When looking for inspiration for their next beer, brewers can look in all kinds of directions. What’s happening overseas? What are my brewing peers up to? Is there something interesting we can harness from the worlds of wine and spirits?
At Billson’s Brewery, in Beechworth, the owners looked to the operation's own past, drawing from century-and-a-half of history when brewing their Australian Ale and Matured Stout. They were able to as when Nathan Cowan and Felicity Cottrill – along with Nathan’s parents – took over the brewery in 2017, they inherited not only the building but the Billson’s story too.
“When we stepped in the building, we could feel that there was lots of history but the report that a local historian put together made us realise just how much history was here,” Nathan says.
In 1865, George Billson took over the Ovens Brewery and later built the site that stands today. Billson had come from the Californian goldfields, keen to strike a fortune only to end up as a publican and brewer, before his descendants took over.
In 1911, the brewery merged with Albury Brewing and Malting Co to become Border United Cooperative breweries, only to be liquidated three years later and taken over by Murray Breweries. Having produced cordial since its early days, by the 1950s the brewery stopped brewing and moved solely into cordial, which was still being produced when Nathan and Felicity took over.
Since then, Nathan and Felicity have returned to the Billson name, expanded the cordial range, while also brewing beer, distilling and releasing spring water, tonics, ginger beer and cider.
They also engaged Jacqui Durrant to find out more about the Billson’s name as Victorian transformed from a colony into a state. Included in that history – and then unearthed as they were repairing the rundown old site – were recipes for some of the brewery’s earliest beers.
“We found the old brewer’s diary in the tower and there were probably about 12 recipes in there,” Nathan says.
The first two beers to be revived, the Australian Ale and the Matured Stout, date to 1888 and 1892 respectively, and were chosen due to their historic popularity.
“When we were hunting through Trove and all those old newspaper articles, we put together the ones that were the most popular,” Nathan says.
“Stout was the one that seemed to survive the longest: when they changed to Murray Breweries in 1914 it was the only one that really carried over.”
The Australian Ale is a lighter, traditional English ale and was found on tap across Victoria’s north east.
“That was probably the more popular of the two that was actually known as the Anglo-Australian Ale,” Nathan says. “That’s the only part that was altered with the name; we called it the Australian Ale – hopefully for obvious reasons.”
The twin releases fit into the brewery’s new heritage range, where the aim is to recreate beers of a bygone era. It also includes a ginger ale and is set to be joined by a Prize Ale by the year’s end. First brewed in 1872, the beer took out a silver medal at a beer competition in New York and the owners were clearly rather pretty proud. Notably, the beer was also brewed with cherries.
“They were big into the German Purity Laws so for them to put cherries in it is bizarre,” Nathan says.
But, with plenty of sour cherry beers released by today's Australian breweries, it's hard not to feel like what’s old is new again. And, for Nathan, he's keen to bring that history into the modern world.
“We have 150 years of history to draw on," he says. "Any chance we get to highlight that we will.”
Billson's Brewery can be found at 29 Last Street, Beechworth and is open seven days a week.