Category Archives: Brewery history

The Marsden Murders, or the tragic lives of three brewing brothers

There are stories you come across while researching the history of beer, sometimes, that set the mind boggling on its springs. Such a tale is the one we can call The Marsden Murders.

It centres on Arthur Eagles Marsden, born in 1849 in Pimlico, London to a dynasty of operative brewers. His father, Robert, was a brewer, possibly at Watney’s brewery in Pimlico, his grandfather, George Eagles Marsden, was a brewer living in Lewisham, then in Kent, according to the 1841 census, his uncle George Eagles Marsden junior was an operative brewer living in Heather Street, Kingston upon Thames in 1851 and his mother Anna was the daughter of John Hector, owner of the brewery in Blandford St Mary, Dorset that was later taken over by Hall & Woodhouse.

By 1861 Robert Marsden had moved with his family to the village of Stapenhill, on the edge of Burton upon Trent, where he was undoubtedly working at one of the many breweries in Burton, quite likely, given later history, the Meakin family’s Abbey brewery, in Abbey Street. Arthur, Robert’s oldest son, very likely learned the brewing trade in Burton, but by the early 1870s he was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working as a brewer.

There he met a young woman named Catherine “Kate” Vaughan, three years his senior, daughter of Patrick Vaughan and Mary Sullivan, both from Cork in Ireland, who had arrived in Halifax around 1844. One source claims that Catherine’s parents “took her away from school” because they were afraid she was about to convert to Catholicism, and forced her “against her will” to marry the Protestant Arthur Marsden. This clashes with the known facts: Catherine was baptised in the Catholic cathedral in Halifax, and she was 26 or so, when she met Marsden, so not “at school”.

Arthur Edagles Marsden
Arthur Eagles Marsden: photograph courtesy of Colleen Murphy

Indeed, Arthur and Catherine were actually married in Manhattan, New York in January 1873, suggesting there were difficulties about them marrying in Halifax, possibly because of the difference in religion. If there were problems with Catherine’s family about her marrying an English Protestant, they could not have been that severe, as one of the witnesses at the Manhattan wedding was her brother John. Arthur Marsden later claimed to have brewed in the United States, so it may be that he was working in New York

Exactly nine months later, in October 1873, Catherine was back in Halifax, where she gave birth to a son who was given a set of Marsden family first names, Robert, for his grandfather, and Eagles from Arthur Marsden’s great-grandmother, Anne Eagles. Soon after the new family returned briefly to England, and then, in December 1874, sailed from Southampton for India, where Arthur had evidently been offered a post as a brewer by the brewing entrepreneur Henry Meakin. Henry was nephew to George Meakin, owner of the Abbey brewery in Burton, and his father, Henry senior, had worked as a brewer in the town before switching to farming. Doubtless Meakin knew Arthur Marsden from the time when the Marsden family were in Burton.

Henry Meakin junior had come out to India in 1869, aged 25, to take control of the Simla Old Brewery, in the Himalayan hill station now known as Shimla, which had been founded in 1860. Its height, almost 7,500 feet above sea level, made it vastly cooler than the Indian plains and thus very popular with recuperating Europeans – and also one of the few places in India where brewing beer was possible without expensive cooling equipment. (There were, eventually, nine or so breweries running in a thousand-mile arc along the foot of the Himalayas, all at 5,000 feet or above, built to supply the garrisons of the British Raj with beer.)

By October 1871 Meakin had taken over another established brewery in Kasauli, 20 miles to the south, to run alongside the Simla Old Brewery. The “Kussowlie” brewery had been started by a former East India Company officer called Captain Robert Beavan in 1850 to serve the troops in the settlement. In 1874 the Times of India reported that “Her Majesty’s troops in the Hills and at Umballa” (a garrison town 120 miles north of Delhi) had “taken kindly” to the beer from Henry Meakin’s brewery in Kasauli, and “actually prefer it to the beer supplied to the Commissariat from home [ie Britain]. This is a strong test, for Her Majesty’s forces are the keenest of critics everywhere … and find faults in such things as beef, bread and porter, which are frequently beyond the ken of their Commanding Officers.”

The same year Meakin took over a third brewery, which had been opened in 1863 at Jeolikot, on the road three miles from Nainital, a hill station 6,800 feet up in the outer Himalayas, 180 miles south-east of Simla and 215 miles east of Delhi. The water at the brewery “resembles more that of Burton than does any other source in India,” it was claimed in 1882. However, the brewery  passed through “several” owners, before being acquired by Meakin. He placed Arthur Marsden in charge as manager and brewer, and Marsden “obtained a contract to supply the troops at Naini Tal [sic], which tripled his operations.”

The Naini Tal Brewery Company was brewing XXX double stout at three rupees for a dozen pints in 1876 and two rupees a gallon in casks, as well as pale ale and XXX strong ale: “Customers supplying their own coolies can obtain their Beers at the Brewery by applying for Delivery Orders from the Agents.”. The brewery looks to have been rebuilt in 1877, as Marsden advertised in July that year “to Parents and Guardians” for a pupil “to learn Brewing and Malting,” starting from October 1, when “the spacious new premises, both Brewing and Malting, will then be in working order.” If required, “the Pupil can be taught the English, Canadian and American, in addition to the Indian System of Brewing, at a slight increase of premium, the advertiser having brewed in some of the largest Breweries in each of these countries.”

Ad Marsden Naini Tal 1876

The Marsdens lived at Nainital until at least the latter half of 1881, with Catherine giving birth to six more children, two of whom died. Some time  before October 1879, Arthur was joined at Nainital by his younger brother Hector Lionel Marsden, born in 1858, who had also trained to be a brewer. By 1883, Arthur had moved to Henry Meakin’s Simla Old Brewery, where in December that year his wife gave birth to another son.

A third Marsden brother, the youngest, John Cecil, born in Stapenhill in 1862, had also come out to India as a brewer, and in 1882 he was put in charge of Henry Meakin’s one-year-old brewery at Panch Pool, Dalhousie. This was a cantonment named for the Marquess of Dalhousie, British governor-general of India from 1847 to 1856, 125 miles north-west of Simla and 6,500ft up. In September 1884, after two years in Dalhousie, and at the age of 22, John shot himself, an act that led the Civil and Military Gazette to editorialise about the pressures on “a European in this country living alone a dreary cheerless existence among uncongenial surroundings, who has rushed upon a fate which those more fortunately situated think he might have escaped if he had the safeguards of society and companionship.”

Hector Marsden moved on to the Lucknow Brewery, 260 miles east of Delhi in the plains of North India, one of several breweries run by Henry Meakin’s big rival Edward Dyer, which had been opened in 1882. The Lucknow brewery, which used refrigerating machinery to help make beer in a climate where even in the coldest month, January, average highs were 76ºF/24.5ºC, was the first successful brewery in the plains. Hector was there by July 1886, when he was advertising for sale in a local newspaper “one silver pedometer, only used on one or two occasions.”

Arthur Marsden and his family look to have continued living in Simla until 1890, when they moved to Dalhousie, for Arthur to take charge of the brewery where his youngest brother had committed suicide six years earlier. The children had all been educated at Catholic schools in Darjeeling, but Arthur had become a Freemason in 1878, and was increasingly anti-Catholic, which was causing strains in the household. The strains became worse when Catherine and her two oldest children, Robert and Mabel (who had been born in Nainital in 1876) began attending mass at a Catholic chapel in Dalhousie run by Belgian priests. Arthur’s fellow Masons in the Dalhousie lodge were under-impressed, and one allegedly told him: “Listen, Marsden, if your wife was mine, I would lodge a bullet in her skull this instant.”

From then, it was claimed, Arthur began to threaten to murder his family, and in September 1893 his wife told one of the Belgian priests: “I am certain that one day or other he will kill us all.” The following month, on the evening of October 10, an argument between Arthur and Mabel saw Catherine try to intervene. A furious Arthur hurled an ink bottle at her head. Robert, who had just had his 20th birthday, tried to defend his mother, and Arthur grappled with his son, dragged him out of the house and threw him down a small ravine on the steep hillside. Robert was bruised but otherwise uninjured, and the two returned to the house. Arthur went upstairs, and Robert and Mabel, attempting to act as if all were well, sat at the family piano and played, while their mother wept in an adjoining apartment.

The brewery at Panch Pool, Dalhousie, built, like most breweries in the Himalayan foothills, on a steep slope. The brewer’s house is presumably the two-storey building in the middle distance, centre-left

Suddenly Arthur reappeared, went into the apartment where his wife sat, and the horrified youngsters heard two loud reports. Their father had just put two bullets into the head of their mother. Robert rushed into the room, and Arthur shot him in the head, two or three times. He held the revolver close enough to both his victims that they suffered powder burns to their faces. Mabel stood in the doorway, hands clenched, looking at the horror before her, as her father raised his arm and shot her too, the bullet passing through her cheeks. She rushed bleeding out of the house, pursued by her father, and when, in the darkness, she fell, despite the family syce, or coachman, who had appeared, pleading with Arthur not to kill the girl, Mabel’s father bent over her and shot her in the head again, declaring: “Now you are sure to die.”

After this carnage, Arthur returned to the house and prepared a telegram to be sent to Henry Meakin to tell him that another manager would be needed immediately for the brewery. He then wrote several more letters, including one to Lieutenant Barton, the Assistant Civil Commissioner, detailing the events of the evening and declaring himself ready to be arrested. The messages were handed to his coachman to deliver to the post office, and Arthur then went out to the brewery and calmly set in motion the necessary actions for the next day’s brewing.

Robert Marsden
Robert Marsden, photographed aged 15 or 16. Courtesy of Colleen Murphy

The coachman, whose name was Abdul Gafar, was on his way to the post office when he found Mabel lying on the path, and rushed to the house of Captain Donnelly nearby. The girl was carried to the Donnellys’ home by servants, and a doctor, who happened to be the Donnellys’ son-in-law, examined her and found that the second bullet her father had fired had glanced along her skull and lodged in her neck. She was still alive, but death had been very close, and initial reports said she was not expected to live.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s letter having been delivered to Lieutenant Barton, a squad of police led by the assistant commissioner, together with the civil surgeon, Dr O’Neill, had arrived at the brewery. There they found Catherine and her son lying dead where they had been shot. The police, amazingly, were unarmed, and all were thus unwilling to go hunting in the dark a madman with a revolver. Lieutenant Barton was getting ready an urgent appeal to the officer in charge of the local army depot to send 100 or 200 men to scour the countryside the next day and, if necessary, shoot Arthur down, when a policeman  came up and said that the murdering father had surrendered, quietly and calmly. He was taken away to the hawalat, or jail, where he remained under a strong guard while awaiting interrogation.

Arthur’s version of events, as related to the investigators, was that on the evening of the murders he had been threatened by his son, whom he was constantly upbraiding and finding fault with, and Robert had attempted to shoot his father, unsuccessfully. Arthur then shot his son, he claimed, in self-defence, and went on to shoot his wife and daughter in a fit of madness.

The inquiry into the murders accepted that there was “corroborative evidence” that Robert had levelled a gun at his father but that it had “snapped on an exploded cartridge”: Dr O’Neill, who had seen the bodies, stated at first that he was positive there was a gun on the floor beside Robert on the floor. As a result Arthur was sent to the Chief Court in Lahore to face charges of murdering his wife, the attempted murder of his daughter and “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the case of his son, though later Dr O’Neill said in court only that there “might have been” a gun on the floor. The trial was delayed until Mabel was well enough to give evidence. Meanwhile one newspaper in India wrote, ten days after the murders, that “popular feeling is turning round in sympathy” with Arthur: his wife, it was claimed, was “a shrew”, and “the evidence elicited in the trial goes a long way to show the miserable life his family has led him at home. His troubles seem to have dated from the day they were converted from Protestantism to Catholicism; and the subject of Masonry, Mr Marsden being a strong Mason, has always been a bitter bone of contention.”

Mabel Marsden
Mabel Marsden, photographed aged 14 or so. Picture courtesy of Colleen Murphy

At the trial, Arthur insisted that after he had argued with his son over Robert’s laziness, Robert had threatened to shoot him, he had run for his own revolver, and when Robert aimed a gun at him, he fired his revolver in self-defence. Mabel repeated her original statement that Arthur had shot her mother first and then her brother, and denied that her brother was lazy. She gave evidence that her father used to throw chairs and bottles at her mother, and had “a very bad temper, which used to get worse about the time of the new moon.”

The judge, in his summing up, emphasised the gun that might have been on the floor, as apparent evidence that Arthur’s account was believable, and stressed that Mabel’s evidence might not be completely reliable, after she had been shot in the head. He also suggested that it was possible Arthur was sane when he shot his son, believing he was defending himself, and insane when he shot his wife and daughter. The jury, evidently swayed by these arguments, found Arthur not guilty of murdering his son, on the grounds of self-defence, and guilty of causing the death of Catherine and of wounding Mabel, but they acquitted him of murder and attempted murder because of being temporarily insane, the last two verdicts possible under Indian law but not English law.

After the verdicts were announced, lawyers and members of the public went up to Arthur and gave him “hearty congratulations”, a reaction which appalled one Indian newspaper: “That the sober and educated members of an Anglo-Indian community should be offering congratulations to a man whose hands are stained with the blood of his whole family, and who could be regarded best as an irresponsible homicide would have seemed a week ago inconceivable.”

Arthur was not freed, however: the presiding judge, Sir Meredyth Plowden, said that he should be kept in custody in the Lahore Central Jail pending the orders of the Punjab government, to which the case would be reported. In February 1894 the Punjabi government, showing sense rather than sympathy, ruled that Arthur was a “dangerous criminal lunatic, who is sane except when in the least excited,” and orders were issued that he be detained in the Bhowanipur Lunatic Asylum, Calcutta. In 1902 he was sent to Port Blair, in the Andaman islands, where the Indian government often exiled dangerous political prisoners, though he was apparently allowed to roam about: in 1906 he was trying to marry “a native Christian girl”. In 1907 there were proposals to transfer him to a lunatic asylum in England, but the following year he was moved instead to the lunatic asylum in Lahore. He was still apparently being held in a lunatic asylum in 1914: what happened to Arthur over the next 17 years before his death in Lahore in February 1931, aged 85, I have been unable to discover.

Meanwhile there was one more tragedy to be played out among the Marsden brothers. Hector Marsden moved at some point to Solan, 15 miles to the south of Shimla, where he was manager from at least 1894 at the brewery opened there by Edward Dyer in 1877. A young subaltern in the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, who was stationed in Solan, wrote admiringly in June 1894: “Mr Dyer and his manager Mr Marsden at the Brewery here dispense hospitality with a lavish hand whenever we go over and as they have an excellent billiard table some of us are generally to be found there in the afternoon.” Hector was still in Solan in December 1895, when he was advertising a Webley revolver for sale, “in excellent condition”. Soon after this he returned home to England, where he was apparently living for a while in Derbyshire, possibly with or near his three sisters, who were lodgers in a house in the village of Baslow, in the Derbyshire Peak District. [Update: it appears their grandfather, George Eagles Marsden senior, had been born in Baslow – see comment from Peter Moynihan below.]. In July 1897 Hector and one of his sisters arrived in Seaford, on the Sussex coast, presumably on holiday, and were staying at a house in Carlton Terrace, Broad Street. On the night of Sunday July 18 Hector retired to his bedroom, apparently well. The next morning he was found on the floor of the bedroom with a revolver wound to the head. He was 39 years old.

Alfred Marsden’s daughter Mabel stayed in India, and went on to have a long career as a teacher, working at convents in Darjeeling and Simla, finally dying in 1960, aged 84. Of the four other children of Arthur and Catherine still alive at the time of the murders, who were all apparently away at Catholic schools in northern India themselves in 1893, Arthur junior, born 1878 in Nainital, became a professor of history and taught at St Xavier’s College, a Catholic establishment in Calcutta, dying in 1959 aged 81; Charles, born in Simla in 1883, died of smallpox about 1909; Cecil, born in Nainital in 1879, fought in the First World War in East Africa with the Calcutta Volunteer Battery, an artillery unit, and died in Calcutta in December 1929, aged 49 – he had been badly disfigured by a tiger at some time, and was looked after by his brother Arthur until his death; and Ethel, born in Nainital in 1880, who married a civil servant working for the Indian government in Simla in 1914, died in 1939. Ethel was the only one of Arthur and Catherine’s childen to have children herself: those children were brought up in India, and educated by nuns, who told them that Catherine and Robert had died on the same day of cholera, a story the family continued to believe.

With many thanks to Colleen Murphy for her researches into the Marsden family, without which this tale would have been very much poorer.

How I uncovered the long-forgotten story of America’s first porter brewery and then sat on it for three years

It’s a huge thrill to uncover facts that totally rewrite history. You’ll read in a great many places – here, for example, in a book published in 2014 – that the first porter brewed in America was made by Robert Hare, son of a London porter brewer, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1775. So when in 2017 I found an advertisement in an 18th century newspaper that showed porter being brewed in the American colonies ten years earlier than that, by someone else, in an entirely different state, it was shirt-over-the-head, run-round-the-room time.

Geography of Beer cover

Except that I found this story while researching for a chapter I was writing on the global spread of porter for the latest in the “Geography of Beer” series, published by Springer. I really wanted to keep the story I had found as an exclusive for the book, so I decided I couldn’t publish anything until the book came out. Ne’er mind, I thought, ’twill only mean a wait until early next year. Except that for a number of unfortunate reasons, publication of the book was delayed. And delayed. And delayed a bit more, leaving me sweating in case someone else stumbled over these same facts, and published the true story of America’s first porter brewer before I did. I had done some more digging, and found that the whole tale had appeared in a book written in 1968 about the now long-vanished estate where the first American commercial porter brewery was based: the author of that book, however, had failed to realise the significance of the story in the history of brewing, being more interested in the archaeology of the site and what it said about social conditions of the time. [Add: An article in Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society, in 2016, which I had forgotten about until reminded, mentioned the brewery concerned, and the fact that it made porter, but failed to point out that this was the earliest known brewing of the beer in America.]

So: The Geography of Beer: Culture and Economics (Nancy Hoalst-Pullen and Mark W. Patterson, eds) was finally published this month, and it being out and in the public domain, I can now tell you the full, short and ultimately rather sad and tragic story of America’s First Porter Brewery. Sit back, pour yourself something dark, and away we’ll go.

Britain’s American colonies in the mid-18th century provided a market for more than just the tea that was to cause problems in Boston in 1773. In 1766 the sums remitted to England for London porter by the merchants of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere were described as “very considerable”.

Growing imports of porter, and American colonists’ growing estrangement from Britain, eventually encouraged a Dublin-born American entrepreneur, lawyer and plantation owner, John Mercer, of Marlborough, Stafford County, Northern Virginia, to start brewing porter commercially, the first known porter brewery outside the British Isles. Mercer, the son of a Dublin merchant also named John, whose grandfather came from Chester in England, was born in February 1704 and came to America in 1720, aged 16. He had moved to Marlborough in 1726, initially leasing property in what was then a run-down settlement, and eventually built up a thriving tobacco plantation. He also began a career in the law and rose to be one of the top attorneys in Virginia, acting for George Washington among others, and a wealthy man. Late in the 1740s he poured money into turning his home in Marlborough into a Palladian manor house, filled with mirrors, marble-topped sideboards and furniture brought across the Atlantic from Europe.

As he entered his 60s, increasing illness, and deafness, forced Mercer to quit the law. He was also struggling with debts, and, looking around for a way to make money, decided “with self-deceptive optimism,” as one historian wrote, to start a brewery at Marlborough, reasoning that it could not fail to be profitable, because “our Ordinaries [inns and taverns] abound & daily increase, for drinking will continue longer than anything but eating.” He assured his son George that the venture “would quickly retrieve all my losses and misfortunes.” A brewery would, in any event, enable him to “brew for the family use, that they may have drink with their victuals” – the “family” here including Mercer’s black slaves, the Marlborough estate being home to “about 26 white people & 122 negroes.”

A portrait of John Mercer, courtesy of the Virginia State Library and Mrs Montague Blundon, via the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Mercer constructed a brewhouse and a malthouse, each 100 feet long and made of brick and stone, plus “Cellars, Cooper’s house [the brewery employed two coopers at £20 a year] & all the buildings, copper & utensils whatever, used about the brewery.” The purchases to equip the brewery included 50 yards of haircloth, a yard wide, for the malt kiln. Marlborough already had a windmill which could be used to grind the malt, but for the days when the wind did not blow, “I have now a hand-mill fixed in my brewhouse loft that will grind 50 bushels of malt (my coppers complement) every morning they brew.”

Mercer also laid out money on purchasing “about 40” black slaves, “to enable me to make Grain sufficient to carry on my brewery with my own hands,” and also began growing his own hops. He hired a man named Andrew Wales, or Wayles, “a young Scotch brewer,” who “affirmed that he had some years the charge of a brewhouse at Edinburgh,” and persuaded Mercer to spend £100 to alter the new malthouse. Another brewer, William King, arrived in September 1765, who condemned Wales’s alterations to the malthouse. King died the following month, but a short time later William Bailey arrived at Marlborough unannounced, sent by King’s nephew, a man named Wadman, and carrying with him a high recommendation as a brewer from his previous employer, Colonel John Tayloe, one of the richest plantation owners in Virginia. Tayloe said that Bailey’s brews had been “preferred by some gent. of distinction & good taste to very good Burton & other English ales.” Mercer wrote: “You may readily believe I did not hesitate to employ Bailey on such a recommendation, more especially as he agreed with King in blaming the alteration of the malt house & besides found great fault with Wales’s malting.”

Unsure which of the two, Bailey or Wales, was the better brewer, Mercer let both men brew separately. However, he wrote, “though Bailey found as much fault with Wales’s brewing as he did with his malting, that brewed by Wales was the only beer I had that Season fit to drink.” Bailey made enough beer to send a schooner-load of it to Norfolk, Virginia, but it was of such “bad character” that only two casks were sold. The rest had to be stored for two months, then returned to Marlborough. An attempt to distil it into whiskey was made, but with no success. Wales, although he had brewed drinkable beer, had only made around 550 gallons, the return on which was hardly enough to pay his £40 wages, let alone the maintenance for himself and his wife.

In 1766 the brewery made 550 bushels of malt, but the quality of much of the beer and ale produced was poor. Mercer wrote to his eldest son George that “Wales complains of my Overseer & says that he is obliged to wait for barley, coals & other things that are wanted which, if timely supplied with he could with six men & a boy manufacture 250 bushels a week which would clear £200 … My Overseer is a very good one & I believe as a planter equal to any in Virginia but you are sensible few planters are good farmers and barley is a farmer’s article.”

Despite the problems, in April 1766 Mercer took advertisements in the Virginia Gazette and the Maryland Gazette to promote the Marlborough Brewery’s “strong Beer and Porter at 18d and ale at 1s the gallon, Virginia currency, in cask, equal in goodness to any that can be imported from any part of the world,” and to give a kicking to the imported brew, declaring his own beer used “nothing but the genuine best Malt and Hops … without any mixture or substitute whatsoever, which, if the many treaties of brewing published in Great Britain did not mention to be frequently used there, the experience of those who have drunk those liquors imported from thence would point out to be the case, from their pernicious effects.”

Mercer revealed that he had spent “near 8000l to bring my brewery to its present state,” which, even assuming these were Virginian pounds, suggests an expenditure equivalent today to an enormous £1 million, and went on to say that “The severe treatment we have lately received from our Mother Country [a reference to the Stamp Act of 1765, introducing deeply unpopular taxes, and other revenue-raising legislation imposed on the colonies by London: Mercer was a committed and vociferous opponent of the Stamp Act], would, I should think, be sufficient to recommend my undertaking. (though I should not be able to come up to the English standard, which I do not question constantly to do).” The appeal to patriotic Americans to drink local porter in preference to imported was one that would be repeated by other brewers.

The first advertisement for American-brewed porter, in the Williamsburg Gazette, Virginia on April 25 1766

Bottles were a problem, and Mercer’s advertisement added: “Any person who sends bottles and corks may have them carefully filled and corked with beer or porter at 6s or with ale at 4s the dozen. I expect, in a little time, to have constant supply of bottles and corks; and if I meet the encouragement I hope for, propose setting up a glasshouse for making bottles, and to provide proper vessels to deliver to such customers as favour me with their orders such liquors as they direct, at the several landings they desire.”

Ignoring the problems with the quality of the beer produced at his brewery, Mercer remained optimistic, telling his son George: “It is affirmed that Virginia imports beer & ale to the amt of upwards of £30,000 Sterl. yearly (which is more than ten such breweries as mine could brew) little of what is imported is sold by any ordinary keeper who cannot import it on his own account, as there is little to be got by it, when purchased here whereas mine at 10d and 15d a gallon, to which I have reduc’d it upon the fall of exchange, will afford every ordinary keeper as much, if not more profit, than any other liquor he sells.”

He was also optimistic about starting his own glassworks to provide bottles for the brewery, telling George: “A Glass house to be built here must I am satisfied turn to great profit, they have some in New England & New York or the Jerseys & find by some resolves the New England men are determined to increase their number.” However, he was facing growing financial problems, despite employing a receiver to travel around northern Virginia calling on his debtors to try to recover the £10,000 he was owed. Still, he remained hugely optimistic, telling George early in 1768: “I can make my barley and hops, have coopers of my own, & beleive [sic] some of my own negroes coud malt & brew tho I shoud choose to employ an expert brewer & malster. Surely with so many advantages it is impossible I should fail, if I persevere.”

Just as the next brewing season began, however, in October 1768, Mercer died at home, leaving the heavily indebted estate in the control of his son James. James immediately started to sell off everything, from his father’s library of 1,200 books to his cattle and horses, including his prize stud horse Ranter, worth £330.

Marlborough Brewery advertisement, Virginia Gazette, November 23 1769

The brewery, however, kept going, under the control of Wales: on November 23 1769 the Virginia Gazette carried an advertisement from the Marlborough brewery for “a large quantity of extreme good beer and ale at 16d and 11d the gallon, including the casks; the casks are extremely good, and contain from 40 to 50 gallons.” “Mr Wayles the brewer” declared that he “has brewed four crops” (that is since the first in 1765) and has always made good liquor, and he thinks the present crop will be better than usual, as the grain is very good.” Indeed, “He is so confident of his success that he has agreed to pay for all that is not good … the whole has been brewed since the 20th of October last, and the beer will be fit for use in a fortnight, and the ale in three days after landing.” Such speedy maturation suggests the “beer” was now solely of the amber or pale kind, rather than porter. Would-be customers were told that “Captain Thomas Casson will carry about 120 casks up Rappahannock river within 20 days from this time,” and “he will call at all the towns and Gentlemens Houses on the river, and will lodge any quantity for Gentlemen in the forest where they shall please to direct.”

Sale of John Mercer’s brewing equipment, Virginia Gazette, November 8 1770

Commercial success clearly continued to elude the venture, and a year later, in November 1770, the  brewery equipment, which included “a copper that boils 500 gallons, several iron bound buts [sic] that contain a whole brewing each, coolers, &c &c and a quantity of new iron hoops and rivets for casks of different forms, lately imported,” together with much of the rest of the estate’s assets, was put up for sale. The last echo looks to have come the following year, in August 1771, when among the items being sold at an auction of goods from the Marlborough estate were “about two Hundred Weight of Hops of last Crop.”) James Mercer, an important figure in the politics of revolutionary Virginia, and subsequently a judge of the state’s General Court, apparently continued to live at Marlborough until his death in 1791: the estate passed to his half-brother John Francis Mercer, a soldier and politician, who sold it around 1800, after which it decayed over the next couple of decades until it effectively disappeared.


Addendum: to learn more about the career of Andrew Wales, click here

The legendary Mercer’s Meat Stout returns after 75 years

There is not a lot will make me drop everything and rush 200 miles north to Blackburn, but a message saying that the recipe for the legendary Mercer’s Meat Stout had been discovered in an attic and the beer was being brewed again got me on the first available train out of Euston.

Guinness might be good for you, but meat stout is better …

Mercer’s Meat Stout must be the weirdest beer ever brewed by a mainstream British brewer. It first appeared just before the First World War, and early advertising claimed that it was “brewed with the addition of a specially prepared meat extract.” It was introduced by Harold Irving Mercer, son of the founder of the Plough brewery in Adlington, Lancashire, John Mercer, who had died in 1907, and advertised in 1914 as “The Body Building Beverage for Brain Bone and Blood”.

It was part of a trend for “nourishing stouts” in vogue since a London wine merchant named George Raggett passed off Truman’s stout as “Raggett’s Nourishing Stout” in 1860, and which had seen “invalids’ stout” appear as early as 1861, “nursing stout” in 1867, “oat malt stout” (celebrated for its restorative properties) in 1895, and milk stout (“anti-rheumatic, energising”) in 1909.

Mercer’s was taken over by its bigger rival, Dutton’s of Blackburn, ten miles to the north, in March 1929, and the following month someone (presumably Mercer’s head brewer, perhaps Harold Mercer him self) typed up, or had typed up, a complete seven-page document headed “Meat Stout Brewing”, clearly instructions for Dutton’s on how to produce what was a popular beer in Lancashire. Mercer’s brewery closed in 1936, and the brewing of meat stout continued at Dutton’s Salford brewery in Bow Street, Blackburn until around 1943: it was still on sale in April 1942, priced at one shilling and five pence for a pint bottle, 9½ pence for a half-pint, against Mackeson milk stout and Guinness at one shilling and sixpence per pint bottle and Whitbread’s Oatmeal Stout and John Smith’s Milk Stout at one shilling and four pence a pint.

Mercer’s Meat Stout advertised on the outside of an unidentified Dutton’s pub some time in the 1930s

Quite likely the end came because of the increasing difficulty in the middle of the Second World War of getting hold of the large quantities of the tightly rationed sugars of various types that went into the brewing of meat stout: more than 14 pounds to the barrel. (Harold Mercer died in October 1943, aged 64, at his home in Bare Lane, Bare, Morecambe, meaning his best-known beer disappeared off the planet around the same time that he did.)

The recipe remained in Dutton’s possession even after meat stout stopped being made, and when the brewery in Blackburn closed in 1978, 14 years after it had been bought out by Whitbread, a brewer at Bow Street named Derek Malcolm Dixon decided that he did not wish to transfer to the new Whitbread brewery at Salmesbury and, though only 50, he would take his pension – and the recipe –  and retire. (Today Salmesbury is owned by AB InBev and produces Stella and Bud.) Derek died a few years later, aged just 58, and the recipe for meat stout that he had removed from work was inherited, along with a couple of brewing books and a hydrometer, by his son Phil.

Phil then misplaced the recipe for more than 30 years, until the boom in craft brewing spurred him to look for it and, when he found it, to take it to a local craft brewery, Three B’s, based at the Black Bull inn, in the countryside just outside Blackburn, to see if they would like to try to reproduce it. Brewery founder Robert Bell and his son Mark did their best with matching the original ingredients from 1929, which included more than 200 pounds of something called “meat extract caramel”, made by the food additives and flavourings manufacturer A. Boake, Roberts & Co of Stratford, East London, which disappeared about the same time that Dutton’s brewery did.

The yeast “goes a bit daft” on its introduction to Bovril

Not having “meat extract caramel”, the Bells improvised with Bovril: two catering packs-worth, 900 grams in all, added at the whirlpool stage. The recipe they came up with also included pale Maris Otter malt, roast barley, black malt, wheat malt and treacle, with Goldings, Fuggles and Northern Brewer hops. The yeast certainly appreciated the Bovril: when Rob Bell came back three hours after pitching, it was “going a bit daft,” in his own words, with a river of foaming, frothing yeast pouring from the four-barrel fermenter all over the brewhouse floor.

The final result was a 5.5 per cent abv deep black stout with a fine creamy head, and complex layers of flavour, matching sweetness with bitterness, and a touch of dryness in the finish. The Bells called it Winter Warmer Stout, rather than meat stout, worrying that drinkers would be put off by the name, but the reaction in the Black Bull pub from customers has been highly enthusiastic, and Phil Dixon is delighted: “I’m over the moon with the beer – I couldn’t have expected it to be any better, they’ve done a really good job of brewing it,” he told me. Phil is one of the few people around to be able to make any sort of comparison with the Mercer’s Meat Stout of old: his father was a home-brewer after he retired, and “as far as I’m aware this is one of the recipes he brewed at home. I remember tasting a brew that can’t have been anything else, it was very similar.

Phil Dixon at the Black Bull with a pint of the revived Meat Stout

“It was mashed in a bath, and then the wort was transferred into one of those top-loading washing machines to be boiled with hops, and then it was pumped out and fermented. So we couldn’t have a bath for a week and we couldn’t wash our clothes.”

Although the Three B’s brewery, which is now 20 years old, though it only moved to its present site a former Daniel Thwaites pub, in 2011, delivers its beers to 30 or 40 pubs a week, the revived Mercer’s Meat Stout will only be on sale at the Black Bull. If you want to try it, be warned that the pub is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and only open from 4pm Wednesdays to Fridays, though it opens at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. The Black Bull does not serve food, and it has no televisions and no fruit machines – “it’s a talking pub,” Mark Bell says.

The original recipe, meanwhile, is a fascinating document, revealing much about the methods used by a small North of England brewer in the 1920s. Three different types of coloured malt went into Meat Stout, for example, amber, black and crystal, made by Charles E. Seed Ltd of Clayton, Bradford, Yorkshire, and the recipe is firm about their use: “These Patent Malts should be mashed within about 48 hours of being roasted. Seeds send them to us newly roasted specially for each brew by passenger train [a journey of some 40 miles]. We pay half the carriage. (note: Black Malt is NOT mashed. It is added to copper at start of second 50-minute boil.)” Those three made up seven per cent of the grain bill each: 68 per cent was “high dried” Norfolk and Californian malt from the Leeds maltsters W.J. Robson & Co, and 11.5 per cent was flaked maize from the Liverpool Malt Co Ltd.

The hops were a real mix, though annoyingly the author of the recipe gave only the geographical origins of the hops used, not their varieties: not quite a quarter 1928 Worcesters, the same amount of 1928 Kents, 15 per cent each 1927 Kents and Worcesters, nine per cent 1927 “Continentals”, the same amount of 1927 “Oregons” (possibly Fuggles, through probably Clusters), three per cent 1925 Oregons and three per cent “sundry pieces to use up end of pockets”. There were also 18 pounds of “stew hops”, a mixture of 1928 “choicest” Worcesters and Kents, which were placed in a bag with a chain attached and hung in the copper for 20 minutes after the 110-minute boil was over, to be retained and reused in the next brew; and 4½ pounds of White, Tompkins & Courages Hop Concentrate, equivalent of 54 pounds of leaf hops, to give 192 pounds of hops for 80 barrels, or two pounds 6.4 ounces of hops per barrel.

Other wacky ingredients in the recipe besides that mysterious “Meat Extract Caramel” (Boake, Roberts & Co’s records are at Hackney Local Archives, apparently: time for a trip to East London) are “copper wort adjunct” from George Clark & Son Ltd of Millwall Docks in London, “a slowly fermentable sugar for use in the copper with all types of beer”, designed to give palate-fulness at a lower gravity; “Jetose Caramel”, which looks to be a typographical error for “ketose caramel” (j and k are adjacent on the keyboard) from the Liverpool sugar manufacturer Harvey Steel; and “block juice”, “a solid block, resembling coal, but with the overpowering liquorice flavour and bitter-sweet taste”, from the Manchester-based chemists J. Woolley Sons & Co. It is notable, though of course, not surprising, that most of the suppliers were from the North of England.

Other points from the recipe: the stout was dry-hopped at a rate of two ounces of 1928 Worcesters, two ounces of 1928 Kents and 1½ ounces of 1927 Oregons per barrel for the draught version and five ounces of 1928 Worcesters, two ounces of 1928 Kents and three ounces of 1927 Oregons per barrel for the bottled version, and the draught version was primed with around two pints three fluid ounces of 1148ºOG priming solution to give a gravity equivalent to 1056º; and the bottled stout was delivered “as near as is practical … new bottled to the customer. The ideal is to bottle it and load it on the motors direct off the bottling machine.”

Very many thanks indeed to Phil Dixon’s late father for preserving the recipe for Mercer’s Meat Stout, and to Phil for finding it again and persuading the Three B’s brewery to reproduce it, and then telling me about it (this is not such a great scoop as I thought it was at first, as there is apparently a version of the recipe in the Whitbread archives, and Brian Glover mentions it in one of his books, though it appears to be two pages shorter than the Dixon version) and very many thanks to Rob and Mark Bell for picking me up at Blackburn Station, driving me to the Black Bull and filling me with excellent stout. I very sincerely hope this will not be the last time we see Mercer’s Meat Stout on a bar top again.

Rob and Mark Bell: thanks very much, guys, athat’s a great beer you brewed

How even giant multi-national brewing corporations can screw it up by lazily copying and pasting

Rule number one in the history writing biz is: don’t just copy-and-paste stuff off the internet (or from anywhere else), because the chances are high that what you have copied is wrong, and some fecker (me, in this case) will come along and hold you up to ridicule and abuse.

I’m talking about you, today, Carlsberg, for some egregious copying-and-pasting with no original research at all on your corporate website, which claims, vis-à-vis the Lion brewery in Sri Lanka, a fair slice of which is owned by the Danes, that

“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1881 by Sir Samuel Backer as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. With its cool climate and natural spring water, Nuwara Eilya was the ideal location for a brewery. It acquired limited liability company status in 1911.”

Let us deconstruct this nonsense. The man they are talking about as the alleged founder of the Ceylon Brewery was actually Samuel Baker, not Backer. He started a small brewery at the hill station of Nuwara Eliya, high in the mountains of what was then Ceylon, around 1849/50, which closed a few years later. It was not built to cater for tea plantations, because there were none in Ceylon at that time: the first tea field on the island was only planted in 1867. Baker’s brewery was nothing to do with the brewery that opened 26 years after he left Nuwara Eliya. That brewery did not rely on spring water, but a stream that flowed down through the brewery site from the Lover’s Leap waterfall nearby. The brewery founded in 1881, which was, of course, the second on the island, after Baker’s, became a limited company in 1910.

Mind, even at five errors in four sentences, that’s not the worst pile of nonsense on the internet about what is now the Lion Brewery, famous today for an award-winning strong stout that is one of the last links with British colonial brewing in Southern Asia. The Lion Brewery’s own website is full of rubbish (and bizarre random capitalisation) as well:

“It is in 1860 that our story Begins. British Planter Sir Samuel Baker decided to establish a home brewery in the cool climes of Nuwara Eliya, although it was in 1881 that the facet of commercial brewing is evidenced, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. Ownership changed in 1884 to Murrey Brewery Company Rawalpindi, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, helmed by the pragmatic J B Hampson and later G W Lindsay White, who founded The Ceylon Brewery Limited in 1911.”

At least that doesn’t claim that Baker actually founded the concern that became the Ceylon Brewery Ltd, but there are still some very odd errors there. Baker had left Ceylon for Britain in 1855 (and he wasn’t knighted until 1866), so our story doesn’t begin in 1860 at all. “Pa Bavary” is a bizarre mangling: this was actually a young Belgian brewer and chemist called Auguste de Bavay. The brewery he started with a Nuwara Eliya planter named Mountsteven Bremer in 1881 suffered from a serious lack of capital, and collapsed early in 1884, and it was subsequently bought by the Murree Brewery Company (not Murrey) of Ghora Gali, 30 miles from Rawalpindi. (De Bavay left Ceylon in March 1884 to take up a position as brewer with T & A Aitken’s Victoria Parade brewery in Melbourne, Australia. He went on to have an extremely successful career as a brewer, chemist and yeast scientist, building on the work of Emil Christian Hansen at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen to develop the first pure yeast used commercially in Australia, and joined Foster’s brewery in Melbourne as chief brewer in 1894, later acting as a consultant for, among others, the Swan Brewery in Perth and the Cascade brewery in Tasmania. He also had success in areas as diverse as bacteriology, metallurgy and paper making.)

The Murree Brewery Company ran the brewery in Nuwara Eliya for nine years, before pulling out, and the concern was acquired around April 1893 by a consortium led by the former transport agent for the business, an Irishman called George William Lindsay White, who was managing director of the Ceylon Brewery for nearly 30 years until a year or so before his death aged 77 in 1922. Under Lindsay White the Ceylon Brewery became a limited company in 1910. I have no idea how “the pragmatic J B Hampson” got into the story so early: John Bagshawe Hampson was a child, at best, when Lindsay White died. He was a student brewer at Samuel Smith’s in Tadcaster in 1939, and had moved to the Ceylon Brewery by 1950 when the first of his three children was born and christened in Nuwara Eliya. Hampson was manager at the brewery until 1963, when he returned to England to work for Porter-Lancastrian. So that’s six errors by the Lion brewery, five new and one repeated.

I used to slag off Wikipedia for its multiple errors, but the general level of accuracy has improved greatly over the past ten or 12 years. However, the entry on the Lion Brewery repeats most of the inaccuracies on the Carlsberg and Lion websites and adds some extra, just for you:

“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery established in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1849 by Sir Samuel Baker (1821–93) as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya was the ideal location for a brewery, with its cool climate and natural spring water. It wasn’t however until 1881 that it began brewing on a commercial basis, with the Ceylon Brewery Company, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. In 1884 the brewery was taken over by the Mohan Meakin Brewery of India, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, operated by John Bagshawe Hampson. In 1911 the brewery was acquired by G.W. Lindsay White and received limited liability company status, as the Ceylon Brewery Limited.”

That’s ten errors, including the Murree Brewery Company inaccurately and anachronistically being called “Mohan Meakin”: not only did the name Mohan Meakin not exist until the 1960s, but the Murree Brewery Company was always (and remains) a separate concern from the constituents of what became Mohan Meakin. Anyone digging into the history of brewing in India ought to know that. I also struggle to understand how anyone could look at “Pa Bavary” and not think: “Hang on, that can’t be right.” This is really not at all difficult to research: the British Library can give you web access to scanned, OCR’d copies of the Ceylon Observer, where you can speedily find the facts about De Bavay, Bremer, the Murree Brewery Company and the rest. Some trifling online detectiving, and gaps in the narrative, such as De Bavay’s and Bremer’s first names, can be filled in. It took me a morning.

Of course, the appearance of “Pa Bavary” in the Wikipedia entry means this invented individual now pops up in a host of different places. “Rewrite the Wikipedia entry!” you cry – thanks, but I don’t have the time right now to mess with Wikipedia’s templates, only to have some clown revert it later because it’s “original research”. I am also reluctant to help Wikipedia while it maintains its indefensible stance that it knows better than the Manners family how to spell the title of the Marquis of Granby: while “Marquess” is the spelling preferred by many families in Britain who use that title, the Manners family is one of those that uses the spelling “Marquis” in the courtesy title of the Duke of Rutland’s eldest son. Wikipedia, however, has decreed that its style for the title is “Marquess”, and in the face of all the evidence insists on calling the man who gave his name to so many pubs the “Marquess of Granby”. It’s rich when a pub sign is more accurate than an on-line encyclopedia.

The Great Manchester Beer Flood of 1831

Anything they do in That London, Manchester can do as well, including the catastrophic collapse of a giant vat full of maturing porter. Admittedly the Great London Beer Flood of 1814 was rather bigger than the event in Lancashire 17 years later, with the vat that burst at Meux’s brewery, off Tottenham Court Road, containing nearly six times as much porter as the one that collapsed at Mottram’s brewery in Salford in 1831, but eight people, all women and children, died in the London flood, while the only real victim of the one in Salford was a pig that must have had a serious hangover the next day.

Here’s a report of the event in Manchester, from an Irish newspaper, the Westmeath Journal, in Mullingar, Thursday 3 March 1831, p2:

Another newspaper had a slightly different take on the event, including the drunken pig. This is from the Chester Courant of Tuesday March 1 1831, courtesy of Peter Dyer:

A Flood of Porter – On Wednesday morning a large porter vat, containing about 380 barrels of the best brown stout, burst on the premises of Messrs. Mottram, in Brewery-street, Salford (Manchester.) The liquid rushed out with such force as to carry before it a portion of a wall, under which it nearly buried a man and horse, which were at the outside. Another man, who was in the same room in which the vat stood, was carried out into the yard by the flood. The beer overflowed a pond, and was for a few minutes two feet deep in the cellar of a cottage. All sorts of vessels were in requisition for carrying off the precious liquid from the pond. Among other comers was a sow, which was seen in the course of the day staggering off in a state of disgusting inebriety. The loss from the accident, we regret to state, is estimated at from £700 to £1000.

The Westmeath Journal was right to say that London brewers “occasionally” suffered from such “casualties”: among others there were at least two vat collapses at Whitbread’s brewery in Chiswell Street, in 1776 and 1794, in the latter of which hundreds of rats “were taken up by pailfuls in an intoxicated state,” while one of four vats, each containing 1,500 barrels, collapsed at Henry Thrale’s Anchor brewery in Southwark (later Barclay Perkins) in 1772. Outside London, a 530-barrel vat collapsed at Searanke and Biggs’s brewery in Hatfield, Hertfordshire in 1805, though locals with “tubs and pails”, knee-deep in beer, managed to save around 150 barrels-worth of beer; and a 40-fee-high vat containing 720 barrels of vinegar burst at Fardon’s vinegar brewery in Westley Street, Birmingham on Christmas day, 1891, flooding the surrounding streets several feet deep: THAT must have stunk.

In Cork, Ireland, in 1913 a 560-barrel vat at Murphy’s Lady’s Well brewery burst. One brewery worker, who had been underneath the vat when it collapsed, had to swim 40 yards through porter to save himself as the stream carried him along. Outside in the street the porter was diluted with water from a fire-hose by quick-reacting brewery workers, to stop anyone from trying to drink it.

Mottram’s brewery, incidentally, looks to have recovered from its loss and ran through until 1897, when it was acquired by a local rival, the Cornbrook Brewery Co. Ltd, itself acquired by Eddie Taylor’s United Breweries in 1961.

By coincidence, on the same page of the Westmeath Journal as the story about the collapsing vat was another report of an accident at a brewery, this time more tragic:
The newspaper report suggests the poor victim’s internal pain was caused by his diving into the cold water after the accident: my understanding of how this works is that in fact he almost certainly didn’t stay in the cold water long enough. If you’re unlucky enough to be badly burnt or scalded, you have to cool down the affected parts as much and as quickly as possible, because otherwise the underlying flesh, muscle and organs stay very hot, conpounding the harm the heat has already done. This was discovered in the Second World War, when doctors realised that badly burnt RAF pilots who had ditched in the sea recovered much better from their injuries than those who had bailed out over or crashed on land: the cold sea water cooled down their burnt bodies internally and lessened the harm. Morris’s brewery in Lewes became Ballard’s in 1876, which was acquired by Page & Overton’s brewery in Croydon in 1927.

Everything You Don’t Want To Know About Guinness: ten Guinness myths that need stamping out now

Arthur Guinness pictured about 1765, when he was 41

Millions of words, and dozens of books, have been written about Guinness, the beer, the brewery, and the family, and a perhaps surprising amount of inaccurate mythology (and sometimes pure nonsense) has crept into the story. Here is a short list of some of the “facts” that writers, some of them supposedly authoritative sources, most frequently get wrong about Guinness, which you’ll find repeated all over the interwebs, whenever someone lazily repeats something someone else never bothered checking:

“Arthur Guinness was born in 1725.”
Almost certainly not. His memorial in Oughterard graveyard, Kildare, states that he was “aged 78 years” when he died on January 23 1803. This means that he must have been born some time between the last week in January 1724 and the first three weeks, two days of 1725, making it around 15 to 1 on that he was, in fact, born in 1724.

“Arthur’s father, Richard Guinness, brewed beer for Arthur Price, the Archbishop of Cashel … One of Richard Guinness’s duties was to supervise the brewing of beer for the workers on the Archbishop’s estate.”
There is no evidence at all – AT ALL – that Richard Guinness, or Arthur Guinness, ever brewed for Price, at any time. There was no brewing for “the estate workers” because the home that Price built in the village, Celbridge House (now Oakley Park) did not actually have an estate attached, only a few acres. In any case, if any household brewing took place, it would have been done by lower-grade servants, not someone who was being referred to in the 1740s as “Richard Guinness, gent”.

Richard Guinness worked for Arthur Price from at least 1722, when Price was Dean of Kildare (having been Vicar of Celbridge since 1704), and already on his way up the ecclesiastical career ladder to an eventual archbishop’s mitre. However, Richard’s role was as household agent, receiver, factotum and steward to Price, based in Celbridge.

The “Richard Guinness brewed for Archbishop Price” myth is sometimes supported with invented “facts” – here’s the Oxford Companion to Beer making stuff up:
“In 1722 Arthur Price purchased the small, local Kildrought Brewery and placed Richard Guinness in charge of production.”
An ounce of fact has been spun into a pound of fiction by people not thinking hard enough. Come on: what would a high-flying Protestant cleric be doing getting involved in anything as low-life as a commercial brewery? The facts: In 1722 Arthur Price bought a house, stables, garden and maltings in Celbridge that had previously been occupied by a brewer, James Carbery. The house was bought, apparently, as a home for Price’s employee Richard Guinness and Richard’s family. Carbery, meanwhile, stayed on in the brewery and inn next door, which is still in operation as a drinking place today. (“Kildrought”, incidentally, is the older form of Celbridge, from the Irtish Cill Droichid, “Church by the bridge.”

Breen’s Hotel, Celbridge, circa 1890: Arthur Guinness’s first home can just be seen on the left

Edward Bourke in The Guinness Story claims on no known evidence that it was Richard Guinness who “leased James Carbery’s Brewery in Celbridge in 1722. (The location is now the Mucky Duck pub).” Three errors here the “Mucky Duck” site is the house that stood in front of James Carbery’s maltings, not the brewery, and it was this house that was Arthur Guinness’s first home: there is no evidence of brewing there, and it wasn’t leased by Richard Guinness, but bought by Arthur Price. (Celbridge pubs seem to have an unfortunate habit of changing their names: the Mucky Duck currently [March 2019] appears to be called simply the Duck, while James Carbery’s former brewery and pub became Breen’s Hotel, then King’s, then Norris’s, and is currently the Village Inn: on the wall of the Village Inn is a plaque that misspells Carbery’s surname.)

Sometimes the story develops into total fantasy. Here’s the idiocy that Stephen Mansfield, author of The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, came up with:
“The archbishop’s estate was known for the dark beer that was brewed there, the pride of Dr Price and the envy of his guests. Many a guest tried to question the reverend’s trusted agent to find out how he produced such a fine-tasting drink. Naturally, Richard, proud of his celebrated dark stout, would never say. Some said that Richard Guinness once accidentally roasted his barley too long and that the caramelized result was stronger and better than any other brew.”
Laughable. Barley roasted too long will never “caramelize,” of course, which requires the presence of sugar, and roasting certainly won’t make beer stronger: the opposite, indeed, since the roasting destroys starch that could become sugar that could become alcohol..

Main Street, Celbridge, with Arthur Guinness’s first home to the left of the arch, and James Carbery’s brewery to the right.

There’s worse, amazingly. Sometimes the story becomes garbled into total nonsense, like this, which is copied verbatim from, of all places, the Northern Ireland Tourist Guide hub:
“The original Guinness recipe is said to have been created by a Welshman known as Arthur Price. Arthur brought the recipe to Ireland and hired Richard Guinness as a servant. The recipe would be passed on to Guinness who would, of course, create the drink we all know and love.”

Another bizarre and distorted version of Richard Guinness’s early career appeared in a book called Here and There Memories by the sporting writer John Joseph Dunne, published in 1898. Dunne, whose other books include How and Where to Fish in Ireland: A Hand-guide for Anglers, was presumably spun the yarn while dipping his rod in the Liffey, which flows past Celbridge. According to Dunne, “the first Guinness was an ostler at the Bear and Ragged Staff, a little inn at Celbridge,” whose talent as a brewer (no, I don’t know what an ostler, whose place was in the stables, was doing in the brewhouse either) was spotted by a brewer called Sweetman from Dublin, who “brought him into his employ.” Multiple problems here: no evidence of an inn at Celbridge called the Bear and Ragged Staff (though there WAS a Bear Inn in the village in the mid-1800s); no evidence that Richard Guinness was ever an ostler, which would not, in any case, fit with his later career as man of business for the Reverend Dr Price, something that implies much more education than an ostler is likely to have had; no evidence tbat Guinness every worked for the Sweetmans; and the Sweetmans were a dynasty of Catholic brewers, thus unlikely, anyway, to be hiring the Protestant Guinness.

However, Dunne’s story appealed enough to be repeated in at least one Irish paper, the marvellously mastheaded Nenagh News and Tipperary Vindicator (where do Irish traffic cops live? Nenagh, nenagh, nenagh …) and has subsequently polluted history, so that you can now find claims that Richard was actually the proprietor of a Celbridge inn called the Bear and Ragged Staff. In fact, the year Dr Price died, 1752, Richard married a widow called Elizabeth Clare, who had been leasing the White Hart inn in Celbridge since 1749, an inn that had been mentioned by an English traveller in 1732 in terms that suggested it was the main inn in the village. For inexplicable reasons a number of websites give Richard’s second wife’s surname as Clere: the marriage records clearly show it to be Clare, and when her son Benjamin married Richard’s daughter Elizabeth, the surname again was given as Clare. (When the White Hart disappeared does not seem to be known: it has been claimed that it was being run by a man called Thomas Coleman in the 1890s, but Coleman’s inn remains unnamed in all the mentions I have been able to find.)

The St James’s Gate brewery, Dublin in the 1840s or so

Richard Guinness – and Arthur – most likely learned to brew after Richard’s marriage to Elizabeth Clare, and the Guinnesses’ new involvement with the White Hart, which happened when Arthur was 28. Three years after that, in 1755, Arthur acquired a proper brewery, in Leixlip, just two and a half miles away for an Irish crow, though rather further by Irish roads. Another persistent myth involves the £100 each that Richard Guinness and his son Arthur were left in Archbishop Price’s will when the prelate died in 1752. The Oxford Companion to Beer fantasising again, claims, that “Price … specified that [the £100] should be used to expand the brewery.” Of course, there is actually nothing in Price’s will to support this nonsense.

Plenty more people assert, again without evidence, and without thinking if the claim makes sense, that:
“Arthur Guinness inherited £100 from his godfather Archbishop Price in 1752, and used the money to set up a brewery in Leixlip.”
Ignoring the three-year gap between Arthur being left money by the archbishop and the acquisition of the Leixlip brewery, £100 in the mid-18th century is the equivalent today of only £14,000 today, not enough to start a business on. It is clear that, rather than Arthur relying on the archbishop’s bequest to start his career, Richard Guinness was able to save enough in the three decades he worked for Price, and then the three years he spent running the White Hart with his new wife, to help fund his eldest son’s move into commercial brewing, which would have needed much more than £100.

Occasionally the mythologists ignore the Leixlip brewery and try to claim Arthur used his £100 inheritance to purchase the lease at St James’s Gate. The date that Arthur acquired his first brewery is often incorrectly claimed as 1756. To be fair, a major study of Arthur’s earliest years, Lynch and Vaisey’s Guinness’s Brewery in the Irish Economy 1759-1876, gets this wrong, mixing up the brewery acquisition with a later land purchase in Leixlip by Arthur. The Leixlip brewery was taken on in 1755: Arthur was named as “of Leixlip, Co Kildare, brewer” in September that year, and in 1773 he was described as a brewer of 18 years’ standing. The date of 1756 applies to more property in Leixlip that Arthur began leasing that year from an American, “George Bryan of Philadelphia in the province of Pennsylvania.”

A short history of Asahi, in which beer gets called ‘bitter horse-piss wine’

In view of recent events, I thought people might be interested in a short history of Asahi Breweries …

Beer was introduced into Japan by the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed to trade with the country after the expulsion of the Portuguese early in the 17th century, and who would take biiru with them when they made their compulsory once-a-year trip from their base in Nagasaki to the Emperor’s palace in Edo (now Tokyo). However, it was not until Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan in the 1850s to try to push the shogunate into opening diplomatic relationships with the United States that the locals made any proper analysis of this new drink, after the American delegation on Perry’s second trip to Japan in 1854 presented officials with gifts including three casks of beer. Japanese opinion was divided: one called it “magic water”, while another described the beer as “bitter horse-piss wine”.

The treaties signed between Japan and the US saw Yokohama opened from 1858 as a place for European traders to settle, and in 1863 military forces from Britain and France arrived in Yokohama to protect the increasing numbers of their nationals based in the city. Two years later, according to an article published in the China Mail newspaper in Hong Kong on October 19 1878, two foreigners, one an Englishman called Campbell and the other an American called Langthorne, began to brew beer in Yokohama, at the first commercial brewery in Japan. Campbell and Langthorne are deeply obscure and nothing more seems to be known of them, not even their first names. Their business did not last long, according to the China Mail, at least in part because of increasing imports of beer from Europe and America: the newspaper wrote that “either because in those days the foreign denizens of Yokohama were so rich or so extravagant as to despise any but the produce of the famed distant vats of Burton, Edinburgh and Dublin, or because the projectors had not sufficient knowledge of their art to make their liquor palatable, or capital enough to work and wait until it had created a reputation and a market, they soon abandoned their enterprise; and the buildings they erected were subsequently pulled down.”

In 1868, however, the wonderfully named Marinus Johannes Benjamin Noordhoek Hegt, born in the Netherlands in 1821, a sea captain and merchant who came to Yokohama in 1860, opened a small brewery at No 46 Bluff, part of Yokohama’s designated European district, where there was a deep well on the site. Hegt hired as his brewer Emil Wiegand, a brewer from Germany who had emigrated from Hessen at the end of 1853, aged 19, via Bremen, arriving in New York on January 6, 1854. Wiegand was apparently naturalised in Philadelphia in 1856, and looks to have spent 11 years in the eastern US, presumably working in local German-run breweries, before leaving New York on December 1 1867 to travel to California via Nicaragua. He spent barely a year in San Francisco before moving to Japan, arriving there, according to a deposition he made later in a tribunal at the US consulate general, in 1869 after signing a contract to manage the “Japan Yokohama Brewery”.

Hegt’s brewery inspired a man called William Copeland, born Johan Bartinius – sic– Thoresen in Tromøy, in southern Norway, in May 1834, to build a brewery of his own on the site first used by Campbell and Langthorne, No 123 Bluff, which had as its chief attraction a source of “singularly pure” water, and which became known as the Spring Valley Brewery. Copeland, who had arrived in Japan in 1864 (and whose middle name changed to Martinius at some point) made his first brew in January 1870, shortly after Hegt had moved to larger premises at Bluff lot 68 in 1869. The two rival breweries ran in competition with each other until June 1876, when the owners agreed to a merger, and Copeland and Wiegand brewed at the Spring Valley Brewery site, using Bluff lot 68 as a maltings, until the maltings were destroyed by fire in 1877.

The Spring Valley Brewery made lager during the summer, and “‘English ale’, ‘Bock’ and ‘Bavarian’ beer, demanded by the better sort of customer” during the winter. The beer was exported to Tokyo, Nagasaki and other Japanese towns, and as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Copeland and Wiegand brewed together as co-partners until the end of 1879, when Wiegand filed a bill with the US consular court in Yokohama for a dissolution of the partnership, alleging “fraudulent acts and other irregularities” by Copeland. The American consul general, who had the legal right to hear cases in Japan involving American citizens, found Copeland not guilty, but it was agreed that the partnership should be dissolved anyway and the firm wound up, with its assets sold. The brewery was estimated to be worth some £32,500, and Wiegand, who had bought much less to the partnership than Copeland, was due $6,250 of that. Unfortunately the only bidder for the brewery was Copeland, who bought the business back in February 1880 for just $12,000, which meant that not only did Wiegand not get anything, he now owed Copeland several thousand dollars. Wiegand eventually died in San Francisco in 1887, aged 47.

In 1880, meanwhile, Copeland was involved in another lawsuit between himself and his head clerk, which was again settled by the US consul in favour of Copeland. However, the suit bankrupted the Spring Valley business, and though Copeland continued brewing by himself until 1882, the business went under in an economic recession. Two years later, on July 1884, the Spring Valley brewery was sold by the US Marshall by order of the US Consular Court for $11,500. The London and China Telegraph of September 22 1884 wrote that “this property is estimated to have cost the late proprietor over $60,000.” Who bought it remains unclear, but on April 27 1885 the London and China Telegraph reported that two fires had recently broken out at the premises of the Spring Valley Brewery on the Bluff, Yokohama, and in the first, which began at 8pm on March 13, the block was destroyed which housed in its lower portion the “extensive” brewery plant. The plant and buildings were insured for $5,000 in the Lancashire and the City of London Insurance Companies, but “the brewery plant could not be replaced for at least three times that amount.”

Two months after the fire, in May 1885, the first meeting was held of resident foreigners in Yokohama that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Japan Brewery Company Ltd, set up with mixed Japanese and foreign investment. This company quickly acquired the Spring Valley brewery site to build its own brewery, taking advantage of the site’s water supply. The new concern eventually launched its “Kirin beer” in 1888, and changed its name to Kirin in 1906.

By now the Japanese brewing industry had become thoroughly “Nipponised”, helped by men such as Nakagawa Seibei. Nakagawa (in Japan, surnames are given first) travelled at his own expense from his homeland to Germany in 1872, hoping to learn a foreign skill he could use back in Japan. He was advised to study brewing, and spent more than two years, from 1873 to 1875, at a brewery in Fürstenwald owned by the Berlin brewery Tivoli.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Nakagawa, who was only 24 when he arrived in Germany, where everything – the language, the architecture, the food and drink, the clothing, the entire way of life – was utterly alien to all he had known previously. On his return to Japan with a certificate of study from the Tivoli brewery, Nakagawa was hired by the Japanese government to build a brewery in the newly founded city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which was being rapidly developed in response to a possible invasion threat from Russia. The brewery made its first German-style lager in 1876, and was sold by the government to private investors ten years later.

Between 1869 and 1872 there were more than a hundred brewery start-ups in Japan, most being small and deeply obscure, with very little now known about them. All, or at least all those about whom sufficient details are known, concentrated on producing German-style beers, mostly because Japanese beer drinkers needed the reassurance that domestic brewers were using the same techniques and ingredients as foreign brewers in order to buy Japanese-brewed rather than imported beer. Among the start-ups was one begun by Torii Komakichi, a well-known sake brewer from Sakai, south of Osaka, a city in the south-central region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. In 1888 Torii’s Osaka Beer Brewing Company sent Ikuta Hiizu to Germany to study brewing at the brewery school in Weihenstephan, Bavaria. Ikuta returned to Japan in 1889, where he was appointed manager and technical director of a new brewery built at Suita Mura, on the edge of Osaka, which was completed in 1891. The plans for the brewery were drawn up in Germany, although it was built by an Osaka constructor, and all the brewing machinery was from Germany, though most of the malt and hops was imported, initially, from the US west coast.

The Asahi brewery in Osaka circa 1902: double-click to embiggen

In 1892 the company launched a beer under the name Asahi, meaning “morning sun”. The Osaka brewery showed its beer at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it was noted that the company was using Japan-grown barley of the Golden Melon variety, which stood up to the hot and humid climate of Honshu, and which had been introduced into the country from the United States in 1885. The same year Osaka was reorganised as Osaka Breweries Ltd. An “Asahi Beer Hall” was opened in nearby Kyoto in 1896 to promote the company’s beer to thirsty tourist. By 1901 it was the second biggest brewery in Japan, at 53,500 hectolitres, well ahead of the Japan Brewery Company/Kirin at 28,500hl and Sapporo at 24,517hl, but behind the Nippon Beer Co of Tokyo, whose main brand was Yebisu, on 59,450hl.

An advertisement for three beer brands then owned by the newly formed Dai Nippon Beer Company, Yebisu, Sapporo and Asahi, from the China Mail, Hong Kong in 1907

The same year the Japanese government introduced a “brutal” new beer tax, which hammered the smaller brewers. The “big four” battled on, but in 1906, in an attempt to reduce competition, which was damaging profits, Sapporo, Osaka Beer Co and Nippon Beer agreed to merge under the name Dai Nippon (“Greater Japan”) Beer Company. From then until after the Second World War, the Japanese beer industry was almost totally dominated by Dai Nippon Beer and Kirin, both producing – until 1941, at least – heavily German-influenced beers. However, the pair were unable to stop retail outlets conducting a vicious price war. This only ended in 1933, when the two giants of Japanese brewing signed an agreement to form the “Co-operative Beer Sales Company Inc”, a deal brokered by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which gave Dai Nippon 70 per cent of joint sales and Kirin 30 per cent. In the total market, Dai Nippon had a 56 per cent share and Kirin 28 per cent, giving the Co-operative Beer Sales Company 84 per cent of the domestic Japanese beer market. Through the 1930s Asahi and Kirin fought each other for the title of Japan’s best-selling beer brand, with Asahi on an average of 30 per cent of the market and Kirin on 27.5 per cent. Meanwhile Dai Nippon Beer’s Asahi division was opening new breweries, in Hakata, Fukuoka, on Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, in 1921 and Nishinomiya, a few miles from Osaka, in 1927.

When Japan went to war with China in 1937, a conflict which eventually widened into bitter conflict with the United States and the UK in 1941, the beer industry in Japan became more and more tightly controlled by the government, not least because through taxation it generated essential funds for the war effort. In 1939, sake was still the dominant alcoholic beverage in Japan, selling 4.5 times as much as beer, which was largely an expensive middle and upper-class luxury. But as rice production was diverted into foodstuffs, sake production was halted by the end of 1940. Beer took its place, since barley was only a grade-B foodstuff. At the same time, with supplies of hops no longer available for import from Germany, Japan’s brewer began to make their beers less bitter. Small brewers disappeared completely, leaving only Dai Nippon and Kirin by 1943.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, in the seven-year occupation that followed, much effort was made by the occupiers to break up Japan’s economic conglomerates, the zaibatsu. Dai Nippon did not wait to be broken up, instead putting forward its own arrangement in which, in 1949, it split into two, one side taking the Asahi brand, the other, initially called Nippon Breweries, the Sapporo and Yebatsu brands. Asahi had 36 per cent of the market, Nippon Breweries 38.7 per cent and Kirin 25.3 per cent. The three operated an informal cartel that eliminated price competition, while Japan’s ministry of finance kept import duties on foreign beers high, with an (under world trade rules, illegal) agreement that the three brewers would, as a quid pro quo, buy expensive Japanese-grown barley rather than much cheaper foreign barley.

Until the middle of 1949, the occupying forces had barred Japanese from going to restaurants, bars or beer halls. The reopening of the “on-trade” saw beer sales boom: one bar in Osaka was selling 120 wooden crates of 24 bottles each night, an entire truckload in a day. In 1954 Asahi began to pull ahead of its rivals, capturing 37 per cent of the market, after leading the way in marketing efforts that included sponsoring radio and television programmes, films (including Gone With the Wind when it returned to Japanese cinemas in 1952) and boxing matches. In 1958, Asahi introduced Japan’s first canned beer. Meanwhile the Japanese alcohol market was changing, with sake falling from 71 per cent of all alcohol beverages sold before the Second World War, against beer’s 16 per cent share, to 29 per cent in 1959, against beer’s 44 per cent.

As well as canned beer (which today has more than 60 per cent of the Japanese market), Asahi also pioneered the first outdoor fermentation and lagering tank, the “Asahi Tank”, launched in 1965 and soon licensed to a German brewery construction firm, Ziemann.

By now Asahi had seen its share of sales drift down, leaving it with just 27.9 per cent of the Japanese market in 1961, barely ahead of Sapporo on 27.8 per cent, while Kirin had 41.7 per cent. Kirin’s dominance enabled it to set prices that hampered its rivals’ attempts to match them and still be profitable, and by the mid-1980s its share of the market was more than 60 per cent, with Sapporo on 20 per cent and Asahi on 11 per cent, while Suntory, a distiller that had entered the beer market in 1963, had seven per cent.

At the same time, the beer produced by the three firms continued to be the comparatively light, lightly hopped drink Japan’s brewers had been forced to change to during the Second World War, a style of beer which both proved popular with the increasing numbers of women drinkers, and beer rapidly left sake sales far behind. While the trend in the 1950s and 1960s towards less-bitter beers could be also seen in, for example, the United States, from the 1970s, Japan’s brewing industry began to exhibit some peculiarly Japanese developments. One was the introduction of “beer-like” brews, or happoshu (literally “sparkling spirit”), containing little or no barley, a reaction to both the high price of barley itself and the high taxes on barley brews in Japan. Another was the rise of “draught-style” bottled and canned beers from the late 1970s, with Asahi launching its own Draft Beer brand in 1986.

This did not stop Asahi striking deals with brewers elsewhere in Asia: in 1971 it signed an agreement with United Breweries of New Guinea that saw a brewery built in Port Moresby to make Asahi beers, and in 1986 another contract was signed with San Miguel to start brewing Asahi brands in Indonesia. In 1990 Asahi bought just under 20 per cent of the Australian beer giant Foster’s Group (sold in 1997 back to Foster’s).

A three-litre can of Super Dry, the beer that saved Ahasi

What saved the company, however, was the introduction of “dry beer” in 1987 to try to compete with Kirin, which by then had 63 per cent of the domestic market, with Asahi far behind in third place on just 10 per cent. In 1982 one of Japan’s leading banks, Sumitomo Group, which held 12 per cent of Asahi’s shares, sent in a bank executive specialising in corporate turn-arounds, Murai Tsutomu. Murai made the brewery conduct market surveys which came back with the message that 98 per cent of beer drinkers surveyed wanted Asahi to change the taste of its beer. Drinkers said they wanted a beer that was rich but left no aftertaste. Asahi’s brewers told Murai that was not possible. Murai insisted that it had to be done, and the result was Asahi Super Dry, stronger, at 5 per cent alcohol, than most Japanese mainstream beers, generally 4.5 per cent, but with less sugar, sharper and with no aftertaste. It became instantly popular, particularly among younger drinkers. The launch doubled Asahi’s share of the domestic beer market in a year, and sent it to 37 per cent by 2001. This was the only Japanese brewing initiative to have any impact overseas, with US and European brewers also introducing “dry” beers: by 1990 there were more than 20 “dry” beers on sale in the US market.

Japan’s brewers had been protected for many years from new entrants into the market by a law that required a minimum annual output for anyone wanting a brewery licence of 20,000 hectolitres. In 1994 the country’s Ministry of Finance cut that requirement to just 600 hectolitres, making it viable at last for new microbreweries to start up. The first opened in Japan in 1995, and by 1999 the country had 242 new small breweries. In an attempt to head off this new competition, in 2001 Asahi opened its own “microbrewery” operation, Sumidagawa Brewing, a brewpub in Tokyo.

Super Dry was launched Canada in 1994 and the United States in 1995. It went into in 12 European countries in 1997, and in 2000 Asahi struck a deal with Bass in the UK for a Czech subsidiary of Bass to brew Super Dry under licence. But with the UK becoming the biggest market for the beer in Europe, in 2005 production was switched to Shepherd Neame in Kent. Meanwhile at home beer sales were falling, with the “big four” of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory suffering a volume decline between them of 23 per cent between 1994 and 2000. At the same time, sales of the cheaper happoshu were climbing, hitting 30 per cent of the Japanese beer market in 2001, the year Asahi finally launched a happoshu of its own. Two years later sales of happoshu for home consumption passed those of “real” beer.

Asahi had regained the number one spot among Japan’s brewers in 1998, and its share of the “real” beer market rose past 50 per cent by the end of 2008, though its share of the total “beer-like” market was only 37.8 per cent, barely ahead of Kirin on 37.2 per cent. Domestic beer sales were badly hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and took several years to recover, but Asahi was seeing big rises in sales to China, where increasing affluence was powering what was becoming the biggest market for beer in the world. It began acquiring shares in five Chinese breweries in 1994 and 1995, and entered into an agreement with the then largest brewer in China, Tsingtao Brewery, to build a brewery in Shenzen, near Hong Kong, which opened in 1999. In 2009 it bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Tsingtao Brewery, reviving a link from before the Second World War, when Dai Nippon Beer Company owned Tsingtao.

An Australian craft beer brewery, Cricketers Arms, in Melbourne, was acquired in 2013, followed by a second in 2015, Mountain Goat Beer in Richmond, Victoria. The next year, as part of the fall-out from AB InBev’s acquisition of SAB Miller, Asahi bought SAB Miller’s beer business in Western Europe, including Peroni in Italy, Grolsch in the Netherlands, the St Stephanus “abbey” brand from Belgium and, in the UK, Meantime Brewing Company, for a total of $2.9 billion. Meantime, based in Greenwich and founded in 2000, had only been bought by SAB Miller two years earlier, for £125 million. Early in 2017 Asahi swallowed SAB Miller’s Eastern European business as well, including Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic; Dreher Breweries in Hungary; Ursus Breweries, the biggest beer brewer in Romania; Tychy and Lech in Poland; and Šariš in Slovakia, for another $7.8 billion. The deal made Asahi the third biggest brewing company in Europe, with 9 per cent of the market, after Heineken and Carlsberg. The same year it sold off its interest in Tsingtao for $844 million, as part of a general pull-out from the Chinese market to concentrate on Europe.

Earlier this week it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing assets of the London-based craft ale specialist, family brewer and pub and hotel owner Fuller, Smith & Turner, for £250 million. The deal includes the brewery in Chiswick, but not, it is speculated, the entire brewery site. It gives Asahi ten breweries in Europe, against the eight it runs in Japan, including the Hokkaido brewery in Sapporo, opened in 1970; Ibaraki, on the coast north-east of Tokyo, opened in 1991; and on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, opened in 1998. It is currently the biggest brewer in Japan, fifth biggest in Asia and seventh biggest in the world.

The porter brewer and the Peterloo Massacre

The 200th anniversary next year of the “Peterloo Massacre”, the assault by mounted troops on a crowd gathered in Manchester to hear speeches in favour of parliamentary reform, has been marked by the release of a film by Mike Leigh starring Rory Kinnear as Henry “Orator” Hunt, the main speaker at the meeting in St Peter’s Field, whose arrest by the authorities sparked the events that led to at least 15 people being killed. Rory thus joins the short list of people, including Bob Hoskins, who can be the answer to the question: “Which actor has played a brewer on screen?”, since for a couple of years Hunt ran a brewery in Bristol – an episode which is significant in the history of porter, since Hunt’s memoirs contain some important evidence on porter brewers’ attempts to make a dark drink while brewing with the far more economic pale malt.

In April 1802, a month after the Treaty of Amiens had ended 10 years of warfare against revolutionary France, the British government put up the tax on strong beer by 25 per cent, to 10 shillings a barrel, and raised the tax on malt by almost four fifths, to 2s 5d a bushel. At the same time, the Act of Parliament introducing the higher taxes, the Duties on Beer, etc Act 1802, also put into statute law a specific prohibition against making beer or ale with anything except malt and hops.

Henry Hunt pictured speaking to the crowd in St Peter’s Field, Manchester: from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1864

Matthew Wood, a City of London-based druggist (and, from 1804, hop dealer) with a clientele of brewers decided that since it was now apparently legal to put anything made from malt into beer, then a colouring made from malt extract should be permissible, and in May 1802 he duly registered a patent process for “Preparing a colour from malt for the purpose of colouring spirits wines and other liquors.” The fact that Wood’s patent application, which described mashing the malt, boiling the extract until most of the water was driven off and then roasting it in iron pans “until the saccharine quality is destroyed, and the whole is nearly reduced to a calx,” did not mention beer specifically may be because he did not want to tip off anyone too early that he was attempting to patent something that the Excise authorities had long declared was against its regulations. He invested £2,000 in the patent, apparently having been given a guarantee from the senior Secretary to the Treasury, Nicholas Vansittart, that his malt colouring would be regarded as lawful, since it used an ingredient, malted barley, upon which tax had been paid.

The Commissioners of Excise disagreed. They instigated prosecutions and seizures of casks of porter colouring materials against brewers who bought Wood’s product, on the grounds that they were adding an illegal adjunct to their porter. The excise commissioners insisted that the “malt” that the Duties on Beer Act 1802 had defined as one of only two permitted ingredients in beer and ale meant only those products customarily made by maltsters, not Wood’s patent colouring. Allowing druggists to supply brewers with beer colouring would “open the widest Door for introducing Ingredients forbidden by Law,” they declared. However, the brewers, and Wood (who became a City of London alderman in 1807), fought back, with the colouring continuing on sale.

Henry “Orator” Hunt, the radical politician who was the main speaker at the meeting in Manchester in August 1819 that turned into the “Peterloo Massacre”, had a run-in with the revenue over Wood’s colouring in 1808. Hunt ran a brewery at Jacob’s Wells in Bristol, the Clifton Genuine Beer Brewery, from at least 1807 to 1809. It had been started when a brewer friend called Racey – evidently the son son of the James Racey whose brewery in Bath went bust in 1804 – asked Hunt to put up the money to convert a former distillery at Jacob’s Well into a brewery. Hunt claimed he had designed the whole layout of the brewery himself:

I took advantage of the declivity of the hill, on the side of which the premises were situated, to have it so constructed that the whole process of brewing was conducted, from the grinding of the malt, which fell from the mill into the mash-tun, without any lifting or pumping; with the exception of pumping the water, called liquor by brewers, first into the reservoir, which composed the roof of the building. By turning a cock, this liquor filled the steam boiler, from thence it flowed into the mash-tun; the wort had only once to be pumped, once from the under back into the boiler, from thence it emptied itself, by turning the cock, into the coolers; it then flowed into the working vats and riving casks, and from the stillions, which were immediately above the store casks into which it flowed, only by turning a cock. These store casks were mounted on stands or horses, high enough to set a butt upright, and fill it out of the lower cock; and then the butts and barrels were rolled to the door, and upon the drays, without one ounce of lifting from the commencement of the process to the end. This was a great saving of labour.

However, according to Hunt, Racey turned out to be fraudulently raking off cash from the brewery, and when challenged he “sailed for America, bag and baggage”. (It seems highly likely that this is the James Racey who married Anne Hull in New York in 1810 and then settled in Canada, buying the distillerie de Beauport just to the east of Quebec City the same year, and converting it to a brewery.) Hunt found himself having to run the brewery in an attempt to get back at least some of the money he had invested, and described his subsequent clash with the Excise over Wood’s colouring in his memoirs, written while he was in jail in 1820 for “sedition” after the events at St Peter’s Field:

When the act was passed, making it a penalty of two hundred pounds to 
use any drug, ingredient, or material, except malt and hops, in
 the brewing of beer, Alderman Wood obtained a patent for making of 
colouring, to heighten the colour of porter. This colouring was made of 
scorched or burnt malt, and it was mashed the same as common malt, which 
produced a colouring of the consistency of treacle, and having nearly its appearance. As this patent was very much approved of, almost every 
porter brewer in England used it in the colouring their porter; and 
amongst that number I was not only a customer of the worthy alderman for 
colouring, but I was also a considerable purchaser of hops from the firm of Wood, Wiggan [sic—properly Wigan] & Co in Falcon Square. I had just got down a fresh 
cask of this colouring, and it was standing at the entrance door of the 
brewery, where it had been rolled off the dray, when news was brought me
 that the new exciseman had seized the cask of colouring, and had taken 
it down to the excise office. I immediately wrote to Wood, Wiggan & Co to inform them of the circumstance; upon which they immediately applied 
to the board of excise in London, and by the return of post I received 
a letter from Messrs Wood, to say, that an order was gone off, by the 
same post, to direct the officers of excise in Bristol to restore the
 cask of colouring without delay; and almost as soon as this letter had 
come to hand, and before I could place it upon the file, one of the
 exciseman came quite out of breath to say that an order had arrived from the board of excise in London, to restore the cask of colouring, and it
 was quite at my service, whenever I pleased to send for it. I wrote back 
a letter by the fellow, to say, that as the exciseman had seized and 
carried away from my brewery a cask of colouring, which was allowed by 
the board of excise to be perfectly legal to use, as it was made of malt and hops only, unless, within two hours of that time, they caused it to be restored to the very spot from whence it was illegally removed, I would direct an action to be commenced against them. In less than an hour the cask of colouring was returned, and the same exciseman who had seized it came to make an apology for his error. His pardon was at once granted, and so ended this mighty affair; and I continued to use the said colouring, as well as did all the porter brewers in Bristol, without further molestation, as long as I continued the brewery; never having had any other seizure while I was concerned in the brewery.

Flyer put out just before the Peterloo Massacre by Henry Hunt’s political enemies

The story appears in Hunt’s biography because he was responding to an attack on his brewing career by one of his political enemies, Dr John Stoddart, the editor of the “ultra-Tory” New Times newspaper, in an article in July 1819, just before Peterloo. The newspaper claimed that despite Hunt advertising in the Bristol Gazette in January 1807 that his beer was “wholly exempt from any other ingredient whatever” than the best malt and hops, “a very few months after the date of the above advertisement, seventy gallons of other ingredients were seized from Henry Hunt of ‘the Clifton Genuine Brewery;’ and were condemned in Michaelmas Term 1807.” The result of “this awkward little accident”, the New Times claimed, was that it “gave the Bristol men a sort of distaste for Hunt’s genuine beer … and the consequence was that he shut up his Brewery.” The New Times’s attack was reprinted word-for-word by more than a dozen other local newspapers of the Tory persuasion, from Inverness to Cornwall, the following month, after Peterloo, and turned into a pamphlet circulated in Manchester.

Curiously, 11 years earlier Hunt had given a completely different version of the story to his local paper. He had already made himself unpopular with the establishment in Bristol in 1807 when he popped up at the hustings for the general election that May and attempted to interrupt the cozy stitch-up of the city’s two parliamentary seats by the Tories and Whigs by nominating a third, more radical candidate. When his bid to put another name on the list was refused Hunt’s supporters pelted the Tory candidate “so vigorously with mud and sticks that he was forced to leave his gilded car and beat a retreat.” The mob was only diverted, it was claimed later, by Hunt offering to distribute two free butts of beer at his brewery. In 1808, replying to an accusation that “unlawful ingredients” had been seized upon his brewery’s premises, Hunt said:

When the last act of parliament passed, prohibiting the use of “any ingredient or material. except malt and hops, to be made use of tin the brewing of beer or porter,” Messers Wood, Wigan and Co hop-factors, in London, obtained a patent for making a colouring for Porter with burnt malt only. Two casks of this Colouring was [sic] sent to me, but before I admitted it into my brewhouse, I sent to the Exciseman to know if it were legal to make use of it for colouring porter, shewing him the permit or certificate that I received with the casks. His answer was, he did not know, but he would go to the supervisor and enquire. On his return, he said that they had no authority to permit it to be used, and they must take a sample of it. I desired that they would take the whole, as I should not, under such circumstances, suffer it to be placed in my brewery: my horses took it for them to the Excise-office. I immediately stated the case to the Commissioners of Excise, from whom I received no answer. Mr Wood’s patent colouring has never been returned to me, nor have I since heard any thing of it.

Whichever story of Hunt’s was accurate, it is clear Wood’s beer colouring was still not definitively legal even in 1808. The brewing trade was evidently split over whether Wood’s colouring should be supported or not, with the largest porter brewers, such as Whitbread, Barclay Perkins and Felix Calvert, opposed, apparently for fear that allowing sugar and malt colouring would take some of the pressure off their smaller rivals, and others, such as Meux Reid and the big Windsor brewer John Ramsbottom, in favour. The battle was fought in parliament, where the porter brewers had eight MPs at the time and the country brewers four, but victory for the colourists only came with an alliance with the West Indies sugar plantation interest, who were keen to find a new outlet for their product (and helped by the Treasury, which wanted to see more pale malt used, as this was apparently easier to supervise by the excisemen than brown malt, and thus less likely to avoid tax). In June 1811 an Act was passed allowing the colouring of porter (but not ale or pale beers) with “burnt brown sugar and water” (but not molasses), with a licence to make porter colouring costing £5 and duty charged on each barrel of colouring of 10s a time.

Troops striking out at the crowd, as the authorities over-react during the 1819 political meeting at St Peter’s Field, Manchester

The Colouring of Porter Act lasted just half a decade before it was repealed and a new Act passed, in June 1816, banning even burnt sugar from being used for colouring beer from July 6 the following year. Licence fees and duty from burnt-sugar colouring had brought in £82,000, but the excise authorities declared that there was evidence that other illegal ingredients were being sneaked into porter along with the colouring. Cometh the hour, cometh the inventor: in March 1817, four months before burnt sugar colouring became illegal, Daniel Wheeler, who had been making sugar colouring at his premises off Drury Lane in central London, unveiled via a patent application a new method of manufacturing colouring from malt, upon which duty had been paid (thus making the colouring legal). His process heated the malt to 400ºF and more, to produce “a substance resembling gum and extractive matter of a deep brown colour readily soluble in hot or cold water.”

Wheeler told the 1818 House of Commons committee on the quality of beer that with brown malt, “thirty-two parts of it to forty-eight of pale,” or 40 per cent, “gives about the porter colour.” However, “The high-dried brown malt, from the heat to which it has been exposed, has lost a considerable quantity of its sugar. I have made many experiments upon it myself, and … that high dried malt will not produce, or has not, from any experiments, produced more than one fourth of the spirits compared to that of pale malt.” Using his invention, though, “one part of the patent malt will give as much colouring as thirty-two parts of the malt I have been speaking of” – in other words, brewers needed less than 2½ per cent of Wheeler’s patent malt to give a satisfactory colour to their porter.

Dr Thompson’s Annals of Philosophy for December 1817 declared of Wheeler’s invention: “There are few patents that promise to be of such great national importance.” To get the “deep tan-brown colour” and “peculiar flavour” of “the best genuine porter,” two parts of brown malt were required to three parts of pale malt. “The price of the former is generally about seven-eighths of the latter; but the proportion of saccharine matter which it contains does not, according to the highest estimate, exceed one-half that afforded by the pale malt, and probably on an average scarcely amounts to one-fifth…it follows that the brewers are paying for the colour and flavour of their liquor one-fifth of the entire cost of their malt.” The savings that brewers could make with Wheeler’s patent malt meant the end of temptations to use illegal materials such as cocculus indicus, and “The revenue will be benefited by the increased consumption which will necessarily result from an improvement in the quality of the porter; and both the revenue and public morals will derive advantage from the greatly diminished temptation to fraudulent practices.”

The big porter brewers quickly took up his invention, with Whitbread recording stocks of patent malt in the same year, 1817, and Barclay Perkins by 1820 (though curiously, in 1819, Rees’s Cyclopedia claimed that “In Mr Whitbread’s works no colouring matter is employed, as he uses a portion of brown malt”), and the Plunkett family opening a plant in Dublin in 1819 to supply Irish porter brewers. But alas for Wheeler, his patent was swiftly challenged. A coffee roaster based in Northumberland Alley, off Fenchurch Street, in the City of London called Joseph Malins began roasting malt himself and selling it to “various” brewers for colouring, to the “considerable injury” of Wheeler’s business. Wheeler sued Malins for patent infringement and the two sides clashed in the Court of Chancery in August 1818, with Wheeler claiming his patent had been “pirated” and Malins insisting that there was no piracy, since the brown malt he sold to porter brewers had been heated in “a common coffee-roaster,” which had been in use for more than a century before Wheeler’s patent.

Unfortunately for Wheeler, the case was bumped to a higher court, the Court of King’s Bench, to decide whether his patent was actually valid, and at a hearing in December 1818 the newly appointed Lord Chief Justice, Sir Charles Abbott, directed the jury to find that it was not. Wheeler’s patent application had been for “A new and improved method of drying and preparing malt.” But, Abbott said, the process the application described was not, in fact, “preparing” malt, it was a process for making malt more soluble and colouring the liquid. With the patent declared void, in March 1819 Wheeler’s case in the Court of Chancery was dismissed with costs.

The victory over Wheeler was a welcome win for the Malins family in the courts: in May 1818 Joseph Malins’s father, William, had been fined £100 by the Court of Exchequer for having on his premises more than 1,500lb of roasted and ground peas and beans with the intention of passing them off as coffee, and a month later William was fined the huge sum of £2,000 by the same court after being found guilty of manufacturing 100lb of imitation tea, from hawthorn and blackthorn leaves plus colouring, and selling it to grocers in London. Daniel Wheeler continued to describe himself as a “patent malt manufacture,” though by January 1819, when he had moved from Bloomsbury in central London to Croydon in Surrey, he had been declared bankrupt. Cheekily, perhaps, William Malins was calling himself an “anti-patent malt maker” in 1823, when he was based in Upper Fore Street, Lambeth.

Kent’s directory of London, 1823

However, although Wheeler was unable, as he must have hoped, to turn “patent malt” into a personal fortune, its adoption did indeed swiftly revolutionise the brewing of porter, as the use of brown or blown malt shrank or disappeared. (Ironically, malt roasted to Wheeler’s specifications continued to be known as “patent” malt for more than a century, even though the patent had been overturned.)

Sale notice for Hunt’s brewery, Bristol Mirror, December 31 1808

Hunt, meanwhile, left the brewery business in 1809, ten years before Peterloo. By 1811 the brewery at Jacob’s Wells was being run by a J Highett from Weymouth, who was brewing strong beer, porter, Burton ale and table beer. It was up for sale early the next year, and again in 1813, when the equipment included “a new copper furnace, containing 20 barrels, never used.” It seems to have had several subsequent owners, but by early 1827, when the site was put up for sale, it was being described as a “late Brewery”.

Did Michael Collins drink a pint of Clonakilty Wrestler the day he died?

Today is the 96th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary who played a major part in the Irish War of Independence, which saw the establishment of what was known as the Irish Free State, and who was then killed in an ambush during the civil war between those that accepted the treaty which divided Ireland into an independent south and a north that was still part of the United Kingdom, and those who would not accept that settlement. He is still an important figure in Ireland, where whichever of the major Irish political parties you support still, basically, depends on whether your great-grandfather supported Liam Neeson or Severus Snape – sorry, Michael Collins, whose pro-treaty wing of Sinn Féin developed into Fine Gael, currently the governing party in the republic, or Éamon de Valera, whose anti-treaty wing eventually spawned Fianna Fáil, currently the largest opposition party in the Dáil, the Irish parliament.

Deasy’s brewery in Clonakilty circa 2010

None of the very many accounts of the events that led up to Michael Collins’s death on August 22 agree on all the details, with multiple and contradictory variations in the narrative: from why, as Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army, he had travelled to County Cork, heartland of the anti-Treaty rebellion, with only a small number of soldiers, and what he was hoping to achieve, to the details of his last day, from the route taken by Collins and his convoy west out of Cork to the towns of Clonakilty and Skibbereen to how many vehicles – and soldiers – travelled with him, to who fired the fatal shot (or shots) – at least seven possible candidates among the ambushers – and even to the name of the place where the ambush took place: Béalnabláth, pronounced “Bale-nu-blaw”, and probably best translated from Irish as “mouth of the ravine”, is frequently, and mistakenly, given as Béal na mBláth, which would mean “mouth of the flowers”. Much of what has been written about the day is demonstrably wrong, and much is now unprovable.

Of greater interest to the beer historian, however, is another contentious question: on the day he died, did Michael Collins drink a pint of Clonakilty Wrestler, the now legendary porter brewed by Deasy’s of Clonakilty, easily the best known of several small West Cork porter brewers.

The brewery was founded some time around the start of the 19th century, and was certainly running by 1810, when it was recorded that at “Cloghnikilty” [sic] “A porter brewery, the plan of which is remarkable and convenient arrangement, and upon a scale of considerable magnitude, was built by Rickard Deasy, Esq, and Co. The business, carried on with spirit, and conducted with care and prudence, fully answers the expectations of the proprietors.”

Deasy’s Prize Stout ad, Southern Star newspaper, Skibbereen, Cork, 1936

Deasy’s porter was nicknamed “The Wrestler” (or “Wrassler”, in a West Cork accent) at least as early as 1890, when the Irish journalist John Augustus O’Shea eulogised it, declaring:

‘In every district there is some show pot, some natural curiosity, some distinguished or erratic character in the community pointed out to the stranger. The great local wrestler is the big pot of Clonakilty. The fame of Milo of Crotona pales beside his, for he has no fear of the clutch of wood. A full-bodied, swarthy fellow, with a white head, he is stronger than most human beings, and seems to get stronger the oftener he is tackled. He is usually cool, fluent, and even tempered, but can be roused to a ferment at times, and when he is doesn’t he just froth? His main struggles are with that proverbially robust class brewers’ draymen, but he has taken many a fall out of the finest peasants, and hardiest seamen of Ross and Cloyne, and it is mysteriously bruited that he once laid by the heels a whole station of the RIC. He is a descendant of John Barley Corn, and is addicted to hops. Far be it from me to act as an intermediary in a prize fight, but not to spoil sport I may say he has a standing challenge with one Guinness of Dublin. Like most men of his call he has his price. His price is two pence a pint.”

O’Shea appears to have been wrong about the price: Deasy’s porter was popular at last in part because of its cheapness compared to rivals. A commentator in 1892 said that “the western man”, “though on pleasure bent, was of a frugal mind, and preferred to pay three half-pence rather than two pence for a pint of porter.”

Deasy’s harvest porter and stout ad, 1938, less than two years before the company stopped brewing beer (it continued making soft drinks for another 70 years). The typeface top and centre is Cooper Blasck, which was being used by the Brewers’ Society in Britain for its series of ‘Beer is Best’ ads.

Michael Collins was born in 1890 at Woodfield, the family farm, some four miles west of Clonakilty. Between 1903 and 1905 he lived with his sister Margaret and her husband, Patrick O’Driscoll in a house in Shannon Square, just a few yards from Deasy’s brewery, (today Emmet Square). The claim has been made by several writers that Collins’s favourite drink was “Clonakilty Wrestler”, and one Irish craft brewery produces today a stout called “Wrasslers XXXX” with a picture of Collins in his general’s uniform on the pumpclip (based on the iconic photograph taken at the funeral of Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, six days before Collins himself was killed). One source says that Collins actually “loathed the sight of porter”. However, he certainly did drink Deasy’s most famous beer on occasions. When he came home to Cork from Frongoch prison camp in North Wales in December 1916, after the British government released the surviving prisoners taken at the end of the Easter Rising, “the Big Fellow” spent three weeks, in his own words, “drinking Clonakilty wrastler [sic] on a Frongoch stomach,” before returning to Dublin. But Collins’s preferred drink actually appears to have been whiskey: “‘a ball of malt’ was his usual,” according to one biographer, and another named Jameson’s as his favourite.

Collins apparently went to West Cork in August 1922 in the hope of meeting republican leaders and persuading them to end the civil war, as well as to inspect the pro-treaty forces on the ground and boost the morale of the commanders and soldiers now fighting men who, in many cases, had been their friends and colleagues against the British only months earlier. After his arrival in Cork, he left on August 22 to travel west in a convoy that included Collins himself, being driven in a Leyland 8 four-seater tourer, a Crossley troop carrier and a Rolls-Royce armoured car. The route taken was a circuitous one, to avoid bridges blown up by annti-treaty forces. On its way out from Cork to Clonakilty, Collins’s convoy had passed Long’s pub in Béalnabláth village alerting a group of anti-treaty ‘Irregulars’ holding a conference nearby to his presence in the area, and they decided to lay an ambush on the assumption that the convoy was likely to return the same way later on.

It is certain, since Emmet Dalton, who was with Collins on his final journey, recorded it in the account of that day he wrote just three months later, “The death of Micheal O’Coileain”, that Collins’s party lunched in Clonakilty, and shortly after leaving, that is, between two and three in the afternoon, they arrived at the hamlet of Sam’s Cross, about two thirds of a mile from where Collins was born, (though even here one writer insists, against all the evidence, that the convoy arrived at Sam’s Cross early in the evening, departing at 6.15pm. There Collins met and spoke with his brother John/Séan and other family members, including his cousin Michael O’Brien, who had a house at Sam’s Cross. According to O’Brien’s son Jimmy, Collins and some officers in the convoy had a cup of tea while sitting in the O’Brien’s kitchen, waiting for John Collins to arrive, after which the two brothers went into the parlour and talked by themselves for 20 minutes. Michael Collins then got into his car, and the little convey left, after a warning from John Collins: ‘You’d better put up that hood –you could be shot before night!”

The Four Alls Sam’s Cross
The Four Alls, Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty, Cork

Dalton’s report from November 1922 does not mention any beer drinking (though he is alleged to have told an RTE film crew recording a programme about his life, decades later, that “We were all arseholes!”, that is, drunk) and neither did Jimmy O’Brien. But at least five other accounts say that during the stop at Sam’s Cross, Collins and his escort, which included 12 soldiers in the Crossley tender, a motorcycle outrider, and the armoured car with a crew of four – 20 men in total – went into the pub across from the O’Briens’ house, now, if not then, called the Four Alls. (The pub was run by a man called Jeremiah Collins, whom several authors mistakenly identify as “a cousin” or “a kinsman”. Someone who was a kinsman, Brother Jerome Collins of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God, whose father shared a grandfather with the Big Fellow, emphatically denied that the pub landlord was a relative – “He just wished he was.”) In the pub, several authors assert, Michael Collins treated his escort to “a pint”, or “two pints” of the Clonakilty Wrestler, and, according to at least two writers, he had a pint of the Wrestler himself.

Deasy’s Stout and Porter, advertised in the Southern Star, Skibbereen in 1925, with an emphasis on the firm’s localism

Another investigator, John Feehan, reported that rather than pints at Sam’s Cross, “the convoy had drinks in White’s pub,” White’s being at the Pike Cross, a mile away to the south at Lisavaird, on the main road between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. Drinks would have probably been welcome for men driving around dusty Irish roads in August in open-top vehicles. But this was an armed venture into potentially hostile territory. Certainly the idea of serving 20 men, plus, supposedly, relatives of Michael Collins also gathered at the Sam’s Cross pub, with two pints each in the sort of time allowable in the convoy’s journey around West Cork seems unlikely. It was in Skibbereen by “mid-afternoon”, having gone by Rosscarbery, where Collins had talked to the commander of the garrison there and visited the mother of an old friend who had just died. In Skibbereen there was time for more talk with the officers of the local garrison “for a considerable length of time”, a meeting in the Eldon Hotel with the editor of the local Eagle newspaper and a local schoolmaster, a quick talk with Cameron Somerville, brother of Edith, co-author of the Irish RM novels, who was a member of the local Protestant aristocracy, and a speech to the people of the town, including 150 horsemen who had ridden in to see him.

By then it was “around 5pm”, and the decision was made not to continue to Bantry, as originally planned, but to return to Cork. All that activity suggests Collins arrived in Skibbereen no later than 4pm. The total distance from Sam’s Cross to Skibbereen is 16 miles: say a journey of 40 minutes under early 1920s conditions, plus 40 minutes spent in Rosscarbery, as a minimum. Collins spent at least 30 minutes in Sam’s Cross taking tea with his mother’s nephew, and waiting for and then talking to his brother. If he arrived in Sam’s Cross as early as 2pm – and it may well have been later – that only leaves a few minutes unaccounted for. It is possible the rest of the convoy had time for a pint of porter in Sam’s Cross while the family reunion in the O’Briens’ house was happening: Michael Collins, not so much.

Deasy’s Stout ad, Southern Star, Skibbereen, Cork, 1937

Another brewery also played a bit-part in Collins’s last day. Back at Béalnabláth village it was a Tuesday, the day a one-horse brewery dray came over from Beamish & Crawford’s depot seven miles away in Bandon, formerly (until 1913) Allman Dowden & Co’s Bandon brewery, founded 1785, to take away the empties from Long’s. The Irregulars commandeered the dray to use as a barrier, and took it a little up the road out of the village to a likely spot for an ambush, removing the wheels and standing them in front against the dray. Around 7 or 8pm in the evening, the convoy did indeed come back down the road. In the gunfight that followed, Michael Collins, just 31 years old, was the only person killed.

Thousands of Londoners pass through a historic brewery every day without realising it

Every weekday morning hurrying tech workers rush out, hundreds at a time, from Shoreditch High Street station in East London, turning left down Bethnal Green Road, past Boxpark Shoreditch, clutching cups of take-away coffee, ready for eight hours of keyboard-stabbing. None of them realises, as they head towards their desks and computers, that as they stride towards the road junction they are stepping through the ghosts of burly labourers in long leather aprons and red stocking caps: that where today they are dodging buses, cars and lorries as they try to cross the road, if they fell back two and a half centuries through a wormhole in time they would be dodging men rolling butts and hogsheads of beer, and skirting vats filled with maturing porter, the air carrying the satisfying scents of hops and malt rather than diesel exhaust.

(double-click to enlarge)

More than 150 years of sometimes frenetic development has altered swaths of London’s streetscape so much that plotting what once stood where has seemed sometimes impossible. This is particularly true in Shoreditch, where the driving through of Commercial Street and Great Eastern Street and the building of the Bishopsgate rail terminus in the 19th century meant streets and buildings were rubbed from existence like timetravellers who murdered their grandfathers. Happily, it is getting easier to reimagine the past, with websites now running that overlay and underlay old maps from earlier centuries on modern satellite photographs. Thus, through the artful alliance of messers Horwood ( 18th-century mapmaker), Bryn and Page (20th-century Google-makers), we can say that the long-disappeared Bell Brewery, for a couple of centuries credited (wrongly) as the place where porter was invented, was slap where Bethnal Green Road now meets Shoreditch High Street. Stand in the box junction here with the Pret sandwich shop at your back and you are staring straight down where the entrance to the brewery yard was – now covered by the eight-storey Tea Building, once a bacon-curing factory, then a tea warehouse, now studios and offices. Don’t stand in the road too long pondering the past, though, or you’ll get either a No 26 bus or a hipster on a fixed-wheel bicycle up the jacksie.

Just over 250 yards west of the site of the former brewery is the Old Blue Last, which was once a Bell Brewery tied house. (A last is the foot-shaped cobbler’s form over which he constructs a shoe.) It passed into the hands of Truman’s of the nearby Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane in 1816 when the men then running the Bell Brewery, Thomas Marlborough Pryor and Robert Pryor, members of a family of Quaker brewers and maltsters from Baldock in Hertfordshire, unable to renew their lease on the brewery site, instead merged their business with Truman’s.

The now-vanished sign that once marked the rear wall of the Old Blue Last, Great Eastern Street, declaring the pub to be the first place to sell porter

It has been claimed on the pub’s behalf that it was built in 1700, though it does not seem to appear on any early maps, and also that it was built on the site of John Burbage’s Theatre in Curtain Road, where both Marlow’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed (it wasn’t: the Theatre was north of New Inn Yard, the Blue Last is on the south side). It was also claimed that the Old Blue Last was the first pub to sell porter, presumably based on the inaccurate story that porter was invented at the Bell brewery by the Harwood family, brewers there from around 1702 to 1762. The first known mention of the Blue Last in connection with the history of porter appears in 1811 in, bizarrely, a book called Arithmetical Questions on a New Plan, by William Butler, “teacher of writing, accounts and geography in ladies’ schools”. Butler repeated the story that the Harwoods had invented porter, alias entire butt, and added that “Entire butt beer was first retailed at the Blue Last, Curtain Road, and the intercourse between that public house and the Bell Brewhouse has continued ever since without intermission.”

The Old Blue Last today: is the sign claiming the pub was the first to have sold porter hidden under that advert for vitamin bars?

The original Blue Last was demolished in 1876 when Great Eastern Street was built, and a new pub erected in its place on what was now a corner site. On the back wall, visible from Great Eastern Street, Truman’s placed a large sign repeating the claim that the pub was “the first house where porter was sold.” I probably first drank in the pub in the 1980s, when both it and Shoreditch were run-down and scruffy: if the Blue Last didn’t actually had a stripper performing occasionally itself, there were several pubs nearby that did. I was there for the history, of course, hem hem, and additionally the Blue Last was handily close both for the Pitfield beer shop nearby, one of the few retailers of rare and obscure beers at the time, and the many typesetting firms in the area around the Old Street roundabout, which made Shoreditch and Hoxton a designery hangout long before any coms had been dotted. At least two magazine companies I worked for had their typesetting done in the area, which meant, since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was still but a lad with dreams, taking a taxi over from the office in West London to pass proofs.

Inside the Old Blue Last today, where a superb 19th century Tuman’s mirror still dominates the back bar, and a beer brewed by ‘Truman’s’ is still available – though the only stout is from the Molson Coors-owned Franciscan Well of Cork

Some time in the past ten years the “first porter pub” sign seems to have vanished from the Blue Last’s back wall, or been painted over/covered up. However, there is still an enormous Truman’s mirror ruling the back-bar area, and meanwhile the fortunes of both the Blue Last and Shoreditch have risen and risen as it and its locality have become hipster havens. There wasn’t a porter on sale when I called by a few weeks ago, but they did have a draught stout that wasn’t Guinness, and since I was looking for some liquid history, that was welcome enough.