Billson’s Brewery is a brewery established in 1865 in Beechworth, north-east Victoria, and is one of the oldest continuing beverage manufacturers in Australia. It operates from a complex of heritage buildings centred around a Victorian-era ‘tower brewery’, constructed in 1872-3. Historically, Billson’s Brewery made ale and porter, a range of cordials, aerated mineral waters, soft-drinks and health tonics. Throughout most of the twentieth century, it went under the name of Murray Breweries. Billson’s Brewery continues to operate and is open to the public daily.
Held to have been established in 1865, Billson’s Brewery began commercial operations when 50 year old Englishman George Billson took on the Ovens Brewery and malthouse, Beechworth, which became known as Billson’s Ovens Brewery in 1867. The Brewery also produced cordials.
In January 1872, Billson took on his eldest son George Henry Billson as a business partner, and together, G. Billson and Son expanded operations. Selecting a site at 29 Last Street on land which is rich in spring water of exceptional purity, the Billsons opted to build a ‘tower brewery,’ a design which had only recently been adopted in Britain. Billson’s brewery, along with a cordial factory, cooperage, and stables for the brewery’s horse teams, were all built in 1872-73. After government analysis proved its water quality, an ‘aerated waters manufacture’ was added in 1874. A wine and spirit department was added in 1880.
By 1879, George Henry Billson had left the partnership to pursue his own brewery and malting venture in Albury, New South Wales. Meanwhile, George Billson senior retired, appointing his socially and politically-oriented 23-year-old son, Alfred A. Billson, as his successor in 1881.
After the death of his father in 1886, Alfred Billson changed the name of the business to A. A. Billson’s, once again expanding the business. Brewing operations, producing both bottled and draught beers, were headed by Billson’s nephew George Collier; while new products were introduced to Billson’s line of cordials and aerated waters, managed by Bert Petersen. A cordial factory and depot were opened at Tallangatta in 1885.
In 1888, Billson’s began producing its popular Anglo-Australian Ale. A ‘pure malt ale’ styled after a light English ale, it was a traditional beer which did not use any sugar in its fermentation. Accordingly, it required a comparatively long and cool maturation in-bottle, and was brewed in winter.
Facing increasing pressure from the temperance movement in the 1890s, Billson’s responded favourably with a low-strength ‘mild family table ale,’ as well as a range of non-alcoholic sparkling beverages catering to adults. These included Social Ginger Cup; Claretta (a beverage intended to replace claret and soda); the health tonic Malto-Quinia Wine; and a distinctive ‘herbal beer’ named Ecks.
Billson’s also took advantage of the high quality of its water to produce aerated mineral waters, including soda water, potass water, and lithia water laced with lithium salts. In the early twentieth century, Billson’s sold its lithia water as a ‘the most healthful mineral water produced in Australia.’ Lithium was later demonstrated to have clinical efficacy in treating mood disorders in trials run by Dr John Cade, a former superintendent of Beechworth’s May Day Hills Asylum.
Billson’s traded as A. A. Billson’s Anglo-Australian Brewery Company from 1892. By 1895, its cellars were capable of holding 7000 dozen bottles; and at its manufacturing peak in the early 20th century, the brewery could treat 20 hogsheads of liquor (about 5000 litres) per day.
In 1902, when Alfred Billson was increasingly busy pursuing a burgeoning political career in the Legislative Assembly, he handed the daily running of the brewery to new management, while still serving as chairman of the board.
Employer-employee relations remained tight-knit and stable. End of year employee ‘socials’ were held at Billson’s private residence adjacent to the Brewery, and in 1906 after a particularly strained period leading up to Christmas, Billson praised his staff to the effect that ‘Throughout the whole establishment a fine spirit of harmony prevailed, and he hoped this would always continue.’
In 1911 the company amalgamated with George Henry Billson’s Albury Brewing and Malting Company, to become the Border United Co-operative Breweries Ltd. Towards the end of 1914, this company was liquidated and its operations transferred to the newly registered Murray Breweries Pty. Ltd. Board directors included preeminent Beechworth businessman Albert Michael Zwar of the Beechworth Tannery. At the same time, Zwar also created the Melbourne-based soft-drinking company, Ecks Pty. Ltd.
The first half the twentieth century saw a decline in the production of alcoholic beverages. The Beer Excise tax (1901), and the increasing local popularity of ‘bitter’ beers from Melbourne breweries, may have contributed to Murray Breweries’ curtailing of its beer production. However, the company continued to produce its Extra Matured Stout into the mid-20th century. It continued to produce its non-alcoholic herbal beer Ecks until the 1980s. Throughout the middle years of the century the Brewery also supplied the town of Beechworth with ice. In the closing decades it produced and home-delivered soft drinks, which were eventually replaced by bulk spring water sales and delivery under the name ‘Snowline mountain spring water.’ The Brewery has never ceased producing its range of traditional cordials.
Historic buildings and equipment
Billson’s Brewery features a range of historic buildings centred on an original four-storey tower brewery built in 1872-3. The brewery was organised on the ‘gravitational principle’, so that the raw materials started at the top of the building and moved downwards in each successive stage of the brewing process. Billson’s tower is thought to be the oldest surviving tower brewery building in Australia. Billson’s original manufacturing floors and cellars are now open to the public.
Billson’s also retains several pieces of original equipment. A fifteen-head Albro All British filler (bottling machine) built in 1922 is still used in daily operations. The tubular Cornish steam boiler (manufactured by Miller and Co Machinery of Melbourne and Bendigo), which once powered a horizontal steam engine; remains at the side of the brewing tower. Long-time employee Fred Wyatt maintained and ran this boiler until the early 1990s. Mild steel ship tanks manufactured by Lancaster and Co (of Bow) that once held water for the brewing process have stayed in the roof-space of the tower. Smaller items include original copper brewing vats, and the steam whistle once used to sound the beginning and end of shifts.
In late 2017, the Brewery was taken over by new owners, who have commenced restoring its historic buildings. The original name of Billson’s has been restored, and there are moves to expand brewing and beverage manufacturing operations to the fullness of their original scope, as well as expand tourist facilities.
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- The establishment of the brewery is traditionally given as 1865. However the brewery does not appear in the United Shire of Beechworth rate books until 1867. An article in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser 15 Sept 1888, p.5, mentions that it was 21 years since the business started. Yet another article in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 26 oct 1895 p.7, states that the brewery was established 28 years ago. George Billson’s obituary (Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 13 February 1886, p.6), also gives a clear timeline which indicates that he returned to Beechworth after an absence of a few years in 1867.
- Call for tenders to build the new brewery advertised in Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 5 June 1872, p.3.
- United Shire of Beechworth rates books, held in the Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial Museum, period of 1874.
- Advertisement, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 23 July 1874, p.3.
- Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 5 October 1907, p.4.
- Wagga Wagga Express, 26 April 1879, p.3.
- Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 8 December 1881, p.5.
- The Anglo-Australian Brewery,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 26 October 1895 p.7.
- ‘The Anglo-Australian Brewery — A Flourishing Industry,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 5 October 1907, p.4.
- Wodonga and Towong Sentinel, 24 October 1885, p.2.
- ‘The Anglo-Australian Brewery, Beechworth,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 2 June 1900, p.12.
- ‘The Anglo-Australian Brewery,’ op. cit.,1895.
- ‘Palatable and Wholesome Beverages’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 22 June 1895, p.13.
- ‘The Anglo-Australian Brewery — A Flourishing Industry,’ op. cit., 1907.
- This won a medal at the Melbourne Exhibition, as reported in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 9 March 1889.
- An example of such an advertisement appears in the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel, 12 November 1909, p.2.
- ‘Anglo-Australian Brewery,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 3 December 1892, p.9.
- ‘The Anglo-Australian Brewery,’ op. cit., 1897.
- 'The Anglo-Australian Brewing Company,' Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 2 August 1902, p.2.
- 'Australian Brewery Employees Social’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 29 December 1906, p.2.
- ‘Border United Co-operative Breweries, An Important Amalgamation’, The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times, 7 July 1911, p.2.
- Chiltern and Howlong Times and Ovens Register, 27 November 1914.
- Upper Murray and Mitta Mitta Herald, 24 December 1914, p.2.
- Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 17 December 1920, p.28.
- Competition from bitter-tasting Melbourne beers is clearly a point of the concern for the company, expressed in the minutes of its Directors’ Meeting, 13 March 1919. (Minutes still held by Billson’s Brewery.)
- Personal communication, Fred Wyatt, Beechworth, Victoria, 2018.
- "Tree changer breathes new life into Beechworth's historic Billson's Brewery". ABC News. 2017-11-23. Retrieved 2018-05-02.