Re­wards flow to new own­ers of Bill­son’s Brew­ery, Fe­lic­ity Cot­trill and Nathan Cowan, as they work to re-boot the Beech­worth icon.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Si­mone Ker­win pho­tos Marc Bongers and Bill­son’s Brew­ery archives

New own­ers of Bill­son’s Brew­ery, Fe­lic­ity Cot­trill and Nathan Cowan, re- boot the Beech­worth icon.

NATHAN Cowan was un­der no il­lu­sions that tak­ing on own­er­ship of Beech­worth’s Bill­son’s Brew­ery would be a mas­sive task. What he and fi­ancée Fe­lic­ity Cot­trill didn’t bank on was the enor­mous wel­come they would re­ceive from the com­mu­nity as they set about restor­ing the his­toric build­ings and re­turn­ing the busi­ness to its ori­gins.

Since ar­riv­ing in Beech­worth, the cou­ple has soaked up the his­tory of the town and the brew­ery’s place in it. They are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware, through their own dis­cov­er­ies on the site, and sto­ries they con­tinue to gather from lo­cals and vis­i­tors, about the close con­nec­tion be­tween the brew­ery and res­i­dents of the town.

“We knew it would be a life­time of hard work, but what we didn’t ex­pect was the sup­port of the town. I grew up in Mel­bourne, and was cer­tainly guilty of not know­ing my neigh­bours. But here, ev­ery­one came in and wel­comed us, and we heard about their par­ents and grand­par­ents, and their con­nec­tion to the brew­ery,” Nathan said.

“I have never ex­pe­ri­enced liv­ing in a small town, but I’m re­ally en­joy­ing get­ting to know ev­ery­one and learn­ing more about the area. Our builder, for in­stance, is fifth gen­er­a­tion Beech­worth, and he has such strong re­la­tion­ships with ev­ery­one. It’s been so good get­ting to meet ev­ery­one and hear their sto­ries.

“The brew­ery was such a big part of the town in the past. We found an Ovens and Mur­ray Ad­ver­tiser ar­ti­cle from 1918 which said Beech­worth res­i­dents knew the end of the war was com­ing, but didn’t know when. The brewer at Bill­son’s got word to have the beer ready, and that was how peo­ple knew the war was over.

“The brew­ery was in the top three em­ploy­ers in Beech­worth, and ev­ery­one told the time by the three whis­tles that blew at dif­fer­ent times of the day. To come across all this his­tory was won­der­ful, and ev­ery­one has en­joyed see­ing life breathed back into the place.”

While Nathan and Fe­lic­ity are no strangers to the North East (Nathan’s great grand­fa­ther William Cowan op­er­ated the old but­ter fac­tory in Wan­garatta and Fe­lic­ity’s fam­ily hails from Al­bury), mov­ing to the area had not been on their radar un­til re­cent years.

“My mum (liv­ing in Mel­bourne) saw the busi­ness and prop­erty for sale, and no­ticed that it had been on the mar­ket for four years. Mum sent the ar­ti­cle to Dad and I, and I replied and said, ‘You guys should do it, or I def­i­nitely will’,” Nathan said.

“At the time, I was run­ning a de­sign agency spe­cial­is­ing in la­bel de­sign, and worked with peo­ple like Stomp­ing Ground, a brew­ery in Mel­bourne. I could see them work­ing ridicu­lous hours, but I could also see that they loved what they were do­ing. >>

“Fe­lic­ity and I had pur­chased an old flour mill in Oamaru in New Zealand, but Mum said she wanted to have one last look at the brew­ery, so we did. Not long after that, I stopped work­ing in the agency, and we sold our house and ev­ery­thing to move here.”

While it may seem a big de­ci­sion to up stumps and re­lo­cate to a small town to take on such a big project, Nathan said the cou­ple quickly fell in love with Beech­worth, and en­vis­aged their fu­ture in the town.

“I said to Fe­lic­ity, ‘If we could live any­where in the world, be­cause this is the time to choose, where would you live?’. Beech­worth was top of the list, not only be­cause of the his­tory and the com­mu­nity, but the chance to be sur­rounded by na­ture,” Nathan said.

The cou­ple took over the brew­ery in late 2017, adding their names to a his­tory which stretches back to 1865. It was then that 50 year old English­man Ge­orge Bill­son took on the Ovens Brew­ery and Malt­house in Beech­worth, which be­came known as Bill­son’s Ovens Brew­ery in 1867.

Five years later, Bill­son took on his el­dest son, Ge­orge Henry Bill­son, as busi­ness part­ner. To­gether they ex­panded op­er­a­tions and se­lected the cur­rent site in leafy Last Street, largely due to the pure spring wa­ter avail­able on the land.

Bill­son’s ‘tower brew­ery’, along with a cor­dial fac­tory, cooper­age, and sta­bles for the brew­ery’s horse teams, were built in 1872-’73, with man­u­fac­ture of aer­ated wa­ters added in 1874, fol­lowed by a wine and spirit de­part­ment in 1880.

Ge­orge Henry Bill­son left the part­ner­ship to pur­sue his own brew­ery and malt­ing busi­ness in 1879, and when Ge­orge Bill­son Snr re­tired in 1881, he ap­pointed an­other son, Al­fred A Bill­son, as his suc­ces­sor. When Bill­son Snr passed away in 1886, the name of the busi­ness changed to AA Bill­son’s, and a cor­dial fac­tory and de­pot were opened at Tal­lan­gatta in 1885.

Amid ris­ing pres­sure from the tem­per­ance move­ment in the 1890s, Bill­son’s re­sponded by pro­duc­ing a low strength ‘mild fam­ily ta­ble ale’, and a range of non-al­co­holic sparkling bev­er­ages in­clud­ing So­cial Gin­ger Cup, Claretta, health tonic Malto-quinia Wine, and herbal beer Ecks.

Util­is­ing the qual­ity of the wa­ter on its site, the busi­ness be­gan pro­duc­ing aer­ated min­eral wa­ters in­clud­ing soda wa­ter, potass wa­ter and lithia wa­ter, the lat­ter billed as “the most health­ful min­eral wa­ter pro­duced in Aus­tralia”. At its man­u­fac­tur­ing peak in the early 20th cen­tury, Bill­son’s treated about 5000 litres of liquor each day.

In 1911, the com­pany amal­ga­mated with Ge­orge Henry Bill­son’s Al­bury Brew­ing and Malt­ing Com­pany, to be­come the Bor­der United Co-op­er­a­tive Brew­eries Ltd. In late 1914, this com­pany was liq­ui­dated and its op­er­a­tions trans­ferred to the newly reg­is­tered Mur­ray Brew­eries Pty Ltd. Mur­ray Brew­eries be­gan down­siz­ing, and beer pro­duc­tion slowed, but the com­pany con­tin­ued to pro­duce its non-al­co­holic herbal beer, Ecks, and in the lat­ter part of the cen­tury, was well-known for its home-de­liv­ered soft drinks. These were even­tu­ally re­placed by sale and de­liv­ery of Snow­line Moun­tain Spring Wa­ter, along­side the tra­di­tional cor­dials the brew­ery has con­tin­ued to pro­duce since its in­cep­tion.

Now, in an age when craft beer is pop­u­lar and non-al­co­holic beer is touted as the next so­cial trend, Nathan and Fe­lic­ity are tak­ing Bill­son’s back to its roots. They be­lieve a move to­wards con­sumers seek­ing qual­ity, lo­cally made prod­ucts over mass man­u­fac­tur­ing also holds them in good stead.

“We have our head brewer and dis­tiller, Tony Paull, on board, and we’ve got copies of the orig­i­nal recipes, hand­writ­ten in the old brewer’s di­aries; they are a bit be­fore met­ric times, so it’s a pinch of this and a fore­arm’s length of that,” Nathan said. >>

We’ve got copies of the orig­i­nal recipes, hand­writ­ten in the old brewer’s di­aries; they are a bit be­fore met­ric times, so it’s a pinch of this and a fore­arm’s length of that.

“The main thing with the busi­ness, the thing that ties it all to­gether, is that the spring wa­ter is on site. Tony has been ex­cited to re­pro­duce recipes, and is pretty con­fi­dent that, us­ing the same wa­ter and recipes, it is pretty close to what would have been pro­duced 100 years ago.

“We are set up to do small batches so if, for ex­am­ple, cher­ries are in sea­son, we could make use of them for a small run of cor­dials. We are con­stantly ex­per­i­ment­ing with batches of be­spoke drinks.

“At the mo­ment, our range is quite small, with 15 dif­fer­ent cor­dials, us­ing spring wa­ter from the well, which we car­bon­ate. But we plan to launch this year a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent beers. Bill­son’s is fa­mous for its stout and lager, and we will have a golden ale and pale ale to go with them, as well as ap­ple cider, non-al­co­holic gin­ger beer, dif­fer­ent flavours of gin, and tonic wa­ters in­clud­ing aro­matic tonic wa­ter.

“Our other prod­uct is whisky, which will be pro­duced later this year, but has to age be­fore it can be en­joyed. We plan to in­tro­duce a whisky lounge, so peo­ple can sit in the cel­lar and have a cock­tail in those sur­rounds.

“Our non-al­co­holic herbal beer is go­ing to play a re­ally big part, be­cause one of the rea­sons Bill­son’s stopped pro­duc­ing al­co­hol was be­cause of the tem­per­ance move­ment and that move away from al­co­hol, so that’s part of the story. Our herbal beer is some­thing you could take to a bar­be­cue or party, some­thing that has all the craft and taste of an al­co­holic beer, quite an adult taste.”

Nathan said he en­joyed the many and var­ied com­po­nents of the busi­ness.

“We still make cor­dial on our 1920s bot­tling line; there is no man­ual for that, so it’s a mat­ter of us­ing logic and the ex­per­tise of lo­cals to re­pair the equip­ment if it breaks down. We’re in an old build­ing, so even when we were re­pair­ing the brick­work, we had to look back to how it was done 100 years ago so we didn’t dam­age any­thing. We con­stantly have to find out things that you can’t just Google. I would not call my­self handy, but I know some peo­ple who can help me.”

Adding to the ap­peal of its hand-crafted drinks, Bill­son’s also has a tra­di­tional bar­ber and black­smith who op­er­ate on site. And vis­i­tors can take in a dis­play of 20 car­riages re­call­ing trans­port of the 19th and 20th cen­tury, which help cap­ture the im­age of the past be­ing care­fully un­cov­ered and recre­ated by Bill­son’s ded­i­cated new own­ers.

“We re­cently had 70 stu­dents visit to watch the black­smith at work, and if we can do any­thing to keep those old trades go­ing, keep in­ter­est in them and re­tain them for the fu­ture, we’ll do it. Ev­ery day, whether it’s dis­cov­er­ing a piece of his­tory like an old photo, we are de­vel­op­ing a pic­ture of what this place would have been like 100 years ago,” Nathan said.

Draw­ing on his pre­vi­ous role in de­sign, Nathan said it was some­thing spe­cial to see old la­bels make their way back into the mar­ket, and he hopes cus­tomers en­joy the tal­ent of 19th cen­tury la­bel mak­ers as much as he does.

“In a lot of ways, it’s my role to help con­nect this amaz­ing his­tory and story of the past with the prod­ucts. A lot of peo­ple we are com­ing across want to know about prod­ucts made lo­cally. Our ul­ti­mate aim is to make the brew­ery a re­ally re­gional ex­pe­ri­ence, a chance for peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence the North East, which is one of the best places in the world,” he said.

“It’s a chance to step back in time, and re­alise the en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills of the peo­ple who de­vel­oped these prod­ucts.”

Bill­son’s Brew­ery is open from 9am to 5pm daily, with plans for its café and whisky lounge cur­rently tak­ing shape, but plenty to at­tract vis­i­tors in the mean­time.


Fe­lic­ity Cot­trill and Nathan Cowan (above) are de­ter­mined to re­store the his­toric prop­erty to its for­mer glory. The site is cur­rently home to a col­lec­tion of 20 car­riages (right) hail­ing from the 19th and 20th cen­turies.


Vis­i­tors to Bill­son’s Brew­ery can learn about its his­tory through dis­plays on the site. Nathan Cowan said us­ing vin­tage equip­ment means “there is no man­ual, so it’s a mat­ter of us­ing logic and the ex­per­tise of lo­cals to re­pair the equip­ment if it breaks down”.


Ge­orge Bill­son Snr (above, right) took on Beech­worth’s Ovens Brew­ery and Malt­house in 1865, and it be­came known as Bill­son’s Ovens Brew­ery in 1867. A work­ing bar­ber’s shop (above) is part of the clas­sic charm of the Bill­son’s site.

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