Friday, 10 May 2013

A Wretched Liquor

Drinking London Porter really pissed off some people in Scotland, who believed it was a pointless exportation of capital to the capital. Scots would be better off if they only drank locally-brewed beer, the argument went.

The guff about local beer is curiously reminiscent of some of the localist propaganda knocking around the beer world today. But surely this sort of protectionism is actually bad for the economy? The Scottish trade deficit in beer was comparatively brief. In the 19th century the opposite was true, with Scotland a net exporter of beer. And not just to England, but to every corner of the Empire. I wonder what Scots thought then about people drinking local beer in, say, Australia? Probably not so keen any more.

This is an excerpt from a letter to the Caledonian Mercury written by someone called Anti-Junius. I think we can be pretty sure that was a pseudonym. No-one ever seems to have used their real name in letters to newspapers. The full letter is rather rambly and berates Scots for their lack of patriotism and public spirit. Those two virtues seemingly defined by a willingness to wear Scottish-made cloth and drink Scottish-brewed beer.

"The staple of England is understood to be Wool and the Woollen Manufactories ; yet many provinces of England have shared in our sufferings, by a just, though partial favour of the government to the Woollen and neglect of our Linen Manufactories. Most certainly we have a common interest with a great part of England to promote the Woollen Manufactories in our own counties, by which immense sums would be kept among us, though we should do no more than serve ourselves. It is an obvious measure, of real advantage, and must diffuse wealth and prosperity over all the land, That our counties should resolve to wear no cloth which is not manufactured at home, and to raise funds for establishing and advancing those manufactories. He has no public spirit at all, I can hardly allow him to have common sense, who does not think himself a finer fellow in a plain coat made at home, than in the richest stuffs from foreign markets. Add to this, a resolution to drink no malt liquor which is not also made at home. The effect of these two simple and easy resolutions, well observed for a few years, will be prodigious upon the wealth and prosperity of all the remote provinces of Britain, without distinction of Scotch or English.

What a shame it is, and how inconsistent with the public spirit I now recommend, that, for the sake of drinking a wretched liquor, which great part of the London porter sent to this country certainly is, we should sink in that over-grown capital fifty or sixty thousand pounds per annum! It is proverbial among the London dealers in this commodity, to say of small or vapid porter, or any that is of the worst quality. "It will do well enough for the Scotch market." And they treat the north and west of England with the same indignity. To speak modestly, we brew, at least, as good porter at home, as the bulk of what they send us; and all agree, that we make strong and small beer of excellent quality. How very easy a sacrifice then shall we make, and yet how vast a benefit shall we do to our country, by a determined and steady observance of these two resolutions?"
Caledonian Mercury - Saturday 22 April 1775, page 3.

Nice use of the phase "malt liquor" which, as you all should know by now, is a catch-all covering both Beer and Ale.

I'm not totally convinced that brewers in London really though any old crap was good enough for Scotland. Exporting low-quality beer doesn't seem like the road to financial success. Did they really keep all the good Porter for the South and East of England?

How much did a barrel of Porter cost in 1775? Because I can use that to work out the quantity of London Porter being imported into Scotland. In 1780, the average price of a pint of Porter, retail, was 1.75d*. Which means a 36-gallon barrel cost 42 shillings. Shipping it to Scotland would undoubtedly have raised the price, but we also have to take into account that the wholesale price would have been cheaper. The markup was pretty small back then, so let's say the wholesale price was 40 shillings, or a round £2. It makes the mathematics easier, too.

25,000 to 30,000 barrels, I make it. Doesn't sound a lot, does it? But we need to contextualise this. In 1776 the largest London brewery, Whitbread, produced 102,100 barrels**. In that context, 25,000 barrels is a fair bit of beer.

* “The Private Brewer's Guide”, by John Tuck, 1822, page 5.
** “The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830”, Peter Mathias, 1959, pages 551-552.


Martyn Cornell said...

Interesting that Anti-Junius was happy to call his countrymen "Scotch". Say that to a Scotchman today and he'll go purple with rage about how it's "Scots".

"Junius" was, to quote Wikipedia, "the pseudonym of a writer who contributed a series of letters to the Public Advertiser [newspaper] from 21 January 1769 to 21 January 1772", mostly on the rights of Englishmen. So "Anti-Junius" was presumably meant to be his opposite..

Ron Pattinson said...


I'd missed that about the use of the word Scotch. Obviously they weren't as touchy about it back in the 18th century.

Was the Public Advertiser and English newspaper?