In November 1799 a brief paragraph appear in the Times newspaper:
“A Porter Brewery is about to be established at Portsmouth, by a number of opulent Gentlemen, who have subscribed £5000 each. The Thames water for this undertaking is to be conveyed by shipping.”
The reason for the appearance of the second sentence is that many drinkers, at the time, were convinced that good porter, then easily the best-selling beer in London, and perhaps the most popular style in the British Isles, could only be brewed with water from the Thames. The “opulent Gentlemen” behind the proposed Portsmouth venture clearly felt that if they could say their porter was made with Thames water, it would give them instant credibility.
In fact, although several of the big London porter breweries stood by the banks of the Thames, including Barclay Perkins in Southwark, Calvert’s Hour Glass brewery almost directly opposite Barclay Parkins on Upper Thames Street in the City, and Hoare’s by St Katharine’s dock, even the Thames-side ones took their water from wells, or, like Whitbread in Chiswell Street, on the northern edge of the City, from reservoirs supplied by the New River, constructed in the 17th century to bring water to London from near Amwell in Hertfordshire.
In the “pre-scientific” era, writers on brewing knew that different waters had different effects on the final brew, and regularly recorded myths about which waters were best. A brewing book from 1719, A Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors insisted that “Upon the whole, the best Liquor to Brew with, is that which is taken from a small clear Rivulet or Brook, undisturb’d by Navigation or Fording,” though
“Possibly much the best Water in England is that at Castleton in Derbyshire, commonly called, The Devils Arss, Which Owzes from a great Rock, covered over with a shallow Earth … I have seen the Ale made of Castleton-Water as clear in three days after it was Barrelled, as the Spring-Water it self, and impossible to be known by the Eye in a Glass from the finest Canary Wine.”
Some had preferences that seem frankly bizarre today. A book called A Treatise on the Brewing of Beer, self-published in 1796 by one E Hughes of Uxbridge, declared that when it came to brewing liquor:
“Many persons very much prefer Pond Waters, such that are frequently disturbed by horses and other cattle, which generally causes it to be in a thick muddy state …”
Hughes was not too keen, declaring:
… but the sediments of this thick muddy water must be found prejudicial; for when the wort is emptied out of the cooling tubs into the working tun, or running from the coolers into the tun, a part of the sediment from the foulness of the water will follow the wort into the tun; consequently the yeast will be in a foul state, and cannot be of that utility in baking as though the brewing had been from pure clean water.
Well, quite. (Incidentally, the sale by brewers of their excess yeast to bakers was probably a regular event, but seems remarkably little recorded.) However, the preference for pondwater was expressed by other writers. William Ellis, author of the best-selling The London and Country Brewer, had a chapter in his 1736 edition called “Of the Nature of several Waters, and their Use in Brewing”, in which he praised pond water for brewing, declaring that water from “Blew-pot Pond on the high Green at Gaddesden in Hertfordshire” and “many others” were “often prefer’d for Brewing, even beyond many of the soft Well-waters about them.” (The Blue Pot Pond was close to Ellis’s home, and doubtless he had drunk ale made from its water.)
Like other 18th century writers on brewing, Ellis preferred what he (and they) called “soft” water from chalky sources, though today we would call this “semi-hard”, since the “hardness” disappears when the water is boiled, as the calcium carbonate dissolved in the water as it runs over or through the chalk comes out of solution as it is heated. “[S]uch soft water that percolates through Chalk, or a Grey Fire-stone [a type of limestone, I believe], is generally accounted best,” Ellis wrote,
“for Chalks in this respect excell all other Earths, in that it administers nothing unwholsome to the perfluent waters, but undoubtedly absorps by its drying spungy Quality any ill minerals that may accompany the water that runs thro’ them. For which reason they throw in, great Quantities of Chalk into their Wells at Ailsbury to soften their water, which coming off a black Sand-stone, is so hard and sharp that it will often turn their Beer sour in a Week’s time, so that in its Original State it’s neither fit to Wash nor Brew with, but so long as the Alcalous soft Particles of the Chalk holds good, they put it to both uses.”
Good river water, Ellis, believed,
“will make a stronger Drink with the same quantity of Malt than any of the Well-waters; insomuch that that of the Thames has been proved to make as strong Beer with seven Bushels of Malt, as Well-water with eight; and so are all River-waters in a proportionable degree, and where they can be obtain’d clean and pure, Drink may be drawn fine in a few Days after Tunning.”
I leave it to brewers to suggest if this could possibly be true.
Ellis (who revealed the ban by brewers on using the word “water” on the premises – “it is Sixpence forfeit in the London Brewhouse if the word Water is named” – was backed in his belief that pond water was the best sort for brewing with by the anonymous Guide to Malt Liquors, which said:
“Pond-Water and other Standing Waters in fat Grounds, if clear and sweet, make a Stronger Drink with less Malt, then Well, Pump or Conduit Water … Thames-Water is by no means fit to Brew Strong Beer to keep, for that, let the Drink which is Brewed of it be never so clear, it is apt on any considerable and sudden change of Weather, to ferment and grow foul. “
George Watkins, whose The compleat brewer; or, The art and mystery of brewing explained was published in 1760, wrote:
“WATER may distinguished into four kinds: Spring, River, Rain and Pond, and what is the worst in appearance often makes the best drink. No water can be fouler than that of the Thames, yet the clearest porter is brewed with it, Many have said no other but Thames water would make this species of drink, but that is plainly an error, for even in London there are porter brewers served from the New River; however none is better for it than that of the Thames, and in most cases the very purest and finest water is, for brewing, the worst of all.
“Our forefathers brewed their strong pale October with Well Water, but the expence in malt was very great, and the beer would have been wholesomer, and better, if they had used river water. The common foul water of large rivers, which differs little from that of ponds, would not have done, but the water of a clear rivulet best of all.
“This may in some measure serve as a direction to the brewer in general terms, and he will find it true that very soft water, such as rain water and that of ponds, and very hard, such as that of springs and wells, are proper in but a few cases; and that for high-coloured drink, river water is the best; and for the pale kinds, that of brooks or rivulets with a swift current. He cannot always have this exact choice but he must come as near it as he can.”
Note the passing reference to strong pale October, in there, incidentally. Watkins was another fan of adding chalk to brewing water, saying:
“A chalky water is essential to fine Dorchester beer; and unless its nature were understood, there might be a great error in the choice, even after the fact was known.
“Therefore if the brewer lives where there is a soft chalky water he need not fear success. But, as this is not the case often, we shall mention how the deficiency may be supplied. Let a load of soft chalk, a little broke to pieces, be strewed over the bottom of one of the large backs or coolers, and upon this pump as much spring-water as will more than half fill; it then let in about half as much soft water as there was pump-water, and let the chalk be stirred a little with an oar. Then leave it four and twenty hours, and the water will be ready for brewing. It will be much clearer than it was when put in; for all the foulness of the soft water will be carried down to the chalk; and it will be just as soft as that commonly used at Dorchester and there about is. This water being drawn off. will be ready for the brewing; and the same chalk being taken out of the cooler and spread to drain, will serve afterwards for the same purpose even better than at first. Chalk seems so far of the nature of quicksilver, that it will communicate a certain quality to water without any change in itself, and will therefore continue to impregnate new waters over and over again in the same manner.”
Dorchester is indeed in the middle of chalk country, the Dorset Downs.
The myth about Thames water did reflect one truth, that the waters found in much of Southern England, being mostly impregnated with calcium carbonate and therefore “semi-hard”, were better for making porters and stouts: the boiled water became soft and was thus better at extracting colour from brown malts.
Conversely, other parts of the country, such as swaths of the North Midlands, where the waters were impregnated with calcium sulphate, and thus had “permanent” hardness (unaffected by boiling), make better pale ales, with less colour extraction from the malt, and among other benefits the hard water gave a less harsh hop flavour.
Brewers in the “pre-scientific” era did not understand much about this, however. Watkins wrote that
“In general the brown malts are to be brewed with the softest waters, because these best take out their strength and flavour; the pale malts should be brewed with spring water, to preserve their fine colour; and the amber with a midling water, such as that of clear small rivers.”
which shows some practical knowledge. Michael Combrune, whose Theory and Practice of Brewing was first published in 1761, the year after Watkins’s book, was dismissive of the idea of differences between rain water, spring water, well water and river water:
“the art of brewing is very little affected by the difference of waters, if they be equally soft … if hitherto prejudice and interest have appropriated to some places a reputation for particular sorts of drinks … the cause opf their excellencies or defects was ignorantly attributed to the water made use of.”
But Combrune appears to have had no impact on Hughes of Uxbridge, who must have startled the brewers of Burton upon Trent, if they read his book, for he insisted:
“Well Waters ought not to be used only in cases of necessity when waters of a softer quality cannot be procured. Spring or River Water is far preferable to Well Water, but river or spring waters differ very much in their softness, and that which will lather best with soap is a convincing proof and is to be prefered for brewing, for:
First It will leave the grains dryer than well water of a harsher quality
Secondly The beer will come to a quicker fermentation in the tun and
Thirdly It will also fine itself much sooner in the cask than if brewed from well water.
“Rain Water such as runs off tiled roofs is undoubtedly to be prefered before well or river water in brewing being of a simple and soft nature. There is one very great object to the interest of the brewer. Beer brewed with rain or river water will be stronger than beer brewed with well water from an equal quantity of Malt, because it will have a freer access to the Malt, and as I said before, it will leave the grains much dryer than well water, which is convincing, the dryer the grains are, the better will be the beer.
“There is a great difficulty often happens in making beer come to a fermentation in the tun; this, I verily believe, is principally owing to the hardness of the water it is brewed with.”
Only one brewery seems to have made a usp of its water, however, and that was at Stogumber, near Taunton, in Somerset. The brewery was founded by George Elers, and was running by 1840, when it appears in that year’s tithe assessment. It used water from Harry Hill’s Well, a spring on the edge of the village, where the local tradition was that some time in the 16th century a man named Harry Hill (no relation to the British comedian) was cured of leprosy by using the waters of this spring, both washing in it and drinking it.
Even in 1844 Pigot’s Commercial Directory was calling the brewery in Stogumber “a considerable brewing establishment”, and saying that its “malt liquor … is held in great estimation.” In 1848 the medical journal The Lancet carried an advertisement for the Stogumber Brewery which declared that
“A Spring of Delicious Water, possessing Medicinal Virtues … similar to that as the Cataract at Launceston, in Van Dieman’s Land, is now being used for brewing pure Pale Ale (from malt and hops only;) first introduced at Exeter in cases of Indigestion, Constipation, and Consumption, through the advice of the faculty, and now drank by the Clergy, Gentry, and most families throughout Devonshire.”
A year later the Stogumber Medical Spring Brewery was advertising in the Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post newspaper of the
“Happiest results from drinking STOGUMBER PALE ALE, brewed with the medicinal water; A very elderly Lady residing in the Western Road, Bath; a martyr to the gout in London; Mrs Hooper of Kilve, Somerset, considered in a decline; a Lady at Exeter, 80 years of age, who had taken medicine daily for 30 years; a Lady near Wells with a heart complaint of three years standing; and many others; all cured in a few weeks with the Ale, which is as pure and delicious as it is renovating and reasonable.
Reference to the Faculty in the West of England
Terms CASH. Address, Henry Watts, Manager”
It was soon being advertised across the country, from Exeter to Edinburgh, at a price of 23 shillings a kilderkin, suggesting an original gravity of around 1055 to 1060. The beer was still being recommended in 1871 as “reputed to cure most diseases”, when its advertising revealed Stogumber Ale to be brewed with spring water, white malt and Goldings hops. The brewery eventually closed about 1910.
In Burton upon Trent, much of the success of the ale – particularly when, in the early 1820s, the town’s brewers began brewing well-hopped pale bitter ale for export to India – was down to the quality of the local well-water. However, the true chemical nature of the well-waters of Burton does not seem to have been properly understood until the Burton brewers brought a libel action in 1830 against the Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge for claiming, in a treatise on the “Art of Brewing”, that they adulterated their beers with a mixture of various noxious ingredients including “salt of steel” (iron chloride) and “sulphate of lime”, calcium sulphate.
The Court of King’s Bench in London heard that the author of the treatise, David Booth, claimed he could only make beer that matched the Burton brewers’ products by adding gypsum, a hydrated form of calcium sulphate. The Burton brewers, however, produced affidavits from chemists who had analysed their brewing waters, and found that they naturally contained calcium sulphate, derived from the gypsum found in the Keuper marl (a mix of mudstone, siltstone and chalk or lime) below the town.
(A borehole drilled at Worthington’s brewery in 1891 found gypseous marl in bands from 60 feet under the surface down to 360 feet, below the water-bearing rocks at around 330 feet down, while an artesian well dug at the Burton Brewery Company’s premises in 1894 found the gypsum in the marl started at 78 feet down and continued in bands to 194 feet down, with the water-bearing rock struck at around 240 feet below the surface. A boring at Peter Walker & Co’s brewery in Burton around the same time found 20 feet of nearly pure gypsum starting 40 feet below the surface. The water from the bore, coming from 116 feet down, contained a staggering 221 grains of solids per gallon, according to the Burton brewing scientist Dr Horace Brown, almost three and a half times the level of dissolved minerals in the well water at Allsopp’s brewery nearby.)
Brewers had soon realised that it was the geology of the area that made Burton beers so successful. William Tizard, in The Theory and Practice of Brewing Illustrated, published in 1846, wrote: “The Burton ales principally owe their superior qualities and uniform permanency to the nature of the water there used, and which, according to the best evidence, is strongly impregnated with this hardener of water, gypsum or sulphate of lime.”
As Burton-brewed pale ales became more and more popular, other brewers looked for ways to reproduce the effect of Burton well-water. One way was simply to move to Burton yourself: the first outside firm to open a branch brewery in Burton for brewing pale ales was the Romford brewer Ind Coope, in 1856, and it was followed by a host of others, including Charrington’s, Truman’s and Mann’s of London in the early 1870s, Peter Walker of Warrington in 1877, Everard’s of Leicester in 1893 and Magee Marshall of Bolton in 1902.
Another way was to find other places with similar sulphate-bearing water to Burton, which saw brewers turn to Edinburgh, Tadcaster in Yorkshire, Stratford upon Avon, Wrexham in North Wales, and Alton in Hampshire as good places to make pale ale. (Both Tadcaster and Alton still have considerable breweries today, though Alton’s is little-known, since it brews Carling and Grolsch lagers for the UK market.)
The third choice was to artificially add calcium sulphate in some form to the water the brewer was already using, a system first named “Burtonising” by Egbert Hooper in the second edition of his book The Manual of Brewing, published in 1882, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’ve not been able to find a copy of the first edition, so I don’t know what that says, but the third edition has a section starting on page 122 that is indeed headed “Burtonising”.)
The discovery of the “Burtonising” technique is frequently credited to the chemist Charles W. Vincent, who is said to have analysed Burton water in 1878 and discovered what salts helped the local brewers make such good pale ales. As we have seen, chemists and brewers had known for more than 30 years before 1878 about the nature of the chemicals in Burton well water that made it so excellent for brewing pale ales; Vincent cannot be said to have discovered this fact, therefore. It is true that he brought out a book that year called Burton Brewing Water: A process invented by CWV , published by J. Holmes of Leeds. Unfortunately this is an extremely rare book today, not helped by the fact that the only copy the British Library held was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb (along with 200,00 other books, many of them German, ironically) in May 1941. So I can’t tell you what process Vincent invented, because I haven’t been able to find a copy of that book.
Whatever Vincent invented, it may perhaps have had something to do with a patent he took out in October 1891 to
“imitate at pleasure the various celebrated sodio calcareo, magnesio, sulphuretted, aerated, ferruginous and other waters of France, including Savoy, and Germany, Bohemia Austria &c. To this end, various proportions of sodium sulphate, coal and calcium magnesium or iron carbonate are roasted together. The product, containing chiefly the sulphate, carbonate and sulphide of soda and calcium sulphide, is ground up and used in the proportion of 1oz to 15 gallons of water. If desired, it may be exposed on shelves to the action of carbonic acid gas until sufficiently bicarbonated.”
That patent seems to have been designed to make “artificial” mineral water, rather than liquor for brewing. How similar it was to the process described in Vincent’s book of 1878 remains to be discovered. But he must have been inspired to write that 1878 book, whatever it said, during his time editing a new edition of Chemistry, theoretical, practical and analytical, published in 1877-9. The entry on brewing referred back to an earlier edition of Chemistry, theoretical, practical and analytical, a partwork published in 1853 and edited by James Sheridan Muspratt, a Dublin-born research chemist who studied under the great Professor Justus von Liebig in Germany.
In that 1853 work’s entry on beer, Muspratt wrote that “nearly everyone at all acquainted with brewing knows that water which contains a large quantity of gypsum – sulphate of lime – earthy carbonates and no organic matter is best adopted for his purposes,” and he went on:
“The Editor would suggest that when brewers in certain districts are compelled to use soft water, or that which runs off moors or fens, for want of a better, they should impregnate them at second hand with gypsum, or with such limestones more easily procurable. This plan has been found most serviceable, and the ale obtained from such artificial water has nearly equalled the renowned product of Burton.”
It appears from Muspratt’s comments that just as they had been recommended to do with chalk in the 18th century to imitate the waters of Dorchester, brewers had begun throwing the calcium sulphate, in the form of lumps of gypsum, into their liquor tanks to imitate the waters of Burton. If Muspratt did not actually invent this technique, he certainly deserves credit for apparently being the first person to write about it, and promote it.
Certainly, Whitbread was adding gypsum to its brewing water to make pale ales with by 1866. Brewing manuals in the 1880s were showing how to construct a “gypsum tank” for treating water, and in 1891 Alfred Barnard saw one in action at Fox’s brewery in Farnborough, Kent, filled with “gypsum quarried from the Trent side”. By the early 1890s the brewing journals were carrying a host of ads for “gypsum specially prepared for brewers’ use”, “saline blend for water treatment – used in hundreds of breweries”, “Burton ale salts” and the like. In 1904 it was reckoned that more than 150 tons of gypsum a year were being quarried and used in breweries to Burtonise their brewing liquor for making pale ales.
How successful these early attempts at trying to reproduce Burton well-water by dumping gypsum into tanks of water were must be doubted: for as Hooper pointed out in 1882, “gypsum is not a substance that dissolves very readily in water”, even though in his time “many brewers place small pieces of gypsum … in their cold-liquor tank, and trust to sufficient hardening material being dissolved during the time that the water remains in the tank.”
Hooper’s preferred solution (pun semi-intended) was to add the “hardening material” in powder to the hot-liquor tank, for “the quantity will be capable of exact regulation” (though he admitted that calcium sulphate is actually less soluble in hot water than it is in cold). He gave a recipe for a “hardening mixture giving solids similar to those of the Burton water”, consisting of four parts of gypsum, three parts of ordinary salt and one of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), added at “about four ounces to the barrel of water” in the hot-liquor tank, which would be equal to an extra 49 grains of solid matter per gallon. (Bass, for comparison, had just under 79 grains per gallon of solids dissolved in its well-water). However, he warned brewers that adding chemicals to the brewing water cost extra in tax: “each 70 grains of solid matter to the gallon means an increase of one degree of gravity in the wort, and each degree of gravity entails a little more than five farthings per barrel additional duty [and this at a time when tax was still low], which in a large brewery amounts to a considerable sum in the course of a twelvemonth.”
Eventually, in the 20th century, as brewing science became more sophisticated, brewers learned that it was not so much the raw presence of calcium sulphate that was important as the ratio of the different calcium ions, sulphate ions and carbonate ions. These ratios affect what happens in the mash tun and the fermenting vessel and, thanks to a lowered pH caused by the sulphates, in the bottle and cask, extending the shelf-life of the finished beer, as well as affecting its flavour and colour. Better methods than running water through tanks filled with gypsum have been developed (though some are still quite crude-looking – one very well-known English brewery adds a carefully measured quantity of sulphuric acid to its chalky water, to turn the calcium carbonate to calcium sulphate) and most brewers now use ordinary mains water, treated in the brewery, rather than well-water.