Saturday, 26 May 2012

Brewing in 1920's Belgium

Much of Belgium was smashed up during WW I. Including many breweries. Others had their copper vessels looted by the Germans. The 1920's were a period of great reconstruction for the Belgian brewing industry.

Luckily a British brewer was on hand to record the efforts of the Belgians to get back on their brewing feet:

To the Editor of The Brewers' Journal.
Brewing in Belgium.
Dear Sir,—Perhaps a short account of a brewer's "holiday" may interest some of your readers. Being in Ostend the idea arose to take a run round the neighbouring country and see how the brewers of the district were rebuilding their concerns. Dixmude, which remained in memory as one of the most shattered towns of Flanders, seemed a suitable place to make a start, and as the town was entered there appeared a new building, just now perhaps the most notable achievement of reconstruction in a place whose monuments —church and town hall—are merely heaps of ruins. This turned out to be a brewery, and inside was a model of compactness—a little mash-tun of about six quarters capacity commanding a vessel of the Wooldridge system of about 50 barrels, served by a Worthington pump and ejector to produce the vacuum, and alongside a fermenting room with two squares lined with white glazed tiles. Just the system it would appear to suit these small concerns who wish to re-erect a brewery in as small space as possible and with the greatest economy of building, and, as was later proved at a similar brewery in Ostend, capable of turning out most excellent light-top fermentation beers of 1035 deg. gravity or pale ales of 1065 deg. and stouts of 1070 deg.

Little breweries restarted on their old systems did not interest so much, but gave rise to a certain amount of amusement. One produced a beer—which by its slight acidity pleased its clientele—with a yeast that would not ferment unless pitched at 86 deg. Fahr., and no wonder. It consisted of quite as many bacteria and wild yeast as of the more desirable species. This had recently been pointed out to the owner, who thereupon tried a change, and pitched as usual at 86 deg. Fahr. in his wort receiver, running down direct into trade casks to ferment, when to his great alarm the yeast refused to come out through the bung hole, but settled to the bottom. This change from a true top to bottom habit through change of pitching temperature was most interesting to the enquiring visitor, but not to the suffering brewer, although the beer was good. He, like the great majority of his confreres, had no idea of fermentation temperatures in cask and the niceties of his art left him cold ; but why worry when trade was good?

Passing on, the glorious town of Bruges was reached, and here just beside the ramparts a stately old Flemish structure gave not the slightest hint that many of the brewers of the neighbourhood had combined, and in it, erected a plant to produce in co-operation the beer they needed. But such was the case, and inside was a Nathan plant complete seven fermenting vessels of about 120 barrels each with a yeast vessel, all of steel, varnished inside, with double jackets for the brine cooling and concrete outer structure—a plant fitted with the latest devices and capable of about 20,000 barrels a year, constituting a monument of enterprise. Refrigeration was conducted in a room supplied with filtered air and connected with the new Nathan device for settling the worts before running to fermenting vessel, and the writer noticed all needful plant for collecting the C02 for use or liquefying it for sale. Although this brewery had only been running for a fortnight, a delightful glass of cold filtered beer was presented and the decision made to go and taste some more at a cafe in the town. It was bottom fermentation beer produced and finished in ten days from mashing, bright and sparkling, but hardly with the flavour of true lager. But that would not seem to matter in a country that drinks top fermentation beers so largely.

Thus in a delightful run of fifty miles, examples of the two types of breweries which are arising to take the place of those destroyed in war were visited — the one a type of what should be the aim of the little brewer who wishes economically to set himself up again, and the other an example of what co-operation can achieve. Which will prove the more suitable to the country and the more profitable to the owners is a point yet to be decided.

Many corporations of brewers are now being formed, as may be instanced by the prospectuses just issued by eight brewers of Ypres who, with the remaining dozen or so brewers of that town, intend to erect a brewery with an output of about 30,000 barrels a year to take the place of the 20 or so little breweries that used to exist there.

At present it is not known what system this "Brasserie centrale yproise, Société Co-operative" will adopt. But, probably, it will be a top fermentation brewery as are all the smaller concerns.

Yours faithfully,
A London Brewer.
July 2nd, 1921."
Brewers Journal 1921, page 296.

Belgium had a crazy number of breweries before WW I. More than 3,000. Many of those never re-opened, for a variety of reasons. Smashed up buildings, lost equipment, lack of cash, death of the brewer. Others decided to group together and rebuild cooperatively.

Let's start with that brewery in Dixmude. A six-quarter plant is tiny. Enough to brew about 25 barrels at a time. It probably produced no more than a couple of thousand barrels a year. I can visualise the brewery quite well. There are loads of little 1920's breweries in Belgium and I've seen a fair few.

I'm glad the author told us something about the beers brewed in the small Ostend brewery. It's an interesting range, all top-fermenting, of course. Belgium wasn't always a country of strong beers. The further you go back in time, the weaker the average strength gets. A bit like the UK in reverse. So while they brewed a Pale Ale and Stout of reasonable gravity, I'd put money on the light 1035 beer being by far the biggest seller of the three.

The brewer pitching at 86º F is a fascinating example of the primitive nature of some Belgian brewing. Fermenting in trade casks is very 18th century. I'm sure no British brewery was using the technique in the 1920's. I wonder what the beer was? One of the less sour Belgian types, I guess. Sounds like he had an interesting pitching yeast, with all the bacteria and wild yeast. Very, er, Belgian.

The brewery in Bruges sounds much more modern. But, producing 20,000 barrels a year, still pretty small by British standards of the period. In 1914 there were 280 breweries in the UK producing between 20,000 and 100,000 barrels*. It seems to have been brewing a pseudo-Pils. Ten days from mashing to sale? That's a joke for a bottom-fermented beer. I'm not surprised that it didn't have a proper Lager flavour.

There's lots of good stuff on continental brewing in the Brewers' Journal. I'm just OCRing a long article on Scandinavia. Then there's a whole series of articles on Lager brewing. That would keep me going for weeks.

* 1928 Brewers' Almanack, page 118.


Martyn Cornell said...

"I'm sure no British brewery was using the technique in the 1920s."

Bateman's still fermented in the trade casks in the 1950s, when it finally installed a proper FV, and I'd bet it wasn't totally alone even then ...

Barm said...

The fermenting vessels with brine cooling jackets – is the 1920s early for this technology, or was it already widespread?

Graham Wheeler said...

"Fermenting in trade casks is very 18th century. I'm sure no British brewery was using the technique in the 1920's."

Batemans until 1953

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, I'm not sure. It sounds like a variation on an attemperator and they've been around since the 18th century.

Ron Pattinson said...

Martyn and Graham, thanks for that. I'm genuinely shocked.

Barm said...

How does fermenting in trade casks fit with the Victorian obsession with cleansing beer? Were Bateman's doing this in the 19th century, or was it a devolution from earlier practice? Were they aware of how their competitors brewed?

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, that's exactly what I thought: how did they cleanse?

Gary Gillman said...

They did cleanse, in the trade cask before it was sent out to pubs or homes. The casks sat on the brewery floor until the yeast discharged sufficiently through the open bung hole.

Then the beers would have been fined and sent out in that cask. Trade cask fermentation doesn't mean freshly fermenting beer was sent out in that cask, in other words, that is impossible (IMO) as the pub could not have abided yeast regularly pouring out the bung hole or the risk of splitted casks.

I'm not sure what the Belgians did, but the English even in remote East Anglia were not drinking uncleansed and even unfined beer by around 1950 or rather, that seems quite unlikely to me.


Gary Gillman said...

Before someone corrects me, I hasten to add that Bateman's was always in Lincolnshire, just northerly of East Anglia, but the latter is one of its traditional trading areas.


Barm said...

I would hazard a guess that finings might not be much use in a cask that contains such a thick layer of trub and yeast left over from primary fermentation.

Gary Gillman said...

Not so based on my readings. E.g. Frank Faulkner at page 199 explained that when trade casks were used for cleansing, they were topped up at the brewery to rid them of excess yeast and the thick bottoms were taken out by a suction tube before the vessels were fined and sent out.

James Steel described something very similar in his book I've mentioned earlier, see page 76, where he speaks of it being an "ancient practice" followed in Liverpool and a few other places in England, presumably Lincolnshire was one.

In this process, typically the beer went to the trade casks from the gyle-tun after part attenuation - this is what Faulkner describes - and I would think this is what Bateman's did, i.e., not that it literally fermented in these small casks from the outset, but perhaps they did do that. Americans in the 1800's used a series of small casks in which to ferment a whiskey mash for example, it was called small tub fermentation.

But I'd guess Bateman's had a gyle-tun of some kind in 1950 and simply cleansed in the trade casks rather than using settling square or Union-type arrangement. Perhaps Bateman's did literally use a small tub fermentation, but if it did, Faulkner describes well how the trub would have been elimimated and the beer made clear with finings. Page 199 again.


Joe said...

Can't help but wonder if that Diksmuide brewery would have been Costenoble... currently inhabited by De Dolle.