You may have woken up this morning to the news that Bega Cheese is to buy the Vegemite brand for $460 million (along with Bonox and a number of others) returning the brand to Australian hands. So it seems apt to revisit exactly what the black, thick, sticky, iconic paste really is, and how it is made. I mean, we all say “oh it’s yeast extract” but how exactly is the extract extracted and from what?
How Vegemite is Made
It all began in 1919 with the chief food technologist of Fred Walker & Co., Mr Cyril Percy Callister; a mountain of waste brewer’s yeast dumped from breweries; and a perceived demand for a savoury spread, after the supply of Marmite was disrupted in the aftermath of the First World War.
Cyril (who is also credited with developing processed cheese) was given the task of developing a spread to replace Marmite, ideally capitalising on the vast quantities of leftover yeast product dumped after the brewing process. The dumped yeast was sourced from the Carlton & United Brewery. Beer brewing and yeast production will be covered shortly in other fact sheets!
Using the process of autolysis, or self-digestion, Cyril removed the cell walls of yeast cells and extracted the cellular contents into a clear liquid concentrate otherwise known as “yeast extract”. Following extraction, celery and onion extracts were added along with salt, giving us that profound flavour and thick, black texture we know and love (most of us at least) today!
Glutamic acid, the main source of that defining umami flavour synonymous with Vegemite, was a main product of the breakdown and extraction process. Glutamic acid is also found in meat, cheese, mushrooms, broccoli and tomatoes although in much lower concentrations.
The Story of the Vegemite Brand
The name Vegemite was selected out of a hat by the daughter of the chairman of Fred Walker & Co., in a National competition to name the new product. The winners, local sisters from Albert Park, Victoria were given 50£ or about $3500 in today’s money for their troubles.
Upon release in 1923, the brand and product were not well received given the previous market saturation and brand awareness of Marmite. An unsuccessful name change to Parwill occurred in 1928 – 1935 solely so that the pun in the advertising slogan “Marmite but Parwill” could be made. The brand continued to suffer from poor sales and the name was eventually changed back to Vegemite and given away free with Kraft Walker cheese products. A new advertising campaign just prior to and during World War 2 was developed, focusing on the potential health benefits of Vegemite, derived from the very high concentration of vitamin B. This was recognised by the British Medical Association in 1939. Well known chefs and writers were paid to express their incredulity at the benefits for children and general adult health (nothing in advertising is new).
During the war, Vegemite was included in rations for soldiers on the front line and by the end of the 1940s, surveys suggested upwards of 90% of Australian homes used Vegemite. Quite the turnaround.
As they say, the rest is history – sales took off and the brand was sewn into the fabric of the Australian culture, the catchy song “we are happy little Vegemites…” (written for a 1954 commercial) forever known in almost every household.
#FunVegemiteFact: A 115g jar was the first ever product to have a barcode and be electronically scanned at the checkout!
So enjoy that salty, umami, overpowering Vegemite taste, and try to take as many tourists or international friends by surprise with a heaped spoonful of the paste, knowing that the brand is now back in Australian hands.