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.

It was a tax fiddle.

To understand what was going on, you need to know that from the time when taxes were first imposed on beer and ale, in 1643, during the English Civil War, and for the next 139 years the excise authorities recognised only two strength of beer and ale for tax purposes: “small”, defined as having a pre-tax value of six shillings a barrel, and “strong”, defined as having a value of more than 6s a barrel. To begin with, the tax represented only a tiny proportion of the retail cost, at less than a tenth of a penny a pint for strong drink and not even two tenths of a penny per gallon for the small stuff. But in 1689, when William III of the Netherlands and his cousin, wife and co-ruler Mary had arrived in Britain and pushed Mary’s father James II off the throne, the need to pay for the “war of the British succession” and the continuing Nine Years’ War against Louis XIV of France saw the duty on beer and ale bounced upwards, from two shillings and sixpence a barrel to 3s 3d. The following year, 1690, the tax was doubled, to 6s 6d a barrel on strong ale and beer, more than a farthing a pint, when strong liquor retailed at a penny-ha’penny a pint, or 3d a quart “pot”. The rise in the tax on small drink was proportionate, to 1s 6d a barrel, but still the total tax on small beer and ale equalled only a half-penny a gallon.

The flaw in the system was that extra-strong beer or ale paid the same tax as “ordinary” or “common” strong beer. Unscrupulous brewer, and retailers, could therefore – and did – take a barrel of extra-strong beer and two of small beer, on which a total of 7s 3d of tax had been paid, mix them to make three barrels each equal in strength to common strong beer, which should have paid tax of 14s 3d in total, and save themselves 2s 4d a barrel in tax. This may have been equal to only a fifth of a penny a pot, or thereabouts, but it was still 6% or so extra profit. (Incidentally, for those of you new to this, “ale” at the time meant a drink with less hops in, and generally stronger, than “beer”.)

The excise authorities were certainly wise to this fiddle, and laws banning the mixing of different strengths of worts or beers were passed by Parliament in 1663 and again in 1670-1, 1689, 1696-97 and 1702, with (in William III’s time) a fine of £5 per barrel so mixed. That certainly did not stop people. Some time between 1698 and 1713, on the internal evidence, a manuscript was written, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, titled An account of the losse in the excise on beer and ale for severall yeares last paste, with meanes proposed for advanceing that revenue. It was probably produced by an anonymous Excise or Treasury official, because he had access to official tax data from 1683 to 1698, and it gives a fascinating account of the prices and likely strengths of beers and ales at the time. “Very Small Beer” retailed pre-tax at 3s a barrel, and paid (since 1693) 1s 3d a barrel tax. “Common Strong Beer and Ale”, made from “four Bushells of mault” – suggesting an original gravity of 1075 to 1085 – sold for 18s a Barrel and paid, at the time, 4s 9d a barrel tax. “Very Strong Beer or ale the Barrell being the Strong from 8 Bushells”, suggesting a huge original gravity, perhaps north of 1160, sold for £3 a barrel, but still paid the same 4s 9d a barrel tax as common strong beer or ale.

The fact that very strong brews paid the same tax as “common standard strong drinke” had “begot a kind of trade of Defrauding”, the anonymous author wrote, and he declared that “the notion thereof and Profitt thereby” of mixing very strong ale or beer with small beer and selling it as common strong ale or beer “has been of late & now is generally knowne”, and “the traders therein have turned themselves more and more to the practice of Brewing it,” “very strong Drinke being now Commonly a parte of the Brewers Guiles, and the whole of many who Brew nothing else.” The result, he said, was that “the Consumption of it is everywhere, which you have under several odd names, as Two Threades, 3 Threades, Stout or according as the Drinker will have it in price, from 3d. to 9d. the quarte.”

A Sot CouchantThat “3 threades” was a mixture of ordinary small ale or beer and very strong beer is confirmed by a publication called The Dictionary of the Canting Crew by “BE” (the “canting crew” being those who spoke in “cant”, or slang), published around 1697/1699. This called three-threads “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer”: both “stout” and “double beer” meant “extra-strong beer”, while “common ale” was the same as table ale or small ale, and brewed at one and a half bushels of malt to the barrel, giving an OG of around 1045. Mix a beer that was perhaps 10 or 11 per cent alcohol by volume with one that was only 4.5 per cent or so, and you’ll have a beer of around 7.5 per cent or so, of course, about the same strength of common strong ale: but one that gave the retailer a better profit that “entire gyle” strong beer did, because it had paid less tax.

In 1697 a tax on malt was introduced alongside the taxes on the finished product, at the bizarre-looking rate of six pence and sixteen 21sts of a penny a bushel. (My best guess on that odd sum is that it works out to not quite 4s 6d a quarter – but six pence and five eighths of a penny a bushel is 4s 6d a quarter exactly, so why the approximately 2% difference? If anyone has a good answer to this conundrum, I’d be grateful …) For the first time, the country’s very large number of private household brewers had to pay tax, if they bought their malt from commercial maltsters, while brewers were also now paying more tax when they brewed extra strong beer than when they brewed “common” strong beer, because of the extra (taxed) malt used. But even on double beer at eight bushels to the barrel, that only came out to around three farthings per gallon more tax, and it failed to stop brewers continuing to cheat the revenue by mixing small drink with extra-strong. A disgruntled former General Surveyor of Excise, Edward Denneston, “Gent”, who had been involved in inspecting breweries since at least the early 1680s, wrote what amounted to a 40-page rant in 1713 with the unsnappy title A Scheme for Advancing and Improving the Ancient and Noble Revenue of Excise upon Beer, Ale and other Branches to the Great Advantage of Her Majesty and the general Good of her Subjects. It claimed that the brewing profession had become rich solely because of the “Frauds, Neglects and Abuses” practised by the brewers to the detriment of the country’s tax take. Brewers, he said, were “Vermine … that eat us up alive” and he told them he wished them “all boiled in your own brewing Cauldrons, or drowned in your own Gile Tunns”.

Denneston was a man with a grievance: he claimed that when he was a General Surveyor of Excise in London, he had spent several hundred pounds of his own money uncovering fiddles at the royal brewhouse in St Katharine’s, by the Tower, which brewed beer for the navy. One such fraud cost the government £18,000 a year, and he had been promised a reward by the House of Commons for stopping it, which, he said, he had never received. He also claimed that the country was losing £200,000 a year in unpaid tax – equivalent, in relative terms, to more than £4 billion today – because of the wider fiddles practised by brewers and publicans, and declared: “before there was a Duty of Excise laid upon Beer and Ale, it was not known any Brewer ever got so much by his Trade as what is now call’d a competent Estate; but since a Duty of Excise was laid upon Beer and Ale, nothing is more obvious, amazing and remarkable, than to see the great Estates many Brewers in and about the City of London have got, and are daily getting.” This, he said, was because “the Brewers in general, ever since there was a Duty upon Beer and Ale, have been more or less guilty of defrauding that Duty in several Methods,” including bribing the excise officers (in October 1708, “T– J–, Brewer” was put on trial at the Old Bailey for allegedly giving 40s a week to four officers of the excise to ignore his mixing of small beer with strong, though he was found not guilty), illegally brewing with molasses rather than malt , like the brewer “lately and remarkably in Southwark”, who was “fined several Hundred Pounds, for using of Molossas in his Beer and Ale”, and, in particular, avoiding the tax on strong beer and ale by mixing extra-strong drink with small.

One such fiddle Denneston claimed to have uncovered when he was working for the Revenue in London as General Surveyor involved the publican at the Fortune of War in Well Close, Goodman’s Fields, just to the east of the Minories, and on the edge of the City. Denneston said that while visiting Well Close on official business, he spotted a sign outside the pub which said: “Here is to he Sold Two Thrids, Three Thrids, Four Thrids, and Six Thrids.” “My Curiosity up on this Subject, led me into the House,” Denneston said. “I call’d for my Host, desir’d to know what he meant by the several sorts of Thrids ? He answer’d, That the meaning was, Beer at Twopence, Threepence, Fourpence, and Sixpence a Pot, for that he had all sorts of Drink, and as good as any in England; upon which I tasted all the four sorts, and found they were all made up by Mixture, and not Beer intirely Brew’d ; upon which I order’d the Surveyor of that Division to go and search that House, where he found only two sorts of Drink, viz extraordinary Strong Beer, and Small, so that according to the Price he Mixt in Proportion; the same Fraud being more or less practis’d through the Kingdom.”

Denneston must have had an extraordinary palate to detect the difference between mixed beers and “intirely brewed” ones, but ignoring that, “Three Thrids” is obviously the same as three-threads, and Denneston confirms that it was a mixture of extra-strong beer and small beer, sold for three pence a pot, or quart, with two-threads costing two pence, four-threads costing four pence and so on. Why “threads”? One definition of “thread” is “a thin continuous stream of liquid”: the Elizabethan author Thomas Nashe wrote of “thrids of rayne”, while another writer in 1723 wrote of “fat Liquor” that when poured out would “go on in a long Thread whose Parts are uninterrupted”.

Three-threads is mentioned several more times during the 18th century, but by 1760 the practice of retailers mixing extra-strong and small beers and ales had evidently ceased, and “three-threads”, if talked about, had to be explained. In November that year a letter by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” (“poundage” being another work for duty or tax) and claiming to be an 86-year-old clerk at one of the great London breweries, living at Newington Green, Islington, was published in the London Chronicle under the title “The History of the London Brewery since 1688″ – “brewery” here being used in the sense “brewing trade”. Poundage was detailing the rise in the tax on beer and ale in the times of William III and Queen Anne, and how the brewers dealt with that. In a passage that was to become famous, he wrote: “Our tastes but slowly alter or reform. Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart; but many used all stale, at 4d per pot. On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722, when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public. This they ventured to sell at 23s per barrel, that the victualler might retail it at 3d per quart. At first it was slow in making its way, but in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation. The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt.” (“Stale”, here, incidentally, means “matured”, not “off”, and it was the opposite of “mild”, or fresh beer: a mixture of old, matured, sharp beer and fresh, sweet, new beer was a favourite with many drinkers through to the 19th century at least.)

A Sot DormantThis was the first time that three-threads had been linked with the birth of porter, albeit obliquely, and with the two drinks apparently having nothing in common except the fact that they both retailed at 3d a quart. Poundage’s words were quickly plagiarised – they were reprinted, without acknowledgement in The Gentleman’s Magazine the same month, and reappeared in various publications over the next 40-plus years. More recently the pot has been muddied by the former brewer HS “Stan” Corran, who wrote A History of Brewing in 1975 and seems to have had access to a different version of Poundage’s letter, because he printed a lengthy extract from it in his book in which the line “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart” was replaced by “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others ale, mild beer and stale blended together [my emphasis] at 3d per quart.” Corran apparently found this alternative version in the archives of Guinness in Dublin: how it got there is not known and, alas, Guinness’s archivists cannot find it now. It has been suggested by James Sumner, to whom I am grateful for much of the research in this post, that it ended up in Dublin via the private papers of the 18th century Hampstead brewer Michael Combrune. If that alternative version, or another copy, was around at the end of the 18th century, it may have influenced what happened next in the narrative history of three-threads: because suddenly, decades after it disappeared, the drink was given a completely different description to the one Denneston gave it, and it was plugged firmly into the story of the development of porter.

Early in 1802 the Monthly Magazine printed a piece on the history of what was then easily London’s favourite beer which said: “The wholesome and excellent beverage of porter obtained its name about the year 1730 … [formerly] the malt-liquors in general use were ale, beer, and twopenny, and it was customary for the drinkers of malt-liquor to call for a pint or tankard of half-and-half, ie a half of ale and half of beer, a half of ale and half of twopenny, or a half of beer and half of twopenny. In course of time it also became the practice to call for a pint or tankard of three threads, meaning a third of ale, beer, and twopenny; and thus the publican had the trouble to go to three casks, and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor. To avoid this trouble and waste, a brewer, of the name of HARWOOD, conceived the idea of making a liquor which should partake of the united flavours of ale, beer, and twopennyy He did so and succeeded, calling it entire or entire butt, meaning that it was drawn entirely from one cask or butt; and as it was a very hearty nourishing liquor, it was very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained its name of porter.

There are many problems with that story: porter was actually first mentioned in 1721, and while Ralph and James Harwood were porter brewers in Shoreditch, theirs was a small concern compared to the giants such as Truman, Whitbread and Parsons, and there is no evidence from the preceding 80 years that they had anything to do with the development of the drink, apart from a couple of brief and obscure references which themselves said nothing about three-threads. Porter was indeed also known as “entire butt”, but not because it was a one-cask-only reproduction of a drink that had originally been served from three different casks. It was so called because it was brewed “entire”, the technical term at the time for a beer or ale made from a combination of all three mashes of the malt, instead of the first mash being used to make strong ale or beer and the others standard beer and small beer, as was usual, and it was then matured in butts, 108-gallon casks. There is no evidence at all that porter was brewed to replace three-threads; and most importantly to our story, the description of what three-threads was, a combination of ale, beer and “twopenny” from three casks, is totally at odds with what Denneston described being served at the Fortune of War nearly 90 years earlier under the name three thrids, a mixture of just two drinks, extra-strong and small. Just to undermine the Monthly Magazine‘s narrative some more, “twopenny” WAS ale, according to Obadiah Poundage in 1760, who described it as a pale ale retailed at four pence a quart, or two pence a pint, made by the London brewers in imitation of the beers the country gentry “residing in London more than they had in former times” were “habituated to” at home. So according to the Monthly Magazine, three-threads was a tautological mixture of ale, beer and ale – though, admittedly, if the second was pale ale, the first could have been brown ale.

Unfortunately, within a very short time the Monthly Magazine‘s version of history was being reprinted, first in a guidebook called The Picture of London, also published in 1802, and then dozens – hundreds – of times over the next two centuries. Occasionally there were variations: John Tuck, writing in 1822, in a book called The Private Brewer’s Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale, Stout and Porter, said that “a mixture of stale, mild and pale, which was called three-threads, was sold at four pence per quart as far back as 1720,” which, as we have seen, was wrong on both ingredients and price. But everywhere it became the accepted truth that three-threads was a mixture of three different drinks, and porter was brewed to replace it.

A Sot SaliantI hope I have shown that three-threads was not the drink the Monthly Magazine and almost every other writer on the subject from 1802 has said it was, and also that, fascinating though the story of three-threads is, it has nothing to do with the development of porter. If any beer did, in fact, it was the strong “twopenny” pale ale that the gentry brought a taste for to London. According to manuscript histories of the brewing trade written out by Michael Combrune in the 1760s, this pale ale became “spontaneously transparent” and the established London brown-beer brewers decided to try to match this by ageing their own product much longer than they had previously, adding more hops to help it keep. As it aged, it mellowed, and this mellow brown beer, “neither new nor stale”, as Poundage said, and retailing for 3d a quart, became the beer that porters quickly grew to love above all others.

Not everybody will agree with me. John Krenzke, whose PhD dissertation on the industrialisation of the London beer trade 1400-1750 I have leaned on for much of the information to be found in this post, believes porter to have been brewed specifically to imitate the taste of three-threads. I have the greatest respect for John’s scholarship, which uncovered far more facts about the early history of three-threads than I was able to. But I cannot go along with his conclusion: I see no evidence that porter was anything other than an improved version of London brown beer, and that three-threads was something completely different. No writer until the Monthly Magazine in 1802, in a story demonstrably wrong in many ways, ever said porter was a replacement for three-threads. It looks like my journalistic ancestor missed the true, and much better story – that with every slurp, the three-threads drinker was diddling the tax man

Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield

Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

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When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign

Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

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Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading

London’s brewing, London’s brewing …

The London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis, by Borough Market, a couple of Saturdays ago was a terrific event, thoroughly enjoyable. In one room were gathered a dozen or more (I forgot to count) stalls representing breweries from in and around London, with the brewers themselves serving their beers and happy to talk to the punters about them.

It was the kind of “meet the brewer” show common in the US but almost unheard of in the UK that we really should be seeing repeated across this country. And it’s good to see London’s brewers working together in the 21st century to support each other in exactly the same way their ancestors did almost eight centuries ago, when the Brewers’ Guild was founded at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall.

It was also good, for me, to see that the Brewery History Society had a stall there: the LBA clearly has an interest in London’s history as a world-class brewing city, and everybody needs to be reminded of this almost forgotten heritage. I’d argue that, historically, London has an excellent claim to be regarded as the greatest brewing city in the world. Yes, I AM a Londoner, so of course I’m biased, but I dare you to deny that over the centuries London has given the world more new beer styles than any other brewing centre on the planet:
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Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading

The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.

The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.

Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.

It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.

It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.

Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading

The origins of porter (and a bit about three-threads)

I realised recently that I’ve never properly blogged about the actual origins of porter – except to counter the claim that it was invented as a substitute for “three-threads” by someone called Ralph Harwood, and to point out that it wasn’t named after market porters, but river and street porters. And I don’t seem to have written about the latest discoveries on three-threads, the drink that has (wrongly) been mixed up in the porter story.

Fly back, then, three centuries, to the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when the drinks you’d be most likely to find in a London alehouse would be (according to a contemporary “good pub guide”, the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms) mild beer and stale beer (both made from brown malt); amber beer (made from pale malt); ale (including strong Twopenny pale ale, Derby ale, Burton ale, Oxford ale, Nottingham ale and York pale ale); and stout.

Remember, those names don’t mean what they do today: “mild” beer was fresh and recently brewed; “stale” beer wasn’t off, but the “mild” beer aged and matured; ale meant very specifically a less hopped drink than beer, while stout could be any colour, as long as it was strong. In addition, the ale brewers and the beer brewers were still two different groups of people.

London’s drinkers, then and for centuries later, liked to mix their brews: one tranche of pub-goers would order stale beer, which cost four old pence a pot (or quart), but stale beer and mild beer together was a popular drink: and others, according to a by-then elderly brewery worker calling himself “Obadiah Poundage”, writing in 1760 drank a mixture called “three-threads”, costing three pence a pot.

A great deal has been written about three-threads, because a man called John Feltham, writing in 1802, claimed (with no evidence that I can find) that three-threads was a popular drink made up of “a third of ale, beer and twopenny”, for which “the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor.” According to Feltham, porter was invented to taste like three-threads, but because it came from one cask, it saved the publicans the trouble and waste of mixing the drink afresh every order from three separate casks. There is no evidence at all for this claim. But Feltham’s description of what went into three-threads, and his statement that porter was designed to copy it, but as a single beer that would not need to be served from three different casks, has been repeated by almost every writer on beer for two centuries.

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So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery, Tottenham Court Road in 1830

I can stake a tenuous family link to the Great London Beer Flood disaster of 1814, which took place exactly 196 years ago today. My great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Maurice Donno, was living in Soho, a minute or three’s walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court Road, when a huge vat of maturing porter at the brewery collapsed violently and flooded the surrounding tenements, killing eight people. Most, if not all, of those who died were poor Irish immigrants to London, part of a mass of people living in the slums around St Giles’s Church, the infamous St Giles “rookeries” (later to be cleaned away by the building of New Oxford Street in 1847). Maurice Donno was very probably Irish, his surname most likely a variation of Donough or something similar (which would make his first name a common Anglicisation of the Irish Muirgheas). Perhaps he knew some of those who died, or were injured, in the Great Beer Flood, or knew people who knew them. It seems very likely he would have gone across the road at some point after the tragedy, to join the hundreds who came to see the destruction wreaked by that dreadful black tsunami of beer.

What has prompted me to write about the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood, is not the anniversary, however, It’s because I have finally been called out over some dodgy maths in the book Beer: The Story of the Pint, which I wrote in 2003.

I said in BTSOTP, correctly, that the vat of porter which burst suddenly on Monday October 17, 1814 at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery contained 3,550 barrels of beer. I said, correctly, that this amounted to more than a million pints. Then for some mad brain-burp reason I said the beer in the vat weighed “around 38 tons” – almost precisely 15 times less than the correct answer, which was actually more than 571 tons.

Thank you, Eugene Tolstov, for pointing to my mistake, and for not laughing too much at my inability to multiply 3,555 by 36 by 10 and divide by 2,240. But at least my narrative on probably the worst industrial accident involving a British brewery was more accurate than many. The late Alan Eames, for example, in The Secret Life of Beer, claimed that the vat burst “with a boom heard five miles away” – not mentioned in any of the many sources from the time that I’ve read – while “eyewitnesses told of besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” – no, newspaper reports of the rescue don’t support this at all – and “many were killed suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” – again, the contemporary reports don’t say this – while “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma” – no, the newspaper reports from the time make it clear that only eight people died, all women and children, and all killed by the initial huge wave of beer and the destruction it caused to the buildings in the tenements behind the brewery. Continue reading