The History of Licorice in Australia

The History of Licorice in Australia


A quick internet search for "licorice history" finds much of the same information about licorice's storied history beginning with its medicinal uses in Ancient China.

We also know that large quantities of licorice were uncovered in the tomb of King Tut to prepare sweet drinks for the pharaoh in the afterlife among his treasures. Even Alexander the Great, the Caesars of Rome, and Brahma, the great Indian prophet, consumed licorice for its beneficial properties.

Licorice Candies in England

Licorice root, which gives the sweets their distinctive flavor, began to be cultivated in the monastery garden at Pontefract, England, in the 1500s. Pontefract rose to become the center of the licorice confectionery industry in Europe. 

In 1760, "Pomfret" cakes, black, coin-shaped lozenges, were created from cooked licorice sap and were initially intended to be dissolved in water for medicinal purposes. 

Toward the end of the 19th century, these "cakes" had become better known as a tasty, sweet snack food. And as a hub for change during the Industrial Revolution, it follows that England would also be one of the places where those sweeter than sugar black licorice sweets would begin to be mass-produced as well.

Licorice in Australia Before 1900

The flourishing licorice confectionery trade in England is relevant to the history of licorice in Australia because, in the late 1700s, the British started a program of penal transportation to Australia. 

In the early to mid-1800s, skilled laborers were also encouraged to immigrate to Australia. These programs were quickly followed by the Australian gold rush in 1851, bringing large numbers of British, Irish, German, and other European settlers to the Land Down Under. 

What does this migration have to do with the history of licorice in Australia? Many of these immigrants brought with them their love of sweets and licorice.

Two of Australia's largest confectioners have their roots in the Victoria era. The biggest, and arguably the most influential Australian candy company, MacRobertson's, began in 1880 when Sir Macpherson Robertson started making sweets in his Fitzroy home. 

By the late 1880s, MacRobertson's Steam Confectionery Works had thirty employees and purchased surrounding properties to expand their production facilities. And by 1896, the "White City," as the MacRobertson's compound was known, covered three acres and employed over 260 workers.

Allen's was founded by Alfred Weaver Allen in 1891 when he left MacRobertson's. Allen took over two failing companies and created a significant business through mergers with other manufacturers. 

While both companies were (and are) best known for making different types of candy, their range of products has almost always included some licorice.

The Arrival of Confectionary's Heavy-Hitters, 1900-1940s

Colorful Australian Licorice
The Australian Licorice Company was registered in Melbourne in 1903. Later the same year, Abel Hoadley of Hoadley's (the third-largest confectioner in Australia at the time after MacRobertson's and Allen's) had joined as a partner. 

In 1922, Macpherson Robertson also joined as a partner. Both Hoadley's and MacRobertson's used the company to recycle candy-making scrap from their parent factories into various licorice candy products.

MacRobertson's, Allen's, and Hoadley's growth escalated throughout World War I, when the British government prohibited licorice, and other candy exports and the Australian Commonwealth Government began taxing imports. 

At this time, major licorice manufacturers included trading cards with their licorice, including Birds of Australia (from the Australian Licorice Company), Film Stars and Cricketers (from Giant Licorice), and Butterflies of the World (National Licorice).

Simultaneously, in Sydney, Harry and Esther Lea began making toffees and hard candies to complement their fruit and vegetable shop. By 1924, they had devoted all their energy to the confectionary business. In 1934, Darrell Lea Co. was registered by their sons, and by 1936, the first Darrell Lea factory opened.

Post-War Years to 1990

Candy Licorice Tree Shape
But when did what we know today as Australian-style licorice candy arrive on the market? You know, that smooth, thick, and chewy treat beloved by Australians and licorice lovers around the world? 

During World War II and the years that followed, smaller specialist licorice candy manufacturers catered to children

In 1957, Darrell Lea's soft-eating black licorice was accidentally invented when a batch of licorice didn't turn out how it was supposed to. When the licorice was given away for free, they found that people liked it and decided to keep making it. A star was born!

Other companies continued to move full-steam ahead as well. In the late 1950s, Allen's Sweets became the majority shareholder of the Australian Licorice Company and conquered 85% of the Australian licorice market.

One by one, though, the giants were taken over by non-Australian companies. MacRobertson's was sold to Cadbury Australia in 1967. Hoadley's merged with Rowntree in 1972, and Allen's closed their Brunswick factory closed in 1985 when Nestle took over.

Licorice-Making In Australia Since 1990

On the other hand, Australian licorice makers aren't gone! 

Fyna Foods, founded in 1947, started making licorice in 1973 when they acquired Lou Lou Confectionery. 

Fyna continued to expand into the licorice market in the early 1990s when they purchased Superior Licorice. They continue to make licorice using only Australian sugar proudly.
Australian Black Licorice Spirali
Junee Licorice & Chocolate Factory in Junee, NSW, operates a mill that belongs to Green Grove Organics. This stone mill converts the organic grain grown on the Green Grove farm into flour for inclusion in the candy company's licorice and packaged bread mixes and flour blends.

Melba's makes their Inch Licorice at their Adelaide Hills plant, where they've been since the early 1990s.

Even the larger companies are still making licorice, despite the fact they've changed ownership. Allen's just announced they're expanding their Minis series to include chocolate-covered black licorice cats. 

Darrell Lea was sold in 2012, but the new owners have retained many favorites - including their famous soft licorice! They export as well, which is why they've become the most popular black licorice brand in the United States. 

This popularity has even prompted several recent American ventures to sell Australian-style licorice under Aussie-sounding brand names.

Australia's licorice history is indeed younger than those in European countries. However, the love affair Aussies have with their homegrown versions of licorice continues to grow and transcend borders. As licorice lovers ourselves, that's something we can get behind.

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