You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Spitfire droptank fuelling

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45 gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”.

Save stoppers adSome of the first attempts to bring beer over the Channel after D-Day used the expendable drop tanks, or jettison tanks to give them their proper RAF designation, carried by aircraft such as the Spitfire and Typhoon and normally filled with fuel to give them extra range. These sem to have been semi-official efforts: the Air Ministry actually distributed a photograph to newspapers showing a Spitfire of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron at Tangmere airfield in Sussex having its 45-gallon jettison tank being filled with beer from two wooden casks supplied by the Chichester brewer Henty & Constable, while the pilot relaxed on the wing.

It was presumably 270 gallons of beer from Henty and Constable that was flown in drop tanks slung under three Spitfire Mk IXbs from Tangmere to an airfield at Bény-Sur-Mer in Normandy, some 110 miles south of England and three miles from the sea, on June 13 1944, D-Day plus seven: the first known landing of beer during the invasion. One of the pilots was Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Berryman of 412 Squadron, 126 Wing, Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force. The airstrip at Bény-Sur-Mer would not, in fact, be finished officially for another two days when Berryman’s boss, Wing Commander Keith Hudson, singled him out at a briefing at the wing’s Tangmere base to deliver a “sizeable” beer consignment to the airstrip, known as B4. Berryman recalled:

“The instructions went something like this, ‘Get a couple other pilots and arrange with the officers’ mess to steam out the jet [jettison] tanks and load them up with beer. When we get over the beachhead drop out of formation and land on the strip. We’re told the Nazis are fouling the drinking water, so it will be appreciated. There’s no trouble finding the strip, the battleship Rodney is firing salvoes on Caen and it’s immediately below. We’ll be flying over at 13,000 [feet] so the beer will be cold enough when you arrive.’

“I remember getting Murray Haver from Hamilton and a third pilot (whose name escapes me) to carry out the caper. In reflection it now seems like an appropriate Air Force gesture for which the erks (infantrymen) would be most appreciative. By the time I got down to 5,000 the welcoming from the Rodney was hardly inviting but sure enough there was the strip. Wheels down and in we go, three Spits with 90-gallon jet tanks fully loaded with cool beer.

“As I rolled to the end of the mesh runway it was hard to figure … there was absolutely no one in sight. What do we do now, I wondered, we can’t just sit here and wait for someone to show up. What’s with the communications? Finally I saw someone peering out at us from behind a tree and I waved frantically to get him out to the aircraft. Sure enough out bounds this army type and he climbs onto the wing with the welcome: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Whereupon he got a short, but nevertheless terse, version of the story.

“‘Look,’ he said, ‘can you see that church steeple at the far end of the strip? Well it’s loaded with German snipers and we’ve been all day trying to clear them out so you better drop your tanks and bugger off before it’s too late.’ In moments we were out of there, but such was the welcoming for the first Spitfire at our B4 airstrip in Normandy.”

Later, in the 1950s back in in Canada, by chance Berryman actually met the man who climbed onto his wing and told him to bugger off.

Four days after Berryman’s landing, on 17 June 1944, and 11 days after the invasion started, a Spitfire of 416 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force flew over from England to the newly built airfield at Bazenville, just three miles from Gold Beach, with a drop tank full of beer slung below its fuselage. The tank had been scoured out first with steam but “tough luck; it still tasted of petrol,” according to Dan Noonan, a Flight Commander with 416 Squadron.

The heftier Hawker Typhoon could carry even more beer. Pilots of the RAF’s 123 Wing, flying rocket-firing Typhoons and based from 19 July 1944 at Martragny, a few miles east of Bayeux, would run a “shufti-kite” across to Shoreham, 110 miles away, where a local brewery would fill two 90-gallon jettison tanks attached below each of the Typhoon’s wings with beer. Then the pilot would hurry back across the Channel and the RAF personnel at Martragny would drink it, quickly. There was one problem with transporting beer in jettison tanks: according to 123 Wing’s commanding officer, the New Zealand-born RAF ace Group Captain Desmond Scott, on the trip over to Normandy the beer “took on rather a metallic taste, but the wing made short work of it.”

However, the journey over the channel, at 15,000 feet or so, cooled the beer down nicely for when it reached those on the ground: indeed, according to newspaper reports, not only did Spitfires supply beer shortly after D-Day in jettison tanks made from vulcanised paper fibre, but P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, presumably flown by the USAAF, had carried iced custard, or ice-cream, in their drop-tanks to troops on the Normandy beachheads: “They flew at 15,000 feet and delivered their cargo iced in perfect condition.” (This is not as unlikely as it seems: the US army had mobile ice-cream making machines for the troops in the Second World War, and so did many US Navy ships.)

The Typhoons’ exploits were reported in Time Magazine on July 2 1944 under the headline “Flying Pubs”:

A great thirst attacked British troops rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust of Normandy. Thinking of luckier comrades guzzling in country estaminets and town bistros, the runway builders began to grouse. They wanted beer. They got it. Rocket-firing Typhoons, before going on to shoot up Nazis, landed on the runways with auxiliary fuel tanks full of beer. Swarms of the thirsty gathered round with enamel mugs. The first tank-fulls tasted bad because of the tank linings; this flavor was overcome by chemical means and later loads were delicious. Just like the corner pub at home.

Unfortunately, United States Army Air Forces P-47 Thunderbolts did for 123 Wing’s beer runs: the Typhoon was easily mistaken by inexperienced American pilots for the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and according to Group Captain Scott, “our aerial brewer’s dray was attacked by American Thunderbolts twice in one day, and was forced to jettison its beer tanks into the Channel … beer cost us money, and these two encounters proved expensive.” The Wing’s draught beer flights came to a sudden halt, and Scott had to arrange for an old twin-engined Anson to fly in cases of Guinness: “The troops mixed it with champagne to produce black velvet. It was hardly a cockney’s drink, but they appeared to like it,” he wrote.

It may have been 123 Wing’s experience that was covered in a publication called The Airman’s Almanac in 1945:

A possible peacetime use for the auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the underside of fighter planes in World War II to increase their range was demonstrated in the Normandy invasion of 1944. British ground crews, rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust and heat of the French province, complained of thirst. Their complaint being heard, rocket-firing Typhoons coming over from England on their way to German targets landed on the newly built strips with their military fuel tanks full of beer. The first tankfuls tasted awful because of the tank linings. Before the second ‘beer trip’ the tanks were treated chemically and the air-hauled brew was reported extremely palatable.

Ironically, Thunderbolt pilots learnt what the Typhoons had been doing, and copied it themselves. Lieutenant William R Dunn of the 513th Fighter Squadron, USAAF, the first American air ace of the Second World War, was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Normandy. He recorded:

During our brief stay at A6 airfield, we learned another trick of the trade from our neighbouring RAF allies, a Typhoon squadron based near Caen. Periodically they’d send a kite with a clean belly tank back to England, where the tank was filled with beer. A flight back to France at an altitude of about 15,000 feet and the beer arrived nice and cold. We soon followed their lead, with our 150-gallon belly tanks. Those British types sure know how to take all the comforts of home to war with them.

The other method used was to attach casks to the bomb racks. Pilots with the RAF’s No 131 (Polish) wing, flying Spitfire Mk IXs, (probably 302 Squadron or 308 Squadron, both fighter-bomber units) claimed to have invented the idea of the “beer bomb”, using casks that had home-made nose-cones fitted to make them more streamlined, which were fitted to the Spitfire’s bomb racks. On 3 August 1944 131 Wing moved from England to the airfield at Plumentot, near Caen, and “beer bombing” began:

Even more popular was the ‘beer-bomb’, invented and first used by No. 131 Fighter Wing when still stationed in England. The bomb has nothing atomic about it, so the details can now be divulged. The invention is, in fact, simplicity itself: it entailed a barrel of beer, a bomb-carrying aircraft, and a willing pilot (the three were available in increasing order of magnitude). The procedure, freely disclosed for the benefit of thirsty humanity, was for the aircraft to be carefully ‘bombed up’ with a barrel of beer, flown off with every precaution to Plumentot in Normandy and landed with equal care. Never were bombs more warmly welcomed. Not least because of the dust.

Pictures exist of the “beer bombs” being put together: presumably at Ford airfield in West Sussex, where 302 and 308 squadrons were based just before they were moved to Plumentot, in which case, again, the beer may well have come from Henty and Constable, eight or so miles away at Chichester.

'Beer bombs', wooden firkins being fitted with streamlined 'nose cones' for transporting in bomb racks underneath Spitfires by members of 131 Fighter Wing, probably in August 1944, possibly at Ford airfield in West Sussex. Pictures taken from Polish Wings 15, Wojtek Matusiak, Wydawnictwo Stratus, 2012 p26 and © Straus

Above and below, ‘beer bombs’, wooden firkins being fitted with streamlined ‘nose cones’ for transporting in bomb racks underneath Spitfires by members of 131 Fighter Wing, probably in August 1944, possibly at Ford airfield in West Sussex. Pictures taken from Polish Wings 15 by Wojtek Matusiak, pub Stratus, 2012, p216, and © Stratus

Polish beer bomb 2One Kentish brewery that apparently supplied beer for transport across by fighter plane was Bushell Watkins & Smith of the Black Eagle brewery in Westerham. According to Westerham villager Edward “Ted” Turner

I worked at a garage called Brittain’s Engineering in Peckham in London making Bailey bridges for sending to France for the invasion … We were also making ‘jettison’ auxiliary fuel tanks for fighter planes to carry extra fuel to enable them to fly further into Europe and still get back home. Once refuelling facilities were established over there, the Westerham brewery used to fill those auxiliary non-returnable petrol tanks with Westerham ales for our troops in Europe. Black Eagle lorries delivered it in barrels to Biggin Hill [four miles from Westerham] where the auxiliary dual-purpose tanks were filled with Bitter on one side and Mild on the other. We made them of 16 gauge metal with baffles for safe landing, the RAF’s version of the brewer’s dray.

There is also a photograph of a cask at the Black Eagle brewery with a sign on it declaring: ‘This Cask containing “Westerham” Bitter was flown to France “D” day, June 6th 1944, by the Royal Air Force’. Unfortunately there are problems with the Westerham claims. The three fighter squadrons that had been using the airfield departed in late April 1944 for Tangmere, where they would be closer to the Normandy beaches. In any case, Biggin Hill was abandoned by the RAF soon after the Normandy landings. On June 13 1944, V1 “doodlebug” flying bomb attacks on London began, and Biggin Hill – right in the V1s’ flightpath – was deemed too dangerous to continue to be used by aircraft, with Balloon Command taking the airfield over as part of the line of barrage balloons put up against the doodlebugs. Flying operations did not begin again at Biggin Hill until September 1944, and fighter aircraft do not seem to have returned until the October. However, one of the squadrons that had been based at Biggin Hill until April 1944 was 412 Squadron, which had made that first “drop-tank beer delivery” to Normandy from Tangmere on June 13. It is possible that the beer in the tanks might have come from the Westerham brewery, 50 miles away, which the pilots of 412 would have known very well.

Westerham D-Day cask

The Westerham Brewery’s ‘D-Day cask’. But were there any flights from nearby Biggin Hill over France on D-Day? © Westerham Brewery

Certainly, pilots were happy to fly long distances to pick up beer. Thorsteinn “Tony” Jonsson, the only Icelander to join the RAF, was flying North American Aviation P-51 Mustang III fighter-bombers with 65 Squadron, based at Ford, when the D-Day invasion began. On June 27 his squadron moved to the temporary airfield at Martragny, designated B7, five miles from Bayeux and only some 2000 yards from the German lines. However, Jonsson recorded:

Life in our camp was really quite pleasant and comfortable. Admittedly we missed the luxury of being able to pop into a pub at the end of a day’s work for a pint of beer, and to mix with the ladies that were usually to be found there to add spice to our existence. At the beginning of the invasion and for the next few weeks, beer was severely rationed in Normandy … But some bright lad in our Wing had an excellent brain-wave; why not bring beer over from England in the large auxiliary tanks that could be hung under the wings of our Mustangs? Each tank could hold 75 gallons – this would make an excellent addition to our meagre ration. Action was immediately taken.

Four tanks were sent to a factory for their insides to be coated with a substance to prevent the taste of metal, as is done with preserving cans, and taps were fitted. A contract was made with a brewery in London, and on an appointed day every week a Mustang flew with two empty ‘beer’ tanks to Croydon aerodrome and brought back two full ones; one containing mild and the other bitter. These tanks were placed on trestles in our mess-tent, which quickly became known as the best pub in Normandy. It did not take long for the word to spread to nearby military units that we had a good supply of beer, and our mess was frequently a very popular and crowded place in the evenings. The fact that nurses from a military hospital in the neighbourhood were regulars only helped to boost the attendance … It was not long before the beer trips were increased to two a week. Although most pilots likes to nip over to England whenever possible, to contact families and loved ones, the beer-run was not in demand. The reason was that a full beer tank could easily fall off if the landing was not perfectly smooth. The ‘beer kite’s’ arrival was watched by all available personnel, and woe to the poor pilot who was unlucky enough to bounce!

It was 150 miles from Martragny to Croydon (at the time the main airfield in London), making the “beer run” for 65 Squadron a 300-mile round trip. Croydon’s one brewery was Page & Overton, a subsidiary of Charrington’s brewery in Mile End, and it was presumably Page & Overton’s mild and bitter that flew back in the tanks of the Mustangs.

Confirmation that Henty and Constable supplied much of the beer to arrived in Normandy after D-Day comes from Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at Vickers, the parent company of Supermarine, maker of the Spitfire. Quill recalled:

After D-Day in 1944, there was a problem about getting beer over to the Normandy airfields. Henty and Constable (the Sussex brewers) were happy to make the stuff available at the 83 Group Support Unit at Ford, near Littlehampton. For some inexplicable reason, however, beer had a low priority rating on the available freight aircraft. So we adapted Spitfire bomb racks so that an 18-gallon barrel could be carried under each wing of the Spitfires which were being ferried across from Ford to Normandy on a daily basis.

We were, in fact, a little concerned about the strength situation of the barrels, and on application to Henty and Constables for basic stressing data we were astonished to find that the eventuality of being flown on the bomb racks of a Spitfire was a case which had not been taken into consideration in the design of the barrels. However, flight tests proved them to be up to the job. This installation, incidentally, was known as Mod XXX Depth charge.

Flying dray

A Spitfire IX fitted with the ‘Mod XXX Depth Charge’, modified bomb racks that could carry a cask of beer under each wing. Contrary to frequent claims, this is almost certainly a Vickers Armstrong publicity photo, and NOT Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson’s own aircraft

According to one source with a slightly different spin on the story, the job of designing fittings that would secure the kilderkins to the Spitfire’s bomb racks was done at High Post airfield, Salisbury, one of the final assembly centres for Spitfire manufacture, “more or less as a joke”. The plan to put beer in long-range tanks was abandoned “when it was found later that the practice contaminated fuel, so Strong’s, the Romsey brewers, supplied complete barrels of Triple ‘X’. This modification was given a fictitious number to conceal the operation from more official or officious eyes.”

There was already a link between Strong’s and Spitfires: after the Luftwaffe bombed Vickers-Supermarine’s headquarters in 1940, the company’s design and administration offices were transferred to Hursley Park, Winchester, a magnificent mansion requisitioned after the death that same year of its owner, Sir George Cooper, chairman of Strong’s. That Strong’s certainly was involved in the supply of casks to be carried on Spitfire bomb racks is confirmed by the existence of a photograph of just such a cask slung under a Spitfire wing, clearly branded “STRONG ROMSEY”.

Strongs under wing

A close-up of the “Mod XXX Depth charge” on the ground, showing clearly that the casks were supplied, at least occasionally, by Strong’s brewery in Romsey, Hampshire

The hint that Quill gave about the “flying drays” being replacement Spitfires ferried across to squadrons on the Normandy front line from England is given extra support by a newspaper story from the middle of August 1944:

With beer in their bomb racks, replacement Typhoons from England are sure of a specially boisterous welcome from the thirsty troops in Normandy. For the beer shortage is just as acute over there as it is in England. So at least one Typhoon has solved its problem by importing its own beer.

Whenever a replacement aircraft flies to Normandy the pilot takes a quantity of beer, carrying it in nine-gallon barrels with special streamlined nose fittings slung in the bomb racks. This system has been found to be much better than the original method of taking the beer in petrol tanks, which gave the beer a nasty flavour.

In the event of the pilot running into trouble, the barrels are jettisoned as if they were bombs. Then another kind of trouble awaits him at the end of his journey.

Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson had landed with his 127 Wing, two squadrons of Canadians, at a newly built airfield at St Croix-sur-Mer, designated B3, and just over a mile and a half from the landing beaches, on D-Day plus 3. After several days of tinned “compo” rations, Johnson sent a note to his favourite Sussex landlord, Arthur King at the Unicorn in Chichester, asking for help. Every day a twin-engine Anson flew into St Croix from Tangmere with mail, newspapers and spare parts, and King arranged for items such as tomatoes, fresh lobsters, newly baked bread and “a reasonable supply of stout”.

When news of the arrangement leaked into the newspapers, King was visited by someone from Customs and Excise, who warned him that if he carried on, he would need an export licence. However, Johnson recorded in his memoirs,

Since its introduction to the Service in 1939, the versatile Spitfire had participated in many diverse roles … Now it fulfilled yet another role, perhaps not so vital as some of the tasks it had undertaken in the past, but to us of supreme importance. Back in England some ingenious mind had modified the bomb racks slung under each wing so that a small barrel of beer could be carried instead of a 500-pound bomb. Daily, this modern version of the brewers’ dray flew across the Channel and alighted at St Croix. The beer suffered no ill effects from its unorthodox journey and was more than welcome in our mess.

Johnson’s memoir of the war, Wing Leader carried a photograph of a Spitfire IX in D-Day black-and-white stripes, carrying a kilderkin of beer slung from each bomb rack, and captioned “Our version of the brewer’s dray”. This seems to have given rise to the myth that the picture is of Johnson’s own Spitfire. But the photograph in the book is credited to Vickers Armstrong, and is almost certainly one of the aircraft manufacturer’s publicity shots, and nothing to do with Johnson.

A Spitfire IX bearing D-Day invasion stripes, and carrying beer casks beneath its wings, on the ground. It is probably significant that in none of the shots of beer-carrying aircraft can the identifying letters be seen: therse were almost certainly all publicity shots

A Spitfire IX bearing D-Day invasion stripes, and carrying beer casks beneath its wings, on the ground. It is probably significant that in none of the shots of beer-carrying aircraft can the identifying letters be seen: these were almost certainly all publicity shots

Eventually, organised supplies of beer for the troops supplanted the “flying drays”. In November 1944 the government actually ruled that supplies of beer for troops overseas should equal five per cent of total national production, meaning all stronger “export” beers, all naturally conditioned beers with a life of six weeks or more and all beers that could be pasteurised had to be put in the hands of the forces’ catering service, the Naafi. At the same time, breweries in liberated areas of France were being put to use.

By then it was the turn of the Home Front to be short of beer, however. Brewers blamed a shortage of labour, saying the women workers who had replaced men called up for the forces had themselves been evacuated with their children as the V1 and V2 threat increased. The Nottingham Evening Post reported that in some pubs there had been outbreaks of “panic drinking”, customers “gulping their beer and shouting for an encore lest their neighbours at the bar got more than they did.” At the same time, in “certain districts” only mild ale was available, because bitter, which kept better, was earmarked for the troops. Many pubs were only open for an hours and a half at lunchtimes and two hours in the evening because they had no beer to sell: and there was little relief even for those harvesting the grain that would be used to make the new season’s beers. In August 1944 it was announced that “In some parts of Lincolnshire the beer famine has become so acute that many inns have announced that they will not be able to continue the age-old custom of supplying harvest beer this season. Cups of tea will be provided instead.”

Flower's ad July 44

Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

Worthington ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale

This week’s letter comes from a Mr R Protz of St Albans, who writes:

Martyn,
I took a snap of the clip for ‘E’ in the National Brewery Centre Bar y’day. I’ve included it in 300 More Beers … in the Best Bitter section but I notice it’s now labelled Burton Ale. What are your thoughts? Thanks,
Roger

Ale fail: ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale.

The answer, of course, is that Roger is completely correct, Worthington ‘E’ is a pale ale or bitter with a strength that puts it in the “Best Bitter” category, and NOT a Burton Ale, which is a different style of beer altogether– darker and sweeter. (Nasty clash of 1920s and 1970s typefaces on that pumpclip there, too, but let’s move on …)

Indeed, back in the 19th century, Worthington ‘E’ was described as an India Pale Ale, as these two ads below from the early 1890s show. Apparently to distinguish themselves from all other brewers, Worthington labelled their brews with a strange and not particularly logical naming system. Their Burton Ales, strong, bitter-sweet and rather darker than an IPA/best bitter, were called G (the strongest, equivalent to Bass No 1), F (the second-strongest) and D (the third-strongest, in the 20th century sold as a mild) – they’re the ones called “strong ales” in the ads. It looks as if the beers, mostly, go up in strength from A mild through B and C and up to G – but what about M light dinner ale, and S and SS, which to most brewers would mean “stout” and “single stout”, but to Worthington mean their cheapest mild and their cheapest light dinner ale, respectively. And XE IPA looks to be weaker than the E … Continue reading

More IPA myths that must die on #IPADay

It’s #IPADAY again, and time for some more IPA mythbusting. Despite the best efforts of many, an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish continues to be perpetuated about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. All the myths below are genuine statements culled in the past few weeks from websites that claim to be experts on beer.

Myth 1 “The original IPAs had strengths close to 8 to 9 per cent alcohol by volume”.

Rubbish: records show early IPAs rarely went much above 6 or 6.5 per cent abv.

Myth 2 “Historians believe that IPA was then watered down for the troops, while officers and the elite would savour the beer at full strength.”

Complete cobblers’ awls. No historian has ever believed that. There is NO evidence IPA was ever watered down, and the troops drank porter anyway.

Myth 3 “Porters and stouts were not suitable for the torrid Indian climate.”

More unresearched rubbish. Considerable amounts of porter – far more porter than IPA, probably – were exported to India, from at least the second half of the 18th century right through to the end of the 19th century. The East India Company actually used to ask brewers to tender for suppliers of porter to India.

Myth 4 “North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.”

Not true. North American IPAs – excellent though many of them are – use hop types completely unknown to 18th and 19th century British brewers, and major on floral, citrussy flavours and aromas in their IPAs, which are designed to be drunk comparatively young. Early British IPAs were designed to be drunk aged anything up to nine months or more, and while they were certainly bitter, they would have lost most of any hop aroma that they originally had. In addition it is becoming increasingly clear that early British IPAs would have showed at least some Brettanomyces character, from their long ageing in cask. Apart from both containing lots of hops, and being similar colours (except for the black ones) modern North American IPAs and early British IPAs could not be much more different.

Myth 5 “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century for the colonies East of India such as New Zealand and Australia.”

If you’re reading this, DB Breweries of New Zealand, perpetrators of this dreadful piece of marketing fackwittery in connection with Tui East India Pale Ale, “the East Indies” was the term for the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia, including the archipelagos of maritime South-East Asia, a name used to contrast the region with the West Indies. Trading companies that did business in this part of the world included the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United East India Company. East India Pale Ale is simply a synonym for India Pale Ale, pale ale brewed for India/the East Indies. It has nothing to do with “East of India”, or Australasia. However, since a year or so back Tui East India Pale Ale won the Brewers Guild of New Zealand award for best New Zealand Draught, an amber lager style, it appears the beer is as accurate in style as the history is as accurate in its facts.

(Addendum: I’ve only just noticed, after several readings of the original quote, that it also says “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century …”. “Last century” was, of course, the 20th century. They presumably meant the 19th century. Which is wrong anyway, as highly hopped pale ales for India were first sent out from England to India in the 18th century …)

You can read last year’s #IPADAY mythbusting from the Zythophile blog here. Have a good one.

Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom

‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading

Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

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The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.

Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.

Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:

  • The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
  • The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
  • The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
  • The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.

That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.

However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.

Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.

I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …

Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Excellent news, I think, that Wells & Young’s has acquired the Scottish brands McEwan’s and Younger’s from their current owner, Heineken.

The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.

But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749″, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish

“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”

There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.

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Four IPA myths that need to be stamped out for #IPAday

There’s an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish that has been written about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. So read on, and turn yourself into  an IPA mythbuster for #IPA day:

Myth 1: “IPA was invented by a brewer called George Hodgson from Bow, in East London.”

Fact: Hodgson was the best-known of the early exporters of pale ale to India. But there is no evidence at all that he “invented” a new beer style. Pale ale was already being brewed in England before Hodgson. And the beer Hodgson brewed wasn’t called “India Pale Ale” until more than 40 years after he is first recorded as exporting beer to the Far East. Indeed, there is no evidence that IPA was “invented” at all. It looks more likely the style developed slowly from existing brews as “Pale Ale prepared for the India market”, and was eventually, around 1835, given a new and separate name, East India Pale Ale.

Myth 2:IPAs started life as a British export to their troops stationed out in India back in the 1800s.”

Fact: Pale ale was around from at least the 17th century and pale ales were being exported to India from at least the 1780s, if not before. And they weren’t drunk by the troops, either those of the East India Company’s forces or the later British Army forces in India, who much preferred porter, and continued drinking porter in India right through to the end of the 19th century. The pale ales exported by Hodgson, Bass, Allsopp and others were drunk by the middle and upper classes among the Europeans in India, the military officers and the “civil servants”, the civilians who worked for the East India Company, trading, administrating and collecting taxes.

Myth 3: “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops and alcohol in the beers they were sending out, the strong beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa.”

Fact: Beer did not need to be strong to survive the journey to India, and IPAs were not particularly strong for the time: they were only about 6 per cent to 6.5 per cent abv. Certainly by the 1760s brewers were being told that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to somewhere warm. But this was not limited to India. And there is absolutely no evidence that George Hodgson of Bow introduced the idea of hopping export beers more strongly than beers for home consumption.

Myth 4: “A few India-bound beer ships were wrecked on the coast of Scotland, which gave locals the chance to sample the cargo. The secret was out, and IPA has been a staple in the UK ever since.”

Fact: There is no record of any shipwreck being associated with the sale of IPA in the UK. “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market” and “suitable for warm climates or home consumption” was on sale in London in 1822, no shipwreck needed. But in fact IPA never took off in Britain until around 1841, after the railway had arrived in Burton upon Trent and made it much easier for the Burton brewers to send their bitter beers to markets around the UK.

For more about the history, and myths, of IPA, go here for a summary of IPA history, here for a (much) longer version and here to learn more about what George Hodgson really did.

Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

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

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

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

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