Three Danish brothers, Moritz, Julius and Jacob Cohn arrived in Bendigo  in 1853. In 1856 they began making cider and soft drinks and two years later built a brewery. In 1880 Moritz’s son, also Julius, was sent to Germany to learn the art of brewing lager-style beer and on his return, in 1882, the Cohn Brothers began to brew Excelsior Lager. It was Australia’s first successful lager beer, introduced five years before the much more famous Foster’s.

Cohn Brothers was a brand well-known in Bendigo from the gold rush days until the 1970s. Their first venture, on arriving at the gold fields, was a pub, the Criterion Hotel.  They were, perhaps, a little over-lavish in the hotel’s appointments. Failing to recoup their expenses, they were forced to sell the business after a year. The brothers turned their hand to making drinks rather than selling them. Initially, they focused on soft drinks, cider and raspberry vinegar, but by 1856 the Cohn Brothers brewery in Bendigo’s Victoria Street was producing ale and porter.

Around the same time as the Cohns were starting their brewery, a Geelong newspaper proprietor, James Harrison, was perfecting his new invention: refrigeration. His success in making ice by mechanical means was destined to transform the brewing industry in Australia. In fact, one of the first companies to buy his ice-making technology was another brewery in Bendigo, Glasgow & Co.

The beer styles of the time were dark and bitter, and served at room (or cellar) temperature. The traditional brewing process was the only option. Lager-style beer needs slow fermentation at low temperatures – easier to achieve in colder European climates but impossible in Australia’s warm climate.  With the arrival of refrigeration, everything changed. The Cohn brothers sent young Julius off to learn the craft, installed an ice-works, and began to brew lager. Excelsior Lager was their first, successful offering.

Cohn Brothers 6 o'clock Lager ad
Picture: PMI History Library

They expanded their operations. In addition to a range of beers they made cordials and soft drinks, sold ice and even produced a non-alcoholic beer to satisfy the temperance activists. Originally it was called Tonic Ale. When, in 1916, those same temperance advocates succeeded in their quest to have pubs close at six o’clock, the brew was re-named 6 o’clock Lager.

Cohn Brothers built an empire of breweries, cordial factories, hotels and liquor stores. In 1925 they sold the hotels and breweries to Carlton & United, but continued to make their other products until the 1970s when the company became part of the Coca Cola Amatil Group.