Five Generations of Cooper’s
The 50-minute flight from Melbourne to Adelaide takes you to a different time zone. This is a big country, the world’s largest island, with a land mass almost as big as the United States but with only 16 million people: most of the interior is desert. On my way to Cooper’s Brewery, I drove down Sir Donald Bradman Boulevard. It’s a name that will mean nothing to most Americans, but “the Don” was Australia’s greatest-ever cricketer and a revered figure in this sports-mad land.
Cooper’s enjoys an equally revered position in Adelaide. The brewery was once laughed to scorn as the producer of Sparkling Ale, the beer that nobody wanted to drink when lager was in its ascendancy. But the company has had the last laugh. It’s flourishing. It has broken out of its South Australian heartland and now enjoys national sales. It’s family-owned, run by the fifth generation of the Cooper family. When Lion Nathan attempted to buy Cooper’s in 2005, 94.6 percent of the 117 shareholders, mainly family members, turned down an offer worth 450 million Australian dollars. The family is now buying back the shares owned by the tiny minority who wanted to sell.
The brewery was founded in 1862 by Thomas Cooper, who immigrated to Australia from England with his wife, the daughter of an innkeeper. She brewed beer at home and when she fell ill Thomas tried his hand at brewing. She recovered and friends were sufficiently impressed with Thomas’s beer that they encouraged him to brew commercially. The success of Cooper’s in modern times forced the company in 2001 to leave its original site and build a new brewery in Regency Park, with a potential capacity of 250 million hectolitres a year. The brewing plant is firmly traditional, based on mash tuns, mash filters and boiling coppers, designed in the far-off home of pale ale brewing, Burton-on-Trent in England.
“We brew an ancient sort of beer―it was old in 1862,” operations director Nick Sterenberg says. “The Coopers are unswayed by fashion. In the 1980s, Bill and Maxwell Cooper developed markets outside South Australia with the slogan ‘cloudy but fine’.”
While the brewery’s biggest-selling brand, Pale Ale (4.5 percent ABV), is hazy rather than cloudy, the flagship beer, Sparkling Ale (5.8 percent), belies the name. It takes a certain kind of chutzpah in Australia to deliberately produce a beer called sparkling ale that’s opaque in the glass. Part of the skill of the brewers at Cooper’s is to make a beer that keeps yeast in suspension during fermentation and conditioning.
The company is developing new styles. It brews its own lager, makes a wonderfully oily, creamy stout and has recently introduced Mild (3.8 percent) and Dark Ale (4.5 percent). Dark has a fine roasted malt and chocolate character and is based on Brain’s Dark, a beer Tim Cooper discovered on a visit to the Welsh capital, Cardiff. In the late 1990s, Cooper’s launched an annual Vintage Ale (7.5 percent), with massive vinous fruit and bitter hops.
Draft beer accounts for only a quarter of production. Bottles are filled directly from conditioning tanks and the beers are neither filtered nor re-seeded with fresh yeast. The yeast strain is powdery, which helps explain why it doesn’t settle in the bottle and gives Sparkling Ale its cloudy appearance.
The success of Cooper’s gave me a warm glow. How stimulating―in this age of marketing hype for bland, boring beers―to find a company once dismissed as an out-dated joke winning acclaim and increased sales. Here’s to their cloudy future.AA
Roger Protz, the respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, and his new autobiography, A Life on the Hop.