Thursday, 5 May 2011

Adulteration - reality or myth?

Differentiating between myth and reality, facts and conjecture isn't always easy. Especially when it regards an illegal practice, like the adulteration of beer.

The 19th century is full of tales about all manner of noxious or downright poisonous substances being added to beer by unscrupulous brewers and publicans. But how do you ascertain if these allegations had any foundation in truth? It's not easy,. Except when a prosecution took place. But these seem to have dried up by the middle of the 19th century. Does that mean adulteration too become less widespread or just that offenders weren't caught as often?

"The Adulteration Of Malt Liquor hue been most carefully examined by a committee of the House of Commons, and since then by Dr. Hassall, who first had his attention called to the bitter beer of the Burton breweries, which was said to be adulterated with strychnine, in order to obtain a cheap bitter. This has been most completely disproved by several high chemical authorities, and also by Dr. Hassall, at the instigation of the Lancet, all coming to the conclusion that the bitter ale of Messrs. Bass and Co and Allsop and Co is a pure and wholesome beverage, concocted from malt, hops, and water alone. With regard to stout and porter, several seizures of illegal articles to "make up" quantities of them have been made by the Excise, consisting of cocculus indicus, Spanish Juice, grains of paradise, copperas, quassia, etc, so that it has been indisputably proved that the attempt has been made to use these noxious articles in the trade. It is well-known that publicans are very careful how they allow their customers to invade their underground territories in the morning, when the porter, etc, for the next day is preparing; but this is not necessarily a proof of guilt, but rather may he caused by a desire to be free from interruption. Nevertheless, they are universally charged with these tricks, and by general consent it is supposed that something or other is done in the cellar which will not bear the light of day. Dr. Hassall, however, was unable to detect any adulteration in porter or stout, except with water, which is а venial offence, comparatively, and, in addition, a certain portion of salt, which, also, is only intended to increase the thirst of the customers, as well as to raise the density of the porter. Acidity of an acetic kind was also detected, to a great extent. As far, therefore, as the Lancet Commission is concerned, the London publicans and brewers come out with tolerably clean hands; and, with regard to bitter beer, have absolutely gained a character which they had not before."
"A manual of domestic economy: suited to families spending from £100 to £1000 a year" by John Henry Walsh, 1856, page 324.

This text implies that large-scale adulteration of beer with poison was indeed a  thing of the past by the 1850's. Though note how Porter, as ever, was the object of most suspicion. All that investigations could determine for certain was that beer sometimes had water or salt added to it. The oldest tricks in the Publicans Book of Tricks. Watering - or at least returning the slops to the barrel - still goes on, I'm sure. It's just too easy.


Ed said...

If you used those ingredients now people would rave about your innovation!

Barm said...

I am not sure adulteration goes on that much any more. Places that sell cask nowadays are the serious pubs that care about their reputations; the dodgy pubs that used to filter back can't do it with the sealed kegs they use now, if I have properly understood how those things work.

There are some grasping pub companies but I reckon they rely more on serving short measure to squeeze extra profit out of a cask, than on watering down or filtering back.

Perhaps I am being very naïve, though.

Craig said...

The salt addition is interesting. Alan and I came across salt references in research for the Albany Ale Project. Almost every brewer, that testified in the 1839 New York State Senate Hearings on brewing practices, admitted to using a "trifling" of salt. We both assumed that by "salt, " the brewers meant ordinary table salt, which was perhaps added to soften the water and also enhance hop character. I'm thinking now, that maybe that's not why it was added at all.

American laws on adulteration were non-exsistent at the time. However, I would imagine that brewers were more likely to admit to the State Senate, that they did include a tiny amount of table salt, rather than an all out confession of the use of known toxins. I have no doubt that American brewers and publicans were as guilty of adulteration as there British counterparts. But, if the addition salt and water were considered to be less of an adulterative offense in the UK, then maybe it was also a more benign offense in the US as well.

The article seems to imply that the publicans were the ones doing it. Perhaps it was the breweries, adding the salt, instead. If it was a common belief at the time, that the addition of salt was "...only intended to increase the thirst of the customers..." and the addition made customers purchase more beer to quench a thirst caused by that same beer, wouldn't adding salt during brewing, not also benefit the brewers?

I'll have to ask Alan if he's seen this post yet and if he came had the same thought.