Cheers to barley

Image of a hammer mill

Coopers’ mash filter has a hammer mill, enabling the brewery to process thinner grains, which can be an issue in conventional brewhouses.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

A famous South Australian brewery, Coopers, is linking with barley growers and researchers to increase quality and productivity from paddock to pint

 “We’re always fine at Coopers,” is Dr Doug Stewart’s cheerful response when you ask him how he is. He has been quality manager at the iconic South Australian brewery for nearly a year and you soon see where his enthusiasm comes from. A tour of the Adelaide brewery – which moved to a 12-hectare Regency Park site in 2001 – is punctuated with friendly faces, a pristine workplace and touches of nostalgia.

A collection of restored trucks, including a 1921 Saurer and a 1928 Dodge, sits beside a towering stack of beer cartons containing this year’s limited release of Vintage Ale. Candy-apple red banners and signs dot the plant, proudly bearing the Cooper family name. The hum of machinery – $100 million worth of it – blends with chinking glass as 1100 brown bottles whiz through the filling, labelling and boxing process every minute.

Outside, a towering sculpture of the founding father, Thomas Cooper, watches over 140 employees and a company that has weathered periodic hostile takeover bids to become the last big Australian-owned brewery.

The Australian beer market is contracting – and has been on this downward curve for about 40 years – but despite this Coopers sold a record 77.3 million litres of beer in 2014, up 7.4 per cent on 2013.

Recipe for success

Image of David Jones and Doug Stewart

Coopers brewing manager David Jones and quality manager Doug Stewart keep an eye on the bottling line.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

Thomas Cooper brewed the first batch of ale in 1862 as a tonic for his ailing wife. This original Sparkling Ale remains the flagship product, part of a stable of 21 beers and an apple cider (produced in the UK). The company also brews and bottles Sapporo Premium and Carlsberg under licence for distribution in Australia and New Zealand and recently added Brooklyn Lager to its portfolio.

Two-thirds of the brewery’s production is beer, the rest is malt extract for the food industry and for home brew kits.

Dr Stewart says the secret to good beer is good barley, with Coopers using 21,000 tonnes a year. Most malt comes from Joe White Maltings, but this year the brewery sourced a small percentage directly from Australian Grain Growers (AGG) Co-operative.

Breweries in some countries add rice, sorghum or cane sugar as a lower-cost starch option, but Coopers beer is made from 100 per cent malt for its traditional full-bodied taste. “The barley is the ‘backbone’ of the beer,” Dr Stewart explains. “The malt provides fermentable sugars for alcohol and the ‘mouth feel’, while a beer’s signature taste comes from hops and yeast or from roasted malts.”

Yeast culture is closely guarded at the brewery, where it is stored at minus 70°C to preserve activity. It comes from a century-old parent yeast stored at Brewing Research International, Surrey, UK.

The other main ingredient is water, which comprises more than 90 per cent of a bottle of beer. Coopers operates independently of SA’s mains water system for most of its 450-million-litres-a-year requirement.

The brewery sources saline groundwater from 200 metres underground, treats it through an on-site reverse osmosis plant, and pumps saline retentate through a seven-kilometre underground pipeline to wetlands. Coopers also recycles up to 35 million litres of water from its operations every year.

Paddock to pint

Image of beer bottles

Coopers Brewery can fill, label and package 1100 bottles a minute.

When you down a pot or schooner of Coopers, you are drinking barley grown in South Australia, mostly from the mid north or northern Yorke Peninsula.

Five facts about Coopers

  1. The first brew of about 400 gallons of beer was produced in 1881 at Leabrook, SA.
  2. The famous Coopers draught horses are stabled in the Adelaide Hills and are still used for special occasions.
  3. The managing director of Coopers Brewery, Dr Tim Cooper, was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2008 Queen’s Honours for service to the brewing industry.
  4. Coopers holds more than five per cent of the Australian beer market.
  5. The descendants of Thomas Cooper (fifth generation) still run the brewery.

Dr Stewart says that although the privatisation of plant breeding programs in the 2000s presented growers with an array of malt barley varieties, the choice is getting easier as market signals strengthen.

Growers are phasing out traditional malting varieties such as Gairdner, Sloop and Schooner in favour of Commander and Scope, which Dr Stewart says is perfect for Coopers’ requirements.

“We require certain fermentability, or enzyme levels, in malt barley,” he explains. “Commander has ‘middle of the road’ enzyme activities while Scope has slightly higher levels, enabling our brewing team to adjust ratios to achieve optimum fermentation.”

High extract yield – the brewer’s equivalent of paddock yield – is another important criterion. “Extract yield – or the sugar and soluble protein component of the grain – is improving; it was around 79 to 80 per cent when I came into the industry 15 years ago but now varieties average 80 to 81 per cent extract yield or higher,” Dr Stewart says.

Most commercial brewers use a traditional lauter tun system to separate the solids in the mash from the liquid wort prior to fermentation. However, Coopers has a mash filter system that produces a more concentrated wort, which is important for the separate malt extract production business.

A plump grain is also still important for a good ratio of endosperm (starch) to husk, to increase the extract yield. The waste (husk, water and non-soluble proteins) is sold to a stockfeed company for feedlot rations.

Barley R&D

Dr Stewart has a PhD in Agricultural Science (focusing on the biochemistry of cell wall polysaccharides) and postdoctoral qualifications in starch metabolism. From 1997 to 1999, he worked with the University of Adelaide’s barley breeding group on a GRDC-funded project looking at the impact of malt quality on beer filtration.

Dr Stewart keeps a close eye on R&D and says there are plenty of exciting developments. As an example, he points to the work of Associate Professor Jason Eglinton at the University of Adelaide (UA), who was behind the commercial release of Charger barley. Charger has a deactivated enzyme (lipoxygenase) to increase shelf life. Associate Professor Eglinton is also researching varieties with thinner husks that could increase extract yield.

For the past two years, Coopers has sponsored an honours student at UA’s Waite campus to build links with agricultural R&D.

“This is a grass-to-glass supply chain, and good beer needs the right ingredients. For the brewing industry to be healthy, barley needs to be healthy at the farm level so we are interested in on-farm yield, agronomic adoption and disease resistance. If it’s important to growers, it’s important to us,” he says.

Dr Stewart sits on the steering committee for the South Australian Barley Council and he would like to see more growers and agronomists represented on advisory groups.

“Brewing is only one piece of a puzzle. We need the entire supply chain working together to move the barley industry forward. We want to see plant breeders keep breeding varieties with the right on-farm and malting traits. We want growers and their advisers to remain inquisitive about new varieties. We want grain storage and handling companies to make storage available for these varieties, and for maltsters to send strong market signals back up the supply chain.”

Dr Stewart says the future is bright for the barley growing and brewing industries as a consequence of new varieties such as Compass and La Trobe. Compass is still pending malt grade certification, but could give growers yields comparable to feed barley but with the potential to receive malting premiums.

Importantly, new varieties do not affect that all-important taste. Dr Stewart says variety accreditation mean there is no flavour difference.

More information:

Doug Stewart, quality manager, Coopers Brewery,


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