Wednesday, 8 January 2014

De-alcoholised beer

I came across this bizrre article when looking for something else. It bears many hallmarks of the debate about alcohol going on in the years running up to WW I.

Certain, mostly obsessively miserable, elements in society had got it into their heads that any form of alcohol consumption was a Bad Thing and needed to be stopped at any cost. There was, however, one slight problem these nutcases had: temperance drinks tasted like shit and most, quite rightly, preferred beer. Which is why Mr. Overbeck came up with this idea:


Our Grimsby representative writes: —Mr Otto Overbeck, F.I.C., analytical chemist at the Tower Brewery, Grimsby, is contesting an issue raised by the Customs and Excise Authorities respecting a matter the outcome of which will be watched with the keenest interest by the entire brewing trade, and incidentally by the general public.

Some two years ago, as stated in the "Mail", at the time, he discovered, after lengthy and patient research, a process of de-alcoholising beer. In other words, he was able to extract the alcohol out of beer, leaving the beverage unimpaired in its nutritive qualities, but minus its inebriating effects. This discovery, when announced, attracted the attention of the whole of Europe, since it seemed to settle what had long been needed, viz., the question of the ideal temperance drink. There was true temperance reform emanating from the laboratory of a well-known brewery firm. The irony of the situation!

After securing patent rights for the invention, Mr Overbeck took the obvious course preparing for the manufacture of the beverage. He had received inquiries and promises of orders from all parts of the civilized world. A private company was formed, and arrangements completed for the installationof a working plantat at Retford. This plant was duly set up, and without any breach of confidence it may be said that Mr Overbeck has incurred expenditure of about £2,000.

The fact of having invented not only a novel beverage, but taken a step along the road of moral well-being was a matter on which Mr Overbeck had just claim for pride, but his anticiptaions of due reward for his labours have for the moment been ruthlessly thwarted.


The erection of the plant at Retford was but the preliminary to the erection of plants in other centres in the United Kingdom, with, of course, distributing centres in the Continental cities, but the Excise authorities in May last threw a bombshell at Overbeck's enterprise, and on the principle that often operates in Government intervention, the policy was completely thorough in its aim. It not only forbade Mr Overbock to sell de-aJcholised beer, but it nought to prevent his making any further experiments. The embargo came in the following letter:—

May 11th. 1914.
Sir, —I ajn directed by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise to inform you that if you wish to continue experiments in the de-alcoholising of your beer, you must apply for a renewal of your indulgences granted to you the Commissioners' letter of 4th June, 1912, and undertake that the experiments, which can only be allowed for a strictly limited period, shall be conducted under such arrangements as will render it impossible for any part of the alcohol to be collected. I am further directed to inform you that the Commissioners are not prepared to allow plant to set up for the purpose of de-alcoholising beer on a commercial scale, and that the permission accorded to you to the present to carry out certain experiments is not to be understood to imply that any extension of such a concession can be allowed. The application (if any) for a further renewal of the indulgence should be sent through me, and it should state what arrangements of the plant are proposed to render the collection of alcohol impossible.— I am, sir your obedient servant,
J. R. Freeman (Surveyor, Newark).

Overbeck replied to this that under the patent granted to him he had full power to continue his experiments, and he did not require any indulgence from the Customs authority.

Following correspondence, the authorities in London entered upon the scene, and Mr Overbeck received the following important letter:

Customs House, London, E.C.
June 8th, 1914.
Sir, —In reply to your letters of the 4th inst. and previous dates, I am directed by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise to inform you:
1. That the permission de-alcoholise beer was originally granted to your solely for the purpose of an experiment on your urgent representations that you had conducted laboratory experiments over period of thirty years, and that you wished to ascertain by means of a small working model whether there was anything in the opinion you had formed to the feasibility of producing a temperance beverage from beer treated in the manner proposed.
2. That the separation of spirits from fermented liquid elsewhere than at a licensed distillery is illegal.
3. That, with regard to any rights you may have under a patent, the Commissioners can only deal with the question as affected by the Revenue laws in force, and
4. That, under these circumstances, and seeing that alcohol can be recovered from beer by means of the de-alcoholiser, the Commissioners are unable to depart from the terms of the decision that they are not prepared to allow plant to be set up for the purpose of beer on a commercial scale.—I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
(Signed) J. C. Byrne,
Otto Overbeck, Esq.,
Tower Brewery, Grimsby.

The whole point at issue is simple one, but Mr Overbeck and the Commissioners of Excise hold exactly the opposite view.

Taking as an illustration for the purpose of argument, say, a 36-gallon cask of beer with a fifty-five gravity, the duty is 7s 9d, which, of  course, Mr Overbeck would pay. These 36 gallons would be reduced on the basis of 55 gravity to 40 by attenuation, or, roughly, eight per cent. of proof spirits, and the yield would be 2.8 gallons od proof spirits, which at an excise of 14s 9d per gallon, would be a trifle over £1 9s 6d. The Excise authorities contend that in the de-alcoholismg of the 36 gallons of beer Mr Overbeck by distilling would obtain 2.8 gallons of proof spirit upon which he would not pay duty, and which he might use for other purposes and so the revenue would lose £1 9s 6d upon every 36 gallons of beer de-alooholi6ed.


Mr Overbeck's contention negatives this idea. First, he claims that the process is not distillation, and, secondly, that the spirit by the de-aicoholisation is absorbed and destroyed in the vast quantity of water utilised in the process of the manufacture. He submits confidently that after the process of de-alcoholising there is no spirit left, and as a proof of his statement, says the local Surveyor of Excise has visited the premises at Retford and seen the whole procedure from start to finish, and has failed to find any spirit whatever.

This suggests that the point view taken up by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise is wrong, and if Overbeck's contention as to entire absence of spirit after the process is correct, the Commissioners' objection must necessarily fall to the ground. From their point of view, they regard Mr Overbeck as being able to obtain spirit from the process, which he could use in other ways, and upon which he would not pay duty. That is the sole reason for the imposition of the veto upon the manufacture of this particular beer. The principle actuating their decision is, in a word, the safeguarding of the revenue.

Viewed from another aspect, assuming that de-alcoholised beer is manufactured and becomes popular, the decreased sale of alcoholic beer would naturally mean a great falling off in revenue duty. Probably this idea has also suggested itself to the Commissioners' minds.

It will, of course, be easily determined whether Mr Overbeck's or the Commissioners' contention respecting the presence or the absence spirit following the process is the correct one, but in the meantime Mr Overbeck is "held up."

The question is of too great, importance to be left where it isn and without betraying any confidence it may be said that the matter will be raised in Parliament. Until then Mr Overbeck in his efforts to advance the cause of temperance will have the sympathy of all true social reformers.

It is no small thing to tilt, single handed at the Government armoury, but Mr Overbeck, having gone so far, and being sure of the correctness his contention, will carry the matter as far it is possible to take it."
Hull Daily Mail - Monday 15 June 1914, page 6.
I'll begin with the huge misassumption at the start of the article: "leaving the beverage unimpaired in its nutritive qualities". That's bollocks. The bulk of the food value in beer is in the alcohol. Remove that and the mass of the calories are also removed. It's as bad as the pemerance twats who claimed that brewing beer destroyed all the food value of the barley. Also total bollocks.

Mr. Overbeck, being a brewing chemist, was very naive if he didn't anticipate problems with the Excise. They were a suspicious bunch, especially when it came to spirits. Their thinking seems pretty logical - if the alcohol was being removed from the beer, where was it going?

Now here's the second bit of bollocks: "the decreased sale of alcoholic beer would naturally mean a great falling off in revenue duty". Why is that bollocks? Because Mr. Overbeck was still planning on paying the duty on his de-alcoholised beer. The system of taxation in effect at the time meant that he had to. Duty was charged on the gravity of the wort before fermentation. Not on the alcohol content when it left the brewery, as it is today. Unless Overbeck started brewing his beer at a much lower gravity, the revenue would get just as much income from de-alcoholised beer as the normal stuff.

I can't help wondering what happened next. Probablt not a great deal as this was just a few weeks before the outbreak of WW I.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I like his answer to the (logical) question of where the alcohol goes, too. It doesn't go anywhere - it just disappears! Um.