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Coopers 160th birthday

Adelaide was a town transformed over the weekend as the Cooper family celebrated the brewery’s milestone of 160 years and six generations of brewing.

Coopers Original Pale Ale roundels were signposted across Adelaide and eighty delegates were flown in from interstate to join the celebration of this enduring Australian institution and one of South Australia’s biggest hero brands.

At the airport, wrapped across trams, struck across pavements in lights and on alfresco umbrellas at Adelaide’s sandstone walled pubs, the brewery proudly flew its flag.

After a short snort at Adelaide stalwart, The Exeter Hotel, for a pre-dinner drink of Coopers Pale Ale, we changed gears for the black tie event at the Freemasons Great Hall on North Terrace.

Filmmaker Shane Jacobsen officiated the evening with performances from Neon Tetra and Georgia Germain, as South Australia’s leading publicans, drinks retailers and families amassed to celebrate the legacy of this incredible family. Hoteliers Peter and Tony Hurley were there along with the President of AHA SA, David Basheer.

Coopers Brewery’s History

In his speech, Dr Cooper said that the brewery had survived five “near death” experiences since Thomas Cooper brewed his first beer in 1862 using a recipe sent to his wife, Anne, by her father from back home in the UK.

Coopers moved into the pubs and on-tap in 1905 and continued brewing throughout the Great Depression when it was one of the last of the South Australian brewers still standing.

The company brewed ale and stout for 105 years when, despite resistance from the board but at the insistence of Dr Cooper’s father, Bill Cooper, and his colleagues, the brewery adapted to the times and created its first lager. Gold Crown went on sale in 1968.

Coopers survived the 1972 hike in excise duty – coinciding with high rates of inflation- and Dr Cooper explained that “as beer was considered a necessity, brewers could not increase their prices without going to the tribunal first”.

Then, in 1977, opportunity struck. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made it legal to brew beer at home and Coopers created its first home brewing kits. It was lifechanging for the business and for Australian beer drinkers.

By the mid-late 1980s, the brewery’s fortunes had turned around and in 1990 Dr Cooper left his career as a cardiologist in the UK and joined the family company back in South Australia as Technical Manager. By the early 1990s, Coopers was the largest manufacturer and exporter of home brewing kits in the world and Coopers continued to survive on the sales of those kits through the recession of the 1990s.

In 1989, the jewel in Coopers’ crown, Pale Ale was kegged into pubs.

Dr Cooper recounted how Lion – on its second takeover attempt in 2005 – offered shareholders around $260 per share, “around six times what they were worth”. The offer went as high as $310 per share but shareholders held steadfast and loyal. Bill Cooper said at the time, “I am a maker of beer. If I sell my stake, what am I? An owner of condominiums?”

The anecdote is instructive, reflective of the company’s commitment to remaining independent, to loyalty, tradition and its long term relationships.

The no fuss branding, those straightforward, straight-speaking two colour roundels are the same. The proof of the packaging is in the tasting. Reliable, available and ever-present.

The Coopers are a hardworking and capable family of doers, makers and learners who get things done. And their cultural contribution to the community of South Australia is significant.

However, as much as they adhere to tradition, and at times have been challenged to move with the times, on the occasion of 160 years of brewing, they are long-sighted and committed to progress. And whisky production.

A Generational Investment

What is going on now in Regency Park is described by Director of Marketing and Innovation, Cam Pearce – whose wife, Robyn, is second cousin to Dr Cooper – as a “generational investment”.

Dr Cooper applauds Mr Pearce’s vision to innovate, to brew more beer and to make Coopers Brewery a tourist destination, in partnership with the South Australian government.

Coopers has invested $68 million in its maltings, expanded the warehouse at Regency Park, upping its storage capacity by 50 per cent, and $50 million is being spent on the development of the visitors’ centre.

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Underneath the visitors centre, the cellars are being carved out to store Coopers yet to be named- and yet to be produced – whisky barrels. (No word either on who the head distiller will be although discussions have commenced, said Dr Cooper.)

There will be a microbrewery on site capable of producing 65k hectolitres of beer (up from 32K at the moment) and able to craft limited release beers without disrupting the main brewery operations. The microbrewery will also provide the beer wash for the whisky to be distilled in the new distillery adjacent to the microbrewery.

Dr Cooper says that the idea for whisky production has been germinating since 2017 when Dr Cooper and Operations Manager, Nick Sterenberg were doing the maltings.

Coopers have expanded their sales team to 20 people, including those with expertise in spirits and spirits sales. Its first target is to produce 70K bottles a year with a view to ultimately producing 210K bottles of Scottish style malt whisky annually. That’s a lot of whisky. And a lot of beer.

Of Dr Tim Cooper’s three children – the sixth generation – his daughter Louise is Strategic Development Manager at the company having steered the logistics of the business through COVID and son, Ian, is brewing at Carlsberg in Denmark having completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering.                  

Coopers’ big birthday campaign includes the release of their Regency Park Red Ale and its advertising extends to all markets, including the unmissable 170 metre billboard placement atop the Glebe Island Silos end of Sydney’s ANZAC Bridge for the month of June. It shouts, “Coopers – A long history needs a long billboard – 1862-now. “

Coopers is already well beyond the now. Its future vision well in play. There is plenty more from this family of brewers – and now distillers – that is yet to come.