Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Prohibitive price of beer

You can tell something has truly become part of popular culture when people start taking the piss out of it.

The following piece is taken from Punch, a humour magazine that was around so long even I can remember reading it. How many hours did I spend in Balderton library reading bound editions from the 1930's? Too many. Shows how little there was in the way of entertainment when I were a lad.

I'll admit this particular text didn't have me laughing out loud. Or even cracking a smile. I reproduce it not as a piece of humour but as a cultural historical artifact. Try saying that after a dozen St Bernardus 12's. Judging by the quality of the joke, entertainment was in even shorter supply in the 1860's.


Certainly these are wonderful times. Astonishing event succeeds astonishing event with astounding rapidity. The fact announced in the subjoined statement by a contemporary, will be regarded by the public at large as the biggest wonder out:—

"Pale Ale.—A good deal of commotion has been excited among the licensed victuallers of the metropolis and other large towns, by an announcement made almost simultaneously by Messrs. Allsopp, Bass, Ind, and Coope:, and other Pale Ale brewers, that from the 1st of October the price of that commodity will be raised to 66s., or 6s. per barrel, in consequence of the blight in the hops."

Everybody knows that big brewers never drink beer; but few have ever imagined the possibility of their conversion to teetotalism, and concurrence in an operation designed to stop the consumption of pale ale. For that can be the only object of raising its price by so much as six shillings a barrel. At any rate, it will doubtless be the effect of that step. Wonderful, however, as a measure so thoroughly teetotal may appear on the part of brewers, this is not the first time they have combined in such an attempt at commercial self-sacrifice, not to say suicide. We are further informed that:

"A similar proceeding was adopted by the brewers in 1860, but upon strong representations of the trade the additional charge was withdrawn the following year. It is understood that the trade have again remonstrated with the brewers on the subject."

The self-sacrifice of the wealthy brewers, however, is inconsiderable and moreover inconsiderate. It may be all very well for those gentlemen, who have made their fortunes, to retire from business; but in kicking down the beer-barrel, which has raised them to opulence, they will overturn the support of all the poor publicans and licensed victuallers, who will be unable to stand any longer if it is knocked from under them. The commonalty of the beer-trade object to be ruined through the destruction of their business by the act of their chiefs, to whom its existence is no longer any object, because they can afford to live without it in the height of splendour and magnificence. Beer, at present, and especially pale ale, costs a great deal more than it is worth, and the public will not have it at any price which is even higher than that; so that, if it is made any dearer, the licensed victuallers and publicans will have to sell it at a loss or not at all."
"Punch vol. 50", 1866, page 191.

See which breweries were named by name? Allsopp, Bass, Ind, and Coope. The first two are pretty obvious. But why Ind and Coope instead of Worthington and Salt? Were Ind and Coope more famous?

The implication that the big Pale Ale brewers were so rich that they no longer needed to sell beer is an intriguing one. Were they really making that much money? Perhaps. Porter brewers like the Whitbreads had made huge fortunes.

Finally that price: 60 shillings a barrel being raised to 66 shillings. That's expensive. X Ale and Porter were 36 shillings. In 1874, Whitbread PA, with an OG of around 1060, was 54 shillings. Whitbread's Porter, just a little weaker at 1058, cost only 40 shillings a barrel.

Pale ale was a premium product, sold at a premium price. This is an important point. It explains why, when breweries cut the gravities of other beers as taxes rose, Pale Ale was much less affected. The higher profit margin on Pale Ale meant that they had more wiggle room with the price. I'll be returning to this topic later, when I look at Whitbread's Pale Ales in the ridiculous level of detail you've come to expect.

1 comment:

Craig said...

How many of out top-bankers were actually "banking" back in 2008? Somebody wasn't watching the shop. How differnt is that from the idea that the Pale Ale brewers could "take a holiday" from the brewing biz?