This is the story of a beer. And a place. And people.
More specifically, this is the abridged history of a local beer that was discontinued before I was born but holds my interest for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It might be the notion of brewing beer in Brisbane’s inner riverside suburbs, something that has only recently become a thing again. It might be the romantic filter through which I view late nineteenth century Brisbane. It might just be the name: Bulimba Gold Top.
Bulimba Gold Top
I recently recounted the early days of the Bulimba Brewery. The story of the brewery itself had to be told but it wasn’t the story of this beer.
The ups and downs of the first heady years of the brewery aside, our story begins in medias res in 1899 when Bulimba Brewery introduced Gold Top to the market and a warm reception from the media.
Gold Top, known for the short-lived but distinctive gold coloured foil around the top of the bottle and later for the gold crown cap, quickly became a hot commodity. The ingredients for the English pale ale, as of 1900, were sugar, English malt and hops from New Zealand, Kent and Bohemia.
There are references to similar beers prior to the turn of the century, back when the sugar was a mix of local and Mauritian (the latter being allegedly the superior), suggesting that Gold Top was a new brand rather than a new beer for Bulimba Brewery. The relatively hoppy reduced strength beer was apparently a remedy for any digestive malady you care to name:
When coming back from my visit to the brewery I called upon one of our leading medical men to get something from him about the health-giving qualities of bitter beer, and what the doctor said is worth knowing. “Bulimba bitter beer,” said the medical man,” contains a much smaller quality of alcohol than a sweet beer, and therefore is not injurious. The much greater quantity of hops used in the manufacture of bitter beer gives it high tonic and digestive qualities, and whereas other beers are absolutely injurious to gouty persons, bitter beer can be taken by them with impunity, and at the same time gives great benefit.” As for the dyspeptic, he cannot drink anything better than a light bitter beer, such as ‘Bulimba Gold Top.’ It has always surprised me that bitter beer has not been more generally manufactured in Queensland, as it is an ideal beer for this climate.
A Queensland beer
Brisbane was a distant outpost of the Empire, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest comparable metropolis, and peopled predominantly by Anglo-Saxons who were only a few generations removed from Europe. As such, early notes about Gold Top tended to compare it (favourably) to the beers from the mother country. Early marketing for Gold Top emphasised its English malt and European hops.
In 1909, a reporter noted the “passing of English beers in the Australian Commonwealth”:
In days of old”, “Colonial Beer” was an opprobrious epithet and a synonym for all that was bad in beers. “‘Hogwash” “Swipes,” and other worse names not usually mentioned in polite society were commonly applied to the sweet muddy beverage that did duty for the long beers of the proletariat who drank and grumbled and drank again. No one who could afford anything better drank colonial beer, and even in late years your host generally apologised with,“Say, old chap, I’ve nothing but colonial beer to offer you.”
He further observed:
English beers are too bitter and heavy for our climate, but the light bitter ale brewed by the Queensland Brewery, and known as Bulimba Gold Top, is just what it is required, being very light, and brilliant in colour, sparkling as champagne and possessing an agreeable tonic bitter. No one need apologise for this beer, and with such improvement on the past I feel confident that before many years the importation of English beers will show a very considerable decrease, greater even than has already taken place during the last ten years.
This increasing cultural disconnection from the United Kingdom was prevalent in wider Australian society, which began to adapt to the idea of being Australian first and British second. A world war and an economic slump later and Bulimba Gold Top was an Australian beer, nay, a Queensland beer competing with beers from other states, rather than the faint memory of a continent on the other side of the world:
It is pleasing to note that Bulimba beer, Gold Top Ale and Bulimba QB Lager are essentially Australian beverages, being produced from Australian materials. The barley is grown on the Darling Downs and is malted at Toowoomba, the hops come from the hop gardens on the banks of the Huon River in Tasmania, and the sugar is of course, a Queensland product. Even the casks, a very substantial item in a brewery of this size, are made from Australian timber. There is therefore, a strong incentive for loyal Australians to patronise Bulimba beer.
The brewery could push out 36,000 quart bottles a day in the 1931. It wasn’t enough. More glass-lined vats were installed (ostensibly to cope with the popularity of the newer Bulimba Pilsener and Bright Star Ale) in 1934 and by 1936, extensions were needed for the brewery.
Filled with the “sunshine of Queensland itself that it cannot otherwise be a healthful beverage”, the brewing of Bulimba beers constituted “one of the great industries of the state”.
The federation of beer
In 1961, Queensland Brewery Co – the brewers of Bulimba Gold Top, Pilsener, Bright Star Ale, Red Top stout, Green Top non-alcoholic beer and Silver Top mild – was bought out by what is today Carlton & United Breweries, a subsidiary of Fosters Group and SABMiller. It was one of a series of purchases that led to the duopoly we have today. The two giants of beer, like many Australian industries, dwarf all others.
Changes were obvious. For example, I can’t really verify this but it seems the very famous ads for Victoria Bitter may have originally been Gold Top ads. There’s this advertisement for Bulimba Gold Top from 1965:
And this for Victoria Bitter from around the same time:
If that doesn’t firmly put an earworm in your brain, then it’s probably the first time you’ve heard it. For the rest of us, it’s going to take a few hours to dislodge.
My guess is CUB’s ad agency has one good idea and then massaged it to suit different markets: Gold Top for Queensland with an emphasis on agricultural labour, VB for the south featuring more manufacturing and a glimpse of Australian rules football. It’s a theme that will return five decades later and shows a change in tone. It’s less about the beer and more about who you are, the beer drinker, and what that beer says about you.
It’s all very masculine as I suppose working men were the target demographic. Women did their drinking in private – by law in Queensland – much to the disgust of Merle Thornton and Ro Bogner:
On 31 March 1965 Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the Regatta Hotel bar rail to protest for women’s rights. They wanted to liberate public bars from being men-only. The two protestors were both mothers of two and married to university lecturers. They were refused service, the publican faced a fine of £10-£20 if he served them with liquor, but were bought a beer by sympathetic male patrons. Their action became the starting point for women’s liberation in Brisbane. It is now recognised as one of the defining moments of the feminist movement in Australia.
Beer was once again a bit player in tectonic shifts in Australian culture.
Other changes filtered through to Gold Top. The introduction of the six-pack was treated with the appropriate revolutionary zeal:
Apparently, “another Gold Top first”? Interesting, although difficult to verify the level of innovation Gold Top represented. Certainly, a six pack made of cardboard would be a vast improvement over wrapping individual bottles in paper and hoping you didn’t smash them on the way home.
Bulimba Gold Top disappeared from shelves sometime in the 1980s. I can’t find out why. The National Library’s newspaper archive starts to run out of material in the 50s and I refuse to give the local rag money to access their archives. I guess I won’t know for another twenty years when the newspapers enter the public domain but I would guess it was a SKU that had outlived it’s usefulness.
The big big beer was gone.
A brief reappearance
In 2011, CUB wanted “to create a northern-centric beer that delivered business penetration into the parochial northern states of Australia.” You can interpret that as Queensland, notorious for being a bunch of Lion Nathan/XXXX-swilling yokels, at least from the viewpoint of Sydney and Melbourne marketers. To translate into the English that normal people speak, the idea was to dig up a Queensland trademark with some history behind it and sell it to the folks north of the border.
Gold Top was in the running to make a comeback over a century after its debut but Great Northern Brewing tested better. Bulimba Gold Top did return as a one-off novelty, perhaps as part of the testing, in colours that take “its lead from the local Bulimba football team”. Considering the Bulimba Valleys rugby league club doesn’t play in Bulimba and is sponsored by by XXXX, you think they’d play down that association and acknowledge that it was in the colours the cans had always been. Reviewers on Dan Murphys website indicated that it was close to VB Pale, a pale lager that was axed last year.
As products created specifically for marketing purposes are wont to do, the beer was sold, never to be heard from again, until someone got it in their head to go to court.
If you really want to make money out of brewing, get a law degree. In 2013, Thunder Road Brewing Co challenged Carlton & United over a number of heritages trademarks CUB holds but does not actively use. The media pitched it as a David versus Goliath battle. Front and centre were Ballarat Bitter, Richmond Lager, Kent, NQ Lager and Bulimba Gold Top.
The vagaries of trademark law are a bit beyond the scope of this history but it basically works to a “use it or lose it” policy. Thunder Road’s case was that CUB weren’t using their trademarks so why couldn’t they use them?
(You mean beside the fact that Thunder Road is based in Melbourne and wanted a bunch of heritage brands for beers that originated in other states decades before the brewery was founded? Having said that, CUB locates the original Bulimba Brewery on the wrong side of the river. It’s a mess)
The reporting on the story in the mainstream media tended to gloss over the fact that Thunder Road Brewing wasn’t engaged in legal action but rather, an entity ominously known as Intellectual Property Development Corporation Pty Ltd opposed Foster’s registration of several marks in 2012, including that of “Bulimba” and “Gold Top“.
IPDC is now a defunct organisation as of June this year but were “the recorded applicant in respect of two of marks currently used by Thunder Road, “Brunswick Bitter” trade mark and an associated device mark”. Indeed, the relationship was laid out more clearly and yet the story gets more murky:
Through Elixir Signature Pty Ltd (Elixir), Philip Withers operates Thunder Road Brewery in Brunswick, Melbourne. Another company controlled by Mr Withers, Intellectual Property Development Corporation Pty Ltd (IPDC), performs the brand-owning role for Thunder Road Brewery.
What a ridiculously complicated corporate structure for a “craft” brewery.
The case was big, thrusting the battling businesses briefly into the national spotlight:
At the request of the parties, the Trade Marks Office agreed to consolidate 5 of the oppositions by IPDC to CUB’s trade mark applications and 54 of the oppositions by CUB to Elixir’s removal applications. In its totality, the dispute became the largest set of opposition proceedings in Australian trade mark history… The sheer scale of the dispute was in large part a consequence of the removal in 2006 of the “person aggrieved” standing requirement from the non-use provisions of the Trade Marks Act. Previously, removal of a mark from the Register could only be sought by a person commercially disadvantaged by the registration. The abolition of the standing requirement meant that there was no filter in place to prevent Elixir/IPDC from filing removal applications in relation to brands in which they had no apparent interest.
The long story short, if you reckon you can make a buck on a heritage trademark and it hasn’t actively been in use, create a business whose sole purpose is to own intellectual property, oppose the mark, go to court and see if it sticks.
It didn’t. The courts decided largely in favour of CUB, rejecting most of Elixir/IPDC/Thunder Road’s arguments about CUB having let their claim lapse and that it was “acting as a roadblock to the freedom of other Australian companies from using historical trade marks”. Historical marks to which they have no connection.
A massive waste of time but at least Thunder Road can write the exercise off as marketing.
The court case decided, Gold Top disappeared back into the fog of the ages, joining the other brands that have failed to survive capitalism’s rigorous process of natural selection.
I guess CUB will trot out Gold Top whenever it needs to extend the trademark. Maybe after Great Northern is pulled from shelves permanently, some bright spark will have the idea to revive a heritage brand with the notion of taking it to Queensland to dissuade the loyal, one hopes by then, Fortitude and Newstead drinkers.
Until then, Gold Top will probably sit in the cupboard gathering dust. The beer that weaned Brisbanites off imported English bitter while Australians established themselves as separate to the British. The beer that was a canary for the duopolisation of Australian business and representative of the decisive pivot from advertising the beer to its identity. The beer whose existence in the twenty-first century is owed only to the idiosyncrasies of intellectual property law.
Gold Top, the beer that is now an anachronism.
In the meantime, maybe one of the local “Bulimba” (Teneriffe) breweries will make something with a nod to the past in their backyard. The brewers at the aforementioned breweries have a keen eye for local history. Something featuring Maris Otter, Tettnanger, Pacific Jade, East Kent Goldings and a touch of sugar feels about right.
*This is my contribution to the Boak & Bailey’s Going Long. While the other posts I’ve read in this format have been excellently polished works of literature, mine is just a long bit of blogging.