Monday, 2 March 2015

Cask beer in the 1950’s – Treatment of beer in cellars of public houses

This is the chapter I’ve been leading up to. A very detailed account of how to – and how not to – handle cask beer in the pub.

It’s one of the most useful, and fascinating, chapters I’ve ever come across. I’m not joking. It’s answered one question that’s been knocking around in my head for several decades. But that bit will come in a later post.

This is the curse of the cask brewer:

“Every brewer should realise that his duties do not end within the walls of the brewery. A brewer should take every opportunity of visiting his firm's licensed houses, in order to be fully acquainted with the conditions under which his beers are managed in the cellars. By so doing, Providing he keeps careful record of the details applying to each place, he will be able to arrange his own cellar temperatures to better advantage. He will have obtained a fair idea of the temperatures to which beers will be subjected after they have left the brewery. It is quite possible, too, with his more expert and intimate knowledge of beer, that he may be able to give the tenant or manager some beneficial advice. At the same time, he can point out any defects in the cellar which require attention. He will undoubtedly find some tenants rather averse from any change in their usual methods of cellar management. The fact that a certain routine has given good results for a long period is no reason for not pointing out the possible ill results of certain actions which entail risks. With the knowledge thus acquired from various cellars, a brewer should be able to deal with any trouble which might develop with his beers in cellar.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 249.

The brewer of bottled or keg beer has far less to worry about when he waves the fruit of his labour goodbye. Broken packaging or roasting in the sun for a few days aside, there’s not a huge amount of harm that can befall such beer. It should survive even sloppy handling in drinkable condition. MNo such luck with cask.

Which means a cask brewer has to take an interest in – and possibly worry about – what goes on in a pub cellar. And in the days when most pubs were tied, breweries did have a say in cellar design. Especially with new pubs.

And cellars and their design are where we start.

In chapter 2 we mentioned that it was necessary for architects who designed breweries to have considerable knowledge of brewing. We are now going to express the opinion that it is of equal importance that those who plan out licensed houses should have sufficient knowledge of the management of beer to enable them fully to appreciate the importance of the cellar. The cellar is really the heart of any place where the trade depends upon the sale of beer. It is throwing away money to construct a palatial building in order to attract trade, if the cellar is so ill designed that it is impossible to sell beer in anything approaching a satisfactory condition. The house will inevitably become a ‘white elephant' on account of its bad reputation so far as beer is concerned. Unfortunately, the brewer is too often blamed for trouble with the beers, when all the time it is due to circumstances over which he has little or no control. We do not say that these poor conditions apply so much to cellars in town houses as to those in the country. Nevertheless, possibly owing to space being valuable in towns, we have often found cellars in town houses ridiculously small in proportion to the trade which the house should do. This defect is a serious one, because it entails frequent opening of the cellar doors, with destruction of its normal temperature. These changes in temperature, especially during extreme summer heat or winter cold, are liable to have serious effects upon the beers. Besides, lack of space never gives the beers a chance to settle down. Thick and unpalatable drinks become the rule and not the exception. With good reason, therefore, we demand a cellar which is large enough. If the cellar is found to be too spacious, part of it can always be screened off. But if it is too small, it is difficult to enlarge.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, pages 249 - 250.

“Thick and unpalatable drinks” – sounds like Craft Keg or that unfined nonsense. Then again, isn’t the whole point of these things that they look different? So fashion victims can easily spot them. Who would be interested in unfined beer if it looked just as clear in the glass as fined beer?

I’d never thought about the bad effects of too small a cellar. I guess for deliveries cellar doors are open a fair time. But does it really have such an impact on the temperature inside?

It seems out in the countryside cellars were even worse than the town:

“As regards cellars in country houses, the less said about some of them the better. We have come across many which are quite unfit for the storage of beer. In some instances, they are simply a draughty passage between two compartments in the house; in others, a lean-to shed on one side of the building—even on the south side of it, so that at midday during the summer it resembles an oven. In many cases no attempt has been made to sink the cellar below ordinary floor level. Such sinking is essential if any degree of uniformity in temperature is to be obtained. Very often, when the licensed house is some distance from the brewery, deliveries of beer are only made fortnightly. In such cases, part only of the consignment can be cellared. The remainder finds its way into any vacant shed or stable, where it is left to take its chance, and is lost sight of until required. It is then transferred to the cellar, almost at the last moment before it has to be drawn on. During the winter, the beer becomes thoroughly chilled and takes a considerable time to recover. On the other hand, the authors have been urgently summoned during the heat of summer for assistance, to find the cask standing on end in some terribly hot outhouse, the heads bulging and straining under heavy internal pressure of gases, and threatening at any moment to burst. With room available for a larger cellar, as is generally the case in the country, there can be no excuse for such conditions. If the cellar is too small and cannot be enlarged, however, more frequent delivery of beer should be insisted upon.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 250.

They all sound like pretty dreadful places to store beer. Let alone cask beer. 19h-century Bass, of course, could handle being exposed to the elements. Lesser beers, I guess not. That paragraph certainly makes me look at the quaint country pubs of old in a slightly different light. The beer must have often been dreadful, especially in the summer. Sounds like a recipe for vinegar.

This all much more complicated than you might imagine. You had to use the right materials when building a cellar.

“Apart from the position and the size of a cellar, planning and construction are of the utmost importance. Adequate ventilation is essential, but it must not involve draughts. Draughts are very detrimental to the condition and often the fining of beers. On that account, we do not favour open cellar flaps made of iron grating, but prefer wooden ones, even if it means curtailment of a certain amount of light. But as underground cellars generally need artificial light in any case, the defect is a minor one. For cleanliness, we strongly advise a floor covered with asphalt, with adequate fall to a drain or sump. The fall ensures that any beer which may be spilled runs away immediately, thus obviating an accumulation of beer which rapidly turns acid.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 251.

What’s the difference between ventilation but not draught? Whether you’re sitting in its direct path, would be my personal definition. Why was a draught bad for fining?

Café Belgique in Amsterdam has an earth floor, I seem to recall. Probably the worst possible option for cask.

Oh right, I see Jeffery agrees with me:

“Where a sump is necessary in the absence of a drain, it should be cleaned out every day without fail. From the point of view of an even temperature an earth floor seems more suitable for beers than any type of more up-to-date construction, but has the disadvantage of getting foul and acid, especially during the summer, and on that account is undesirable.

Walls and roof faced with white glazed tiles form the ideal so far as cleanliness is concerned. If tiles are found too expensive, bricks may be substituted provided they have a hard smooth surface which will not form a receptacle for mould spores. The bricks can be limewashed periodically, and the cellar so kept sweet and clean.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 251.

Tiles are always the best option, hygiene-wise. I’d have our whole house tiled, walls, floors, ceilings, if Dolores would let me. We’d never have to decorate again. Not that I do much. Usually it’s Dolores who gets out the paintbrush when I’ve gadded off somewhere.

One final word of warning:

“A great mistake is sometimes made in providing a roof which is too low. Every man needs sufficient height in which to move if he is to do his work properly. A manager or tenant will not be encouraged to visit his cellar more often than he is absolutely obliged to, if he finds he has limited space in any direction.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 251.

The author should see the one in Café Belgique. The deepest parts aren’t tall enough to stand up in. And the shallow bits aren’t much more than a metre. And it’s only about 15 square metres in area.

Temperatures and stillage next. You’ll have to wait a while for the really fun bits.


John Clarke said...

Fascinating stuff, as usual, Ron. This touches on something I've often thought about. The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer "warm" because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm - especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.

Anonymous said...

How were these casks moved about? The idea of moving them into a cellar with a low roof and irregular floor makes me think there must have regularly been some kind of trap door and pulley system -- or did it mostly just involve manhandling them up and down stairs?

Ron Pattinson said...


much as today. Cellars usually have a trap door directly onto the street. Barrels are rolled through this down a ramp and are stopped by a sack at the bottom. Obviously the casks are usually much smaller and lighter nowadays. Back in the 1950's most beer would have come in barrels or even hogsheads.