The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.

So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.

It was a tax fiddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

Why oh why am I still having to write lengthy corrections to articles about the history of India Pale Ale? Well, apparently because the Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, is happy to print articles about the history of India Pale Ale without anybody doing any kind of fact-checking – and William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, appears to be one of those writers who misinterpret, make stuff up and actively get their facts wrong.

The article Bostwick had published on Smithsonian.com earlier this week, “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name”, is one of the worst I have ever read on the subject, crammed with at least 25 errors of fact and interpretation. It’s an excellent early contender for the Papazian Cup. I suppose I need to give you a link, so here it is, and below the nice picture of the Bow Brewery are my corrections.

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London

“The British Indian army” – most of the British troops in India in the 18th century were in the three private armies run by the East India Company. There was no such thing as “the British Indian army” at that time.

“Soaking through their khakis in the equatorial heat” – khaki uniforms were not used by the British until the 1880s. Calcutta is almost 1,500 miles from the equator.

“The first Brits to come south were stuck with lukewarm beer—specifically dark, heavy, porter, the most popular brew of the day in chilly Londontown, but unfit for the tropics.”
Ignoring the fact that to get to India from Britain you travel east, porter continued to be exported to India from Britain for more than a century from at least the 1780s, with the East India Company in the 1850s ordering large quantities of porter from London brewers. The troops drank porter, and enjoyed it. Dark beers can be very refreshing in hot weather, and stouts are still made in hot climates, from the West Indies to Indonesia.

“One Bombay-bound supply ship was saved from wrecking in the shallows when its crew lightened it by dumping some of its cargo — no great loss, a newspaper reported, ‘as the goods consisted principally of some heavy lumbersome casks of Government porter.'”
The ship was trying to get away from Bombay, not into it, and this is a quote from 1851, just to underline the point about how long porter was exported to India.

“Most of that porter came from George Hodgson’s Bow brewery, just a few miles up the river Lea from the East India Company’s headquarters in east London.”
While Hodgson exported porter to India, there is no evidence that he was supplying “most” of it. The East India Company’s headquarters weren’t in east London, but in Leadenhall Street in the City. What was in “east London”, or more accurately, at Blackwall, on the Thames three miles to the east of the City, were the moorings used by the East Indiamen. They weren’t “a few miles” from Hodgson’s Bow brewery, but 1.3 miles as the crow flies and 2.5 miles if you follow the meandering Lea.

“Outward bound, ships carried supplies for the army, who paid well enough for a taste of home, and particularly for beer”
The articles carried on board the East Indiamen from London to India were for sale mostly to the European civilians living there, including the “civil servants” of the East India Company, not for “the army”. Beer was only a small part of what was carried, which included wine, brandy, Madeira and cider, plus all kinds of foodstuffs and many other items, from china to furniture to leather goods to clothes, unobtainable in India.

“Its clippers rode low in the water, holds weighed with skeins of Chinese silk and sacks of cloves.”
A clipper and an East Indiaman are two entirely different sorts of sailing ship, one built for speed, the other for carrying cargo and passengers. If you call an East Indiaman a clipper, you just make yourself look stupid. And the majority of the goods on board an East Indiaman was likely to be tea and cotton.

“The trip to India took at least six months” – no, it took between four and six months

“Hodgson sold his beer on 18-month credit, which meant the EIC could wait to pay for it until their ships returned from India, emptied their holds, and refilled the company’s purses.”
But it wasn’t the East India Company buying the beer from Hodgson, it was being bought by the East Indiamen captains and commanders to sell on their own accounts.

“Still, the army, and thus the EIC, was frustrated with the quality Hodgson was providing. Hodgson tried unfermented beer, adding yeast once it arrived safely in port. They tried beer concentrate, diluting it on shore. Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until Hodgson offered, instead of porter, a few casks of a strong, pale beer called barleywine or ‘October beer.’”
This is complete rubbish. There is no evidence for any of this, no sending unfermented beer out – that would never have worked, as anyone who claims to know about beer would surely realise – and no concentrating it and then diluting it. There is no indication that “the army” (not an institution that existed anyway) or the East India Company cared at all about Hodgson’s beer. “Barleywine” is an anachronism: the term isn’t used by British brewers until the late 19th century, and even then as two words, not one, which is an Americanism. In any case, Hodgson was exporting both pale ale and porter to India from at least 1790, and pale ale – brewer unknown – was being exported to India from at least 1784.


“It got its name from its harvest-time brewing, made for wealthy country estates “to answer the like purpose of wine” — an unreliable luxury during years spent bickering with France. … these beers were brewed especially rich and aged for years to mellow out. Some lords brewed a batch to honor a first son’s birth, and tapped it when the child turned eighteen. To keep them tasting fresh, they were loaded with just-picked hops. Barclay Perkins’s KKKK ale used up to 10 pounds per barrel. Hodgson figured a beer that sturdy could withstand the passage to India.”

October beer was brewed months after the harvest, and was not, in any case, the same beer that country gentlemen drank in place of brandy – not French wine – nor the same beer that the landed gentry laid down until their sons became 21 – not 18. They weren’t “loaded with just-picked hops” to keep tasting fresh – that’s something the writer has made up – and Hodgson didn’t work out on his own that well-hopped beer would survive the journey East, that was known since at least the 1760s.

“He was right. His first shipment arrived to fanfare. On a balmy January day in 1822, the Calcutta Gazette announced the unloading of ‘Hodgson’s warranted prime picked ale of the genuine October brewing. Fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.'”
This is nonsense. The 1822 shipment was just the latest in more than 30 years of shipments of pale ale by Hodgson to India.

“Hodgson’s sons Mark and Fredrick, who took over the brewery from their father soon after”
Mark Hodgson was running the brewery by 1811. It was Frederick Hodgson, not Fredrick.

“They tightened their credit limits and hiked up their prices, eventually dumping the EIC altogether and shipping beer to India themselves.”
I repeat: it wasn’t the East India Company shipping the beer to India, but the EIC captains and commanders, acting as private individuals.

“By the late 1820s, EIC director Campbell Marjoribanks, in particular, had had enough. He stormed into Bow’s rival Allsopp with a bottle of Hodgson’s October beer and asked for a replica. Allsopp was good at making porter — dark, sweet, and strong, the way the Russians liked it”

It was 1822, not “the late 1820s”, that Marjoribanks spoke to Allsopp, at Marjoribanks’s home in London, not at Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent. Allsopp was not a porter brewer, but a brewer of Burton ale, a totally different beer. Porter wasn’t necessarily sweet.

“When Sam Allsopp, only a few years shy of turning the business over to his sons, tried the sample of Hodgson’s beer Marjoribanks had brought, he spit it out — too bitter for the old man’s palate.”
Samuel Allsopp was 42 in 1822, so certainly not an old man. He would run the company for another 16 years. There is no evidence he spat Hodgson’s beer out.

“He asked his maltster, Job Goodhead, to find the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could. Goodhead kilned it extra lightly, to preserve its subtle sweetness – he called it ‘white malt’”
The author is making that all up again. There is no evidence Allsopp asked Goodhead to find “the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could”, nor that Goodhead called the pale ale malt he made “white malt”. “White malt” and pale ale malt are different types.

“To recreate Allsop’s legendary brew, I’d need the best ingredients available today, and that meant Maris Otter malt and Cascade hops.”
It’s “Allsopp”. And to recreate it you would need an authentically 18th/19th century hop such as East Kent Goldings, not Cascade, which is the kind of American hop British brewers dismissed in the 19th century for their supposedly unpleasant flavours.

That article looks to have been based on a chapter in a book Bostwick had published last year, called The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer. I hadn’t come across this before, thankfully, and I have absolutely no intention of buying it, but I took a peek at what is available via Amazon’s “Look Inside” function, and it appears to be as crammed with errors as the article on IPA is. You can only see the first 60 or so pages via Amazon, but here are some of the errors I found even in that short section:

“Dark-age tribes had spice cabinets full of henbane, ergot and other bog-grown oddities”
Henbane doesn’t grow in bogs, unless you’re making a bad British English pun (Nicholas Culpepper said in 1653 that “whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes”). It grows on chalky and sandy soils. Ergot is a fungus that infects rye (mostly) and wheat and barley (sometimes), Again, it’s not something that grows in a bog. Nor is it something that is known to have ever been deliberately used by humans to induce hallucinations, unlike henbane.

“Brewers eventually learned through trial and error to reproduce those warm, oxygen-rich environments Saccharomyces likes best”
– ah, really? My understanding is that while you need oxygen at the start of fermentation, to encourage yeast growth, you soon want more anaerobic conditions, or the yeast won’t make alcohol.

“Caked in a Neanderthal molar discovered deep in a Belgian cave, a single charred kernel of barley, last munched some thirty thousand years ago, is our earliest record of that agricultural revolution”
This is a wildly exaggerated and highly inaccurate version of the findings of Amanda Henry, Alison Brooks and Dolores Piperno, reported in 2010, from their analysis of the dental calculus found on the teeth of Neanderthal skeletons found in the Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Spy Cave (pronounced “spee”), Belgium. It certainly wasn’t “a single charred kernel of barley” that was found, but dozens of tiny grains of starch. Some of those grains of starch were identified as coming from barley, and some of those from cooked barley – but only on the Neanderthal teeth from Iraq. It would be absolutely staggering if evidence pointing to barley consumption dating back 36,000 years was found in the area of modern Belgium, since this would be 30,000 years before barley and other grains are reckoned to have reached northern Europe, brought by farmers from their original home in the Middle East. Anybody studying the history of beer really ought to know that talking about barley in Northern Europe that far back is nonsense. Shanidar Cave is in the Zagros Mountains, on the edge of the area where, long after the Neanderthals disappeared, settled agriculture developed, using just those varieties of grain, like barley, that the Shanidar Neanderthals were evidently gathering wild – and cooking – 40,000 years ago. So there is a fascinating link between the Neanderthals and modern agriculture – but it ain’t the one Bostwick claims it is.

“the Greek wit and poet Athenaeus contrasted his own civilized ways with savage tribes who drink, he wrote, “a beer made of wheat prepared with honey, and oftener still without honey.”
Athenaeus was quoting another writer, Posidonius, in that passage, talking about the Celts of Gaul, and neither writer called them “savage tribes”. Posidonius was actually contrasting what the wealthy Celts drank – wine – with what “those who are poorer” drank. Bostwick uses the translation of the passage by CD Yonge from 1854: I prefer that of Max Nelson: “Among those who are poorer there is wheaten beer prepared with honey, and among the majority there is plain [beer]. It is called korma.”

“Germanic tribes were cultivating wheat and barley by 5000BC and Celtic bands on the British Isles soon after”
It is total nonsense to talk about “Germanic” and “Celtic” tribes 7,000 years ago. We’re barely in the time of the Proto-Indo-Europeans that far back. Germanic tribes cannot be identified until around 1500BC, while the origins of the Celts are normally pitched around the same time or slightly later.

“Stranded on the windswept Scottish border in fortresses at Bearsden and Vindolanda, Augustan legions …”
Ignoring the anachronism of taking about the “Scottish” border at the time of the Romans, Bearsden is in Glasgow, 80 miles north of the modern Scottish border, while Vindolanda is 26 miles south of the border. The legions weren’t “Augustan” – Augustus died 70 years before Roman troops were stationed at Vindolanda.

“The first brewer in British history we know by name, in fact, was a Roman: Arrectus”
The name was Atrectus. We don’t know what nationality he was, but Atrectus is reckoned to be a Gallic or Gallo-Belgic name, so the Vindolanda brewer was unlikely to be Roman.

“Some beer writers are sticklers about the difference between beer and ale, saying beer refers to a drink made with hops and ale to one without. I find that distinction arbitrary and etymologically suspect and will ignore it”
I don’t know any beer writer who says ale can only refer to a drink made without hops. I DO know beer writers who point out that when you’re talking about historical malt liquors, it’s important to distinguish between beers and ales in the context of their times, when the two words meant different things at different periods. That’s not an “arbitrary” distinction, but an important historical one, and etymology has nothing to do with it.

More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Loved and disliked in equal parts, and enjoying an unexpected renaissance in hipstery parts, despite being more than 70 years old, the dimpled beer mug is undoubtedly an icon of England.

It was invented in 1938 at the Ravenhead glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire by an in-house designer whose name is now forgotten, and given the factory identity “P404”. Although the dimple has its enemies, who dislike its weight and its thickness, it soon became extremely popular, and at a rough guess some 500 million have been manufactured since it was born.

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped 'Pint MxCC GR 29', for Middlesex County Council

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped ‘Pint MxCC GR 29’, for Middlesex County Council

The dimple had much competition: even in 1938, many pubs still served beer in the pottery mugs that George Orwell praised in his “Moon Under Water” essay about his ideal pub, from the Evening Standard in 1946. Orwell declared that “in my opinion beer tastes better out of china,” but “china mugs went out about 30 years ago [that is, during the First World War], because most people like their drink to be transparent.” However, two documentary films made just before Orwell’s essay, The Story of English Inns, from 1944, and Down at the Local, from 1945, both show pint china mugs were still being used alongside glass ones, at least in country pubs. Orwell talked about the pottery beer mug as being strawberry-pink in colour, but they came in other shades (baby blue and a dark biscuit-beige, for example), all with white interiors and white handles, and also with transfer-print designs. The majority of pottery beer mugs, however, appear, in fact, to have been of the kind known as mochaware, invented around the end of the 18th century, which have tree or fern-like patterns on the sides, made by a drop of acid dropped onto the glaze of the mug while it was still wet. Most mochaware pint beer mugs seem to have been blue, or beige-and-blue, with black and white bands. Many were made by TG Green of Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, while the plain coloured mugs were the speciality of Pountneys of Bristol. TG Green stopped producing mochaware at the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was apparently the last company still making mochaware beermugs. It tried to revive the tradition in 1981, without success. The company closed in 2007.

Pewter mugs were pretty much obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, though Orwell claimed that “stout … goes better in a pewter pot”, and they were described as “old-fashioned” even in 1900, when it was said to have been replaced by the glass mug, “a thick, almost unbreakable article”. The problem, for publicans, was that their pewter pots kept being stolen, and they cost around ten times as much as china beer mugs. The better class of premises kept silver-plated pewter beermugs and, to guard against theft, carved the name and address of the pub into the base. Glass was also cheaper – and, it was claimed, the working man at the end of the 19th century liked to have his mild beer served in a glass so that he could see it was bright, and not hazy or cloudy.

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, from the film Down at the Local, 1945

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, one mochaware, the other transfer printed, from the film The Story of English Inns, 1944

Fortunately for the beer mug collector, after the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, drinking vessels used on licensed premises for draught beer or cider purporting to be a specific size – half-pint, pint or quart – had to bear an Official Stamp Number, either acid etched or sand-blasted through a stencil, a system that lasted, with tweaks, until 2007, and each district – county council, county borough and the like – had its own numbers, so that, for example, 19 was Derbyshire and 490 Bristol. They also carried the mark of the crown, and the initials of the reigning monarch of the time, something that had first been required by the Act “for ascertaining the Measures for retailing Ale and Beer” that had become law under William III in 1700. (That Act covered vessels “made of wood, earth, glass, horn, leather, pewter or of some other good and wholesome metal”, suggesting the variety of drinking vessels you could expect in a Stuart inn or alehouse, and it also only mentions quarts and pints, suggesting the half-pint was illegal – or at least extremely rare.) It is thus possible to tell roughly when an older beer mug was made, and roughly where, too. In 2007, when the CE, or “Conformitée Européenne” mark replaced the old system (leading to the Daily Mail to declare: “EU stealing the crown of the great British pint”), it became easier to tell when a glass was made, but no simpler to find out where and by whom. Alongside the CE on the glass will be an “M” and the last two digits of the year of manufacture, plus the identification number of the “notified body” that verified that the container was an accurate measure. To identify the notified body you have to go to the Nando website – nothing to do with peri-peri chicken, this stands for New Approach Notified and Designated Organisations.

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Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

“The third thing is that younger people coming into the market want something that is a bit tastier than the lager market that they’ve left, but they want it to be pretty easy-drinking, the majority of them. They want something that tastes good, not something that needs chewing. That’s where the role of Greene King IPA comes in. There is a real role for a brand to play in the market, one that represents the safe choice when you enter into a product category that’s new to you, one that won’t let you down, that represents taste that is relatively easy drinking versus some of the 20,000-odd beers that you can have in the UK. With Greene King IPA, our simple strategy is to bring many more young people into our brand and the market, and also to stand for a signpost to quality, trust and assurance for people who might be about to come into the market.

Pint of IPA“When we tested ourselves against those key things that young drinkers want, ‘Does it look and feel right for me, make me want to drink it?’, ‘Is it good quality, not going to let me down?’, and three, ‘Is it easy to drink, and something you’d want to have as your first drink?’, we were really excited by the results. We found the number one reason for people drinking Greene King IPA, time after time, is the fact that it’s easy drinking. I know a few people give it a hard time because it’s easy to drink – that’s its strength, that’s its role in the market. It’s the first drink I would recommend to someone if it’s their first time drinking cask ale, because it won’t let them down and it’s not too challenging. We did a load of blind taste tests and Greene King IPA, when it’s served right, is absolutely up there with the world’s largest cask ale brand* in taste tests, and beat significantly most of the leading brands in the cask ale market. So this product doesn’t need changing, it isn’t going to change and we haven’t changed it. It’s absolutely right.”

There we are, then, haters. Greene King has the figures to show that four out of five cask ale drinkers love the fact that Greene King IPA is an easy-drinking pint – which is, after all, the core definition of a session beer, and session beers are, or should be, the pride and pinnacle of British brewing, the beer that makes going to the pub with your mates worthwhile. If you don’t like it – tough. Go and drink something so hoppy your teeth need re-enamelling afterwards.

IPA handpumpNot that everything in the IPA garden is perfectly lovely. There were two problems, the first relatively easy to try to solve, the second far more crucial, and difficult. On the first, South said: “We recognised, and consumers told us, we did need to move forward with the look and feel of the brand. We looked a little bit corporate, and perhaps a little bit traditional to the younger consumer. So we set off on the journey of bringing ourselves really up to date, a modern, contemporary look and feel that won’t alienate people who already enjoy a pint of Greene King IPA but that will genuinely bring younger people into the category and into the brand. I’m confident that this is going to do the job. It’s not a tweak and it’s not a small pigeon step forward, it’s pretty bold and it’s pretty big as a leap forward in terms of look and feel. Ziggurat Brands, the design agency that did it, have stripped it back to bare basics, taking inspiration from things they found in the brewery, so the copper colour is inspired by the copper kettles in the Greene King brewery, the teal colour because we wanted to evolve the green colour of Greene King IPA to something much more modern and contemporary. This is where we needed to make a big change to bring people in. At the same time it shouts heritage, with the crown and the arrows.” Teal – the hipster’s green. I’m never sure about that crown-and-arrows logo Greene King is adopting, though: it commemorates poor King Edmund of East Anglia killed by Viking archers in 869, after whom, of course, Bury St Edmunds is named.

More importantly, South said, “What we do need to focus on is making sure every pint is served perfectly. We are going to carry on with consumer support, advertising, all of those good things. But we feel it’s really important that we shift a lot of our emphasis, and put more money into the brand, with the trade. We’re going to invest heavily in supporting the trade to get quality right, and quality is the number one thing for us to focus on.” There two big initiatives here, the first a quality accreditation drive, with unannounced pub visits made by either Quality & Dispense Services, a senior Greene King representative or a third party quality agency. A pub will be required to pass ten quality tests, which include the taste, aroma and temperature of their Greene King IPA through to whether it is served in the right glass and the ability of bar staff to talk about the beer and describe it accurately. Pubs that are judged to pour a perfect pint of Greene King IPA will be awarded with a plaque and certificate, and crowners for their IPA pumpclips, “all signposts to the consumer to say, ‘This is going to be a safe bet,'” South said. Pubs that do not pass first time will be educated on the importance and benefits of looking after their cask beer range before another visit is made.

beergeniusgreen copy copyYou cannot improve quality in a vacuum, however: and to that end, Greene King has launched a website giving free training, troubleshooting and best practice videos, available at www.beer-genius.co.uk.. “Beer Genius is Greene King’s open access training portal to the industry,” South said. “We recognise that staff turnover is a problem – it’s different for everyone, but let’s make an assumption, 100% every year. How on earth can licensees be expected to make sure every new bar staff member knows even how to serve a pint, let alone clean down the bar and do all the basics? So what this portal is going to do is teach cellar managers, bar managers, operations directors, BDMs, local area managers, but also bar staff, three things: how to manage a cellar, how to make the most money and yield they can out of cask ale, by getting the quality right and the yield up, and why commercially it makes sense, and third, how to serve the perfect pint.

“Why does it matter? It’s not just about giving the consumer the perfect pint – although that’s absolutely key. The benefit of giving the consumer the perfect pint is that yields in pubs will massively skyrocket, because quality and yields go hand-in-hand. A key part of what we’ve got to do is educate bar staff, as well as bar managers that when you get it right, but that tiny bit of extra effort in, your till will start ringing up more money. The numbers astounded me. About 70% of pubs, we estimate, have a yield of 91% or lower on their cask ales. It should be 97, 98, even 99%. When they close that gap, the benefit to that pub in terms of profit is enormous – it’s up to £5,000 through the till, per annum. That’s their benefit: the benefit to the consumer is no more dodgy pints. And therefore you stay in the pub, you tell your friends about that pub, the net promoter score of that pub improves, people come back. So what could be a huge loss to that pub through a dodgy pint becomes a huge gain. So it’s absolutely key that we help licensees with this.”

There we are: get the quality right, your yields from every cask will be up, and so will be your profits. The licensee is happy, the consumer is happy, the brewer is happy. Mind, I doubt the haters would be happy even if Greene King had the head brewer personally deliver every pint to their table in solid gold goblets with a £50 note for use as a beermat. Personally, I’m delighted if young drinkers find Greene King IPA a good gateway into cask ale: as they grow older, and more experienced, it’s likely that some – though not all – will start to experiment, to explore, and discover the kind of beers the haters enjoy, beers which indeed have a great deal to offer those who are ready for them. The quality initiative is excellent – other brewers, please, please copy. And the Beer Genius website, from what I’ve been able to explore so far, is a terrific resource for everybody – including drinkers, who can find out what has to go on to get them that elusive perfect pint.

Does anyone make IPAs likem this one any more?

Does anyone make IPAs like this one any more?

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

*Meaning DoomBar, presumably

Notes on a Fuggle: More light on the early history of a great hop

Leave a question up on the web long enough, and I reckon you’ll eventually get some sort of satisfactory answer. More than five and a half years ago I pointed out that, thanks to the researches of Kim Cook, we actually knew a great deal less about the history of the Fuggles hop than we thought we did. The “official” history of what is one of England’s two greatest hop varieties says that

“The original plant was a casual seedling which appeared in the flower garden of Mr George Stace of Horsmonden, Kent, and was first noticed in 1861 … the seed from which the plant arose was shaken out along with crumbs from the hop-picking dinner basket used by Mrs Stace … the sets were afterwards introduced to the public by Mr Richard Fuggle of Brenchley, about the year 1875.”

But as Kim Cook pointed out, no George Stace can be found in Horsmonden in the early 1860s, and it’s not at all clear which of several Richard Fuggles is the one that should be credited with propagating and promoting that eponymous hop, since none of them fits the required hole particularly well: they were either too young, or not in the right place at the right time.

Postcard of a watercolour from 1906 by the Kentish artist Charles Essenhigh Corke of a hop gaden with oast houses in the distance

Postcard of a watercolour from 1906 by the Kentish artist Charles Essenhigh Corke of a hop garden with oast houses in the distance

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I have found a beer women will like – and, ironically, it’s pink

Oh, irony. It’s only a very short time since I mocked Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller, for sharing with us, in a presentation about getting more women to drink beer, the “duh, really?” statement that “no one wants a pink beer, including ladies.” But now I have discovered a beer I’m sure very many women will like – and it’s pink.

Not that they’ll like it because of its colour, of course: they’ll like it because it’s a very fine beer, with great depth and complexity of flavour, a beautiful deep bassoon-like bitterness (in contrast to the violins-and-saxophones bitterness of hoppier beers) giving structure to a sweetness that is laced through with liquorish and dark green herbal flavours. How do I know women will like it? Because when I sampled a bottle myself, right after thinking: “This is an extraordinarily good beer”, my next thought was: “I bet Mrs Z would enjoy it” – and not only did she enjoy it greatly, she relieved me of the rest of the bottle, consuming it all herself. Mrs Z is rarely a beer-drinker, touching only the very occasional pils and the even more occasional wheat brew. So if she loves a beer that I think is great too, you can bet we have a genuine cross-party vote-winner.

It's pink, but this ain't no Barbie brew

It’s pink, but this ain’t no Barbie brew

What is this beer? It’s Crazy Viking, one of the brews I brought back from my trip to Denmark last month to talk at the conference on Ny Nordisk Øl, or “New Nordic Beer”, it’s made by Det Lille Bryggeri or Little Brewery, from the small village of Bringstrup, just outside Ringsted, in the middle of the Danish island of Zealand (the one Copenhagen sits on), and it’s a deep ruddy pink because it contains considerable quantities of beetroot (red beet, to Americans) and beetroot extract, added both into the wort before boiling and in the fermentation tank. It also has in it masses of liquorice and nettles, those two giving most of the bitterness, I’m guessing, and only an “extremely limited” amount of hops. Beetroot is about seven per cent sugar, of course, and doubtless that helps to lift the abv of the beer up to 7.9%.

Det Lille Bryggeret’s brewer, René Hansen, has made beers with beetroot as his contribution to the New Nordic food and beer culture movement: the first, with just beetroot and nettles, was called Red Viking, and the one I drank (until Mrs Z stole it from me) has liquorice as well and is called Crazy Viking. It’s the second New Nordic Beer movement-inspired brew to completely blow me away, after the Hø Øl (hay ale) from the Herslev Bryghus I mentioned here (more irony: the Herlsev guys are now having to fight their local bureaucrats, who are trying to ban them from putting hay in their beer on the grounds that it’s not a listed food ingredient under EU regulations. I’ve sent them a copy of a page from Thomas Tryon’s book published in England in the 1690s that mentions hay ale, to show it’s an old tradition – hope it helps, it’s a marvellous beer.)

Crazy Viking logoI’m not sure the Crazy Viking beer name would recommend itself to women drinkers, and nor, probably, would the beer’s bottle label, with its image of an utterly sloshed Viking, one helmet horn drooping. But the liquid itself is an example of what a number of people have suggested since Nick Fell raised the spectre of the missing female beer drinker again back in October: that if there is going to be a style of beer that will appeal to a broader spectrum of women than drink beer now, it certainly won’t be one made by a giant corporation setting out deliberately to capture that market, and it’s much more likely to be the result of an accidental spin-off from a craft brewer or group of craft brewers, like the Ny Nordisk Øl crowd, making a beer that everybody agrees is great, regardless of gender.

Which gives me an excuse to rerun on this blog the dreadful history of the efforts brewers in the UK have made – unsuccessfully – to target women drinkers for three decades, sometimes with, yes, pink beer. For the history of beer marketing is littered with the smoking wrecks of attempts to get females to drink more beer, dating back to the 1980s.

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

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

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

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

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