Friday, 25 March 2011

Crown cork crisis

There were shortages of pretty much everything during WW II. It's hard to visualise as a pampered 21st century westerner, accustomed to shops stuffed with every imaginable product.

(Yesterday I tried to describe the Oil Crisis and the Six Day Week of the early 1970's to my kids. Food shortages, power cuts every day, only a few hours of TV a day. They couldn't get their heads around it at all. "It's like one of those Third World Countries.". Yes indeed.)

There's more to brewing than just malt, hops, water and a few tuns. Sugar, barrels, paper, detergents, glass, transport are a few other essentials I can pick off the top of my head. And if you're bottling, crown corks. At the time, constructed from metal and real cork. Materials that were both in short supply.

Here's a report on the crown cork crisis:


A matter now forced upon the attention of brewers is the possibility of the curtailment of the output of crown corks at some time in the not far distant future. Experiments are being carried out with machinery for reconditioning used crown corks for re-usage: the question of sterilisation has to he considered, and also that of leakage, which would result in an undue percentage of ullages. The return of crown corks from licensed houses for using again presents no practical difficulties. What is awaited is the results of these experiments on reconditioned crown corks to see how they behave in practice. Meanwhile, it would probably be advisable that orders for new supplies of crown corks should stipulate that they merely be coloured to distinguish brands and not marked with the name of the brewer or the beer. These would then be more easily interchangeable between brewers if in fact it were found that used crown corks could again be put into service

A practical suggestion is the diversion, if the crown cork shortage becomes acute, of beer in half bottles and smaller sizes from the "on" trade, so as to provide more supplies in these sizes for the "off" trade. Again, the "splitting" of the larger sizes of bottles in licensed houses, which has been deprecated by many brewers in the past, may now have to be encouraged, thus saving crown corkage by reducing the demand for beer in the smaller-sized bottles. The varieties of bottled beers may also have to be curtailed as time goes on. Probably the first bottled beer to be taken off the market will be Brown Ale, for above all others this beer makes a large demand on "sweet." The gradual elimination of Brown Ale would not only mean an enforced lessening of the demand for this popular brand, but would at the same time conserve brewers' sugar supplies. Over and above all there emerges the desirability of draught beer being gradually substituted for bottled beer, leaving the latter more and more for "off" consumption. Thus the call on labour, power, lighting, heating, cases, bottles, labels and transport will be lessened. This factor of encouraging draught beer sales is growing more and more obvious as conditions become more difficult, quite apart from the question of the predicted coming crown cork shortage.
"The Brewers' Journal 1940" pages 554 - 555. (Published July 17th, 1940.)

My first thought was: surely crown corks get all bent when you open a bottle. Then I noticed where they were to be returned from: public houses. Where they have an opener mounted on the bar, with a receptacle beneath to catch the crown cork. They usually don't bend the crown cork as much as a hand-held opener.

Re-using crown corks is symptomatic of the 1940 experience. The need to get the maximum use out of every resource. It's an attitude that wouldn't go amiss today.

Bottles were a problem too, of course. The letters sent out by Barclay Perkins to their tenants are full of pleas for the return of empty bottles. Especially nips for Russian Stout. And crown corks weren’t the only bottle closing device is short supply. Screw stoppers – which had a rubber seal – were scarce, too.

Bottled beer in general uses more resources than draught. Limiting the output of bottled beer was a no-brainer, really. But I was struck by the targeting of particular type of bottled beer: Brown Ale.

Though originally introduced in the late 1890's by Mann, Brown Ale only took off in the mid-1920's. By the late 1920's all these London-area breweries produced one: Truman, Watney, Whitbread, Barclay Perkins, Beasley, Combe, Charrington, City of London, Hammerton, Hoare, Meux, Ind Coope, Taylor Walker. And Mann's, too, naturally. They varied in gravity from 1039º to 1057º, though most were in the mid 1040º's.

Whitbread brewed one of the strongest Brown Ales, DB or Double Brown. For a period of more than three years, January 1941 to October 1944, I've no record of it being brewed. It might have been brewed, but not in any great quantity, or I would have spotted it. In my Gravity Table (now up to more than 11,000 entries) I've only one Brown Ale from 1941, two from 1942 and none at all from 1943. The last spotting I have of Barclay Perkins Doctor Brown is September 1940. Though it does still appear on their price lists of 1942, 1943 and 1944.

I'd never noticed this before. As a beer exclusively sold in bottles, I guess Brown Ale was always likely to be hard hit by wartime restrictions and shortages. It may never quite have disappeared completely, but there's evidence its production was greatly reduced during the war.

1 comment:

Thomas Barnes said...

@Ron. The type of opener determines how badly the crown cap gets bent. Cap removers that cover the entire cap are best. Pocket knife openers are the worst since they dent the cap in addition to bending it.

A quick way to keep a cap from getting bent when using a hand-held lever type opener is to put a coin on top of the cap before you open it.

While WW2 obviously didn't kill off brown ale as it did porter, I have to wonder if restrictions on sugar, caps and bottles helped to drive down the popularity of sweet/Southern English brown ale, thus permanently damaging its sales.