The Cooper Dynasty
Even with all the obstacles, a rising number of entrepreneurs are trying to add choice and variety to the Australian beer scene.
The brewery that has done the most to provide Australians with choice and diversity is Coopers of Adelaide. But even when given clear directions, it’s a hard brewery to find. It’s quietly nestled in the shady Adelaide suburb of Leabrook, hidden beneath towering jacaranda and lilly pilly trees. For a brewery that’s been making beer on its site for over 100 years, it’s an amazingly quiet place.
The Coopers story begins in 1862, when Thomas Cooper, a British emigrant, decided to make some ale to help his ailing wife Ann deal with a fever. Ann Cooper came from a brewing family, and Thomas Cooper used her recipe. In south Australia’s relatively hot climate, Cooper had to adapt the British recipe, making his ale bottle conditioned to last longer and adding sugar to spark the secondary fermentation. The result was a style known as “sparkling ale.”
Cooper then followed with Coopers Extra Stout. Like the ale, the stout is bottle conditioned and can age for a long time. The Lord Nelson Hotel in Sydney serves five-year-old Coopers Extra Stout⎯when it mellows and develops port-like notes.
Thomas and Ann Cooper had 10 children; when she died in 1874, Thomas Cooper married Sarah Perry and had 10 more children. Eleven of these children survived into adulthood, ensuring that there were lots of Coopers to continue the family name. Coopers is the only Australian brewery controlled by descendants of its founder. “We wouldn’t want to be the generation that sold the brewery,” says marketing director Glenn Cooper.
Like most family-owned breweries, Coopers has gone through hard times. Coopers refused to adapt to changing times; it did not make lager until 1968, and until 1982, secondary fermentation for its ale and stout still took place in giant wooden casks called “puncheons.” While many younger drinkers thought that the cloudy beers were something only grandpa drank, Coopers stubbornly stuck to its traditional ways. The result was that, even when Australian beer was at its blandest, consumers knew that a good beer didn’t have to be a lager.
Coopers paved the way for us,” said Blair Hayden, managing director of the Lord Nelson Hotel, Sydney’s only brewpub. “It showed Australians that there was something else to drink besides lagers.”
What saved Coopers was homebrewers. Homebrewing was legalized in Australia in 1973, and Coopers at first sold sacks of wort that could be fermented with the addition of yeast. But customers found the sacks cumbersome, so in 1977 Coopers was the first brewery to market malt extracts for homebrewers. Coopers engineers also built the canning equipment needed to mass produce the extracts, and created a special lid to ensure that the Coopers yeast packets were securely fastened to the cans.
According to Glenn Cooper, Coopers currently has 35 percent of the world market for homebrew kits and 80 percent of the Australian market. Sales, he says, are largest in countries with high beer taxes, such as Canada and the Scandinavian nations.
In the 1990s, Coopers has diversified into many other areas. In the early 1990s, it began to enter the honey business through its Leabrook Farms subsidiary. Why honey? “Like malt extract, it’s a heavy, viscous substance,” Glenn Cooper said. Another Coopers division makes gourmet vinegars.
The core of Coopers business remains its beers. Under the leadership of head of brewing operations Tim Cooper (who abandoned a career as a cardiologist to work in the family brewery), Coopers now has 10 beers, adding several filtered beers and a dark ale to its portfolio. In 1998, the company released Extra Strong Vintage Ale, the first vintage-dated beer ever issued in Australia. Production of the ale, which is designed to age for up to 18 months, is limited to 25,000 cases, for sale only in Australia.
Production, Glenn Cooper says, is increasing by 18 percent a year. And Coopers beers are becoming more available in America. They are available in most Outback Steakhouses, and, repackaged under the Old Australia label, are also sold in most Trader Joe’s stores.