Sunday, 10 May 2009

Porter adulteration and Porter flavour

I've still not finished with "Food and its adulterations" (by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855). It provides several insights into the nature of Porter. Both as it was when brewed and as it was when drunk in a pub.

Water, sugar and salt were the most popular adulterants. The reason for adding water is pretty obvious. But sugar and salt?

"The addition of water constitutes the principal, but not the only, adulteration which these beverages are subjected.

Thus the addition of water reduces the strength, flavour, and colour, to such extent as to necessitate in some cases the further adulteration of the beer, and this is usually effected by means of a very coarse description of brown sugar, containing much treacle, and known as Foots, and salt.

Since the use of cane sugar is permitted in the brewery, we did not attempt to ascertain which of the samples subjected to analysis contained that substance, because, had we found it in any of the samples, we should still have been unable to have declared whether the brewers or the publicans were the parties who made use of it. We believe, however, that the brewers do not often employ sugar, since it is alleged that beer made with any considerable proportion of cane sugar does not keep so well as that prepared from malt only. Moreover, the price of sugar forms an obstacle to its use in breweries.

It appears, from the analyses, that salt is almost constantly present in porter, this addition we know is made in the first instance by the brewers themselves; that there is also no doubt that a further quantity of it is frequently used by the publican to assist in bringing up the flavour of beer which has been reduced in strength by the addition of water. The quantity of salt contained in porter is often sufficiently large to communicate a perceptibly saline taste to the mouth. The salt is used by the brewers in the following manner:— It is first mixed up in a tub with some kind of flour—usually wheat-flour—and the mixture is cast by handfuls over the surface of the wort in the cooling vat. It is said to assist in the preservation and fining of the wort, and it is alleged that these are the only purposes for which it is employed by the brewer."
"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, page 631.

Ah, that's it: sugar and salt were added to watered down beer in an attempt to restore its flavour. Though I'm sure the thirst-enducing nature of salt also played its part. There was so much salt added, in fact, that Porter had a noticeably salty taste.

Still, I'd prefer sugar and salt in my beer to the cocktail of poisons and chemicals sometimes used:

"The three usual and principal adulterations of porter consist, then, of water, by which its strength is reduced and its bulk increased, and sugar and salt, hereby its colour and flavour are in a measure restored. But there is good reason for believing, from evidence given before the recent Committee of the House of Commons, of which Mr. Villiers was the chairman, that other adulterations are practised, and that sulphuric acid, or oil of vitriol, salt of steel, or sulphate of iron, and cocculus Indicus, are likewise not unfrequently used, and this both by the publican and brewer."
"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, page 631.

Sulphuric acid was used to instantly "age" beer by giving it the acidic tang of a vat-aged product. It seems that an acidic taste was one of the defining characteristics of Porter and Stout:

"The acidity of porter, as will be seen by referring to the analyses, is very considerable, and this is no doubt the reason why in some cases the beverage disagrees with the stomach, and occasions heartburn.

The acidity is very far from being due to acetic acid alone; for if this be distilled off, the remaining stout or porter, as the case may be, will still be found to be very acid; the acidity, where sulphuric acid has not been used, depending upon the presence of some fixed vegetable acid or acids, and most probably the malic and lactic acids, the presence of which would explain why malt liquors, including porter, are unsuited to all cases in which a tendency exists to rheumatism or gout."
"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, page 631.

That settles one argument: the source of acidity in Porter. My money had always been on lactic rather than acetic acid. Seems my guess was right.

There was a way to fight adulteration: government control of beer strengths. This did happen eventually. During WW I and its immediate aftermath. Though the aim wasn't to stop landlords watering their beer.

"The remedy by which the adulteration of malt liquors may be met appears to us to be clear and simple, and it is one to which we recently had the opportunity of directing the attention of the Committee of the House of Commons on Public houses ; it is, that no malt liquors should be permitted to be sold by any publican under certain fixed or standard strengths, the tests of strength being not the specific gravity of the beers, but principally the amount or percentage of alcohol contained in them.

Such a regulation, properly enforced, would effectually put a stop to the adulteration of malt liquors, by the addition of water, sugar, salt, and the other substances mentioned in the present report; and it need not in any way interfere with the different recognised strengths and qualities of malt liquors now in us, as single and double stouts, ales, and porters."
"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, page 632.

That's it for now on the topic of adulteration of beer. Until I stumble across another text.


Gary Gillman said...,M1

Ron, this contemporary source states that the salt used in "beer-heading", which seemed one of the products the beer adulterers specialized in, was used to arouse a head in beer when poured. I am sure its thirst-producing tendencies was another reason.

(I now wonder if the practice of some Quebec tavern-goers to put salt in their beer, which lasted into the 1970's, was an echo of the old expectation to taste a lightly saline beer or porter).

The mention incidentally of capsicum reminds me that chile pepper was also used at the time to give beer a boost.

When American craft brewers started adding chile pepper to beer, I recall the fastidious comments of some who viewed such a practice with horror. But it is a very old practice, and properly used, chile pepper can add a lot to a beer. The dark smoky kind, called ancho I think, is particularly successful.


Bill said...

Excellent 3 day run, most interesting posts. Of course today no one would dare adulterate a beer.

Barry M said...

That's interesting about the use of sulphuric acid. When I was doing some reading for our Lost Breweries of Ireland (I really need to do something about the next stage of that), I came across some material by Hely Dutton in his Statistical Survey of County Galway (1824) where he basically says he wouldn't drink any beer from a brewery as he sees too much vitriol being shipped into the breweries for use in the beer (pg. 366).

He also mentions vitriol being used by unlicensed distillers, and that they then "set all the bad taste down to the account of malt dried with turf, and their customers swallow this, as well as their vile liquor".

I had been wondering if he was making it up, but now I see a reason, at least in the beer sense.

I like the way he says, of the breweries, that "the very idea of the hurtful ingredients used in breweries has made multitudes of water drinkers". :D