Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The most unwholesome beverage

Continuing with my accidental theme of bottled beer, today we've a letter to the London Evening Standard in 1872. It caused quite a kerfuffle amongst the brewing trade. Read it and you'll doubtless understand why.

Like many correspondents to newspapers at the time, the author used a pseudonym: "A Medical Man". Implying that he was a medical doctor. 


Sir, — Now the attention of the public is being drawn by the "declaration" in reference to alcohol, it may not be out of place to allude to the obnoxious practice in reference to "bottled beer." Bottled beer is very often recommended and drank as being the best kind of beer. I believe it to be the most unwholesome beverage that can be supplied to the public. It is made as a rule from the cheapest and worst kinds. For many years I had met with scores of cases of indigestion attributable to drinking "bottled" beer; and I determined if possible to ascertain how it was prepared, and I give you the result of my inquiries. I will premise that the information was given to me by parties engaged in the trade, and the bottling process I myself was allowed to inspect.

Brewers, it appears, supply the public with "returnable" and "unreturnable" beer, The former goes as a rule to the consuming public, chiefly to private individuals. If any barrel is not approved of it is allowed to be returned, and is replaced by the brewery. It varies in price, of course, from 1s. 10d. to 2s 6d or 3s per gallon, according to its quality. The "unreturnable" beer consists of all that has been returned to the brewery as not being approved of, and when mixed together is again offered, and is what supplies the bottling trade. It is sold as low as 10d. a gallon, and is not allowed to be returned, This information was given by a party concerned in one of the largest brewery firms. I then went to the "bottler," and found this to be confirmed, and was shown over the process of bottling. Before an 18-gallon barrel sat a man engaged in putting corks into bottles, which were very ingeniously filling themselves by being place in a kind of trough under the barrel, the weight of four bottles, when full, being sufficient to stop the tap. In this way one man bottled off an 18-gallon barrel in an hour, in pint bottles. This gives an idea of the amount of labour required in the process. In the centre of the large shed or room was a chopping machine for chopping hay and straw in small pieces. Around the room were places shelves about one or two feet wide, and on these was arranged the beer when botttled; and all the bottles were surrounded with the chopped hay and straw which was made to heat by sprinkling water over it now and then. The depth into which the bottles were immersed in the hay depended upon the time it was expected the beer would be required for consumption. It could ba ripened at pleasure. Thermometers were placed on every shelf, and everything done in a systematic way. The beer, before it was bottled, was thick, muddy, and undrinkable; and I tasted some which was undergoing the ripening process, and by being filled with gas as it becomes ripe it certainly betrayed nothing of its origin. Labels are put on, and this rubbish — for however duisguised it is still is an inferior article — is sold at 4d. or 6d. a bottle. I do not mean to say all "bottled beer" is thus prepared, though my informant stated he believed all was of this character.

I have never touched bottled beer when I could get other, and I have always cautioned my patients against what I believe to be a very deleterious article. I do not doubt but that very often some of bottles issued from the more respectable firms get refilled with an inferior article, and passed off with the name of the label. This might easily avoided by every consumer defacing the label on every bottle he uses, and I wonder no Chancellor of the Exchequer has not hit on the plan of taxing such labels with a halfpenny stamp,  compelling them to be defaced once used. By this means an immense income would be returned, and a budget enriched by means that would not be felt on the lower orders, but on tha more fastidious consumers of our national beverage.

Medically, such beer bottled and ripened as I have explained is a most perrnicious article, and I have often seen its deleterious effects in the production of flatulent dyspepsia and other disorders of the alimentary canal; and I think it is only proper the public should be made aware of the existence of such a process, as one would imagine it is only to be made known to be discarded.— I remain yours, &c,
London Standard - Monday 29 January 1872, page 3.
One thing jumps out at me from the second paragraph: the price quoted for a gallon of beer. 1s. 10d. to 3s. a gallon looks too expensive to me. Let's check, shall we?

Hampshire Telegraph, Saturday 10 June 1871, page 2.
I know, it's confusing because the prices are for 18 gallons. Here they are per gallon:

Brewery Place year beer price (per gallon)
J. A. Gittens Portsea 1871 The Staines Bitter Ale 1s
J. A. Gittens Portsea 1871 The Hampshire A.K. Ale 1s
Younger, Wm. Edinburgh 1871 Edinburgh Ale 1s 6.67d
Younger, Wm. Edinburgh 1871 India Pale Ale 1s 8.67d
Allsopp Burton 1871 XX Ale 1s 4d
Allsopp Burton 1871 Mild Ale 1s 6d
Allsopp Burton 1871 Pale Ale 1s 10d
Barclay Perkins London 1871 Mild Ale 1s 2d
Barclay Perkins London 1871 Strong Ale 1s 6d
Bass Burton 1871 Mild Burton Ale 1s 6d
Bass Burton 1871 East India Ale 1s 10.67d
???? London 1871 The Chiswick Pale Ale 1s 4d
Guinness Dublin 1871 Dublin Stout 1s 6.67d
Barclay Perkins London 1871 London Stout 1s 4.67d
Barclay Perkins London 1871 London Porter 1s 2d
Courage London 1871 London Stout 1s 4.67d
Dreher Vienna 1871 Vienna Beer 2s 9.33d
Jewell & Son Portsea 1871 A.K. Pale Family Ale 1s
Hampshire Telegraph - Saturday 22 July 1871, page 2.

I think it proves that "A Medical Man" was talking out of his arse. You can see that the cheaper beers started at 1s per gallon, though some country breweries had Harvest Ale at 10d per gallon. Bass and Allsopp Pale Ale - two mightily expensive beers - were only 1s 10d and 1s 10.67d per gallon, the same as the lowest price he quotes. Dreher Vienna Lager, the most expensive beeer on the British market, was only 2s 9.33d per gallon. The idea that any British beer could cost 3s per gallon is pure fantasy.

From the description of the bottling process, it's pretty obvious that he'd visited a very small-scale operation. It doesn't sound the most hygienic of processes, with the bottles in a trough. Though it might sound impressive bottling 18 gallons in an hour, that's only 144 pint bottles. Or twelve dozen, a dozen being the quantity bottled beer was usually sold in. That's eff all, really.

To extrapolate from this one small bottler that all bottled beer was made in the same way is quite a jump. I think that, in his place, I'd have investigated a little further.

The stuff about packing straw around the bottles to "force" them - i.e. speed up the maturation process - is just weird. Bottlers almost certainly would have straw, because it was used as padding when crates were packed. But using them this was is just odd. In any case, wouldn't it be easier just to warm the room? That's what breweries do nowadays.

I can't see how bottling beer thick with sediment could work. Every description of blttling I've ever read says that the beer has to be bright before bottling, either through naturally dropping bright, fining or filtering. The sediment wasn't going to magically disappear after bottling and the result would surely be, at best, a thick deposit at the bottom of the bottle.

As for refilling bottles of a reputable brand with another beer, I'm pretty sure that did occur. I've read reports of it elsewhere. For example, the seller only returning the deposit of bottles with intact labels. Bass and Allsopp Pale Ale were the main victims of this fraud.

As for "flatulent dyspepsia", which beer drinker hasn't experienced that at some point? Drinking less is the solution to that problem.

The letter certainly stirred up controversy and generated many angry replies from those in the bottling trade. We'll be looking at some of those retorts next time.


The Beer Nut said...

Bottling troughs show up as pub bric-a-brac fairly often: I guess pubs that bottled would have used them. Small scale, as you say.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut,

what do they look like? I have trouble visualising one.

Small-scale bottling in pubs lasted well into the 20th century in Ireland, didn't it?

The Beer Nut said...

Some pictures of one here.

I guess it survived because so many pubs were also the grocery store, hardware shop, bank, undertakers, post office etc. Although the law forbids internal doors between the front-of-house sections in pub/post offices: if you want to drink the child benefit immediately, you have to go outside and walk round a few steps.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut,

thanks for the photo link.

Who wouldn't want to drink the child benefir immediately? You wouldn't want to go wasting it on kids' shoes or anything silly like that.

Oblivious said...

"Small-scale bottling in pubs lasted well into the 20th century in Ireland, didn't it?"


Small scale bottle lasted into the 1970's in Ireland

There is an interesting letter from the regional bottling adviser to the chief adviser (from "A bottle of Guinness please), about his concerns over four small bottlers in Carrick-on-suir. They appear to be bottling just single casks of Guinness, but give a town like carrick had four they where concerned. It may have been a common practices in town through rural Ireland

Some of the conditions sounded awful to be bottling in. An it looks like Guinness where buying up such independents and consolidating there bottling efforts

Anonymous said...

Any sense whether "A Medical Man" was actually someone in the beer business with a beef against bottled beer? I know that newspapers back in the day were far more flexible in the ethics department than today, and it doesn't seem impossible that someone, say a brewer who couldn't afford to branch out into bottling, might pay a publisher a bit to cut down some of his rivals.

At any rate, I love reading old newspapers in part for finding these kinds of crackpot bits. The New York Times, for example, was running credulous accounts of sea monster sightings well in the late 1800s.

Ron Pattinson said...


at the time almost no brewers bottled. Bottling was almost totally in the hands of third-part bottlers.

It's possible that "A Medical Man" was connecting with a new bottling operation. In fact he was accused of that by one of the many letters that were published in reply. Which you'll be seeing in a day or two.

Anonymous said...

I'll look for the countercharges. Sounds like a good old fashioned dirty fight from earlier industrial days. In a possibly similar vein, I know Crown Cork and Seal was involved in a lot of bare-knuckle fights when they came out with the modern bottle cap, both when they were expanding their reach and defending their patents. I wouldn't be surprised if they did some of their fighting through planting stories in sympathetic newspapers.

Ron Pattinson said...


I don't think this was planted in the newspaper. I think they just published the letter from "A Medical Man" because they knew it would stir up controversy.

Also, the all the letters in reply repudiated or ridiculed the claims of "A Medical Man".

Reading all the correspndence the impression left is that, while there were a few small rogue bottlers, overall the quality of bottled beer was high.