Sunday, 13 March 2011

A 1941 beer expert

God bless the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and their searchable collection of Dutch newspapers. That's where I found this little gem.

A "BEER EXPERT" tastes the new beer, but mistakes it for the old

From the glittering taps of several Rotterdam cafes yesterday flowed beer, whose gravity had been reduced by 15 per cent, according to the Handelsblad. Many publicans had beer in stock. So they could present their clients with a a glass of beer, whose percentage had not yet been reduced. Those who had little beer in stock, and who were therefore forced to pour beer that was delivered on Wednesday by the brewers, had to present their customers with "pilsner" and "lager", whose gravity was reduced, respectively, from 12% to 10% and from 9% to 7%. When it became known that beer would become "thinner", some café owners ordered a few extra barrels. As a result brewers will have been  somewhat busier than usual the day before yesterday. It is however a stay of execution because beer in barrels doesn't keep long. Sooner or later they'll have to serve the "thinner" beer. The drop in beer gravity was the subject of many conversations yesterday, especially in places where much beer is served.

We were witness to a beer conversation in a busy pub in the centre of the city.

A paunchy fellow, who seemed to take the position that water should only to be used for washing and cooking but not for quenching thirsty throats, gave an account of "beer manufacture". After emptying his glass in two gulps and ordering a fourth "pils", he said that he was an expert in field of beer.

"They don't need to tell me anything," said the "beer expert". "I don't just enjoy it - pour me another one - but I also know how beer is made from a to z. But after tomorrow, I won't drink a drop more beer. This weak liquid that they're going to serve - fifteen percent weaker, that's a lot to me - I won't pour down my throat. Water with a head and nothing else. Give me another pils, because tomorrow you might have used up your old stock. Cheers!"

The fifth glass went down in two gulps.

"I'm going now. Goodbye, everyone." The man left the café.

"Will the beer really be so bad?" we asked the landlord, when the man had gone.

"I want to tell you now exactly. What happened? This beer expert from just now drank beer of the new strength. I got three barrels from the brewery this morning, because I was as good as sold out. This beer expert - he calls himself that, so he must be - drank five glasses of 10 per cent beer and noticed nothing. I can't taste the difference myself . And most others won't be able to either. It's just a question of imagination and nothing else."

We visited other pubs where the new beer was on tap. Here too we heard that even connoisseurs hadn't noticed the difference. A glass of beer tasted as good today as yesterday, even though the snow lay a centimetre deep outside. Compared with the previous war, the strength of the beer today is still relatively high. In 1917, Pilsner was reduced from 9% to 6%. Despite the reduction, consumption increased rather than decreased, and no one gave up beer. For the time being, pilsner is still stronger than lager beer used to be.
"Het Vaderland : staat- en letterkundig nieuwsblad", 16th January 1941. (My translation.)

Beer expert. It's a phrase I never use, at least not about myself. Asking for trouble, claiming to be an expert. As the fat customer in the text above demonstrates. Joking about fatty's lack of perception aside, the article has plenty of interest.

There's quite a bit of detail about the types of beer available and their strength. Two beer types are mentioned, Pilsner and Lager. Before the war, Dutch breweries produced several differnt types of bottom fermenting beer. Pilsner was the classiest and was 12º Plato and 5% ABV. Lager was a level down, more like a Czech vycepni pivo, at 10º Plato and 4% ABV.

What surprised me, is that the strengths were only being cut in early 1941. British gravities ghad started to fall from virtually the day Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. This first cut in the strength of Dutch beer happened six months after the German occupation. Lucky for drinkers. But it wouldn't last.

The 6º Plato beer of 1917 sounds similar to Britain's GA (Government Ale). That's about 1024º in SG. Down below the level of intoxication. It's not surprising, really, that people continued to drink it. It's not as if there would have been any alternatives.

Of course, the occupiers would have been keen to play down the effect of any changes. So the change in strength may well have been all too obvious.

One last point. The reporter was in a pub in Rotterdam city centre. I thought that had been destroyed by German bombers in 1940.


Pivní Filosof said...

The Dutch were lucky. During WWII Czechs had to drink 4º beer. The only breweries allowed to brew full strength were Urquell and Velké Březno. The former for Berlin, the latter for the Afrika Korps. Or so I've been told by people in the know.

Rod said...

I know what you mean about self-appointed "beer experts" - I encounter more than my fair share of them. It's fascinating (or infuriating, depending on what mood I'm in) to have them tell me all about the beer they're drinking, not realising that I brewed it....

Gary Gillman said...

An interesting story.

That journalist seemed to look down on beer drinkers, as did the bar owner. We all know that circumstances can powerfully affect perception. Maybe the drinker did notice something different, but was convinced it couldn't be so - and the owner helpfully didn't tell him - so he went along with the notion that he was drinking the old beer.

Even if the drinker made a genuine mistake, we weren't enlightened much by the journalist's account. He might have gone to the brewery and interviewed the owner or the brewer to get the full story.

I am sure tasted side-by-side the beers would have been noticeably different, at least to a real "beer expert". And real beer experts did and do exist of course, despite that writer's seeming dismissal of the idea.


Craig said...

Beer expert, huh? I'm glad I don't run into those guys very often.

Martyn Cornell said...

A 15 per cent drop in strength on a 5 per cent abv beer is down to 4.25 per cent abv. I would not wish to guarantee myself that, ceteri paribus, I could immediately tell the difference between one and the other: you're talking about less than one per cent extra water.

Gary Gillman said...

As I read the story, the original gravity dropped, not necessarily the strength. A "thinner" beer suggests to me a more attenuated one. If just the alcohol level was affected in proportion, the drink wouldn't have tasted thinner (arguably). The drinker may have made an error in this regard, which could have been one of the points of the story.


Kristen England said...


Hahahah tell me about it. We get that around here but more we get the beer advocate experts that tell you how change it to be right. Apparently all one needs to do is rate a few beers and they are experts!

Matt Gorecki said...

This is a wonderful post...

Thomas Barnes said...

Let us now all mock the stupid beer expert. The silly man doesn't have the sense to realize that weaker beer is just as good as the old stuff!

Never mind that Nazi censor in the newsroom, the smoking rubble of Rotterdam just outside the pub door and the Gestapo thugs waiting to haul him away if he says otherwise.

This sort of heavy handed propaganda makes my teeth ache. If the writer of the piece said the sky is blue, I'd want to verify it for myself.