A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

Tank beer – “tankova” – may be a hot new trend in London, with Meantime in Greenwich and Pilsner Urquell delivering fresh unpasteurised beer to pubs in beautiful shiny big containers, but the idea of putting beer in cellar tanks to deliver better quality is, even in London, more than a century old.

The first “tank” beer system in the capital appears to have been introduced by Hugh Abbot, a brewer at Watney’s original Stag brewery in Pimlico, London, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. In 1913 he had three standing butts fixed up in the cellar of a Watney’s pub, and beer delivered in an old horse-drawn tank wagon of the sort that brewers used to transport beer to their bottling stores. The experiment was successful enough that by 1920 Watney’s had electric-powered tanker lorries, fitted with copper tanks, taking beer around to its pubs. It was still using electric vehicles in 1949, though by then tank deliveries to pubs were done using trailers mounted behind standard tractor units.

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar
Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Another of London’s “big seven” 20th century brewers, Charrington’s, of the Anchor brewery in Mile End, was also delivering tank beer by the early 1920s, and a Charrington’s brewer, Alfred Paul, described the system to the Institute of Brewers in a talk in May 1922. Only “bright” mild beer, chilled and filtered, was delivered by Charrington’s tankers to its pubs, he said, although “experiments are being made with a tank for the bulk delivery of naturally conditioned beer.” The road tanks, made of copper lagged with iron, had a capacity of 24 barrels each, that is, 864 gallons, and the tanks in the pub cellars generally held three barrels each. “On arrival of the delivery tank, or road tank, at the house, the hose, is let down through the cellar-flap or any other available aperture, and the beer allowed to run down into the cellar tank. Should the fall from the street to the cellar be insufficient, a band-pump attached to the foot-board of the chassis could be used.” Charrington’s cellar tanks were generally made of earthenware, Paul said, being upright, cylindrical vessels, with a glazed inside, but ” experiments are now being carried out with aluminium and glass-lined steel.” The tanks, he said, “are carefully examined prior to filling, with a powerful electric torch. The men, who are carefully selected, are definitely instructed not to fill a tank unless, in their opinion, which by constant practice has become expert, the tank is scrupulously clean.”

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The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The “IPA shipwreck” is one of many long-lasting myths in the history of India Pale Ale. The story says that IPA became popular in Britain after a ship on its way to India in the 1820s was wrecked in the Irish Sea, and some hogsheads of beer it was carrying out east were salvaged and sold to publicans in Liverpool, after which the city’s drinkers demanded lots more of the same. Colin Owen, author of a history of Bass’s brewery, called the tale “unsubstantiated” more than 20 years ago, and others, including me, being unable to find any reports of any such wreck, nor of any indication that IPA was a big seller in the UK until the 1840s, have dismissed it as completely untrue. Except that it turns out casks of IPA did go on sale in Liverpool after a wreck off the Lancashire coast involving a ship carrying hogsheads of beer to India, a shipwreck that, literally, became a landmark – though not in the 1820s – and the true story is a cracker, involving one of the worst storms to hit the British Isles in centuries, which brought huge destruction and hundreds of deaths from one side of the UK to the other.

The story of the IPA shipwreck first turns up in 1869 in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, by Walter Molyneaux, who described how the Burton brewers began brewing beer for export to India from 1823. Molyneaux wrote: “India appears to have been the exclusive market for the Burton bitter beer up to about the year 1827, when in consequence of the wreck in the Irish Channel of a vessel containing a cargo of about 300 hogsheads, several casks saved were sold in Liverpool for the benefit of the underwriters, and by this means, in a remarkably rapid manner, the fame of the new India ale spread throughout Great Britain.”

Molyneaux’s story has been regularly repeated in the past century and a half. But no one has been able to find a wreck that matched up with his story. This turns out to be, not because the wreck didn’t happen, but because he was 12 years out with the date.

The year after Molyneaux’s book came out, a different version of the tale appeared in the “notes and queries” section of an obscure publication called English Mechanic and World of Science. The account was written by a man who gave himself the name of “Meunier”, and it said: “Forty years ago [ie about 1830] pale ale was very little known in London, except to those engaged in the India trade. The house with which I was connected shipped large quantities, receiving in return consignments of East Indian produce. About 1839, a ship, the Crusader, bound for one of our Indian ports, foundered, and the salvage, comprising a large quantity of export bitter ale, was sold for the benefit of the underwriters. An enterprising publican or restaurant keeper in Liverpool purchased a portion of the beer and introduced it to his customers; the novelty pleased, and, I believe, laid the foundation of the home trade now so extensively carried on.”

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.
Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

The two clues – the ship’s name and the later date – together with the fact that large numbers of newspapers from the time have now been scanned and made available on the web make it easy to trace the story at last. The Crusader was a 584-tonne East Indiaman, or armed merchantman, described as “a fine large ship with painted ports [that is, gun-ports] and a full-length figurehead”, “newly coppered”, that is, with new copper sheathing on the hull to prevent attacks by wood-boring molluscs, and “a very fast sailer”, under the command of Captain JG Wickman. She had arrived in Liverpool early in November 1838 after a five-month journey from either Calcutta or Bombay (different Liverpool newspapers at the time gave different starting ports) with a cargo including raw cotton, 83 elephants’ tusks, coffee, wool, pepper, ginger – and opium, which did not become illegal in Britain until 1916. Captain Wickman and his crew were due to leave for Bombay again on Saturday December 15, after five weeks of roistering in Liverpool, with a cargo that included finished cotton goods, silk, beef and pork in casks, cases of glass shades, iron ingots, tin plates, Government dispatches – and India ale in hogsheads, brewed by two different Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopp, the whole lot being insured for £100,000, perhaps £8 million today.

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