiary had refused to sell beer to a pub unless the licensee agreed not to purchase draught beer from other companies.  The matter went all the way to the High Court but the company ended up having to give undertakings that it would not impose such anti-competitive conditions on its supply of beer.

The increased competition that resulted from this, and the financial deregulation of the early 1980s, had an impact on Cascade’s market share in Tasmania.  It dropped from 95% in 1983 to about 70-75% within 5 years.  Cascade chose to compete on quality to survive.

The early eighties were a time of corporate takeover activity, Cascade was not exempt.  It attempted to protect itself by issuing more shares to CUB increasing CUB’s stake in Cascade to 25%.  But in 1983, Industrial Equity Limited or IEL, chaired by Ron Brierly, made a successful bid for the control of the brewery.  The offer was pitched at $3.75 a share, the directors resisted and other firms weighed in with offers.  The final price was over $5.75 a share!  IEL had to sell Cascade in 1988 to Wilson Neill Australia Ltd because of the 1987 stockmarket crash.

Why has the Cascade brewery been so successful?  In 1924, Cecil Allport penned this explanation in his book, A Page From the Past:

The conditions required for the brewing industry are, first, a cool climate, and an abundant supply of water, a healthy neighbourhood, and proximity to a supply of barley, hops and sugar ... Mr Degraves when he chose the site of the Brewery in 1824 ‘builded better than he knew’, for nowhere else in the Commowealth is there a brewery so ideally situated.  It is surrounded by pure air, free from the germs which are the bane of every brewer’s existence; it has the coolest climate in Australia, and most valuable asset of all, its water supply is absolutely pure, coming as it does from icy cold springs in the heart of Mount Wellington.

If its founding father, Degraves, could see the mark that his brewery has left on the Australian beer landscape - he would no doubt be very pleased.

Mike Bingham in his excellent book, Cascade: A Taste of History, (1992) observes that:

One suspects that the pioneer industrialist would have enjoyed the fierce challenge of today’s business world and have approved of the way the brewery he founded has continued his commitment to quality and been able to thrive against often daunting odds.

Cascade is a small but viable and ambitious player in the world of brewing, and a company of considerable economic importance to Tasmania.  It is also a unique part of Australia’s industrial heritage and a fitting memorial to the courage and foresight of Peter Degraves. concurs.

Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers