How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing.

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

The Governor's Palace

The Governor’s Palace

The man in charge of the Historic Foodways department at Colonial Williamsburg, Frank Clark, has a deep interest in the history of beer, and gets to demonstrate 18th century-style brewing on probably the most authentic historic brewing set-up I have ever seen: several wooden tubs, a number of basins and saucepans, and a large copper cauldron that is swung over the wood fire in the scullery of the (reconstructed) Governor’s Palace to heat the water for mashing and boil the resultantwort with hops. The beers he and his colleagues make don’t get sold, but one of the local Williamsburg breweries, Alewerks, taps Frank’s knowledge to make a couple of “authentic” 17th/18th century beers for sale in the local taverns, Dear Old Mum and Old Stitch, the first loosely based on an Anglo-German spiced ale, the second the name of a brown ale found in The London and Country Brewer from the 1730s.

I’m guessing (I never actually asked him) it was Frank’s idea to put on the conference, and despite what seemed to me to be the extremely high price of $325 (£220) for the full two-and-a-half day ticket (and that’s before travel and accommodation), there were still more than 120 people in the paying audience, from as far away as California. Could we get away with anything like that in the UK? I suspect you’d start hitting serious consumer resistance at a fifth of that price, frankly. Was it worth it? Well, I enjoyed it hugely, but of course, I was being paid to be there … still, here’s the speaker line-up – see what you think:


Travis Rupp, who combines being an “adjunct professor” at the University of Colorado lecturing on classics and anthropology with being the packaging supervisor at Avery Brewing in Boulder, was first on stage. Travis is writing a book on the beginnings of beer in the ancient Mediterranean, which, if his talk on the subject at the Williamsburg conference is a guide, will be a must-buy. He touched on everything from palaeoecology – the changes in ancient Syria, from heavy forestation around 10,000 BC to the trees being replaced by wild barley 2,000 years later – to the oldest known brewery in Egypt, at Tell el-Farkha, some 3,000 years and more BC, to evidence of brewing in Minoan culture. Travis seemed to be suggesting, if I was following him properly, that the Sumerians taught the Egyptians how to brew, who taught the Greeks how to brew, who taught the Romans how to brew, and the Romans taught the Celts and Germans: the last part, I have to say, I don’t believe at all. Still, cracking start to the weekend

Dear Old MumStan Hieronymus, writer of excellent books on subjects such as hops, monastery brewing and wheat beer, and owner of the Appelation Beer blog, presented In Search of an Indigenous American Beer Style, which covered territory that was pretty much entirely new to me: the tiswin corn (maize) beer drunk by the Apaches, for example, and the choc beer of the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma, which supposedly included tobacco as well as hops and barley; and also Kentucky Common and Pennsylvania swankey, among other beers and beer styles unique to America.

Karen Fortmann, a research scientist at White Labs, the yeast specialists, in San Diego, talked about the “family tree” of brewer’s yeast – a difficult pedigree to draw up, since as Karen said, “If yeast is in an environment where it’s encouraged to hybridise, it will.” And it has, except we’re finally working out exactly who the mummy and daddy were in, eg, lager yeast. Or possibly “mummies and daddies” – according to Karen, genetic studies are suggesting two “domestication events” for brewing yeasts.

Jonathan Chown's Tavern: you can just see the authentic chequers on the post suppurting the tavern signboad that marked th place as somewhere selling alcohol. Identical marks on tavern posts can be seen in the paintings and prints of William Hogarth

Jonathan Chown’s Tavern, Williamsburg: you can just see the authentic chequers on the post supporting the tavern signboad that marked the place as somewhere selling alcohol. Identical marks on tavern posts can be seen in the paintings and prints of William Hogarth, and elsewhere

Frederik Ruis, a brewer and historian from the Netherlands, filled the tricky post-lunch slot with a presentation on “One Thousand Years of Brewing with Hops”, which had some interesting revelations and yet another controversial claim. Archaeological finds, he said, show much of the earliest use of hops in the Baltic and North Sea areas, particularly around Bremen and Hamburg, taking the focus away from Southern Germany, which is normally given primacy in the use of hops in brewing, and giving it to the Vikings. He also suggested that continental gruit or grout was not the herb mixture everyone supposes, or even herbs mixed with grain, but instead concentrated wort infused with herbs, which was then sold by the gruit houses to their local brewers. I look forward to reading more.

Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt in Massachusetts and John Mallett, director of operations at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, then dressed up in period costume as female maltsters and brewers from the past for “Maltster-piece Theatre”, which gave the audience an insight into the lives and trials of brewsters from centuries ago, via a well-written script that succeeded in the difficult double of being both informative and ha-ha funny.

Williamsburg locals

Williamsburg locals

Finally for the day, Edward Bourke, a former Guinness technical expert who wrote a book on the brewery and the family in 2009 called The Guinness Story, presented the history of brewing in Ireland, including some revelatory information from late 18th century Guinness brewing books. The ingredients for a brew of 20 barrels of ale from August 1797 were four barrels of brown malt (Irish brewers measured malt in barrels, generally reckoned to be the equivalent of 168 pounds, one and a half hundredweight ) and six barrels of pale malt, plus 38 pounds of hops, slightly less than two pounds a barrel, to give a drink of very roughly 1060OG that must have been mid to dark brown in colour: the kind of brown ale that had vanished from London 30 to 40 years earlier. The ingredients for 43 hogsheads – 64.5 barrels – of stout a year earlier, January 1796, were 15 barrels of brown malt and 35 barrels of pale malt, 30 per cent brown, against the 40 per cent brown in the ale, and 273 pounds of hops, just under four pounds four ounces of hops per barrel, to give an OG of perhaps 1080 and considerably more bitterness, though a lighter colour, than the ale would have had. Indeed, Edward suggested that to get the colour in the stout that the customers would have wanted, Guinness was perhaps charring the inside of its casks. However, that’s another theory I don’t buy …


More Williamsburg locals

More Williamsburg locals

Frank Clark himself kicked off Sunday morning, dressed in his finest green suit with knee breeches, as an 18th century brewer should be. His talk was on “Home Brewing in 18th Century Virginia: Some Interesting Things They Did With Beer”. I was rather worried by the repetition of the “water was unsafe to drink” meme, but apparently Williamsburg water really was unsafe. The town’s wells were contaminated by sewage, while the water table was only some 25 feet down, which meant that as Williamsburg was on a peninsula and the sea was just three miles away, they were also sometimes filled with salt water. Colonial Virginian home-brewers used molasses, with wheat bran or oat bran, presumably for flavour, and hops and there were a fair number of home brewers around: at least 80 households brewed when the town’s population was only about 1,800.

Next up was your not very humble blogger, talking about “Industrialisation in the British Brewing Industry 1720-1850: the Rise of the ‘Power-Loom Brewers'”. Charles Barclay of Barclay Perkins had called the big London porter breweries “power-loom brewers” in the 1830s, meaning they had taken up new technology in the form of steam engines and the like the way the cotton weavers of the North West of England had leapt to mechanise. But my thesis was that (1) the brewers had grown to enormous (for the time) size even before they mechanised and (2) they beat the “power loom weavers” to it, being among the very first manufacturers to adopt steam power.

Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing in California followed, his chosen subject being “The True Origins of India Pale Ale in England, Scotland and the United States”. Sound man, Mitch: I sat ready to heckle, but feeling confident I wouldn’t have to, and I was right. Right behind Mitch was Ron Pattinson, demonstrating his width of knowledge with something only he could have presented, “International Co-operation in the 19th Century Brewing Industry”. You can get an idea of his talk from this article in Beer Advocate here.



As we headed towards the finish, two more brewers gave terrific presentations. Tom Kehoe, founder of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, spoke on “Brewing Historic Beers for a Modern Market”. Yards brews several beers with a historical theme, including General Washington’s Tavern Porter, Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, a spruce beerbased on a recipe by Benjamin Franklin using barley molasses and essence of spruce. Then Tanya Brock, manager and brewster at the Carillon Brewery in Dayton, Ohio, revealed all on the running of a brewery dedicated to making only historic beers, The brewery, which opened in 2014, is part of the Carillon Historical Park, which was set up to showcase the history of Dayton, though its name comes from the 150-feet-tall carillon in the grounds, where concerts happen every week. At the brewery, meanwhile, Tanya and her team turn out historic brews including a sour porter – I SO want to go to Ohio– and a coriander ale from 1831. It was then down to the beer writer Randy Mosher to sum up with a talk on “The Past and Future Beer”, and for everybody to file out of the auditorium thinking: “That was great! I really hope Colonial Williamsburg do it again next year …”

I fea your handpump technique needs a little work, madam …

I fea your handpump technique needs a little work, madam …

I didn’t spend all my time in the conference hall, of course: the night I arrived I went out to the Alewerks Brewery’s taproom. I don’t believe – I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong – any new small American brewery would open now without having an on-site bar to sell its beers, but it’s still nothing like common enough in the UK. The Alewerks Tap was clearly a well-used, popular local bar that just happened to sell only one brewer’s beers, though with a dozen different ales, stouts porters and speciality brews to decide among, there was no demurring from me. The “soaking up the beer” problem was solved by the bar supplying half-pound soft petzels for the hungry: simple, cheap, effective, welcome.

Shiny … the lovely new kit at the Virginia Ber Company

Shiny … the lovely new kit at the Virginia Beer Company

The next night, after Randy Mosher had opened the conference and I had said hello to the surprising number of people I had met before, several car-loads of mixed speakers and conference attendees went off to Williamsburg’s newest brewery – so new, in fact, it wasn’t officially open – the Virginia Beer Company. It has been started by Robby Wiley and Chris Smith, two former graduates of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, (the second oldest university in the US, after Harvard) who had apparently made fortunes in the banking business despite only being in their 20s, and who had decided that running a brewery was just the tickety-boo. I was told that around $1.5m had been spent on the whole start-up, and it looked like it: lots of lovely shiny stainless-steel brewing kit (30-barrel capacity in the main set-up, five barrels in the experimental brewery) in a big tall-ceilinged former garage about a mile from the Colonial Williamsburg district. And, of course, there’s a tap: a huge drinking area, in fact, across the front of the old garage, with walls covered in wood from a barn dating from 1907 and room for more tables outside in the sun, all impressive. And the beers were good too.

Virginia Beer Co's head brewer, Jonathan Newman, serves me a glass of stout: tha's not really cask-conditioned, it was racked bright into the pin, but it tasted fine

Virginia Beer Co’s head brewer, Jonathan Newman, serves me a glass of pecan smoked porter: that’s not really cask-conditioned, it was racked bright into the pin, but it was excellent

Ber menu at the Virginia Beer Company

Ber menu at the Virginia Beer Company, constructed from 110-year-old wood

Most of my between-lectures drinking was in the DoG Street Pub, DoG standing for Duke of Gloucester, and Duke of Gloucester Street being the main thoroughfare through Colonial Williamsburg (it was named for the son of the then Princess Anne, third in line to the throne while he was alive, whose death aged 11 in 1700, before his mother became Queen Anne in 1702, meant the British crown eventually passed to the Hanoverians). The building is a former bank converted in 2012, and the establishment styles itself as a “gastropub”. Not the smallest attraction was that it was relatively easy to find room for six or more people to sit at a table: Williamsburg being a tourist honeypot means that while the Colonial area has plenty of “taverns” where mob-capped wenches come round with stoneware mugs of ale, you’re likely to be told: “Can you come back in an hour, we’re full right now …” Bet they never said that to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Others' stories are not totally forgotten …

Others’ stories are not totally forgotten …

Also, the DoG Street Pub has an excellent selection of beer: the first time I went in I was able to try draught Gose from the Bahnhof brewery in Leipzig, Procrastinator Batch 2, an “accidental eisbock” brewed in 2014 by the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes in Switzerland; and something called “Strawberry Schwarzcake”, a fruit-flavoured Schwarzbier from another Virginia brewery, Wild Wolf, in Nellysford, about 140 miles from Williamsburg. (Minor aside: I know this is a naïve cliché, but here’s a classic example of just how BIG the US is: 140 miles and we’re still in the same state. An equal distance from my house in London and I’m in Sheffield.) The food, too, stepped up to the plate (pause to wonder if that joke really works – OK, moving on …) the fish and chips was fine, though I passed on the corned beef and cabbage, since like most Britons of my generation, I’d be sure, “corned beef” means disgusting slices carved from a can of Fray Bentos and served with hard tomatoes, too-old lettuce and sta;e salad cream for a summer Sunday “salad”.

The best bring-a-bottle party ever

The best bring-a-bottle party ever

Then on the Sunday night we had what has to go down as the best “bring a bottle” party ever: Ron P, Chris “Arctic Ale” Bowen and I had been discussing bringing some old beers to Williamsburg, and that’s exactly what we did: I donated a Whitbread 1992 250th Anniversary Ale, a 1994 Thomas Hardy and a 1992 Courage RIS, Ron supplied two-decades-old Liefman’s Goudenband, Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus and Hertog Jan Grande Prestige, and a 1930s Truman No 1 Barley Wine, while Chris brought some John Smiths nips from the 1950s, including a Coronation Ale from 1953. Around 20 people jammed into the hotel room in the Williamsburg Lodge of Ron’s friends Paul and Jamie Langlie to enjoy those and other gems that had been brought along, including an old bottle of Double Diamond (!), a 1988 John Lees Harvest Ale, an old Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale and a Bass 200 Ale from 1977. Astonishingly, all the beers were drinkable, and some verged on excellent.

Finally, before I left on the Monday, I went to see Frank Clark demonstrate colonial-style brewing: tremendous, especially the making of essentia binae, the burnt molasses colouring brewers used to make their porters as dark as possible before the invention of “patent” malt in 1817.

Many thanks to Colonial Williamsburg and everyone who works there for inviting me over and organising a truly excellent weekend, particular thanks to Frank Clark and his team for being such great hosts, cheers to everybody I met there, well done to everyone who bought my books in the bookstore, and let’s hope it happens again.

Frank Clark with mash fork, mashing the gains for a batch of porter in the scullry of the Governor's Palace

Frank Clark with mash fork, mashing the grains for a batch of porter in the scullery of the Governor’s Palace. The hops there are East Kent Goldings, entirely in period …

Running off the wort

Running off the wort into the copper

Addng the molasses to the iron pot before heating it to make essentia binae, porter colouring. (This was illegal for commercial brewers, but fine for home brewers)

Addng the molasses to the iron pot before heating it to make essentia binae, porter colouring. (This was illegal for commercial brewers, but fine for home brewers)

Heating the molasses in an iron pot until it just catches fire, at which point it needs quickly dousing

Heating the molasses in an iron pot until it just catches fire, at which point it needs quickly dousing

Ladling the wort into the copper

Adding the watered-down essentia binae into the copper

Boiling the copper

Boiling the wort in the copper with the hops: note the used grain in the tub bottom right – this goes to feed the animals

Ladling the boiled wort though a coopered sieve to remove the hops

Ladling the boiled wort though a coopered sieve to remove the hops

A better view of the hop sieve set-up

A better view of the hop sieve set-up

†Though Richmond, Virginia is named for Richmond, Surrey – which itself is named for Richmond, North Yorkshire, which was named for the village of Richemont in Normandy. Hampton, Virginia, however, is named for Southampton, not the one in Middlesex.

And so we say farewell to Colonial Williamsburg, until hopefully, we meet again some day …

And so we say farewell to Colonial Williamsburg, until hopefully, we meet again some day …

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

Around the same time, the Swedish-Finnish botanist Pehr Kalm, who travelled in North America from 1748 to 1751, apparently found the French in Canada drank little else but spruce beer. In his letters to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he wrote:

“Among other liquors commonly drank in the European plantations in the North of America there is a beer which deserves particular notice; it is brewed from a kind of pine that grows in those parts and is by botanists called Abies Piccea foliis brevibus conis minimus [black spruce, Picea mariana]. The French in Canada call it Epinette and Epinette Blanche, the English and Dutch call it Spruce.” Spruce beer, Kalm said, “is chiefly used by the French in Canada; a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most Northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common, but at Albany it is so scarce that the people are obliged to go some miles for it; and in the other English plantations it is hardly to be met with.”

Kalm gave much detail about the making of spruce beer, telling the Academicians:

“I had no opportunity to see the method of making this liquor used by the Dutch, but often drank it amongst them, and thought it very good. The account they gave me of preparing it is as follows: take 12 gallons of water and set it to boil in a copper; put into it about a pint and half or as much as can be held between two hands, of cuttings of the leaves and branches of the pine; let it boil about an hour, and pour it into a vessel, and leave it to cool a little; then put the yeast into the vessel to make the wort ferment; in to take away the resinous taste, put a pound of sugar amongst it. After it has done working, it may be put into hogsheads or barrels, but it is reckoned best to bottle it directly. It will keep a great while, and will not grow so soon sour in the summer as malt liquor. It looks clear and like common beer, has an agreeable taste, and when pour’d out of a bottle into a glass mantles like ale. It is reckoned very wholesom, and has a diuretick quality.


“When I afterwards came to Canada, I had several times an opportunity to see the French prepare this beer, which, as they use no malt liquor, is their only drink, except wine brought from France, which is pretty dear. Their way of brewing it is this: After having put the cuttings of the pine into the water, they lay some of the cones of the tree amongst it, for the gum which is contained in them is thought very wholesom; and makes the beer better. The French do not cut the branches and leaves of the pine nearly so fine as the Dutch; for if the branches are small enough to go into the copper, they do no more to them, and they measure the quantity no otherwise than by putting them into the till they come even with the surface of the water. While it is boiling they take some wheat, put it into a pan over the fire and roast it as we do coffee, till it is almost black; all the while stirring, shaking and turning it about in the pan, when that is done they throw it into the copper with some burnt bread.


“Rye is as fit for this purpose as wheat, barley is better than either, and Indian corn is better than barley. The reasons given me for putting this burnt corn and bread into the water are: 1st, and chiefly, to give it a brownish colour like malt liquor; 2nd, to make it more palatable; 3rd, to make it some more nourishing. When it has continued boiling till half the quantity only of the water remains in the copper, the pine is taken out and thrown away, and the liquor is poured into a vessel thro’ a sieve of hair cloth, to prevent the burnt bread and corn from mixing with it. Then some sirrup is put into the wort to make it palatable, and to take away the taste which the gum of the tree might leave behind. The wort is then left to cool after some yeast has been put to it, and nothing remains to be done before it is tunned up but skimming off what, during the fermentation, has risen up on the surface; and in four and twenty hours it is fit to be drank. As there is a great resemblance between the pine and that which is common in Sweden, it would be worth while to try whether ours could be made use of in the same manner.”

Black spruce

Black spruce, Picea Mariana

Kalm’s description of spruce beer brewing involved very little extra fermentable material, suggesting the French and Dutch found enough fermentable material in the spruce sap itself. However, John Claudius Loudon, writing in 1838, repeated an account of spruce beer brewing by the 18th century French physician, naval engineer and botanist Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782), apparently from the Traité des arbres fruitiers of 1768, clearly matching French Canadian practice, but with plenty of molasses or sugar:

“To make a cask of spruce beer, a boiler is necessary, which will contain one fourth part more than the quantity of liquor which is to be put into it. It is then filled three parts full of water, and the fire lighted. As soon as the water begins to get hot, a quantity of spruce twigs is put into it, broken into pieces, but tied together into a faggot or bundle, and large enough to measure about 2 ft. in circumference at the ligature. The water is kept boiling, till the bark separates from the twigs. While this is doing, a bushel of oats must be roasted, a few at a time, on a large iron stove or hot plate ; and about fifteen galettes [flat yeasty cakes], or as many sea biscuits, or if neither of these are to be had, fifteen pounds of bread cut into slices and toasted. As these articles are prepared, they are put into the boiler, where they remain till the spruce fir twigs are well boiled. The spruce branches are then taken out, and the fire extinguished. The oats and the bread fall to the bottom, and the leaves, &c., rise to the top, where they are skimmed off with the scum. Six pints of molasses, or 12 lb. or 15lb. of coarse brown sugar, are then added ; and: the liquor is immediately tunned off into a cask which has contained red wine; or, if it is wished that the spruce beer should have a fine red colour, five or six pints of wine may be left in the cask. Before the liquor becomes cold, half a pint of yeast is mixed with it, and well stirred, to incorporate it thoroughly with the liquor. The barrel is then filled up to the bung-hole, which is left open to allow it to ferment ; a portion of the liquor being kept back to supply what may be thrown off by the fermentation. If the cask is stopped before the liquor has fermented 24 hours, the spruce beer becomes sharp, like cider ; but, if it is suffered to ferment properly, and filled up twice a day, it becomes mild, and agreeable to the palate. It is esteemed very wholesome, and is exceedingly refreshing, especially during summer.”

Loudon also quoted “Michaux”, either the French naturalist Andre Michaux or his son Francois, as saying: “the twigs are boiled in water, a certain quantity of molasses or maple sugar is added, and the mixture is left to ferment,” and also: “The essence of spruce (which is what spruce beer is made from in this country) is obtained ‘by evaporating to the consistence of an extract the water in which the ends of the young branches of black spruce have been boiled.’ Michaux adds that he cannot give the details of the process for making the extract, as he has never seen it performed; but that he has often observed the process of making the beer, in the country about Halifax and the Maine, and that he can affirm with confidence that the white spruce is never used for that purpose.”

The British Army in North America looks to have learnt from the French the importance of spruce beer for treating and preventing scurvy: there is a strong argument for saying that spruce beer helped the British defeat the French and conquer Canada, by keeping troops healthy who would otherwise have fallen ill with scurvy. John Knox, born in Sligo, who served as an officer in North America between 1757 and 1760 with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, said the troops from New England temporarily occupying Louisbourg after its capture in 1745 were supplied with spruce beer, “this liquor being thought necessary for the preservation of the healths of our men, as they were confined to salt provisions, and it is an excellent antiscorbutic: it is made from the tops and branches of the Spruce-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses, and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use.” When British troops were again involved in a campaign against the French in Nova Scotia in 1757, their commander, the Earl of Loudoun, had insisted on an allowance of two quarts of spruce beer per man each day, for which the troops paid seven pence in New York currency, equal to four and one-twelfth pence sterling, later increased to five pints a day.

2008_EX02_01 007

General Jeffrey Amherst

General Jeffrey Amherst, who followed the Earl of Loudon as commander in chief of British forces in North America, was equally insistent that the troops be well supplied with spruce beer, “for the health and convenience of the troops”, and a “Breweree” (sic) was set up when the British Army was camped at the head of Lake George in what is now north-east New York State in June 1759 with each regiment donating one man to help with the brewing, and instructions to allow five quarts of molasses to every barrel of spruce beer. When Amherst’s troops moved north to capture the French Fort Carillon, subsequently renamed Fort Ticonderoga, the next month, each regiment took with it eight barrels of spruce beer, with a barrel to each company of Grenadiers and “Light Infentry”. Amherst considered spruce beer important enough to record a recipe for it in his journal on 15 August 1759, involving boiling “7 pounds of good Spruce” until the bark peels off and adding three gallons of molasses to the spruce-water, to make 30 gallons of beer.

Later on at Ticonderoga, in 1776, after the fort had been captured by American forces from the British during the War of Independence, two enterprising sergeants in the 5th Continental Regiment from New Hampshire, William Chamberlin and Seth Spring, crossed Lake Champlain to gather boughs of spruce, brought them back and with two quarts of molasses and a “quantity” of “spicknard or Indian root” (American spikenard, Aralia racemosa, a member of the ginseng family) for added flavour, brewed a barrel of beer. It was instantly popular with the other troops, and Spring was sent to Fort George to bring back two barrels of molasses to make more beer to sell. After six or seven weeks, Chamberlin recorded, he and Spring had made three hundred dollars between them.

An edition of the physician Richard Brookes’s General Practice of Physic in 1765 said:

“Poor People that winter in Greenland under vast Disadvantages in point of Air and Diet, preserve themselves from the Scurvy by Spruce Beer, which is their common Drink. Likewise the simple Decoction of Fir Tops has done Wonders. The Shrub Black Spruce of America makes this most wholesome Drink just mentioned and affords a Balsam superior to most Turpentines. It is of the Fir Kind. A simple Decoction of the Tops, Cones, Leaves, or even of the green Bark or Wood of these, is an excellent Antiscorbutic; but perhaps it is much more so when fermented, as in making Spruce Beer. This is done by Molosses, which by its diaphoretic Quality, makes it a more suitable Medicine. By carrying a few Bags of Spruce to Sea, this wholesome Drink may be made at any Time. But when Spruce cannot be had, the common Fir-Tops used for Fuel in the Ship should be first boiled in Water, and then the Decoction should be fermented with Molosses; to which may be added a small Quantity of Wormwood and Root of Horseradish. The fresher it is drank the better.”

Four years later 1769 a book called The London Practice of Physic, listing treatments for scurvy, gave a recipe for spruce beer as follows:

Take twelve gallons of water and put therein three pounds and a half of black spruce, and boil it for three hours; then put to the liquor seven pounds of molasses just boil it up, strain it through a sieve when milk-warm, put to it about four spoonfulls of yeast to work it; it soon becomes fit for bottling, perhaps in five or six days.

Later versions of this recipe said it was called “chowder beer” and claimed it originated in Devon, adding that “two gallons of melasses [sic] are sufficient for a hogshead of liquor, but if melasses cannot be procured treacle or coarse sugar will answer the purpose.”

Captain James Cook experimented with spruce beer on his second voyage to the Pacific, from 1772 to 1775, making a batch when he arrived in New Zealand. Cook wrote:

“We at first made it of a decoction of spruce leaves [the spruce Cook used was the New Zealand rimu, Dacrydium cupressinum]; but finding that this alone made the beer too astringent, we afterwards mixed with it an equal quantity of the tea-plant, (a name it obtained in my former voyage from our using it as tea then as we also did now) which made the beer extremely palatable, and esteemed by every one on board [this was the mānuka, Leptospermum scoparium, found in New Zealand and south-east Australia]; we brewed it in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows: First, make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea-plant, by boiling them three or four hours, or until the bark will strip with ease from off the branches; then take them out of the copper, and put in the proper quantity of molasses, ten gallons of which are sufficient to make a tun, or two hundred and forty gallons of beer; let this mixture just boil; then put it into the casks, and to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less, according to the strength of the decoction or the taste: when the whole is milk-warm, put in a little grounds of beer or yeast, if you have it, or any thing else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink. After the casks have been brewed in two or three times, beer will generally ferment itself, especially if the weather is warm. As I had inspissated juice of wort [a concentrated form or wort the Admiralty was experimenting with in the hope that it could be used to make beer on long voyages on board], and could not apply it to a better purpose, we used it together with molasses or sugar to make these two articles go farther.”

Cook and his men brewed spruce beer in New Zealand again in February 1777 on his third and last voyage to the Pacific, and also in April 1778, at Nootka Sound on the Canadian west coast, where enough beer was brewed “to last the ship’s company for two or three months”. When Cook’s two ships reached Unalaska Island in the Aleutians early in October 1778, Cook recorded that both crews were free of scurvy, putting this down in part to the spruce beer, which was drunk every other day.

Essence of Spruce ad 1777Spruce beer, (not strictly, of course, a “beer”, since it was not made from malted grain) was meanwhile taking off in Britain thanks to the invention of in Canada of “essence of spruce”. Essence of spruce was advertised in Lloyd’s Evening Post in London in February 1770, but only as a cure for “Scorbutic Complaints”, with no mention of brewing with it. The following year, Dr Henry Taylor, of Quebec, patented “a method of producing an essence or extract of spruce so perfect that one pound and a quarter will make sixty gallons of fine spruce beer which will be fit to drink in three days in any climate.” Taylor’s method was to place “tops or small branches” of spruce in a still, distil off half the liquor, with “all the essential oil on the top of the glass … to be carefully saved”, then run the “residuum” in the still into a boiler where there were more “fresh tops or branches of spruce” and boil that up to reduce it. The residuum was then to be boiled again with fresh spruce tops or branches, and then the “essential oil” mixed in.

The Royal Navy quickly picked up on Taylor’s invention. A letter that year, 1771, from the Admiralty to the Treasury refers to “essence of Spruce” from Quebec, “which when brewed into beer may be of great service to the navy in preserving the seamen from scurvy.” Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who was in command of the North America Station at the start of the American War of Independence, wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty Board from Boston, Massachusetts in September 1775 that “The Seamen always continue healthy and active when drinking spruce Beer”, and in the log of the 70-gun HMS Boyne, one of the ships under Graves’s command, are many entries of butts of spruce beer taken on while it was lying in Boston harbour in 1774-1775. (Spruce beer was still being brewed for Royal Navy ships in 1807.)

Taylor had a partner in patenting the essence, Thomas Bridge, of Bread Street, London, and by April 1774 Bridge was boasting in print that he had the rights to “the sole making and vending the said Essence.” Bridge told prospective customers that one hogshead of essence would make five hundred hogsheads of beer, and a pound and a quarter of it would make 63 gallons of beer that “may be brewed with very little trouble at sea or land, without fire … and will be fit for use in three or four days. It was, he said, “a excellent table beer, is the best anti-scorbutic yet discovered, is also a fine substitute for malt liquor to people afflicted with the stone, gravel and many other disorders,, as it is allowed to be a great purifier of the blood, by dissolving all viscid juices, opening ostructions [sic] of the viscera and the more distant glands.” By 1784 Bridge was not just supplying the essence, but also brewing “the best double American spruce beer” himself at his premises in Bread Street, “under the inspection of a gentleman long used to that business in America”, and selling it in both bottles and casks.

He had a rival, J Ellison, of St Alban’s Street, Pall Mall, and Red Lion Street, Whitechapel, who ran a lengthy advertisement on the front of the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser in September 1783 proclaiming that the virtues of spruce beer could be credited to the large amount of “fixable air” – carbon dioxide – it contained, and claiming that experiments carried out under the instructions of “Dr Higgins” – Bryan Higgins, a scientist who ran a “school of practical chemistry” in Soho, London in the 1770s – showed a gallon of spruce beer would release nearly two gallons of “fixable air” when the cork was removed from the bottle, “which … cause the intumescence and frothing which always appear when a bottle of good of Spruce Beer is quickly uncorked.” Summoning the names of several more contemporary scientists, including Joseph Priestley and Dr Joseph Black, Ellison said they all agreed that “fixable air” was “a powerful and a necessary part of the fluids and solids in sound bodies”, and to fixable air was ascribed “the most salutary effects in diverse diseases.” Since spruce beer “contains so great a quantity of this active spirit,” Ellison said, “it may fairly be inferred that the Spruce Beer is most salutary which is made to retain the greatest quantity of fixable air,” something he was “particularly attentive to.”

'What say we get it on, kid? After all, we both like spruce beer.' '"I'm vewry sorry, M Knightley, I could never grant my lifelong affections to a man who wore hats like that.'

‘What say we get it on, kid? After all, we both like spruce beer.’ ‘I am so very sorry, Mr Knightley, truly, and I am most flattered by your expressions of regard, which I cannot but be sensible are most undeserved, but I could never bring myself to give my heart and hand for life to a man who wore a hat like that.’

Jane Austen liked spruce beer, agreeing with the anonymous author of The Family Receipt-Book or Universal Repository of Domestic Economy, published 1808, that “The salubrity of spruce beer is universally acknowledged.” Indeed, she liked it enough to make it herself, at home, more than once. In a letter dated December that same year to her sister Cassandra from Castle Square in Southampton, where Jane was living in the home of her brother Frank, then a captain in the Royal Navy, she wrote: “we are brewing Spruce Beer again”, with an oblique joking reference to the great porter casks of Henry Thrale, the former owner of the Anchor brewery in Southwark. In Emma, written in 1815, both Emma Woodhouse and her lifetime friend, the landowner George Knightley, admit to a liking for spruce beer, and Mr Knightley gives the local vicar, Mr Elton, who has “resolved to learn to like it too” (probably to try to ingratiate himself with Emma), tips on brewing it. It is more than likely that Jane Austen had been introduced to spruce beer by her brother, who had joined the Royal Navy in 1786, and had a reputation as a commander concerned with the welfare of his men.

Though it was “disagreeable to the taste of many”, spruce beer was a popular drink in Georgian Britain, with The Family Receipt Book declaring that “notwithstanding its invincible terebinthine flavour,” it “forms so refreshing and lively a summer drink, that it begins to be greatly used in this country.” Local newspapers carried advertisements for the imported spruce essence needed to make it, and for local retailers who sold it. J. Lambe, “Purveyor to his Majesty, at his Warehouse, New Bond-street” in London was advertising that he made and sold “the best double American Spruce Beer, which on trial by those who have been in America, will be found of a finer flavour than can be made there from the fresh branches.”

An advert in the Hampshire Chronicle of 5 May 1790 for “essence of Canadian spruce” sold in pots for two shillings and sixpence a time “with directions for making it into Beer” listed more than 20 retailers around the county where it could be brought, including Skelton and Macklin in Southampton, while the City Coffee House, Bath, for example, was advertising in July 1800, a few months before the Austen family moved there, that it sold “Bottled Cyder, Beer, Porter and Spruce Beer”.

The Family Receipt Book gave instructions on how to make spruce beer at home that must have been very close to the method the Austen household used:

“The regular method of brewing spruce Beer, as it is at present in the best manner prepared, and so highly admired for its excessive briskness, is as follows: Pour eight gallons of cold water into a barrel; and then, boiling eight gallons more, put that in also; to this add twelve pounds of molasses, with about half a pound of the essence of spruce; and on its getting a little cooler, half a pint of good ale yeast. The whole being well stirred, or rolled in the barrel, must be left with the bung out for two or three days; after which the liquor may be immediately bottled, well corked up and packed in saw-dust or sand, when it will be ripe and fit for drink in a fortnight. If spruce beer be made immediately from the branches or cones, they are required to be boiled for two hours, after which the liquor is to be strained into a barrel, the molasses and yeast are to be added to the extract, and to be in all respects treated after the same manner. Spruce beer is best bottled in stone; and from its volatile nature, the whole should be immediately drank when the bottle is once opened.”

Twelve pounds of molasses was the equivalent to a bushel of malt, according to a commentator in 1725, so the Family Receipt Book’s recipe would produce 16 gallons – half an ale barrel – of beer of somewhere between 5 per cent and six per cent alcohol by volume.

There is some evidence that American-brewed spruce beer came across the Atlantic: on Thursday 17 February 1785, 158 gallons of spruce beer were auctioned off, along with other goods including tea, coffee, wine and rum, at the Custom House in Bristol, a port more likely to deal with ships from the Americas than from the Baltic. There were certainly commercial spruce beer breweries operating in the United States that could have supplied it: Medcef Eden was advertising his “double spruce beer”, “to be sold at my brewery, Golden Hill,” New York in the Independent Journal in May 1785, for example. American-brewed spruce beer was , at least occasionally, made with hops: a recipe in the New Haven Gazette from 1788 included two ounces of hops –a quarter of the amount used in a recipe for malt beer – and two quarts of bran, together with “one bundle” of spruce and four gallons of molasses to make a barrel of beer.

Spruce brewery London 1806However, plenty of British entrepreneurs were making American-style spruce beer for those who, unlike the Austens, did not wish to make their own. The Observer newspaper on 25 August 1799 carried two separate advertisements on its front page for “genuine American spruce beer” sold by Brown’s Wine Vaults and Italian Warehouse in Paradise Row, Chelsea and “Hickson’s celebrated Spruce Beer … just becoming properly ripe for drinking”, available from William Hickson at his Oil and Italian Warehouse in the Strand. One maker in 1804 in Craven Street, just off the Strand in London, was selling “Imperial Spruce Beer”. There was another spruce beer brewery operating in London, Lowthorp & Co, in the Lambeth Road, around 1806, selling White Spruce “of a most beautiful colour and flavour, almost equal to Champaigne [sic]”, as 12 shillings a dozen bottles, and “fine Brown at 6s per dozen, for Ready Money” (white spruce beer was made with lump sugar, brown with treacle or molasses), and another in Dublin around the same time, John Russell’s American Essenced Spruce Beer Brewery, claimed to have startedb in 1802. (Spruce beer’s success was helped Spruce beer brewery Dublin 1807by the fact that several Acts of Parliament, most notably in 1795/6, had established that no magistrates’ licence was needed to sell it.) John Munro, grocer and porter dealer, 10 South Frederick Street, Edinburgh, was advertising in 1804 “Fine Double Spruce Beer” at two shillings and six pence a dozen bottles, table spruce beer 2s, “Families who make their own Spruce, supplied with the Patent Essence and London Molasses on the most reasonable terms.” By 1806 the black spruce tree was growing in Britain, having been brought over from North America, and according to Richard Shannon, the inhabitants of Devon, Cornwall and Yorkshire were all making spruce beer from that tree and the Norwegian Spruce, which was also now being grown in the country.

Pedley spruce beer 1819In a few years, however, American-style spruce beer began to lose its popularity in Britain, perhaps because now the Royal Navy was using lime and lemon juice as its main defence against scurvy. Essence of spruce for making spruce beer was still being advertised for sale in 1819, by Pedley and Company of Oxford Street, London, who also made “highly carbonated” white and brown spruce beer themselves, as well as ginger beer and soda water. When William Parry’s second Arctic expedition left from London in 1821, each ship carried provisions for three years that included 144 bottles of essence of spruce and 1,200 pounds of molasses, but also 4,500 pounds of lemon juice in five-gallon casks (and 120 canisters of “essence of malt and hops”, each one enough to brew a barrel of brown stout, as well as 4,000 gallons of rum, eight tons of pork, five tons of potatoes, and much else). Mr Pedley died in 1821, and at the end of that year his executors put up for auction much of the equipment at his Oxford Street premises, including “two very expensive Soda Water Engines with metallic barrels, pumps etc by Bramah and Galloway, 700 dozen stone bottles, 1,500 gross of corks, 12 hundredweight essence of spruce”, and “part of a hogshead of molasses”. It looks as if Pedley may have been Britain’s last commercial essence of spruce brewer. “Viner’s Essence of Spruce, sufficient for 18 gallons of superior White Spruce Beer, price 3s 6d per bottle with proper directors” was still being advertised for sale in 1825 for do-it-yourself spruce beer brewers, but looks to have vanished off the shelves soon after. Imported essence of spruce was still being taxed at 10 per cent ad valorem in the 1840s, later changed to 2s 6d a pound: but in 1856 the tax brought in just £1, and 1867 it was declared that not one drop had been imported the previous year

A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.

There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.

The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)

Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)

“Sprossen-bier” was also called in German “Danziger bier” or “Joppenbier”. The German physician Jacob Theodor von Bergzabern, better known by his Latinised name, Tabernaemontanus, raved about it in his Neuwe Kreuterbuch (“New Book of Herbs”), published in 1588, declaring that there were “many sorts of good and hearty beers” made in the land of the Prussians, but Danzig beer, or Joppenbier, “takes the prize … there is in a little beaker of this beer more strength and nourishment, than in an entire large mug of ordinary beer.” Joppenbier, he said, was a beautiful reddish-brown colour and “thick like a syrup”, and it strengthened the blood and gave a “lovely colour” to those who drank.

Hobson's Black Beer beermat 1“Danziger Jopen-bier” was still going in 1946, when it was described by a Czech professor in a lecture to a group of English brewers as “one of the most interesting and unique of top fermented beverages”. It was made by boiling wort for up to ten hours until it reached a gravity of between 45 and 55 per cent Balling – a stupefying 1200 to 1260 OG or so. The wort was then run into wooden vessels and fermentation undertaken by a “mixed microflora” of moulds and yeasts present in the wood, with other yeasts joining in as fermentation progressed. The final beer was only 2.5 per cent to 7 per cent alcohol, with an acidity (as lactic acid) of 1 to 2 per cent. The name “Jopen”, the professor claimed, was “derived primarily from a word meaning a large mug out of which beer is consumed”, which, given that Tabernaemontanus said you only needed a “Tafelbeckerlein”, a little beaker, of Joppenbier to get more benefit than from a “Maß” of ordinary deer, seems dubious. But the beer described in 1946 must have been considerably sweet, and very dark, and was clearly the same as the “Dantzig spruce or black beer” described by a writer in 1801 as one of the beers that were “only half fermented”. A decoction of spruce buds or cones was added to the wort before fermentation, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1890. However, a description of making Joppenbeer in German from 1865 fails to mention spruce:

Danziger Joppenbier

Joppenbier is in many respects very interesting. It is made from a highly concentrated wort – the Saccharometer degree is about 49 per cent. From 1000 Kg malt and 5 Kg hops approximately 10.5 hectolitres of beer is produced. The mash is made by the infusion method and the wort which is drawn off is – to obtain the specified concentration – often boiled more than 20 hours. The wort is cooled down to down to 12.5 degrees.

The fermentation is a so-called spontaneous fermentation. Fermentation usually begins in July – although it is the same whether the beer is brewed in January or April. The wort is first covered with a thick blanket greenish-white mould; when the mould spores are in sufficient quantity to force their way into the wort and to grow to a very characteristic yeast, then the fermentation begins, which only in September subsides enough so that the beer becomes clear and can be drawn off. The attenuation is during this period up to only about 19.

The resulting beer is dark brown and extremely rich (partly from un-broken-down glucose) and sweet. The smell is pleasant (which is probably a consequence of the extremely slow fermentation). It is not possible to drink much Joppenbier – it is full-bodied, extremely suitable for mixing with other beer and is exported to England for this purpose. The clear beer can be left a year in the vat on the yeast without being damaged – of course, however, the degree of attenuation will increase.”

When the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz set off on his third voyage around the top of Norway and Russia in 1596 to try to find the Northeast Passage from Europe to China, he and his team took with them casks of beer that included at least one barrel of “iopen”, which is specifically called in the Latin version of the account of what turned out to be Barentsz’s last voyage “cerevisia dantiscana” – Danzig beer. Barentsz’s crew were stranded on Novaya Zemla in the Arctic Ocean, just 900 miles from the North Pole, over the winter of 1596/7, when it became so cold that the “iopen” froze, bursting its cask. The crew tried to drink the beer as it thawed, but they had inadvertently invented freeze-distillation, with the alcohol unfreezing first, and “it was too strong to drinke alone”. (That “cerevisia dantiscana” was a synonym for the beer also known as “Joppenbier” ” and “Preusing” – “Prussian” – is confirmed in a book written in Latin by a German author in 1722 listing the names of all known drinks, though confusingly it also translates “Cerevisia Batavorum”, “Batavian” or Netherlands beer, as “Joppen-Bier”: Dutch joppenbier appears to be an entirely different tradition.)

Spruce beer looks to go underground in Britain after Colyn Blowbolle in the time of the Tudors, with only a couple of glimpses in the next two centuries. A writer in 1832 claimed that in 1664 an advertisement appeared in London declaring: “At the ‘Angel and Sun,’ in the Strand, near Strand Bridge, is to be sold every day, fresh Epsum-water, Barnet-water, and Tunbridge-water; Epsum-ale, and Spruce-beer.” By 1719 the “Old Brunswick Mum and Spruce Beer House” was open “next door to the Red-Lyon, over against Bridewell-Bridge, Fleet-Ditch” in London, and selling “right Brunswick-Mum, and Spruce-Beer, Wholesale and Retail”, with the proprietor, Edmund Thomas, claiming to be “the only person in London that deals in these two commodities, and nothing else.” (It was still open in April 1757, when “a large parcel of Mum” had just been imported.)

Old Brunswick Mum house 1719These establishments were both almost certainly selling Danzig-brewed spruce beer, and from 1720 onwards newspapers began regularly recording kegs of spruce beer or black beer from Danzig, in quantities of up to 200 kegs at a time, among the huge range of goods from around the world being imported into Britain, from lime juice out of Jamaica to iron from Sweden, with the kegs arriving in ports from London to Newcastle upon Tyne. The kegs apparently held two gallons each, and the retail price was a high eight shillings and sixpence a cask, or more than six pence a pint, when porter was three pence a quart. Part of the high cost was the duty paid: £2 per 32-gallon (wine measure) barrel, when ordinary strong beer paid only 10s.

Jem brand ad 1950As the 19th century continued, spruce or black beer continued to be imported from Danzig to Great Britain: 24,950 kegs arrived in 1829, for example, 98 per cent of all the spruce beer the city exported that year, at 6s 6d a keg, worth £8,108 15s. it was on sale in London in 1850 for 1s 3d for a quart bottle, or 10s 6d a keg. Import duties on spruce beer brought in £3,015 in the 12 months to 31 March 1859 (for comparison, excise duty on wine in the same period totalled £1.76 million). The following year, 1860, Danzig exported spruce beer worth 86,500 thaler, or just under £13,000, perhaps £1 million today. Much of the time it must have been drunk for its supposed health-giving properties: an Australian newspaper in 1843 reported: “Infallible Cure For Colds: Two tablespoonsful of Dantzic black beer, taken with hot water, sugar, and about half-a-glass of old rum, or malt whisky; immediately before going to bed, is said to cure the most obstinate and long-standing colds, and has succeeded where every other remedy failed.”

Hobson's Black Beer beermat 2By the early 19th century, British firms, almost all in the North of England, had started making black beer themselves, to the same specifications as the Danzig version. One of the first known is R Barnby of Hull, “black beer manufacturer”, who went bankrupt early in 1815. Six years later, in 1821, another Hull-based black beer brewer, J Roberts, also went bankrupt. Leeds had four black beer brewers listed in 1823, though three brewed other beers as well, and Huddersfield one. Pigot’s directory of Hull in 1828 listed five “black beer brewers and importers” in the port. Sheffield had one black beer brewer the same year, Francis Parker of Trippet Lane, who also brewed ale and porter. By 1837 Leeds had six black beer brewers listed, plus one importer, while Huddersfield the same year had two black beer brewers. (Despite black beer being far more popular in the North, Dickens has the Magpie and Stump public house in Clare Market, London, advertising “Devonshire cyder and Dantzic spruce” on printed cards in the windows in The Pickwick Papers, published first in 1836). A later Leeds black beer brewer was the Cambria Vinegar Company, which was primarily a vinegar brewer based in Elland Road, Leeds, but which also supplied fish and chip shops with other essentials such as oil for their fryers. Among those in Sheffield was John Wheatley of the Dantzig Brewery, Division Street, who appears in a directory of 1862 and was advertising himself three years later as “black beer brewers and manufacturers of peppermint and raspberry cordials, aerated ginger beer, lemonade, soda water, lithia and German seltzer waters, agents for Messers Hoare and Co’s London Porter and Stout”.

Spruce beer imports from Dantzig began to fall, with the total excise duty collected in 1868 down to £1,756. (The duty collected on essence of spruce for that year was just £1.) All the same Britain still imported 398,449 litres of spruce beer from Danzig in 1877, about 28,100 kegs, at 8s 6d per keg FOB, totalling just under £12,000, and 99 per cent of the total exported from the city. One Danzig-based spruce beer (and lager) brewer, Robert Fischer, whose “best Danzig black beer” was being imported into Newcastle upon Tyne in 1855, still had an agency in Glasgow in 1886, according to the Post Office Directory that year, and spruce beer was coming “direct from Hamburg” in 1897, “the best and strongest”.

Black beer and port wineBy the 20th century black beer manufacturers in Britain were concentrating on the healthy aspects of the drink. W Severn & Co of Curzon Street, Derby, said its Black Spruce Beer, 5s 5d for a large bottle in 1922, “will keep indefinitely … fortifies the system against Chills, Colds and Weakness as nothing else can … invaluable for growing children.” Another Derby-based black beer brewer, Burrows & Sturgess Ltd of the Spa Works, revealed some of the secrets of the drink’s making in an advertisement from 1920, saying that black beer, “also known as Spruce Beer” was “a strong heavy liquid, very dark in color [sic], and is produced chiefly from Malt, blended with Dantzic Spruce. After evaporation and fermentation the Beer should mature for over twelve months before being offered for sale. Owing to its dense gravity, and being a fermented product of Malt, it pays a heavy Excise duty, but its great medicinal value being recognised, it is not classed as an ordinary beverage, and its sale is free from restrictions. It has a decidedly pleasant and piquant flavour, which appeals to most people. It is of the greatest value as a preventative and remedy for Coughs, Colds, Influenza and Weakness. It is the 100% Food Tonic. It may be taken alone, or with the addition of hot water, sugar and spirits. It is fully matured, will keep indefinitely and if of the heaviest gravity. No house should be without a bottle of this wholesome and beneficial Beer. For growing children it has no equal. Supplied in bottles (six-to-gallon size) 6s 3d per bottle.”

Hobson's Sheffield Stout beermatOne manufacturer, Joseph Hobson & Son (which also called its premises, in The Calls, Leeds the Dantzig brewery, and which claimed to have been in existence for over a century in 1931), declared that its black beer, “taken regularly, will prevent influenza.” (To be fair, it was estimated in 2011 that 30ml of black beer provided 25 per cent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.) Different firms combined black beer with one or another alcoholic drink also promoted, at the time, as “good” for the run-down, so that Heaton’s of Burnley in 1906 sold “Famous Black Beer and Port, The Great Food Tonic – Strengthening and Nourishing”, with the tannin in the port, “so very injurious to a weak stomach, successfully neutralised”.

Black beer from a mainstream bewer, which appears to be claiming, incorrectly, to be non-intoxicating

Black beer from a mainstream bewer, which appears to be claiming, incorrectly, to be non-intoxicating

A rival Burnley firm sold Hartley’s Black Beer and Raisin Wine, “the Finest Black Beer and the Choicest Raisin Wine skilfully combined in exactly correct proportions … a Magnificent Tonic and Restorative for the Pale and Delicate … 1s per full-sized wine bottle.” Another supplier, A Greaves & Son Ltd, Chemists, The Market Place, Chesterfield, claimed in 1936 to have “The Tonic you have all beer waiting for! Black Beer and Australian Red Wine, only 1s 6d a big flask”. The makers of the rival Friar Brand black beer and red wine, sole agents DM Forbes of Chesterfield, said it was “invaluable for anaemic girls and all who are run-down”, and just 2s 6d a large bottle. At least one Scottish “mainstream” brewer, George Younger’s of Alloa, was making black beer in the 1920s, describing it as “non-excisable” – meaning it could be sold without a magistrates’ licence – and “so refreshing”.

Rum & Black Beer bottleThe whopping original gravity of black beer, however, at 1200 or more, was nearly its death in the First World War, when the tax on beer, which was based on OGs, went up to almost 13 times the pre-war level by 1920, leading to excise rates on “mum, spruce or black beer” (the taxman still remembered Brunswick mum, if everybody else had forgotten) more than five times higher than on regular beers, at £26 2s a 36-gallon barrel. This was something which “almost destroyed” the industry, but Leeds-based MPs managed to get a tax rebate for black beer in 1923, which rebate was increased in 1924. When another massive increase in British beer tax was made in 1931, Yorkshire’s MPs succeeded in getting black beer finally exempted from tax completely, to ensure its survival. Its continued existence was helped by the fact that, despite an alcohol content of around 8.5 per cent by volume, no magistrates’ licence was required to sell it, and in 1929 it was said to be “largely sold by chemists”. (The continued inclusion of “mum” in the excise regulations confused MPs during the parliamentary debate on the budget, and the Liberal MP Ernest Brown had to explain, inaccurately, that “mum” was “similar not only to black beer, but also Berlin white beer”.)

Mather's in its final incarnation

Mather’s in its final incarnation

Hobson’s, which at one point had made “Danzovia” tonic wine, was still listing its “Hobson’s Choice” and “Spruce” brand black beers in 1969 but soon afterward merged with the wine and spirit merchant Gale Lister, leaving another Leeds firm, JE Mather & Sons, founded in 1903, as the only surviving maker of black beer in the UK. In 1950 Mather’s had been boasting that its bottles contained nearly 2,000 calories each, and recommending that purchasers mix it with lemonade to make a black beer shandy – known as a Sheffield stout. By 1992 the brand was owned by the drinks company Matthew Clark & Son, which successfully fought off a proposed imposition of a tax increase that would have doubled the price. In 1995 Matthew Clark closed its Leeds winery, but sold the brand to Continental Wine and Foods of Huddersfield, which continued to make Mather’s Black Beer. However, in 2012, as part of changes to the tax system, it was announced that the relief black beer had enjoyed since 1931 was to end the following year, which would mean the price of a 68cl bottle almost doubling to £4. Continental Wine and Foods was only selling 35,000 bottles a year, and in 2013 it ceased all production of black beer, saying the likely effect of the price rise on sales among the largely elderly buyers of Mather’s Black Beer meant it was not worth continuing with the product.

For part two of this history of spruce beer, the North American connection, click here

Mather's Sheffield Stout 1945

More frequently repeated beery history that turns out to be totally bogus

Bass No 5 signIt’s depressing and frightening, sometimes, if you start tugging at loose threads in the historical narrative, because the whole fabric can start unravelling. This all began with the Canadian beer blogger and beer historian Alan McLeod emailing me about claims that the “Hull ale” that was being drunk in the 17th century in London was really ale from Burton upon Trent, shipped down that river to the sea, and taking the Yorkshire port’s name on the way. Did I have any views, he asked?

I confess I’ve repeated the idea that “Hull ale probably really means Burton ale” myself, but Alan had several good points to make against it: Hull, like other ports, was known for its own ales, Burton lacked common brewers until the start of the 18th century, and in any case, until the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712 it was not easy for Burton brewers to get their ales shipped out anywhere. So I hit the internets.

It all began to fall down with Peter Mathias’s reference in the otherwise magisterial The Brewing Industry in England (p150), written in 1959, to Samuel Pepys drinking Hull ale in London in 1660. Mathias wrote that “of course”, this Hull ale was “probably” from Burton upon Trent, with the town allegedly being “well known in the capital for its ale in the seventeenth century”, and the first consignment “reputedly” sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane London in 1623. However, once you start digging, these claims appear to be completely wrong. The reference Mathias gives, to back all this up, The history and antiquities of Staffordshire by Stebbing Shaw, published in 1798, Volume 1 p13, is only available in Google Books via snippet view but it appears not to give a specific year for Burton Ale being sold at the Peacock at all. What it says, talking about Burton, is:

“And so great is the celebrity of this place for its ale brewed here, that, besides a very considerable home consumption, both in the country and in London (where it was first sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, a house still celebrated for the vending of this liquor) vast quantities have been exported to Sweden, Denmark, Russia and many other kingdoms.”

– but with no date for when Burton Ale was first sold at the Peacock.

Almost a century before Mathias, William Molyneaux, in Burton on Tent: Its History, Its Waters and its Breweries (1869 ) claimed in a footnote (p223) that

“About the year 1630 Burton ale was sold at the Peacock inn in Gray’s Inn Lane and had even then acquired a high reputation amongst the famous ales of England.”

But Molyneaux offered no reference to back this up. This claim was subsequently repeated in several books. However, there is no evidence at all that the Peacock was even open in the 17th century.

Gray's Inn Lane around 1810 or 1820

Gray’s Inn Lane around 1810 or 1820

One big problem is that very little seems to be recorded of the early history of the Peacock, though what is know is certainly tied up with Burton Ale. The pub was definitely going by 1751, when George Ash, “who was servant to Mr Ford at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane,” opened his own pub under the same name at Charing Cross, where he had in stock “a quantity of Burton Ale, to be sold wholesale or retail”, according to an ad in the London Daily Advertiser on May 25 that year. But the tavern does not appear in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the anonymous guide to London pubs and taverns written circa 1718, which if it was famous I would have expected (that book, incidentally, mentions Derby Ale twice, and Burton ale once – and Oxford Ale three times). It was briefly mentioned again in 1755, still being kept by Mr Ford. The poet John Langhorne is said to have drunk Burton ale at the Gray’s Inn Lane Peacock, and he lived in the vicinity of Gray’s Inn around 1764-66. Two other writers, Gilbert Stuart, and William Thomson, both Scottish exiles, drank in the Peacock in the 1780s, where, according to Thomson’s obituary, “in rivulets of Burton ale [they] not unfrequently quaffed libations to their favourite deity, until the clock informed them of the approaching day.” Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 said the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, “where Burton ale is sold in nyps”, was known as the “nyp-shop”.

Gilbert Stuart, Burton Ale fan and regular at the Peacock

Gilbert Stuart, Burton Ale fan and regular at the Peacock

The antiquarist Richard Warner, writing in 1802 in the orotund style popular with Georgian essayists, called Burton Ale “that rich and glutinous beverage named after the town and well known in the neighbourhood of Gray’s Inn Lane, ‘balm of the cares, sweet solace of the toils’ of many an exhausted Limb of the Law who at the renowned Peacock reinvigorates the powers with a nipperkin of Burton ale and a whiff of the Indian weed,” indicating that the pub was popular with barristers from Gray’s Inn. It was frequented by those who needed barristers, too. In October 1814 a 68-year-old woman named Elizabeth McDonald was sentenced Old Bailey to be hanged after she attempted to pass a counterfeit shilling at the Peacock and was seized by the landlord, William Kilsbey. The pub seems to have changed its name to the Fox and Peacock by 1845, but was back as the Peacock again in 1870, by which time Gray’s Inn Lane was Gray’s Inn Road. It was described as “totally modernised” in 1880, and was still being kept in 1882 by the marvellously named Nicholas Pollyblank who had been there since 1875, according to the 1882’s Post Office Directory. However, it disappears some time after that, evidently when that part of Gray’s Inn Road was redeveloped.

Is it possible that the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Road was actually much older than the year 1751, its (currently) first known appearance in the records? Certainly the advert in the London Daily Advertiser hints that the pub had been going for some time, to built up enough of a reputation that George Ash would want to boast of his connection with it. But it would be wrong to push the pub back more than ten years at the most just based on that. It is certainly true that pubs can stay under the radar for many decades after their founding: there was one pub in Mile End, East London with the excellent name of Why Not Beat Dragon, which first surfaces in an Old Bailey court case from 1723, but which has a name that refers to a race at Newmarket four decades earlier, in 1684, when a horse called Dragon was beaten by (you’re ahead of me here) another called Why Not. The pub must have been opened as the Why Not Beat Dragon very soon after the race took place, but apparently stayed unrecorded for almost 40 years.

An even longer example of an apparently “invisible” pub is the (now closed) Eagle and Child in Whitwell, Hertfordshire. It looks to take its name from the crest of the Stanley family, Earls of Derby, who were lords of the manor of Stagenhoe in nearby St Paul’s Walden from 1488 until 1582. The implication has to be that the pub opened, or at least received its name, some day during this 94-year Tudor timespan when the Stanleys were a big name in the area. But the pub’s first known mention comes in 1725, implying that it remained unrecorded by history for more than 140 years, at least, from the time when the Stanleys were local landowners to almost a century and a half after they had gone.

All the same, despite these examples, I find it highly implausible that a pub in as central a site as Gray’s Inn Lane/Road could have been open for 120 years before 1751 without anybody making some kind of record of its existence that would survive until today. On the evidence, I’d be surprised if the Peacock was much older than the 1710s or 1720s.

I don’t know where Molyneaux got his claim that the Peacock sold Burton Ale around 1630 from, but the reference to Burton ale being sold in London in 1623 appears to come from John Bushnan’s Burton and its Bitter Ale (pub 1853), which says

“In 1623 the Burton ale made itself known in London as Darbie or Derby from which town it used to reach London as we find in a singular work published that year entitled Panala a la Catholica or a Compound Ale.”

What that pamphlet, written by the deeply obscure William Folkingham (and also known as Panala Alacatholica, according to some souces, while the author’s surname is also found as Folkington) talks about, according to the extract reprinted by Bushnan, is:

“a cup of nappie ale (right Darbie, not Dagger ale, though effectually animating) well boyled, defecated, and cleared, that it shall equall the best-brewed beer in transparence, please the most curious palatt with milde quicknesse of relish.”

“Defecated” there, of course, means “cleared of dregs” (what did you think it could mean? Wash your mind out now). But all the evidence is that Bushnan is entirely wrong in asserting that “Darbie Ale” actually meant Burton ale. Derby was famous in its own right in the 17th century as a centre for brewing, with a large number of malthouses and inns, and it was only five miles by packhorse from the Trent, from where ale could be carried away by water to Hull, and from there to London and elsewhere. “Darbie Ale” being mentioned in Folkingham’s pamphlet does not prove it was on sale in London, though it, and other mentions, underline the idea that Derby Ale was well-enough known in the capital in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There is a reference to “Darbie Ale” in an anti-Puritan pamphlet called Martin Junior, published around 1589/90. William Camden, in his great survey Britannia, published in 1607, declared that Derby was “vero celebritas” – truly famous – for “ceruisia, quam coquit optima“, excellent ale. The pseudo-Chaucerian The Cobbler of Canturbury, published in 1608, says that “there must be admitted no compare betweene a Cup of Darby ale and a dish of durtie water.”

Derby in the early 17th century

Derby in the early 17th century

In 1611 a play by John Cook, Tu Quoque or The City Gallant, performed in front of James I, included the lines: “I have sent my daughter this morning as far as Pimlico to fetch a draught of Derby ale, that it may fetch a colour in her cheeks,” suggesting that Derby Ale was indeed on sale in London in early Stuart times. In 1637, John Taylor, the “Water Poet”, and one of the last campaigners against hops and in favour of traditional unhopped ale, wrote Drinke and Welcome: or The famous historie of the most part of drinks, in use now in the kingdomes of Great Brittaine and Ireland, which hailed the ales of “Yorke, Chester, Hull, Nottingham, Darby, Gravesend”, but does not mention Burton at all. A Civil War Royalist newsletter, Mercurius Pragmaticus, spoke sarcastically in 1649 of “a flagon of Darby Ale” that would make someone’s brains “runne over with the froth of non-sense”. “The froth of non-sense” looks to be a good description of Bushnan’s assertion that “Derby ale” was a synonym for Burton Ale.

Bushnan goes on to say that

“The Dagger Ale here alluded to was that sold at a house in Holborn in the same manner as the ale of Burton was about the same period at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane.”

and this appears to have led Colin Owen in The Development of Industry in Burton upon Trent (1978, p31) to claim that

“by the early 1620s Burton Ale (sometimes under the name of ‘Darbie Ale’) was being sold at the Dagger in Holborn and at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, where it was held in high esteem”

referencing Bushnan. But, of course, Bushnan doesn’t say the Dagger sold Burton or Derby ales – it was selling its own Dagger Ale – and Bushnan also gives no source for the claim that the Peacock was selling Burton ale at this time.

However, Burton had 46 licensed victuallers in 1604, so it is certainly not impossible that some of those inn or alehouse operators, who would all almost certainly have been brewing their own ale, were shipping some outside the district. Benjamin Printon, the first known common brewer in Burton, started operations probably some time around the year of his marriage, in 1708, and his business was very likely boosted by the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712, but there is a hint that Burton innkeepers were already using the Trent to ship beer to other markets before then (Owen, p33), probably carrying casks by horse or cart to where the Trent started being navigable (which would have been Nottingham, six to eight hours away).

The frequently repeated claim that Printon actually began brewing in 1708, incidentally, is again based on Stebbing Shaw. But what Shaw actually wrote in 1798, talking about brewing in Burton, was that

“The first origin of this business here was about 90 years ago, and simply commenced with a few public houses ; and, one Benjamin Printon was the first, who began in a small way (by employing only three men) any thing like the business of a common brewer.”

Taking “about 90 years ago” in 1798 to mean 1708, other writers have used Shaw’s words, wrongly, to make a definite claim that Printon starting brewing that year. But you’ll note that Shaw doesn’t actually say it was Printon that began “about 90 years ago”, merely that Printon was the first common brewer, rather than innkeeper-brewer, in Burton, with the public house brewers being the ones who started exporting their beer “about 90 years ago” and Printon coming along later. (John Bushnan got into a terrible mess over the claim that Benjamin Printon is really Benjamin Prilson, which itself, Bushnan tried to claim, was a misreading of Benjamin Wilson, founder of what became Allsopp’s brewery: all total nonsense.)

Printon, by the way, is regularly said to have been the (or “a”) “chief client” of William Bass before Bass gave up working as a carrier and started in the brewing business himself in 1777. But this is impossible: Printon died in 1729, when Bass was nine years old, and Bass only moved to Burton to start as a carrier in or around the late 1750s. It is possible that Bass carried beer for the family that took over Printon’s brewery, the Musgraves (or Musgroves), whose “genuine Burton ale” was advertised for sale at the St Dunstan’s coffee house in Fleet Street, London in 1751 at the extremely high price of ten pence a quart: ordinary porter was only 3d a quart. But someone else can investigate that …

An advert for Musgrove's Burton Ale from the London Daily Advertiser of June 15 1751, one of the earliest ads featuring a named brewer from outside London

An advert for Musgrove’s Burton Ale from the London Daily Advertiser of June 15 1751, one of the earliest ads featuring a named brewer from outside London

Incidentally, A Topographical History of Staffordshire: Including Its Agriculture, Mines and Manufactures … By William Pitt, published 1817, claims:

“The origin of this lucrative business was in the year 1610 [sic], when Benjamin Printon began a small brewery, and his success induced others to engage in the same business.”

surely a misprint (or misprinton).

The first definite evidence we have for Burton Ale on sale in London comes from a report printed in the edition of the Spectator magazine for May 20 1712, when at the end of a trip to the Spring Gardens pleasure grounds at “Fox Hall” (Vauxhall) on the south side of the Thames, the author and the fictional Sir Roger de Coverley “concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef.” The Vade Mecum for Malt Worms around 1718 shows Burton Ale on sale at the Guy of Warwick in Milk Street, in the City of London, while on January 11 1718 a London-based newspaper called the Post-Man published an ad showing “Fine Burton Ale, Bottled or in Hogsheads” on sale at “the sign of the Sawyers near Fleet Lane Bridge”.

Still, what about the famous quote from Daniel Defoe, writing in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, that “the best character you give to Ale in London is calling it Burton Ale”, a quote regularly repeated by authors writing about Burton beer? Well, the problem is, Defoe never said it. It’s actually a quote from another travel writer entirely, the Scots spy John Macky, in A Journey through England, which was published just before Defoe, in 1724. Macky, talking of Lichfield, said:

“The Ale is incomparable here, as it is all over this County of Stafford. Burton is the most famous Town in England for it, as also Stafford and Newcastle in this Shire. And indeed the best Character you give to Ale in London is calling it Burton Ale; from whence they send vast Quantities to London: Yet they brew at London some that goes by that Denomination.”

I suspect (though I haven’t researched it) that later editors of Defoe’s work lifted chunks of that quote from Macky and stuck it into later “enlarged and improved” editions of Danny boy’s works. But we can still gather from the quote that by the early 1720s Derby ale had lost its pre-eminence, to be replaced by its neighbouring rival across the border in Staffordshire. And, indeed, mentions in London newspapers in the 18th century of Derby ale are rare to non-existent. (Defoe, incidentally, did not mention Burton ale at all in his original first edition, and says only of Derby: “What Trade there is in the Town is chiefly in good Malt and good Ale.”)

So, to conclude or round up: claims that Burton Ale was on sale in London in the 17th century are unsubstantiated, though Derby Ale certainly was, and despite claims by Burtonians there is no evidence that “Derby Ale” was another name for Burton Ale: Derby ale was exactly what it said on the tin, or rather cask. By the 18th century Derby Ale had been pushed out of the London market, however. Of claims about Benjamin Printon, one is based on a misinterpretation and one is nonsense. There is no evidence that the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane was the first place in the capital to sell Burton ale, and it looks unlikely it was doing so in the 17th century. That’s six myths scotched. Thanks, Alan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.

So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.

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In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

Why oh why am I still having to write lengthy corrections to articles about the history of India Pale Ale? Well, apparently because the Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, is happy to print articles about the history of India Pale Ale without anybody doing any kind of fact-checking – and William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, appears to be one of those writers who misinterpret, make stuff up and actively get their facts wrong.

The article Bostwick had published on earlier this week, “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name”, is one of the worst I have ever read on the subject, crammed with at least 25 errors of fact and interpretation. It’s an excellent early contender for the Papazian Cup. I suppose I need to give you a link, so here it is, and below the nice picture of the Bow Brewery are my corrections.

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Museum of London

“The British Indian army” – most of the British troops in India in the 18th century were in the three private armies run by the East India Company. There was no such thing as “the British Indian army” at that time. Continue reading

More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Loved and disliked in equal parts, and enjoying an unexpected renaissance in hipstery parts, despite being more than 70 years old, the dimpled beer mug is undoubtedly an icon of England.

It was invented in 1938 at the Ravenhead glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire by an in-house designer whose name is now forgotten, and given the factory identity “P404”. Although the dimple has its enemies, who dislike its weight and its thickness, it soon became extremely popular, and at a rough guess some 500 million have been manufactured since it was born.

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped 'Pint MxCC GR 29', for Middlesex County Council

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped ‘Pint MxCC GR 29’, for Middlesex County Council

The dimple had much competition: even in 1938, many pubs still served beer in the pottery mugs that George Orwell praised in his “Moon Under Water” essay about his ideal pub, from the Evening Standard in 1946. Orwell declared that “in my opinion beer tastes better out of china,” but “china mugs went out about 30 years ago [that is, during the First World War], because most people like their drink to be transparent.” However, two documentary films made just before Orwell’s essay, The Story of English Inns, from 1944, and Down at the Local, from 1945, both show pint china mugs were still being used alongside glass ones, at least in country pubs. Orwell talked about the pottery beer mug as being strawberry-pink in colour, but they came in other shades (baby blue and a dark biscuit-beige, for example), all with white interiors and white handles, and also with transfer-print designs. The majority of pottery beer mugs, however, appear, in fact, to have been of the kind known as mochaware, invented around the end of the 18th century, which have tree or fern-like patterns on the sides, made by a drop of acid dropped onto the glaze of the mug while it was still wet. Most mochaware pint beer mugs seem to have been blue, or beige-and-blue, with black and white bands. Many were made by TG Green of Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, while the plain coloured mugs were the speciality of Pountneys of Bristol. TG Green stopped producing mochaware at the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was apparently the last company still making mochaware beermugs. It tried to revive the tradition in 1981, without success. The company closed in 2007.

Pewter mugs were pretty much obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, though Orwell claimed that “stout … goes better in a pewter pot”, and they were described as “old-fashioned” even in 1900, when it was said to have been replaced by the glass mug, “a thick, almost unbreakable article”. The problem, for publicans, was that their pewter pots kept being stolen, and they cost around ten times as much as china beer mugs. The better class of premises kept silver-plated pewter beermugs and, to guard against theft, carved the name and address of the pub into the base. Glass was also cheaper – and, it was claimed, the working man at the end of the 19th century liked to have his mild beer served in a glass so that he could see it was bright, and not hazy or cloudy.

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, from the film Down at the Local, 1945

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, one mochaware, the other transfer printed, from the film The Story of English Inns, 1944

Fortunately for the beer mug collector, after the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, drinking vessels used on licensed premises for draught beer or cider purporting to be a specific size – half-pint, pint or quart – had to bear an Official Stamp Number, either acid etched or sand-blasted through a stencil, a system that lasted, with tweaks, until 2007, and each district – county council, county borough and the like – had its own numbers, so that, for example, 19 was Derbyshire and 490 Bristol. They also carried the mark of the crown, and the initials of the reigning monarch of the time, something that had first been required by the Act “for ascertaining the Measures for retailing Ale and Beer” that had become law under William III in 1700. (That Act covered vessels “made of wood, earth, glass, horn, leather, pewter or of some other good and wholesome metal”, suggesting the variety of drinking vessels you could expect in a Stuart inn or alehouse, and it also only mentions quarts and pints, suggesting the half-pint was illegal – or at least extremely rare.) It is thus possible to tell roughly when an older beer mug was made, and roughly where, too. In 2007, when the CE, or “Conformitée Européenne” mark replaced the old system (leading to the Daily Mail to declare: “EU stealing the crown of the great British pint”), it became easier to tell when a glass was made, but no simpler to find out where and by whom. Alongside the CE on the glass will be an “M” and the last two digits of the year of manufacture, plus the identification number of the “notified body” that verified that the container was an accurate measure. To identify the notified body you have to go to the Nando website – nothing to do with peri-peri chicken, this stands for New Approach Notified and Designated Organisations.

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Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

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