This is a story about the "most influential family in Australian brewing history" getting back into the beer game. It’s also a story about some 100-year-old beer recipe books resurfacing and sparking an idea.
And, for anyone thinking, “But can I drink it?” – yes, it’s also a story about how you can drink some Aussie beers that haven’t been brewed for more than a century.
This is the story of Breheny Bros Breweries.*
“We didn’t decide, ‘Let’s become craft brewers’ – it was the discovery of the books.”
There are plenty of stories about an object that changes the course of someone’s life: someone comes into possession of an old sword or magic talisman that belonged to their ancestor, and it reveals their destiny, puts them on a different path, etc, etc.
In the case of James Breheny, it came about when he contacted some relatives at the tail end of 2020 to ask questions about the family’s history in brewing. He was expecting a few emails in reply; instead, he received a package in the mail: a wad of documents and a couple of little black books.
The covers of the books were worn, the pages were yellow, and they were full of small handwriting. The handwriting – dated back to around 1910 – detailed beer recipes that were brewed in Breheny-owned breweries in regional Victoria and Queensland from the late 1800s, but had since lain dormant for a century.
James ended up getting his hands on six of these recipe books in total.
“Once one popped up, the family goes, ‘We’ve got one’, ‘we’ve got one’,” he told The Crafty Pint.
Had I been in his position, I would’ve been interested in the family heirlooms, curious as to what the beers would taste like, and would daydream about what it would be like to brew them. But the story would have stopped there. James didn’t just daydream, though, he started planning how he could get the trademarks for these Breheny Bros beers back in the family.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to do it alone. Around this time, James and his cousin Justin had organised to catch up; they weren’t close, but they’d grown up seeing each other at family gatherings once or twice a year. And while they were chatting James mentioned how he was learning more about their family’s history in brewing, and his project to have the beers brewed and back in the Breheny name. To his surprise, Justin was keen to join him.
“He said, ‘Great idea. I’ve got time on my hands, and funds to support it. If you want any help at all, I’m in.’,” James says.
James had a working relationship with Burnley Brewing, so he handed head brewer Michael Stanzel one of the recipes and asked: “Can you make beer with this?”
Michael had trained and brewed in Germany, so brewing older style beers wasn’t foreign territory for him. And the Breheny recipes themselves weren’t complicated. The main obstacle was in working out the old weights and measures (how much malt is a bushel?), and in deciding what ingredients would best replicate those used in the beers originally.
“In some cases, [the recipes] had ‘hops’ without specifying what hops they were,” James says. “So we looked at what hops would’ve been around at the time, and where they were based. It was a case of interpretation to be true to what [the beers] were, not ‘let’s use this instead’.”
So sticking to the recipe from the little black books, Michael brewed up a 500 litre batch of beer on Burnley's pilot kit. When it was ready, Michael and the Brehenys tasted it – and became the first people to drink Breheny Bros Sparkling Bitter for over a hundred years.
That’s how it came to pass that, in 2021, James and Justin Breheny took up the mantle of Breheny Bros Breweries after the business name had gone unused for a century…
…and it all started with a couple of little black books.
You may be thinking, “Hang on. James and Justin are Breheny cousins, not brothers. And they’re having their beer contract brewed. So what’s with the name ‘Breheny Bros Breweries’?” Well, this is where the family history comes in.
Before James and Justin’s current Breheny Bros project, the flame had all but gone out in the Brehenys’ connection to the Australian beer industry. James was one of the last flickers staving off the dark – he’d worked for CUB for 25 years, from when he left school in 1976. He’d started with the company knowing that his uncle Brian had recently been the managing director of CUB, and that his grandfather James had been the first head brewer at what is now CUB’s Abbotsford brewery. (He was involved in the founding of it as the Melbourne Co-Operative Brewery in 1904.)
All this to say – while James wasn’t unaware the Brehenys had beer industry pedigree, he’d only just scratched the surface. The wad of documents mentioned earlier were the beginning of James’ deep dive into the Breheny story.
“I knew a little bit, but not the full extent,” he says. “I knew our grandfather was one of six brothers, but I didn’t know anything about the others.”
When he started on his mission to recreate the beers and resurrect the Breheny Bros brand, James knew he wanted the history of it all to be part of the brand’s story (he does have decades of experience in the marketing game, after all), so he reached out to Michael "Banners" Bannenberg for help.
Banners is a beer history buff who spent 30 years working in and researching Australian beer advertising, and together with Andrew Bailey had already put together The Brewery, a book about the origins of Carlton & United Breweries from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.
James got a little more than he expected from Banners.
“When we had an early conversation with Banners, he said, ‘I’ll put a bit of a document together, get the brands and story behind the breweries.’ I thought it would be a four-pager, but he put together a 40-page document!”
This tome, titled PROJECT BREHENY, contained a slew of historical gems: photos of breweries, barrels of beer being transported by both horse-and-cart and automobile, and many excellent moustaches. There are newspaper clippings, marketing posters, copies of original documents, and numerous labels of individual beers (including "non-intoxicating" beers) tracing back to the late 1800s. In short, this document is a veritable treasure trove for a history nut.
It begins with a kind of brewing family tree, tracing the relevant beer history from James and Justin’s great, great uncle John Breheny, the first brewer in the Breheny family, through nine of his nephews (six of whom were brothers, including James and Justin’s grandfather James, and bought breweries together) and eight of his grand nephews (including James and Justin’s uncle Brian): 18 Breheny men who worked at almost 30 breweries between them from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
It also tells the stories of the breweries owned by the Brehenys throughout the years: The Williamstown Brewery, where John Breheny converted an unused marine stockade into a brewery in 1864; Breheny Bros & Kenna in Warrenheip, where the aforementioned Breheny brothers bought into a brewery in 1891, and later took full ownership; Gippsland Brewery in Sale, a brewery the brothers bought in 1897; City Brewery in Bendigo, which the Breheny brothers took control of in 1904; and Breheny’s Brewery in Toowoomba, where John Louis "Oil Jack" Breheny and John Leslie Breheny made a foray into Queensland in 1908, before ol’ Oil Jack headed further north to Cairns 15 years later and started a brewery there.
Feeling overwhelmed? That’s understandable – there are a lot of Brehenys (many of whom are named John) and a lot of breweries. But hopefully you’re beginning to feel the weight of Breheny brewing history, as present day James did when he received this big whopping document – and as I subsequently did when I received it.
The Breheny Bros website puts some of this information into an easy-to-digest timeline. But it’s worth noting that this timeline focuses on those breweries owned by the family; if it were to show every brewery a Breheny had worked at since 1864, it may not be as quite as easy to digest.
“One worked at Sydney… Adelaide, Fremantle, Perth… they basically worked in every state in Australia.
“This is why we’re arrogantly saying ‘the most influential family in brewing history’… Obviously, Coopers are well respected, and absolutely iconic, but the Brehenys – their reach, what they became, how they started…
“Such a big story to tell!”
But the story of this family doesn’t end in the past. As a result of the Breheny Bros Breweries project – both the history side and the beer side – the family members spread across Australia today have become closer, and James and Justin have had interest on social media from Brehenys in the US, UK and Ireland.
James and his cousin have become much closer, too.
“I’ve seen more of Justin in the last 12 months than in the last 30 years!”
Enough of looking backward for now. Breheny Bros Breweries is about bringing the past into the present.
James and Justin launched their Sparkling Bitter in March 2021 at Burnley Brewing with a theatrical recreation: descendants of the six eponymous Breheny brothers donned old suits and took on the characters of the six brothers (see the photo at top of article), telling "their" stories first hand.
After spending the year spreading their wares through Victoria – with a strong focus on the areas around the three original breweries owned by the Breheny brothers – they relaunched at Monty Brewing in Toowoomba in February 2022, with Queensland Bitter, Royal Lager and Superior Stout on tap (after a visit to the old Breheny Brewery building on Mort Street).
At time of writing, Breheny Bros Breweries has the above four beers in their range,** with a plan to release two more by the end of 2022. All the beers are easy-drinking, and James says they do well with mainstream drinkers who are open to trying new beers. The beers are also being accepted in regional areas that might not otherwise be enthusiastic towards new entrants to the market; after all, these beers are hardly new.
“This beer was around 100 years ago. We get good traction in those centres, where the breweries were.”
The company’s slogan, "Available for the first time in 100 years" is apt – these beers aren’t simply inspired by history, but are as true to the originals as the Breheny Bros team could manage, as are the labels (thanks to the design work of Banners himself). This is an opportunity to drink Breheny beers of a century ago.
“We’re just calling it as it is,” James says. “No hidden agenda, no camouflage here. This is the story. We’re just bringing it back.”
You can find out where Breheny Bros Breweries beers are available on their website, where you'll also find more of their story.
* Breheny is pronounced "brainy". This homophone even made it into a marketing poster in Toowoomba in the early 1900s.
** The team also released a one-off collaboration brew with CUB in December 2021 called First Brewer Lager as a tribute to James Breheny, first head brewer at the Abbotsford brewery in 1904, and to celebrate Sarah Laing, the first female head brewer at the same brewery (now owned by CUB) in 2020.