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George Boag

HARD WORK, SELF-RELIANCE AND A DESIRE TO SUCCEED IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY ARE WHAT IS SAID TO HAVE SAVED J. BOAG & SON IN THE EARLY 1990s. THIS WAS THE LEGACY OF LOYAL EMPLOYEES, WHO HAD GROWN UP AND GROWN TO BE PROUD OF J. BOAG & SON, AND WHAT THE COMPANY MEANT TO LAUNCESTON.

Crippling debt, accrued by its owners, during the speculative 1980s could have seen the local brewery close the door on 120 years of brewing and family history. Instead, employees rallied around the company and determinedly pursued sales expansion outside of Tasmania.

The brewery became a publicly listed company, was then bought by the Philippine company San Miguel in 2000 and today the Boag brand is one of Launceston’s – and Australia’s – best commercial ambassadors on the global liquor market.

So who was James Boag?

The brewery’s museum offers a wealth of company history, but so too does James Boag’s great, great grandson George, the last living member of the clan who worked in the company.

Now 93, George lives in Melbourne, but the malt smell of the William St brewing vats has never left him. His best memory about Boag’s remains; the quality of the beer. James Boag’s ethos was that the best possible beer was brewed from the finest ingredients – quality water from Tasmania’s pristine Esk River and hops from Gunns Plains on Tasmania’s North-West.

George’s career with the company began after he left school, around the age of 15. He and his brother, James Boag IV (better known as Bill), laboured in the malthouse and bottle washing sections. Bill joined the RAAF in World War II, and later returned to work in the brewery. When aged 23 

George was asked by his father, James Boag III, to manage the Tasmanian Bottle Company, a Tasmanian Breweries (a.k.a Boag’s) subsidiary. At that time it was a muddy yard where bottles were returned for washing and refilling. It employed three men.

George Boag also enlisted to serve in the war effort and was sent to the Inveresk Railway Workshops to make shell cases and work as a fitter and turner.

All the while he was keen to return to his job at the Tasmanian Bottle Company. He did so when victory was declared, going on to supplement his family’s income by establishing a chicken hatchery on George Town Rd at the turn-off to Alanvale Rd. As an aside, 10,000 chickens were hatched at a time and, for a short time, were exported to Ipoh in Malaysia.

George ran the bottle company for 40 years. (His wife Gwen, who had also grown up in Launceston, was for some years a clerical assistant for the company.) In true Boag spirit, George reorganised the bottle washing process. He had the site concreted and he bought trucks to replace the horse and cart. By 1970 the bottle company employed nine staff. Thousands of bottles were recycled through the yard, and George became an expert at identifying and dating the different types. It’s interesting to note that at war’s end Boag’s beer production was at 400,000 gallons and within 12 years it had increased to 2,250,000 gallons, with up to 200 people employed. Today more than 40 million litres of beer is produced, including boutique beers, and the Launceston brewery employs more than 160 staff.

In my day Boag’s was pretty much a red or blue label and stout.

Other big changes in the 1950s included the cessation of malting at Esk Brewery due to the installation of new and more economical drum maltings at Cascade in Hobart. And in 1957, Tasmanian Breweries acquired the remaining assets of J. Boag & Son (1911) Ltd – Esk Brewery freehold and five hotels. George’s father was the last family member to manage Boag’s, and on his death George took over his seat on the board. He attended meetings with his uncle Claude Boag.

J. Boag & Son has grown to be one of Launceston’s finest architectural landmarks. Still sited on its original William St/Esplanade block, the company continues to grow, with extensions maintaining architectural integrity and original frontages.

The brewery’s position was determined by proximity to the wharves, railway station and the Esk River, from which the brewery gained its original name of Esk Brewery in 1861. When James Boag I and his son James Boag II took over the Esk Brewery it was said to be the most complete in Tasmania. Both father and son had brewing experience – James Boag 1 had been the brewer and subsequent manager of the Cornwall brewery, on the same site as Boag’s, and his son had worked for the Cataract Brewery.

James Boag II prospered in Launceston and his eldest son, James Boag trained as a brewer at Tooth & Co’s brewery in Sydney, returning to Boag’s in 1919, following the death of his father.

George Boag’s health no longer allows him to drink alcohol, and one of his sons, Jay, of Melbourne, doubts his dad knows that there is such a big market in premium beers. “Dad wouldn’t be aware that beer now comes in different varieties. In his day it was pretty much a red or blue label and stout but he’d still say his favourite drink is beer. Even in the days when he used to drink at (Launceston’s) Northern Club he was never a great spirits drinker, it would always be a Boag’s.”

And there are now many beer drinkers around the nation who share a similar sentiment on a daily basis – success on a scale that James Boag would never have imagined more than a century ago.

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George Boag