We're back on the topic of counterfeit beer. There's been some speculation on internet fora as to whether this goes on today. The obvious candidate being Westvleteren, where there isn't even a label to worry about. An unscrupulous beer trader could also refill the bottle of a highly-desired Stout with something more easily available - how many would really be able to tell?
We'll start with confirmation that few brewers bottled in the 1870's. And a very good reason why they didn't:
"FORGED BRANDS.I seem to remember that in the 20th century some brewers had bottling stores at more than one location. This would explain why. It was much cheaper, for example, for Whitbread to ship beer in bulk to Scotland and bottle in there, rather than sending it already bottled.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STANDARD.
Sir,— It appears to be entirely overlooked by your correspondent that there are very few brewers who bottle their own beers, for the very obvious reason that enormous extra expenses (in proportion to the value of the goods) would be incurred in the packing and railway carriage of such heavy merchandise as bottled beer, and these would tend either either to raise the price or annihilate the profit upon it— neither of which conditions is it desirable to bring about.
When the bottling is deputed to a second person — and in the case of beer the deputees are necessarily thousands — "labels over the corks" and "branded corks" are alike useless and impracticable, and the respectability of the firm from whom the goods are purchased is the only practical guarantee.
We are Sir, your obedient servants,
January 29. A FIRM IN THE TRADE."
London Standard - Wednesday 30 January 1878, page 6.
I'm starting to be pretty much 100% convinced that empty Bass and Allsopp bottles were refilled with crap beer. Now it's the turn of the Irish to be accused of such fraud (we've already had railway stations and country inns accused).
"TO THE EDITOR OF THE STANDARD.Now there's a weird idea - taxing poison. I knew playing cards had been (maybe they still are). All sorts of strange things had excise duty on them in the past. Bricks, for example.
Sir, — Messrs. Bass, Allsopp, Guinness, Kinahan, and others whom I need not mention, lose every year a good deal of reputation and not a little money by their own fault. So long as their trade labels are on the body of the bottle the bottle on being returned to the retailer is liable to be filled with any filth he chooses to put into it, and this is sent forth with all the prestige of a well-known name attached to it. In Ireland I have found the red triangle of Bass upon bottles containing stuff of which I may say mildly that it never was within a hundred miles of Burton-on-Trent.
It would be such a very simple thing to put the label over the cork, or to make some mark on the cork which the entrance of the screw would deface. If I buy a pack of cards the government takes very good care that I shall not be able to play with them until I have destroyed the stamp; and the same remark applies to every bottle or box of medicine. It does seem to me that a bottle of genuine beer ought, to be at least as sacred as the ace of spades or a duty-paying poison.
I am, Sir, obediently yours,
London, January .24. BRITISH BEVERAGE."
London Standard - Friday 25 January 1878, page 6.
Were the brewers themselves partially to blame for counterfeit beer?
I'm pretty sure that Bass didn't give out unlimited numbers of their labels, for thyis very reason. Did Allsopp? Or did the letter-writer just make an assumption when he saw the labels lying arouynd? You can definitely see from the intricate desigbn in the background that Bass tried to make it difficult top counterfeit their labels. Why bother if you were going to strew them arouind like confetti?
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STANDARD
SiR,— your correspondents on the subject of forged brands seem, as far as I have noticed, to be ignorant of the fact that the leading brewers supply retailers with an unlimited number of their labels with the beer they send out in barrels.
I saw a heap of Messrs. Allsopps' labels lying on the counter of a retailer's bar the other day, and assuming that person to be dishonest, what is easier than to affix these labels to bottles filled with the trashy compounds brewed by some of the petty brewers? That this is done in innumerable cases there can be no question. However, the dealer to whom I refer is, I believe, an honest, trustworthy man. Still the temptation is great, and ought not to be put in tho way of retailers.
I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
A CONSTANT READER,ST. Mary Church, Devon, January 29."
London Standard - Thursday 31 January 1878, page 3.
I must say that the Standard's letter page was much more interesting in the 19th century than it is today. Not sure what that tells us, other than that I'm a sucker for the past.