Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

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?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

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.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

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.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

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.

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Mercer’s Meat Stout

Here’s a top contender for “vanished beers I wish I’d tasted” – Meat Stout. A mixture of serendipity and synchronicity led me to discover Mercer’s Meat Stout this week, a brew I’d never previously heard of. Serendipity (the art of finding something valuable while looking for some other thing entirely) because I was actually searching for pictures of Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return to illustrate a comment I was making at Alan McLeod’s blog about Imperial Milk Stout. Synchronicity (the occurrence in a short space of time of two random but apparently connected events) because I had been reading just a day or so earlier about the attempt by Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery in Cornwall to brew Offal Ale, containing liver, kidney and heart. (Incidentally, Stuart’s “Real Brewing at the Sharp End” is one of the best brewer’s blogs around: sharp, indeed.)


Revenir, literally, à nos moutons (or similar livestock): Mercer’s was a small brewery in Lower Adlington, near Chorley in Lancashire, that apparently grew out of an own-brew pub called the Plough. Its best-known brand, evidently, was a bottled product called Meat Stout, a “nourishing stout brewed with the addition of specially prepared meat extract – highly recommended for invalids”. When Mercer’s was taken over by Dutton’s of the Salford brewery in Blackburn in 1929, Meat Stout was popular enough for Dutton’s to continue making it under Mercer’s name: the Plough Brewery only closed in 1936, so for seven years, presumably, Meat Stout was still coming out of Adlington.

Dutton’s pushed Mercer’s Meat Stout hard enough to advertise it on the front of its pubs, but at some point it vanished, as did Dutton’s itself, swallowed by the London brewer Whitbread in 1964.

What lay behind the invention of Meat Stout? According to one Blackburn historian, Colin Pritt, “It is rumoured that the natives complained about the gravity or quality of the stout, so the brewer threw a side of beef, or similar, into his next brew and it gave it more ‘body’. They then added some meat product to the brew ever after (probably offal, as it was cheap).”

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A tasty drop: the history of an almost-vanished fermentation system

Brakspear’s Triple is a regular on the Zythophile shopping list: not just because I try to support old fermentation methods, it’s a very tasty beer, marvellously fruity, toffee apples, peardrops and bananas, hints of fruitcake, sweet and bitter in perfect balance, a long and lingering tart, very dry finish, and remarkably light-footed for a beer of 7.2 per cent abv. It ages to an interesting state as well: I tried an 18-month old version at the weekend, sour tartness was coming through much more, which I’m not certain is meant to be there, but it was very pleasing regardless.

The beer gets its name partly because it is hopped three times, and also, and more relevantly, because it undergoes, effectively, a triple fermentation, two at the brewery, using what its brewers call the “double drop” system, and one in the bottle.

Brakspear’s in Henley, Oxfordshire was about the last brewery in Britain to use what most brewers call the “dropping” system of fermentation, (rather than “double drop”); the fermenting wort is “dropped” after 12 or 16 hours from the initial fermentation tun into another vessel below to continue and finish its fermentation, leaving the unwanted “gick” produced in the early part of the fermentation behind. When Refresh, then owner of the Wychwood brewery, purchased the right to brew Brakspear’s beers after the Henley brewery closed, it moved all the “dropping” equipment from Henley to Wychwood’s site in Witney, Oxfordshire.

Fermentation hall Rogers's brewery Bristol about 1890

The fermentation hall at Rogers's brewery in Bristol circa 1889 showing the two levels used in the dropping system

However, although nobody else, or almost nobody, as far as I am aware, still regularly uses the “dropping” method to brew beers in Britain, it was once wide- spread. As the brewing scientist Charles Bamforth has commented, the existence of several different technologies for trying to achieve the same end is an indication that none of them is perfect. One of the important processes any brewer has to perform is to remove the excess yeast from his fermenting beer, and Victorian brewers used at least six different methods to achieve this. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard, in his four-volume Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland, published 1889/91, described four of them, saying that while Burton used unions, Yorkshire the stone square and London and the South the skimming system, the beer was finished “in the East of England by the dropping system”.

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The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

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