Thursday, 21 January 2010

Beer gravity in 1954

Thanks to Matthew Thompson for pointing this out to me. It's part of a Parliamentary debate from 1954. Someone dared to introduce legislation that would have forced brewers to declare the original gravity of their beers. Sadly, it never became law. It would take several more decades before brewers finally revealed the strength of their beers.

HC Deb 26 May 1954 vol 528 cc407-17 407

§ Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I beg to move, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Customs and Excise Act, 195a, so as to provide that beer shall not be offered for sale unless the original gravity thereof has been made known to the purchaser and the minimum quantity contained in any receptacle in which the beer is sold is declared; and for purposes connected therewith." As hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber will realise, the principal ingredient of beer is water, but, contrary to the belief of some of the hon. Members who are going out, water is not the only ingredient. To make water into beer it is necessary to add to the water certain solids, which, for the purpose of this Motion, I need not particularise, and to allow these solids to ferment to a certain degree so as to produce at any rate a minimum quantity of alcohol.

The alcoholic strength of beer depends upon two things: first, on the original proportion of solids to water; and, secondly, on how far those solids have been allowed to ferment. If the solids are allowed completely to ferment, the beer has little or no taste. If, on the other hand, the fermentation of the solids is checked at an early stage the beer may have a very strong taste, have plenty of body, and yet contain far less alcohol than otherwise. Lager, which is quite alcoholic, is a typical example of this fact.

For those and other reasons, even the most experienced beer drinker has great difficulty in determining the original gravity of the beer he drinks. He has the right to know the gravity, because it is on the original gravity that tax is paid and the price is fixed. This gravity is measured in degrees. If the substance as sold has not an original gravity of 1016 degrees, or "16 degrees" as it is often described, it cannot be classed as beer. Any beer up to 30 degrees pays the same duty.

After that, on every degree increase of the original gravity of beer the brewer has to pay an additional duty of 6s. 7½d. per barrel of 36 gallons. It would appear that today many brewers have fallen into the very natural temptation of serving a very low gravity beer and charging a very high-gravity-beer price, and pocketing the difference, which should normally go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I should like to give the House one example.

The Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures in Northumberland reported in November, 1952, to his county council: "The analyses carried out by the public analyst have shown that there exists a considerable variation in the original gravity of beers sold under the description 'Best Scotch.' Although there is no legal standard of compositional quality for beer, it has been found that so-called 'Best Scotch' marketed by some companies is, in fact, of lower gravity than the ordinary beer sold by other brewers." "Asked for his observations on the figures Obtained by the public analyst, a representative of one firm whose 'Best Scotch' beer was particularly low in original gravity, explained that his company could not produce beer as cheaply as the larger concerns, so lower gravity beer was marketed at the same price as the higher gravity beer sold by other companies. Money was saved on materials and less duty was payable." Hull Corporation decided last year to request the Association of Municipal Corporations to make representations to the Government that the strength of beer must be declared. They did this after they had had a report from their city analyst, who said, among other things, that one particular brewer in Hull was selling two beers of identical composition at 1s. 3d. and 1s. 6d. a pint respectively.

The Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures in Kent reported in 1951 to his council that over the past two years the analyses of bitter beer in Kent showed that it varied in gravity between 29 degrees and 39 degrees, yet the price charged for all those beers was the same. In one case he found a mild beer of a gravity of 32½ degrees which was sold for 11d. a pint, while another mild beer, which had a gravity of only 29 degrees, was sold at a 1s. a pint.

The House will recall that in October, 1952, when I was speaking on the New Towns Bill I gave figures for the strength of five particular bottled beers. It is interesting to note that the general secretary of the Workingmen's Club and Institute Union had an independent check made by another analyst which confirmed the figures which I gave to the House. In an article which this general secretary wrote afterwards, he said: "The saloon price of a half-pint bottle of beer which my analyses showed to have the highest original gravity was 10d., while the saloon-bar price of the beer which I showed had the lowest original gravity, was 11d." He headed this article: "Are you drinking water or beer?" He might very appropriately have added, "Avoid water. It is much more expensive." One other aspect of the matter which will be particularly interesting to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) is that the alcoholic strength of these low gravity beers is very low indeed. In fact, in a considerable number of cases beers now being sold by well-known brewers would come within the definition of "non-alcoholic drinks" as defined by the U.S. Volstead Act, as finally amended.

I hope the House realises what this means. We can have both prohibition and the public house. Thus we shall be able to ease the conscience of at least one Member supporting the Government who, I think I am right in saying, supported, at the same time, the Home Secretary's Licensing of New Towns Bill and the Band of Hope.

If the Bill which I am now proposing becomes law, no longer will it be possible for the teetotal brewer to be condemned, as he is at present, to anonymity. The label on the bottle or the notice hung up in the public-house will show which tied house has gone dry and which few still continue the old tradition of serving alcoholic drinks.

One final advantage of the proposed Bill would be that it would make impossible the continued use of the utiliser. Hon. Members will recall that this is a machine which filters the overspill and dregs left over in patrons' glasses and feeds them back again into the beer supplied to other customers.

I had an interesting letter from one publican who sent me his actual stock sheet, together with a letter which he had received from his brewers. They were complaining that while the retail value of the beer which he had sold was about £384, the actual cash which he had received was only £390. The implication was, of course, that he ought to have sold very much more, that he had failed to sell a sufficient quantity of his beer twice over. In a recent investigation in Bath, it appeared that 29 out of 156 licensed premises in the town were reselling overspill and leavings in this way. This Bill, by making it necessary to declare the strength of each beer sold, would make it impossible legally to sell the mixture of beers produced from the utiliser.

The last paragraph is, I fear, just as true today. Publicans being told to squeeze more pints out of a barrel that it actually contains.


Ed said...

Looks like the line that 'some beer could have been sold during prohibition' is not a CAMRA myth as I've heard some brewers complain.

Anonymous said...

I think I might have said this before, but the "utiliser" drained all the waste beer from the drip trays in the different bars into a china bucket in the cellar, where it was added to the mild in the public bar by a little auxiliary pump at the rate of around a spoonful per glass.

No wonder sales of mild plummeted …

Gary Gillman said...

This almost sounds an echo of the old practice of adding leavings and other waste porter to mild porter to lend an acid note.


Graham Wheeler said...

There was a thing called the 'Economiser" which was a very small diameter pipe in the drip tray that sucked the the contents of the tray back into the main stream and hence into the glass. Bass stopped using the the Economiser voluntarily in the 1990s.

To this day I don't think that it is illegal to return slops to the cask. Indeed, very recently I saw a modern photo of a pub cellar in a recent article and you could clearly see one of those hop-filter-funnel thingies stuck in the top of one of the casks.

jonbrazie said...

I don't care how bad times are, making beer that is nearly non-alcoholic is just wrong. And reusing waste beer? I don't care how clean the drip tray is, that makes me cringe. I'm glad things like that don't happen anymore. They don't, right? Please tell me they don't.

Graham Wheeler said...

rabbi lionheart said...
I'm glad things like that don't happen anymore. They don't, right? Please tell me they don't.

Sorry to disillusion you, but the top item here:

And a similar item here:

are meant for exactly that purpose; returning slops from the trays and slummage and bottoms from casks into a working cask.

They are the filter-funnel thingies that I was talking about.

dave said...

So this waste beer is from a "communal" drip tray (i.e. a drip tray that has multiple taps dripping into it), that gets put back into one of the beers?

Graham Wheeler said...

dave said...
"So this waste beer is from a "communal" drip tray (i.e. a drip tray that has multiple taps dripping into it), that gets put back into one of the beers?"

No. Modern pumps do not have communal drip trays. It is not a universal practice in any case; I certainly would not use a pub that I was aware of that were doing this.

The fact remains that the filters and filter-papers for returning stuff to the cask can be purchased from any cellar suppliers and, as far as I am aware, the law still permits it. There are no pathogens that can thrive in beer anyway.

Excise and breweries permit a drawback and wastage allowance for this purpose, but many pub co's do not pass this wastage allowance on to their 'franchisees'. They regard it as part of their profits. This puts some modern publicans under similar pressure to that discussed in the article.

I would suspect that managed pubs are more likely to do this than tenant / leaseholder pubs because a manager's wastage allowance is often zero, or at least the wastage comes off his bonus.

dave said...

@Graham Wheeler: Thanks for the explanation Graham. I'm from across the pond and the bars here have communal trays, minus the beer engines (tend to be one per bar, if they have any), and though I studied in London that was a while ago and I could not remember the tap structure of the pubs I visited.

Unfortunately I do not fully understand the pub financial structure of England (i.e managed, tenant, leaseholder pubs). Is there an article you could link to that describes the structure? Thanks