The Swedes have had a fondness for porter since at least 1780, when the Swedish botanist Bengt Bergius claimed that in Sweden “a lot of English beer varieties have started to be seen on some of the wealthy tables, especially English porter, which is now brewed as good here in Stockholm.” Nothing seems to be known about who might have been brewing porter in Stockholm at that time, but nine years later a Scot called William Knox opened a porter brewery in Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast. There were several other small porter brewers in the town over the following decades, but in 1817 a trader from Hamburg, Abraham Lorent, opened what would become the country’s biggest and most successful porter brewery in Klippan, on the edge of Gothenburg. Lorent died in 1833, and after a tricky few years the brewery was bought in 1836 by another Scot, David Carnegie. The Gothenburg brewery eventually closed in 1979, but Carnegie porter is still brewed today in Falkenburg, about 60 miles south of where it was born.
One Swedish Christmas speciality is a mixed drink called Mumma, made from porter, lager, soda water or lemonade, a shot of sherry, or Madeira (or even Burgundy), perhaps a touch of honey or sugar and, sometimes, a pinch of cardamom. The name, presumably, comes from the herbal beer brewed in Brunswick, Germany, called Mumme. It’s a tasty pre-dinner tipple, though sometimes people drink so much of it that they fall asleep, an event commemorated in the old Swedish folk song “Does Your Mumma Know that You’re Out?” *
Here are three recipes for Mumma, should you wish to have a go yourself: plenty of others can be found on the interwebs, though watch out for Google Translate: confused by etymology, perhaps, it seems to think that “porter” in Swedish means “gates” in English, and “lager” means “stock”.
Make your own Mumma (1)
500ml stout or porter
250ml lemonade or soda water
A splash of gin (optional)
A pinch of cardamom powder
Mix together in a jug and pour from a height into your glass to get a lovely big head
Four teaspoons sugar
50 ml sherry
500 stout or porter
250ml soft drink of your choice
Put the sugar into a jug and pour in the sherry. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour in lager, stout or porter and sugar drink.
500ml porter or stout
1 teaspoon of ground cardamom
Two tablespoons of honey
Two tablespoons of Madeira
Grind the cardamom, mix in a jug with the honey and a splash of water. Heat in a microwave or saucepan so that the honey becomes runny. Pour the Madeira into a pitcher and add the cardamom and honey. Pour the lager and porter into the pitcher, carefully, as it easily foams. Lightly stir around with a spoon. Serve ice cold.
If you don’t want an Abba song as the accompaniment to your Mumma, and like me you used Budweiser Budvar as the lager, here’s something rather more Bohemian:
Mumma! Mixed a beer today,
Pils and porter in a jug,
Add Madeira, find a mug.
Mumma! I had just begun –
Put some lemonade and gin into it too.
Mumma! Ooh, it’s so good it made me cry.
I think I’ll make this drink again tomorrow!
The 200th anniversary next year of the “Peterloo Massacre”, the assault by mounted troops on a crowd gathered in Manchester to hear speeches in favour of parliamentary reform, has been marked by the release of a film by Mike Leigh starring Rory Kinnear as Henry “Orator” Hunt, the main speaker at the meeting in St Peter’s Field, whose arrest by the authorities sparked the events that led to at least 15 people being killed. Rory thus joins the short list of people, including Bob Hoskins, who can be the answer to the question: “Which actor has played a brewer on screen?”, since for a couple of years Hunt ran a brewery in Bristol – an episode which is significant in the history of porter, since Hunt’s memoirs contain some important evidence on porter brewers’ attempts to make a dark drink while brewing with the far more economic pale malt.
In April 1802, a month after the Treaty of Amiens had ended 10 years of warfare against revolutionary France, the British government put up the tax on strong beer by 25 per cent, to 10 shillings a barrel, and raised the tax on malt by almost four fifths, to 2s 5d a bushel. At the same time, the Act of Parliament introducing the higher taxes, the Duties on Beer, etc Act 1802, also put into statute law a specific prohibition against making beer or ale with anything except malt and hops.
Matthew Wood, a City of London-based druggist (and, from 1804, hop dealer) with a clientele of brewers decided that since it was now apparently legal to put anything made from malt into beer, then a colouring made from malt extract should be permissible, and in May 1802 he duly registered a patent process for “Preparing a colour from malt for the purpose of colouring spirits wines and other liquors.” The fact that Wood’s patent application, which described mashing the malt, boiling the extract until most of the water was driven off and then roasting it in iron pans “until the saccharine quality is destroyed, and the whole is nearly reduced to a calx,” did not mention beer specifically may be because he did not want to tip off anyone too early that he was attempting to patent something that the Excise authorities had long declared was against its regulations. He invested £2,000 in the patent, apparently having been given a guarantee from the senior Secretary to the Treasury, Nicholas Vansittart, that his malt colouring would be regarded as lawful, since it used an ingredient, malted barley, upon which tax had been paid.
The Commissioners of Excise disagreed. They instigated prosecutions and seizures of casks of porter colouring materials against brewers who bought Wood’s product, on the grounds that they were adding an illegal adjunct to their porter. The excise commissioners insisted that the “malt” that the Duties on Beer Act 1802 had defined as one of only two permitted ingredients in beer and ale meant only those products customarily made by maltsters, not Wood’s patent colouring. Allowing druggists to supply brewers with beer colouring would “open the widest Door for introducing Ingredients forbidden by Law,” they declared. However, the brewers, and Wood (who became a City of London alderman in 1807), fought back, with the colouring continuing on sale.
Henry “Orator” Hunt, the radical politician who was the main speaker at the meeting in Manchester in August 1819 that turned into the “Peterloo Massacre”, had a run-in with the revenue over Wood’s colouring in 1808. Hunt ran a brewery at Jacob’s Wells in Bristol, the Clifton Genuine Beer Brewery, from at least 1807 to 1809. It had been started when a brewer friend called Racey – evidently the son son of the James Racey whose brewery in Bath went bust in 1804 – asked Hunt to put up the money to convert a former distillery at Jacob’s Well into a brewery. Hunt claimed he had designed the whole layout of the brewery himself:
I took advantage of the declivity of the hill, on the side of which the premises were situated, to have it so constructed that the whole process of brewing was conducted, from the grinding of the malt, which fell from the mill into the mash-tun, without any lifting or pumping; with the exception of pumping the water, called liquor by brewers, first into the reservoir, which composed the roof of the building. By turning a cock, this liquor filled the steam boiler, from thence it flowed into the mash-tun; the wort had only once to be pumped, once from the under back into the boiler, from thence it emptied itself, by turning the cock, into the coolers; it then flowed into the working vats and riving casks, and from the stillions, which were immediately above the store casks into which it flowed, only by turning a cock. These store casks were mounted on stands or horses, high enough to set a butt upright, and fill it out of the lower cock; and then the butts and barrels were rolled to the door, and upon the drays, without one ounce of lifting from the commencement of the process to the end. This was a great saving of labour.
However, according to Hunt, Racey turned out to be fraudulently raking off cash from the brewery, and when challenged he “sailed for America, bag and baggage”. (It seems highly likely that this is the James Racey who married Anne Hull in New York in 1810 and then settled in Canada, buying the distillerie de Beauport just to the east of Quebec City the same year, and converting it to a brewery.) Hunt found himself having to run the brewery in an attempt to get back at least some of the money he had invested, and described his subsequent clash with the Excise over Wood’s colouring in his memoirs, written while he was in jail in 1820 for “sedition” after the events at St Peter’s Field:
When the act was passed, making it a penalty of two hundred pounds to use any drug, ingredient, or material, except malt and hops, in the brewing of beer, Alderman Wood obtained a patent for making of colouring, to heighten the colour of porter. This colouring was made of scorched or burnt malt, and it was mashed the same as common malt, which produced a colouring of the consistency of treacle, and having nearly its appearance. As this patent was very much approved of, almost every porter brewer in England used it in the colouring their porter; and amongst that number I was not only a customer of the worthy alderman for colouring, but I was also a considerable purchaser of hops from the firm of Wood, Wiggan [sic—properly Wigan] & Co in Falcon Square. I had just got down a fresh cask of this colouring, and it was standing at the entrance door of the brewery, where it had been rolled off the dray, when news was brought me that the new exciseman had seized the cask of colouring, and had taken it down to the excise office. I immediately wrote to Wood, Wiggan & Co to inform them of the circumstance; upon which they immediately applied to the board of excise in London, and by the return of post I received a letter from Messrs Wood, to say, that an order was gone off, by the same post, to direct the officers of excise in Bristol to restore the cask of colouring without delay; and almost as soon as this letter had come to hand, and before I could place it upon the file, one of the exciseman came quite out of breath to say that an order had arrived from the board of excise in London, to restore the cask of colouring, and it was quite at my service, whenever I pleased to send for it. I wrote back a letter by the fellow, to say, that as the exciseman had seized and carried away from my brewery a cask of colouring, which was allowed by the board of excise to be perfectly legal to use, as it was made of malt and hops only, unless, within two hours of that time, they caused it to be restored to the very spot from whence it was illegally removed, I would direct an action to be commenced against them. In less than an hour the cask of colouring was returned, and the same exciseman who had seized it came to make an apology for his error. His pardon was at once granted, and so ended this mighty affair; and I continued to use the said colouring, as well as did all the porter brewers in Bristol, without further molestation, as long as I continued the brewery; never having had any other seizure while I was concerned in the brewery.
The story appears in Hunt’s biography because he was responding to an attack on his brewing career by one of his political enemies, Dr John Stoddart, the editor of the “ultra-Tory” New Times newspaper, in an article in July 1819, just before Peterloo. The newspaper claimed that despite Hunt advertising in the Bristol Gazette in January 1807 that his beer was “wholly exempt from any other ingredient whatever” than the best malt and hops, “a very few months after the date of the above advertisement, seventy gallons of other ingredients were seized from Henry Hunt of ‘the Clifton Genuine Brewery;’ and were condemned in Michaelmas Term 1807.” The result of “this awkward little accident”, the New Times claimed, was that it “gave the Bristol men a sort of distaste for Hunt’s genuine beer … and the consequence was that he shut up his Brewery.” The New Times’s attack was reprinted word-for-word by more than a dozen other local newspapers of the Tory persuasion, from Inverness to Cornwall, the following month, after Peterloo, and turned into a pamphlet circulated in Manchester.
Curiously, 11 years earlier Hunt had given a completely different version of the story to his local paper. He had already made himself unpopular with the establishment in Bristol in 1807 when he popped up at the hustings for the general election that May and attempted to interrupt the cozy stitch-up of the city’s two parliamentary seats by the Tories and Whigs by nominating a third, more radical candidate. When his bid to put another name on the list was refused Hunt’s supporters pelted the Tory candidate “so vigorously with mud and sticks that he was forced to leave his gilded car and beat a retreat.” The mob was only diverted, it was claimed later, by Hunt offering to distribute two free butts of beer at his brewery. In 1808, replying to an accusation that “unlawful ingredients” had been seized upon his brewery’s premises, Hunt said:
When the last act of parliament passed, prohibiting the use of “any ingredient or material. except malt and hops, to be made use of tin the brewing of beer or porter,” Messers Wood, Wigan and Co hop-factors, in London, obtained a patent for making a colouring for Porter with burnt malt only. Two casks of this Colouring was [sic] sent to me, but before I admitted it into my brewhouse, I sent to the Exciseman to know if it were legal to make use of it for colouring porter, shewing him the permit or certificate that I received with the casks. His answer was, he did not know, but he would go to the supervisor and enquire. On his return, he said that they had no authority to permit it to be used, and they must take a sample of it. I desired that they would take the whole, as I should not, under such circumstances, suffer it to be placed in my brewery: my horses took it for them to the Excise-office. I immediately stated the case to the Commissioners of Excise, from whom I received no answer. Mr Wood’s patent colouring has never been returned to me, nor have I since heard any thing of it.
Whichever story of Hunt’s was accurate, it is clear Wood’s beer colouring was still not definitively legal even in 1808. The brewing trade was evidently split over whether Wood’s colouring should be supported or not, with the largest porter brewers, such as Whitbread, Barclay Perkins and Felix Calvert, opposed, apparently for fear that allowing sugar and malt colouring would take some of the pressure off their smaller rivals, and others, such as Meux Reid and the big Windsor brewer John Ramsbottom, in favour. The battle was fought in parliament, where the porter brewers had eight MPs at the time and the country brewers four, but victory for the colourists only came with an alliance with the West Indies sugar plantation interest, who were keen to find a new outlet for their product (and helped by the Treasury, which wanted to see more pale malt used, as this was apparently easier to supervise by the excisemen than brown malt, and thus less likely to avoid tax). In June 1811 an Act was passed allowing the colouring of porter (but not ale or pale beers) with “burnt brown sugar and water” (but not molasses), with a licence to make porter colouring costing £5 and duty charged on each barrel of colouring of 10s a time.
The Colouring of Porter Act lasted just half a decade before it was repealed and a new Act passed, in June 1816, banning even burnt sugar from being used for colouring beer from July 6 the following year. Licence fees and duty from burnt-sugar colouring had brought in £82,000, but the excise authorities declared that there was evidence that other illegal ingredients were being sneaked into porter along with the colouring. Cometh the hour, cometh the inventor: in March 1817, four months before burnt sugar colouring became illegal, Daniel Wheeler, who had been making sugar colouring at his premises off Drury Lane in central London, unveiled via a patent application a new method of manufacturing colouring from malt, upon which duty had been paid (thus making the colouring legal). His process heated the malt to 400ºF and more, to produce “a substance resembling gum and extractive matter of a deep brown colour readily soluble in hot or cold water.”
Wheeler told the 1818 House of Commons committee on the quality of beer that with brown malt, “thirty-two parts of it to forty-eight of pale,” or 40 per cent, “gives about the porter colour.” However, “The high-dried brown malt, from the heat to which it has been exposed, has lost a considerable quantity of its sugar. I have made many experiments upon it myself, and … that high dried malt will not produce, or has not, from any experiments, produced more than one fourth of the spirits compared to that of pale malt.” Using his invention, though, “one part of the patent malt will give as much colouring as thirty-two parts of the malt I have been speaking of” – in other words, brewers needed less than 2½ per cent of Wheeler’s patent malt to give a satisfactory colour to their porter.
Dr Thompson’s Annals of Philosophy for December 1817 declared of Wheeler’s invention: “There are few patents that promise to be of such great national importance.” To get the “deep tan-brown colour” and “peculiar flavour” of “the best genuine porter,” two parts of brown malt were required to three parts of pale malt. “The price of the former is generally about seven-eighths of the latter; but the proportion of saccharine matter which it contains does not, according to the highest estimate, exceed one-half that afforded by the pale malt, and probably on an average scarcely amounts to one-fifth…it follows that the brewers are paying for the colour and flavour of their liquor one-fifth of the entire cost of their malt.” The savings that brewers could make with Wheeler’s patent malt meant the end of temptations to use illegal materials such as cocculus indicus, and “The revenue will be benefited by the increased consumption which will necessarily result from an improvement in the quality of the porter; and both the revenue and public morals will derive advantage from the greatly diminished temptation to fraudulent practices.”
The big porter brewers quickly took up his invention, with Whitbread recording stocks of patent malt in the same year, 1817, and Barclay Perkins by 1820 (though curiously, in 1819, Rees’s Cyclopedia claimed that “In Mr Whitbread’s works no colouring matter is employed, as he uses a portion of brown malt”), and the Plunkett family opening a plant in Dublin in 1819 to supply Irish porter brewers. But alas for Wheeler, his patent was swiftly challenged. A coffee roaster based in Northumberland Alley, off Fenchurch Street, in the City of London called Joseph Malins began roasting malt himself and selling it to “various” brewers for colouring, to the “considerable injury” of Wheeler’s business. Wheeler sued Malins for patent infringement and the two sides clashed in the Court of Chancery in August 1818, with Wheeler claiming his patent had been “pirated” and Malins insisting that there was no piracy, since the brown malt he sold to porter brewers had been heated in “a common coffee-roaster,” which had been in use for more than a century before Wheeler’s patent.
Unfortunately for Wheeler, the case was bumped to a higher court, the Court of King’s Bench, to decide whether his patent was actually valid, and at a hearing in December 1818 the newly appointed Lord Chief Justice, Sir Charles Abbott, directed the jury to find that it was not. Wheeler’s patent application had been for “A new and improved method of drying and preparing malt.” But, Abbott said, the process the application described was not, in fact, “preparing” malt, it was a process for making malt more soluble and colouring the liquid. With the patent declared void, in March 1819 Wheeler’s case in the Court of Chancery was dismissed with costs.
The victory over Wheeler was a welcome win for the Malins family in the courts: in May 1818 Joseph Malins’s father, William, had been fined £100 by the Court of Exchequer for having on his premises more than 1,500lb of roasted and ground peas and beans with the intention of passing them off as coffee, and a month later William was fined the huge sum of £2,000 by the same court after being found guilty of manufacturing 100lb of imitation tea, from hawthorn and blackthorn leaves plus colouring, and selling it to grocers in London. Daniel Wheeler continued to describe himself as a “patent malt manufacture,” though by January 1819, when he had moved from Bloomsbury in central London to Croydon in Surrey, he had been declared bankrupt. Cheekily, perhaps, William Malins was calling himself an “anti-patent malt maker” in 1823, when he was based in Upper Fore Street, Lambeth.
However, although Wheeler was unable, as he must have hoped, to turn “patent malt” into a personal fortune, its adoption did indeed swiftly revolutionise the brewing of porter, as the use of brown or blown malt shrank or disappeared. (Ironically, malt roasted to Wheeler’s specifications continued to be known as “patent” malt for more than a century, even though the patent had been overturned.)
Hunt, meanwhile, left the brewery business in 1809, ten years before Peterloo. By 1811 the brewery at Jacob’s Wells was being run by a J Highett from Weymouth, who was brewing strong beer, porter, Burton ale and table beer. It was up for sale early the next year, and again in 1813, when the equipment included “a new copper furnace, containing 20 barrels, never used.” It seems to have had several subsequent owners, but by early 1827, when the site was put up for sale, it was being described as a “late Brewery”.
Today is the 96th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary who played a major part in the Irish War of Independence, which saw the establishment of what was known as the Irish Free State, and who was then killed in an ambush during the civil war between those that accepted the treaty which divided Ireland into an independent south and a north that was still part of the United Kingdom, and those who would not accept that settlement. He is still an important figure in Ireland, where whichever of the major Irish political parties you support still, basically, depends on whether your great-grandfather supported Liam Neeson or Severus Snape – sorry, Michael Collins, whose pro-treaty wing of Sinn Féin developed into Fine Gael, currently the governing party in the republic, or Éamon de Valera, whose anti-treaty wing eventually spawned Fianna Fáil, currently the largest opposition party in the Dáil, the Irish parliament.
None of the very many accounts of the events that led up to Michael Collins’s death on August 22 agree on all the details, with multiple and contradictory variations in the narrative: from why, as Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army, he had travelled to County Cork, heartland of the anti-Treaty rebellion, with only a small number of soldiers, and what he was hoping to achieve, to the details of his last day, from the route taken by Collins and his convoy west out of Cork to the towns of Clonakilty and Skibbereen to how many vehicles – and soldiers – travelled with him, to who fired the fatal shot (or shots) – at least seven possible candidates among the ambushers – and even to the name of the place where the ambush took place: Béalnabláth, pronounced “Bale-nu-blaw”, and probably best translated from Irish as “mouth of the ravine”, is frequently, and mistakenly, given as Béal na mBláth, which would mean “mouth of the flowers”. Much of what has been written about the day is demonstrably wrong, and much is now unprovable.
Of greater interest to the beer historian, however, is another contentious question: on the day he died, did Michael Collins drink a pint of Clonakilty Wrestler, the now legendary porter brewed by Deasy’s of Clonakilty, easily the best known of several small West Cork porter brewers.
The brewery was founded some time around the start of the 19th century, and was certainly running by 1810, when it was recorded that at “Cloghnikilty” [sic] “A porter brewery, the plan of which is remarkable and convenient arrangement, and upon a scale of considerable magnitude, was built by Rickard Deasy, Esq, and Co. The business, carried on with spirit, and conducted with care and prudence, fully answers the expectations of the proprietors.”
Deasy’s porter was nicknamed “The Wrestler” (or “Wrassler”, in a West Cork accent) at least as early as 1890, when the Irish journalist John Augustus O’Shea eulogised it, declaring:
‘In every district there is some show pot, some natural curiosity, some distinguished or erratic character in the community pointed out to the stranger. The great local wrestler is the big pot of Clonakilty. The fame of Milo of Crotona pales beside his, for he has no fear of the clutch of wood. A full-bodied, swarthy fellow, with a white head, he is stronger than most human beings, and seems to get stronger the oftener he is tackled. He is usually cool, fluent, and even tempered, but can be roused to a ferment at times, and when he is doesn’t he just froth? His main struggles are with that proverbially robust class brewers’ draymen, but he has taken many a fall out of the finest peasants, and hardiest seamen of Ross and Cloyne, and it is mysteriously bruited that he once laid by the heels a whole station of the RIC. He is a descendant of John Barley Corn, and is addicted to hops. Far be it from me to act as an intermediary in a prize fight, but not to spoil sport I may say he has a standing challenge with one Guinness of Dublin. Like most men of his call he has his price. His price is two pence a pint.”
O’Shea appears to have been wrong about the price: Deasy’s porter was popular at last in part because of its cheapness compared to rivals. A commentator in 1892 said that “the western man”, “though on pleasure bent, was of a frugal mind, and preferred to pay three half-pence rather than two pence for a pint of porter.”
Michael Collins was born in 1890 at Woodfield, the family farm, some four miles west of Clonakilty. Between 1903 and 1905 he lived with his sister Margaret and her husband, Patrick O’Driscoll in a house in Shannon Square, just a few yards from Deasy’s brewery, (today Emmet Square). The claim has been made by several writers that Collins’s favourite drink was “Clonakilty Wrestler”, and one Irish craft brewery produces today a stout called “Wrasslers XXXX” with a picture of Collins in his general’s uniform on the pumpclip (based on the iconic photograph taken at the funeral of Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, six days before Collins himself was killed). One source says that Collins actually “loathed the sight of porter”. However, he certainly did drink Deasy’s most famous beer on occasions. When he came home to Cork from Frongoch prison camp in North Wales in December 1916, after the British government released the surviving prisoners taken at the end of the Easter Rising, “the Big Fellow” spent three weeks, in his own words, “drinking Clonakilty wrastler [sic] on a Frongoch stomach,” before returning to Dublin. But Collins’s preferred drink actually appears to have been whiskey: “‘a ball of malt’ was his usual,” according to one biographer, and another named Jameson’s as his favourite.
Collins apparently went to West Cork in August 1922 in the hope of meeting republican leaders and persuading them to end the civil war, as well as to inspect the pro-treaty forces on the ground and boost the morale of the commanders and soldiers now fighting men who, in many cases, had been their friends and colleagues against the British only months earlier. After his arrival in Cork, he left on August 22 to travel west in a convoy that included Collins himself, being driven in a Leyland 8 four-seater tourer, a Crossley troop carrier and a Rolls-Royce armoured car. The route taken was a circuitous one, to avoid bridges blown up by annti-treaty forces. On its way out from Cork to Clonakilty, Collins’s convoy had passed Long’s pub in Béalnabláth village alerting a group of anti-treaty ‘Irregulars’ holding a conference nearby to his presence in the area, and they decided to lay an ambush on the assumption that the convoy was likely to return the same way later on.
It is certain, since Emmet Dalton, who was with Collins on his final journey, recorded it in the account of that day he wrote just three months later, “The death of Micheal O’Coileain”, that Collins’s party lunched in Clonakilty, and shortly after leaving, that is, between two and three in the afternoon, they arrived at the hamlet of Sam’s Cross, about two thirds of a mile from where Collins was born, (though even here one writer insists, against all the evidence, that the convoy arrived at Sam’s Cross early in the evening, departing at 6.15pm. There Collins met and spoke with his brother John/Séan and other family members, including his cousin Michael O’Brien, who had a house at Sam’s Cross. According to O’Brien’s son Jimmy, Collins and some officers in the convoy had a cup of tea while sitting in the O’Brien’s kitchen, waiting for John Collins to arrive, after which the two brothers went into the parlour and talked by themselves for 20 minutes. Michael Collins then got into his car, and the little convey left, after a warning from John Collins: ‘You’d better put up that hood –you could be shot before night!”
Dalton’s report from November 1922 does not mention any beer drinking (though he is alleged to have told an RTE film crew recording a programme about his life, decades later, that “We were all arseholes!”, that is, drunk) and neither did Jimmy O’Brien. But at least five other accounts say that during the stop at Sam’s Cross, Collins and his escort, which included 12 soldiers in the Crossley tender, a motorcycle outrider, and the armoured car with a crew of four – 20 men in total – went into the pub across from the O’Briens’ house, now, if not then, called the Four Alls. (The pub was run by a man called Jeremiah Collins, whom several authors mistakenly identify as “a cousin” or “a kinsman”. Someone who was a kinsman, Brother Jerome Collins of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God, whose father shared a grandfather with the Big Fellow, emphatically denied that the pub landlord was a relative – “He just wished he was.”) In the pub, several authors assert, Michael Collins treated his escort to “a pint”, or “two pints” of the Clonakilty Wrestler, and, according to at least two writers, he had a pint of the Wrestler himself.
Another investigator, John Feehan, reported that rather than pints at Sam’s Cross, “the convoy had drinks in White’s pub,” White’s being at the Pike Cross, a mile away to the south at Lisavaird, on the main road between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. Drinks would have probably been welcome for men driving around dusty Irish roads in August in open-top vehicles. But this was an armed venture into potentially hostile territory. Certainly the idea of serving 20 men, plus, supposedly, relatives of Michael Collins also gathered at the Sam’s Cross pub, with two pints each in the sort of time allowable in the convoy’s journey around West Cork seems unlikely. It was in Skibbereen by “mid-afternoon”, having gone by Rosscarbery, where Collins had talked to the commander of the garrison there and visited the mother of an old friend who had just died. In Skibbereen there was time for more talk with the officers of the local garrison “for a considerable length of time”, a meeting in the Eldon Hotel with the editor of the local Eagle newspaper and a local schoolmaster, a quick talk with Cameron Somerville, brother of Edith, co-author of the Irish RM novels, who was a member of the local Protestant aristocracy, and a speech to the people of the town, including 150 horsemen who had ridden in to see him.
By then it was “around 5pm”, and the decision was made not to continue to Bantry, as originally planned, but to return to Cork. All that activity suggests Collins arrived in Skibbereen no later than 4pm. The total distance from Sam’s Cross to Skibbereen is 16 miles: say a journey of 40 minutes under early 1920s conditions, plus 40 minutes spent in Rosscarbery, as a minimum. Collins spent at least 30 minutes in Sam’s Cross taking tea with his mother’s nephew, and waiting for and then talking to his brother. If he arrived in Sam’s Cross as early as 2pm – and it may well have been later – that only leaves a few minutes unaccounted for. It is possible the rest of the convoy had time for a pint of porter in Sam’s Cross while the family reunion in the O’Briens’ house was happening: Michael Collins, not so much.
Another brewery also played a bit-part in Collins’s last day. Back at Béalnabláth village it was a Tuesday, the day a one-horse brewery dray came over from Beamish & Crawford’s depot seven miles away in Bandon, formerly (until 1913) Allman Dowden & Co’s Bandon brewery, founded 1785, to take away the empties from Long’s. The Irregulars commandeered the dray to use as a barrier, and took it a little up the road out of the village to a likely spot for an ambush, removing the wheels and standing them in front against the dray. Around 7 or 8pm in the evening, the convoy did indeed come back down the road. In the gunfight that followed, Michael Collins, just 31 years old, was the only person killed.
Every weekday morning hurrying tech workers rush out, hundreds at a time, from Shoreditch High Street station in East London, turning left down Bethnal Green Road, past Boxpark Shoreditch, clutching cups of take-away coffee, ready for eight hours of keyboard-stabbing. None of them realises, as they head towards their desks and computers, that as they stride towards the road junction they are stepping through the ghosts of burly labourers in long leather aprons and red stocking caps: that where today they are dodging buses, cars and lorries as they try to cross the road, if they fell back two and a half centuries through a wormhole in time they would be dodging men rolling butts and hogsheads of beer, and skirting vats filled with maturing porter, the air carrying the satisfying scents of hops and malt rather than diesel exhaust.
More than 150 years of sometimes frenetic development has altered swaths of London’s streetscape so much that plotting what once stood where has seemed sometimes impossible. This is particularly true in Shoreditch, where the driving through of Commercial Street and Great Eastern Street and the building of the Bishopsgate rail terminus in the 19th century meant streets and buildings were rubbed from existence like timetravellers who murdered their grandfathers. Happily, it is getting easier to reimagine the past, with websites now running that overlay and underlay old maps from earlier centuries on modern satellite photographs. Thus, through the artful alliance of messers Horwood ( 18th-century mapmaker), Bryn and Page (20th-century Google-makers), we can say that the long-disappeared Bell Brewery, for a couple of centuries credited (wrongly) as the place where porter was invented, was slap where Bethnal Green Road now meets Shoreditch High Street. Stand in the box junction here with the Pret sandwich shop at your back and you are staring straight down where the entrance to the brewery yard was – now covered by the eight-storey Tea Building, once a bacon-curing factory, then a tea warehouse, now studios and offices. Don’t stand in the road too long pondering the past, though, or you’ll get either a No 26 bus or a hipster on a fixed-wheel bicycle up the jacksie.
Just over 250 yards west of the site of the former brewery is the Old Blue Last, which was once a Bell Brewery tied house. (A last is the foot-shaped cobbler’s form over which he constructs a shoe.) It passed into the hands of Truman’s of the nearby Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane in 1816 when the men then running the Bell Brewery, Thomas Marlborough Pryor and Robert Pryor, members of a family of Quaker brewers and maltsters from Baldock in Hertfordshire, unable to renew their lease on the brewery site, instead merged their business with Truman’s.
It has been claimed on the pub’s behalf that it was built in 1700, though it does not seem to appear on any early maps, and also that it was built on the site of John Burbage’s Theatre in Curtain Road, where both Marlow’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed (it wasn’t: the Theatre was north of New Inn Yard, the Blue Last is on the south side). It was also claimed that the Old Blue Last was the first pub to sell porter, presumably based on the inaccurate story that porter was invented at the Bell brewery by the Harwood family, brewers there from around 1702 to 1762. The first known mention of the Blue Last in connection with the history of porter appears in 1811 in, bizarrely, a book called Arithmetical Questions on a New Plan, by William Butler, “teacher of writing, accounts and geography in ladies’ schools”. Butler repeated the story that the Harwoods had invented porter, alias entire butt, and added that “Entire butt beer was first retailed at the Blue Last, Curtain Road, and the intercourse between that public house and the Bell Brewhouse has continued ever since without intermission.”
The original Blue Last was demolished in 1876 when Great Eastern Street was built, and a new pub erected in its place on what was now a corner site. On the back wall, visible from Great Eastern Street, Truman’s placed a large sign repeating the claim that the pub was “the first house where porter was sold.” I probably first drank in the pub in the 1980s, when both it and Shoreditch were run-down and scruffy: if the Blue Last didn’t actually had a stripper performing occasionally itself, there were several pubs nearby that did. I was there for the history, of course, hem hem, and additionally the Blue Last was handily close both for the Pitfield beer shop nearby, one of the few retailers of rare and obscure beers at the time, and the many typesetting firms in the area around the Old Street roundabout, which made Shoreditch and Hoxton a designery hangout long before any coms had been dotted. At least two magazine companies I worked for had their typesetting done in the area, which meant, since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was still but a lad with dreams, taking a taxi over from the office in West London to pass proofs.
Some time in the past ten years the “first porter pub” sign seems to have vanished from the Blue Last’s back wall, or been painted over/covered up. However, there is still an enormous Truman’s mirror ruling the back-bar area, and meanwhile the fortunes of both the Blue Last and Shoreditch have risen and risen as it and its locality have become hipster havens. There wasn’t a porter on sale when I called by a few weeks ago, but they did have a draught stout that wasn’t Guinness, and since I was looking for some liquid history, that was welcome enough.
The history of beer and food in Britain is easy to summarise: we all, men women and children, used to drink beer with every meal, from breakfast to supper. Then, some time between around 1860 and 1914, due to changes in attitude and culture not easy to find a simple explanation for, we slowed and stopped. Drinking beer with your meals went from being so natural as to be unremarked to something alien and déclassé. Today, despite more than 30 years of campaigns to get Britons to appreciate the joys of beer and food pairing, you’re still not likely, at most dining tables, to see beer treated equally with wine.
That won’t fill half an hour of exposition, though, so when I was invited to speak on the historical angle to beer and food pairing at the Beer Meets Food seminar organised by the Guild of Beer Writers in Bristol earlier this month I had to hunt out some illustrations of the popularity of beer with food in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best example came from an observer from abroad. This is out of the New York Tribune in 1843:
Every body drinks beer in England. I have astonished waiters, in two or three instances, by asking for water. When you seat yourself at table in a “Coffee Room” or “Steak House” for dinner, and have ordered your “joint” or “steak,” or “chop,” the waiter enquires, “Hale, porter, or stout, sir?” If in place of either of these national beverages you reply water, he either laughs in your face or turns away wondering where such a wild chap could have been caught … The drinking of hale, porter and stout is universal here, with the females of the poorer classes, when they can get it, and with those of the better classes of mechanics, females, people and shop-keepers. While at dinner at Birmingham, it was observed by all of us that the ladies (a dozen) at table drank porter as if they were thirsty, and as if it did them good.
The universality of beer drinking at mealtimes for everybody is demonstrated most clearly by the records of English public schools. Winchester College had its own brewery, like other schools, hiring an outside brewer to make the beer, which was stored in a cellar measuring 30 feet eight inches by 24 feet three inches. In 1709 the schoolmaster and fellows (ie teachers) were reckoned to drink 10 to 11 pints of small beer a day each, the servants six pints a day and the 70 pupils, or scholars, and 16 choristers three pints a day. Beer, brewed at three bushels of malt to the hogshead, which would have given an OG of around 1045 to 1055, was available to the scholars at breakfast, dinner and supper, with “beavor-beer”, or bever beer, “bever” being a term for a small repast between meals, available around 3:30pm and, in the evening after supper, with bread and cheese (in 1839 a revolution occurred, when the afternoon bever-beer was replaced by tea). The school had a “butler of beer” among its servants, who was paid two shillings by each new child upon the child’s joining the school. The boys ate at three long tables, with the beer arriving in “gispins”, large leather pots or jacks, one to each table, and the junior boys at the ends of each table serving their fellows.
The masters, meanwhile, drank with their cheese at the end of dinner an extraordinarily strong, well-hopped beer called “huff” (short for “huff-cap”, a term for strong ale dating to the 16th century), brewed at the college in March every other year at the frankly unbelievable rate of 14 bushels of malt to the hogshead. An analysis of a 10-year-old bottle of huff published in 1906 found it to have had an OG of 1116.67, a final gravity of 1008.73 and an abv of 14.46 per cent. It was served in small glasses “similar to a dock wine glass”. The last brewing of huff was in 1904, which seems to have been around the time that brewing of any sort ended at the college.
Eton College also had its own brewery, as did any large establishment, and when Charles I was held as a prisoner in Windsor Castle in 1647 the college brewery supplied his beer. The college beer was “very good” when Samuel Pepys drank it on a visit to Eton in 1666. However, the small beer provided with the dinnertime meal of roast mutton and “excellent” bread in the early 1830s was described as “so bad that no boy ever drank it”. By the early 1870s the college was buying in beer from the big Burton brewer Samuel Allsopp (at least two sons of Henry Allsopp, who was in charge of the firm at the time, went to Eton), and in 1881 the college brewery equipment, including a 36-barrel copper with furnace, an oak mash tun, a 28-barrel oak working or fermentation vat and 48 barrels and hogsheads, was put up for auction.
Beer for breakfast, lunch and supper was the fuel that kept the ordinary working man going too, of course, not just the scholars of Eton and Winchester. Around 1875 an “aged labourer” described the typical routine during harvest time on a farm in Sussex when he was a young man, in the 1830s or so:
“Out in morning at four o’clock. Mouthful of bread and cheese and pint of ale. Then off to the harvest field. Rippin and moen [reaping and mowing] till eight. Then morning brakfast and small beer. Brakfast – a piece of fat pork as thick as your hat [a broad-brimmed “wideawake“] is wide. Then work till ten o’clock: then a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pint of strong beer. ‘Farnooner’s-lunch’ [ie ‘forenooner’], we called it. Work till twelve. Then at dinner in the farm-house; sometimes a leg of mutton, sometimes a piece of ham and plum pudding. Then work till five, then a nunch and a quart of ale. Nunch was cheese: ’twas skimmed cheese, though. Then work till sunset [ie about 8:30pm], then home and have supper and a pint of ale.”
Despite the seven or eight pints of beer, at least, drunk during the day, the old man told his interrogator that “I never knew a man drunk in the harvest field in my life.” He himself, he said, could drink six quarts, and believed that “a man might drink two gallons in a day,” which since it’s very possible to lose 10 litres – nearly 18 pints – of water working in a hot environment, is only putting back what your body needs to function. (This sounds like long-vanished history: life as lived by the rural poor 180 years ago. But I knew a man who knew a man who was that farmworker: my great-great grandfather, John Cornell, an “ag. lab” living in Cherry Hinton, just outside Cambridge, would have been 17 in 1840, sweating those 15 or 16-hour days, reaping fields of barley or wheat under the hot harvest sun, losing a gallon or more of water in perspiration that those pints and quarts of beer helped replace. He died in 1900, when his grandson, my grandfather Harry, was 14, and I was 17 when Harry died.)
The great institution of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the “ordinary”, a meal provided for a set price at an inn or tavern. The “ordinary” available to “young gentlemen” in Edinburgh in 1742 for four pence a head was “a very good dinner of broth and beef, and a roast and potatoes every day, with fish three or four times a-week, and all the small beer that was called for till the cloth was removed.” The “ordinary”, where the choice was effectively as non-existent as it would have been for those Winchester or Eton schoolboys, was eventually replaced by the innovation of the menu, a word not found in the English language (unless the OED is lying) until the 1830s.
If you did not have the time or money to spend on an “ordinary” or in a newly menued-up restaurant, there were other innovations: in the early 1840s Crowley’s brewery of Alton in Hampshire, where the water was similar to the gypsum-impregnated wells of Burton upon Trent, opened a chain of luncheon bars across London, known as Alton Ale Houses, where a glass of ale or porter and a ham or beef sandwich for four pence were advertised by signs outside. This was supposedly the first time beer had been widely paired with sandwiches. (The Alton Ale Houses were parodied in a production of Aladdin at the Lyceum Theatre in 1844, where the opening scene showed a small Chinese refreshment shop with a sign outside announcing: “Cup of tea and a bird’s nest – 4d”.)
For those dining at home who could not afford to buy, or had no place to store, a firkin or pin of “family ale”, beer was brought round by the potboy. This was a young apprentice barman who set out from the local pub carrying handled wooden trays bearing pewter pots filled with ale or porter around the streets at midday and in the early evening, shouting the while: “Beer-oh!” Householders, or their servants, would hail the potboy and purchase the contents of one or more of his pots to accompany the family meals. The empty pots would then be hung on the spiked iron railings outside the house, for the potboy to return and collect later. Inevitably, many were stolen: and in 1796 Parliament discussed banning potboys from roaming the streets with beer, on the grounds that the temptation of pots hung on railings should not be put in the way of those who combined light fingers with weak wills. It was claimed that pots to the value of £100,000 were being stolen every year, while opponents of the Pewter Pot Bill counter-attacked by declaring that 3,000 potboys would lose their jobs if the Bill were passed. The opposition also declared that banning the potboy would threaten the morals of children and female servants, who would now have to go to the public house themselves to obtain the beer needed to accompany the household’s meals. The Pewter Pot Bill eventually failed to get a second reading, and potboys remained part of the street scene for another six decades.
What finally killed off the roaming potboy was Gladstone’s reforms of the licensing laws in 1861, which allowed shopkeepers to purchase an “off-licence” to sell wine (in particular) and other alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises. Servants could now be sent out to buy drink for the household meals without any risk to their morals from being exposed to the sight of the interior of a pub. Increasingly, too, take-home beer was available in bottles, rather than jugs, and bottled “dinner ale” became a product every brewer had to advertise.
Gladstone’s reforms also allowed “refreshment houses” to sell wines with meals, and by 1879 a witness to a parliamentary select committee was speaking of the increasing use of wine in cafes and restaurants as an accompaniment to food. But beer continued to be by far the country’s favourite alcoholic drink, with consumption per head actually increasing almost 28 per cent between 1860 and 1899, to 31.4 gallons a year, while wine was up only 18 per cent in the same period, to less than two and a half bottles per head a year, and spirits sales remained essentially flat. It was not, in fact, until the 1980s that wine began to seriously challenge beer in Britain. And while wine was increasingly available in eateries, in the 1890s those looking for good dining in London could still hie to somewhere like Simpson’s Chop House, just off Cornhill, and salivate over “a bountiful selection of most inviting and appetizing-looking chops and steaks … mutton chops and pork chops, loin chops and chump chops; steaks – succulent, juicy rump steaks, point steaks – fit for a bishop, large or small, for lunch or dinner,” all available with pints of porter in pewter.
London was also still the home of the boiled beef house, where rounds of beef weighing between 28 and 40 pounds were salted and then boiled, before being sliced and served hot with carrots, suet dumplings and potatoes – and porter. According to the Daily Express in 1900, the quality of the porter found in a boiled beef house was equalled only by the beer on sale at a brewery tap.
The ties between beer and food were being cut, though, and for a host, probably, of little reasons: the increasing feeling that under-18s should really not be drinking alcohol three times a day meant that families (and schools) had to provide something else for them than beer; the growth in popularity of alternatives to beer, such as tea and coffee; the increasing mechanisation of working life, which made any possibility of befuddlement potentially lethal (you could steer a horse-drawn cart while several pints to the wind, for example, but not a motor-powered “lurry”); the growing association of wine with aspiration, class, tone, while beer in contrast was dropping down the social scale: in 1902 Arnold Bennett could begin a novel, The Grand Babylon Hotel, with the premise that it would not be possible to order a steak and a bottle of Bass pale ale for dinner at a five-star London hotel.
By 1955 the Scottish cookery writer Elizabeth Craig, in a too little remembered book called Beer and Vittles, could justifiably complain:
“If there is one form of cooking that has been neglected more than another in Britain, it is beer cookery. You have to go abroad to find housewives cooking freely with beer and taking trouble about what they serve it with. There are plenty of books telling you how to introduce wine to fare, but few extolling the flavour of beer; plenty of inns serving excellent beer, but not enough taking pains with its accompaniments.”
Unfortunately, in the past 63 years very little has changed. And yet, as Craig’s American-born husband, and fellow-journalist, Arthur E Mann wrote in the same book:
“There is a unique quality about beer, in that it both soothes and stimulates. In its infinite variety, from the lightest of the light lagers through the noblest of bitters and stouts to the heaviest of ales, a choice can be made which will please any palate, suit any climate, fit any occasion, and blend with any dish.”
Indeed: and this was admiably demonstrated with the excellent meal put together by the kitchen at Wild Beer Co’s restaurant at Wapping Wharf in Bristol, served up for the audience at the seminar, which took as a theme the five “tastes”, combining beers and foods to highlight each of the five in turn.
The only pairing that didn’t work for me was the pickled cucumber and the beer flavoured with the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu, meant to be demonstrating umami: personally I find umami much more easily in a young but heavy ale, and even more I don’t believe anything over-vinegary does anything for beer: too much clash. But that apart, the combinations were excellent, in particular the Gose with lemon tart and the sour beer with cheese. I don’t know what plans Wild Beer Co has to repeat this menu, but as a demonstration of how versatile beer can be with a host of different flavours in a way that wine would struggle desperately and unsuccessfully to match, it was tremendous.
A few days since, two Excise Officers came to Mr Harwood’s Brew-house near Shoreditch to Gage the Liquors, but instead thereof, finding several of his Men drinking hard therein, sate down with them, and tipled so heartily with them, as to be thoroughly fudled. In the meantime the Surveyor came, and finding a Guile of Beer not set down in their Accounts, made a Report to the Commissioners, that Mr Harwood had caused his Men to make their Officers drunk, in Order to defraud the King of his Duties; So that a Tryal is likely to ensue thereupon, which may be very expensive to Mr Harwood, and be Instructive to others of the same Occupation.
Parker’s London News, or the Impartial Intelligencer, Friday September 4 1724, p5
Isn’t that a wonderful story? I found it (serendipity is marvellous) while looking for something else entirely. Unfortunately, as yet, I’ve been unable to discover any follow-up stories, so I don’t know if Harwood was actually taken to court for getting the revenue officers drunk, and if so, what happened to him. Updates may follow …
Beer history geeks will recognise Mr Harwood, brewer of Shoreditch, East London as Ralph of that ilk, the man identified, incorrectly, by John Feltham in 1802 as the supposed inventor of porter “about the year 1722” (ie two years before the adventures detailed above) as a replacement for a mixed drink called three-threads. It’s a story that went round the world. As early as 1812, German beer lovers were being told that ‘Der Brauer Harwood brauete den ersten Porter.’ In fact Ralph did nothing of the sort, and porter wasn’t developed to replace three-threads … but you knew that.
Still, that’s not as mangled as something you can still find on dozens of different sites all over the interwebs, which seems to be sourced from a book written for American home-brewers in the late 1990s:
Porter was the first commercially brewed beer. It was named for the train porters who were its original servers and consumers , and became hugely popular in 18th & 19th century Britain.
Train porters in the 18th century … and nobody was brewing commercially before then … sometimes I wonder why people like me and Ron Pattinson even bother.
In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.
The City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.
The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.
However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.
The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.
The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.
Hurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.
I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?
Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.
In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”
In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.
The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.
One 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.