While many of the nation’s beer drinkers were revelling in the long black night of the winter solstice with bespoke dark ales and craft stouts, the fluorescent lights at Regency Park in Adelaide’s northern industrial zone were blazing.
Dr Tim Cooper AM – Managing Director of the dynastic brewing company bearing his name – was readying for some of the most radical changes to the company since it was founded by Thomas Cooper in 1862. Changes that include the release of the XPA in June, a hop-forward ale that is a stark shift away from the company’s usual malt- and yeast-driven beers and towards the hop-centric craft sector.
Then came the announcement that the truly iconic Sparkling Ale (‘red’) – a recipe developed by Thomas Cooper himself – was moving out of traditional bottles and into cans, along with the company’s flagship Pale Ale (‘green’).
“There is now overwhelming consensus among premium producers and consumers that the can is superior to the bottle,” Cooper – the general practitioner-turned-brewery-doyen – explains. Like the apparent contradiction between the medical profession and brewing, Coopers Brewery has been deftly tight-roping the line between tradition and innovation for well over 150 years. Pioneering purity in Australian ale in the mid-19th century – utilising only malt, hops and yeast when most breweries were shovelling in countless impurities – Coopers watched on in horror as the lager style slashed and burned its way across the continent in the 1960s and ’70s, forever altering the landscape of Australian beer. The ales remained Coopers’ raison d’être.
By the 1990s many Australian drinkers were growing weary of the bleached and banal landscape of mass-produced and sterile lager. Instead they were yearning for flavour, character, uniqueness and pristine provenance. Seemingly overnight Coopers was propelled out of the museum vaults and into the pint glasses of discerning drinkers nationwide: a revolt further escalated by the rise of trailblazers such as Matilda Bay, with its iconic Redback.
By remaining unflinchingly loyal to its traditions – and ever wary of trend – Coopers inadvertently revolutionised the contemporary beer sector in Australia. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a craft brewer in the nation today who didn’t cut their teeth on Coopers ‘red’ or ‘green’.
The pendulum, however, has inevitably swung again. Whereas tinned lager once threatened the ramparts at Regency Park, today it’s grape bubble-gum sours and strawberry milkshake IPAs. Coopers has suddenly found itself the slightly stuffy uncle at a 21st birthday party, further facilitated by the PR nightmare surrounding its Bible Society commemorative beer in 2017, which was used by the Society in its campaign against same-sex marriage.
As a fifth-generation leader of the family firm, Tim Cooper is acutely aware of the brewery’s unique place in Australian beer, sitting often uneasily at the intersection of mainstream and craft. This dichotomy is manifested in the new-release 2019 Vintage Ale, which pairs local Murray Mallee barley malt with traditional Cascade hops, followed by a whack of pine-scented Mosaic hops: a favoured ingredient in contemporary craft beer.
While many in the craft sector would scoff at Coopers being considered ‘craft’, in truth very few breweries have such innate and nuanced control over the providence of their products – namely beer’s foundational ingredient, barley malt. While most craft brewing today is more alchemistic than agrarian, Coopers’ customised maltings plant gives it unrivalled access to pristine barley sourced locally and then malted (and further roasted) to spec: allowing for exciting new brewing innovation – namely keg-only small-batch releases.
“In many respects we are ‘craft beer’,” Cooper offers. “We are independent, utilise traditional brewing methods and local ingredients to produce pristine ales. We are also now the largest Australian-owned producer, so this puts us in a unique position to be traditional and responsive.”
The move to cans and the release of the XPA are indeed a direct response to the rise of craft: a sector partly responsible for Coopers’ dip in sales during the 2017-18 financial year.
“We will continue to innovate,” Cooper concludes, “but at the same time we can never lose sight of who we are as a company. This is the Coopers way.”