Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dodgy Porter

Adulteration. An ugly word. One that's often used in relation to Porter in the 19th century. Seems like there was a lot of dodgy Porter around.

William Cobbett, keen to encourage domestic brewing, was scathing of the quality of commercially brewed Porter. Rather disingenuously, as we'll learn later.

"71. The following instructions for the making of porter will clearly show what sort of stuff is sold at public houses in London ; and we may pretty fairly suppose, that the public house beer in the country is not superior to it in quality. "A quarter of malt, with these ingredients, will make five barrels of good porter. Take one quarter of high coloured malt, eight pounds of hops, nine pounds of treacle, eight pounds of colour, eight pounds of sliced liquorice root, two drams of salt of tartar, two ounces of Spanish liquorice, and half an ounce of capsicum." The author says, that he merely gives the ingredients, as used by many persons.

72. This extract is taken from a book on brewing, recently published in London. What a curious composition! What a mess of drugs! But, if the brewers openly avow this, what have we to expect from the secret practices of them and the retailers of the article ! When we know, that beer-doctor and brewers'-druggist are professions, practised as openly as those of bug-man and rat-killer, are we simple enough to suppose that the above named are the only drugs that people swallow in those potions which they call pots of beer? Indeed we know the contrary ; for, scarcely a week passes without witnessing the detection of some greedy wretch, who has used, in making or in doctoring his beer, drugs, forbidden by the law. And, it is not many weeks since one of these was convicted, in the court of excise, for using potent and dangerous: drugs, by the means of which, and a suitable quantity of water, he made two butts of beer into three. Upon this occasion, it appeared that no less than ninety of these worthies were in the habit of pursuing the same practices. The drugs are not unpleasant to the taste : they sting the palate : they give a present relish : they communicate a momentary exhilaration : but, they give no force to the body, which, on the contrary, they enfeeble, and, in many instances, with time, destroy ; producing diseases from which the drinker would otherwise have been free to the end of his days.

73. But, look again at the receipt for making porter. Here are eight bushels of malt to 180 gallons of beer ; that is to say, 25 gallons from the bushel. Now, the malt is eight shillings a bushel, and allowing eight pounds of the very best hops, they will cost but a shilling a pound. The malt and hops, then, for the 180 gallons, cost but seventy-two shillings : that is to say, only a little more than fourpence three farthings a gallon, for stuff which is now retailed for twenty pence a gallon! If this be not an abomination, I should be glad to know what is. Even if the treacle, colour, and the drugs, be included, the cost is not fivepence a gallon—and, yet, not content with this enormous extortion, there are wretches who resort to the use of other and pernicious drugs, in order to increase their gains!"
"Cottage Economy" by William Cobbett, 1824, pages 34 - 35.
That recipe, with its weird and wonderful ingredients, is not one that any of the large London Porter breweries would have used. Having seen the records of a few, I know that they brewed from 100% malt and hops. Unless, of course, they were falsifying their records. Which is a possibility. There were many prosecutions of small brewers and publicans. But none of any of the large breweries.

Let's see what Friedrich Accum, a specialist in the adulteration of food, has to say on the subject:

"If we judge from the preceding lists of prosecutions and convictions furnished by the Solicitor of the Excise, it will be evident that many wholesale brewers, as well as retail dealers, stand very conspicuous among those offenders. But the reader will likewise notice, that there are no convictions, in any instance, against either of the eleven great London porter brewers* for any illegal practice.

It has been asserted, that it is more difficulty for the officers of the Excise to detect fraudulent practices in large breweries than in small ones; this may be true to a certain extent: but what eminent London porter brewer would stake his reputation on the chance of so paltry a gain, in which he would inevitably be at the mercy of his own man? The eleven great brewers of this metropolis are persons of such high respectability, that there is no ground for the slightest suspicion that they would attempt any illegal practices, which they were aware could not possibly escape detection in their extensive establishments. And let it be remembered, that none of them have been detected in any unlawful practice in the processes of their manufacture, or in the adulteration of their beer.

* Messrs. Barclay, Perkins and Co. - Truman, Hanbury and Co. - Reid and Co. - Whitbread and Co. - Combe, Delafield and Co. - Henry Meux and Co. - Calvert and Co. - Goodwin and Co. - Taylor and Co. - Cox, and Camble and Co."
"A treatise on adulterations of food" by Friedrich Accum, 1820, pages 205 - 206.

That said, liquorice and capsicum are amongst the illegal items seized from small brewers. So there were commercial brewers using similar recipes to the one cited by Cobbett. Though we should remember that the rules on what was and wasn't allowed in brewing weren't designed to protect the public but to protect tax income. Liquorice and capsicum aren't poisonous. Not so sure about the salt of tartar, or potassium carbonate as it's known today.

Back to that recipe. It's for brewing 5 barrels of Porter from a quarter of malt. That tells you straight off that it can't really be good Porter. You're not going to get more than 80 lbs of extract out of a quarter of "high coloured malt". That gives the beer a gravity of 16 lbs per barrel, or 1044º. And 8 lbs of hops is 1.6 lbs per barrel. Let's check that against some commercial Porters of the period.

Porter in the 1820's
Year Brewer Beer Style OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation lbs hops/ qtr hops lb/brl barrels per quarter of malt
1824 Whitbread P Porter 1060.1 1016.3 5.79 72.81% 13.17 3.47 3.80
1821 Barclay Perkins TT Porter 1059.8 1016.0 5.80 73.26% 9.14 2.49 3.67
1821 Truman Runner Porter 1060.9 1016.1 5.94 73.64% 10.4 2.87 3.64

Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives

The beer from the recipe Cobbett quotes was Weaker and more lightly hopped. No, I don't think that recipe will get you good Porter.

The 19th century had some wonderful occupations: beer-doctor and brewers'-druggist, bug-man and rat-killer. "What do you want to be when you grow up, Timmy" "A beer-doctor. Or a bug-man. Can't quite decide between the two, sir."

"The drugs are not unpleasant to the taste" what's he complaining about, then? Oh right, drugged beer slowly kills you. Still, at least you get "a momentary exhilaration". Better than nothing, eh?

Now it's irony time. Cobbett was using dodgy commercial beer as an argument for brewing yourself. But what do you find if you look at recipes for domestic brewing? Liquorice, copperas, grains of paradise and all sorts of extra ingredients. For many the reason for brewing themselves was the fact that you could use whatever you liked. Using ingredients forbidden for commercial brewers was a way of making cheap beer. It gave domestic brewers an advantage over honest commercial ones.


BryanB said...

Porter with treacle, liquorice root and capsicum sounds like a good one to try!

dave said...

Would capsicum been used for a tasting additive? Would a pepper taste be normal in porter back then? If it wasn't for taste what would it have been for?