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