Monday, 13 April 2015

Beer, scientifically and socially considered (part three)

Now we’re onto fun stuff. About the filth tipped into beer in Liverpool.

Adulteration is another favourite topic of mine. Getting to the bottom of how common it was and what was really used is quite tricky. There are stories of all sorts of nasty stuff being added. Things like opium are often mentioned – including in the 1816 Act that enforced a sort of Reinheitsgebot in Britain. But I’ve never seen any real evidence of its use.

What I like about this text is that someone has gone to the trouble to chemical analyse pub samples to see what they contained.

“There now remain to be considered — 1st, how beer is injuriously affected during or subsequent to its manufacture; and 2nd, what social results follow from its adulteration or abuse. Those who have mixed much with artisans know well that they seldom drink the fine Burton ale, and if they do, it is often adulterated after it leaves the brewery ; but, with a view to ascertain what they really do drink, I have obtained from my friend, Mr. Norman, F.C.S., analytical chemist of Liverpool, who has interested himself deeply in this question, a report upon the Liverpool beer, which is as follows:

“The results of the examination of twenty-five samples of beer of the kinds known as ‘sixpenny' and ‘eightpenny,’ purchased in the ordinary way from public-houses in different parts of Liverpool, showed that the quantity of alcohol varied in these samples from 2.2 per cent, (by weight) to 5.62 per cent, the per centage in fourteen specimens being under 4, very little difference being observable in this respect between the sixpenny and eightpenny. The general results convinced me that fully half the samples were not genuine preparations of malt and hops. One undoubtedly contained tobacco; another, of dark colour and a rather hard, unpleasant taste, gave unmistakable evidence of the presence of sulphate of iron whilst two others contained such a quantity of common salt as could not be accounted for by the presence of that ingredient the water used for brewing, or by any other ordinary cause. Sugar also appeared to have been added in one case, and in another carbonate of soda. I did not find in any of these specimens indications of cocculus indicus, or picric acid, said be frequently used for adulterating beer (I have found picrotoxin, the active principle of cocculus indicus on a previous occasion), but that other matters, such as liquorice, gentian, and other drugs, not of an injurious character, but nevertheless adulterants, were present I have not the least doubt. Several of the samples were of objectionable character owing to bad brewing or bad keeping, and, in one or two instances, the quality was so bad that is difficult to imagine how any persons can be found to drink such vile stuff. Only eleven out of the twenty-five were what I consider really good quality. One of these was a sample which I purposely obtained, knowing it to be brewed by a leading firm at Burton, and to have been kept with great care by the person from whom I procured it."
Liverpool Daily Post - Tuesday 05 July 1870, page 6.

Sixpenny and Eightpenny would have been differing strengths of Mild Ale. Doubtless based on the price per quart. 2.2% ABW – 2.75% ABV – is way, way too weak for any type of beer back then, other than Table Beer. 5.62ABW (7.1% ABV) sounds a bit more like it.

Here are Whitbread’s Mild Ales of the period for comparison purposes:

Whitbread Mild Ales in 1869
Beer OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation
X 1054.3 1016.1 5.06 70.41%
XL 1062.0 1018.3 5.79 70.54%
XX 1078.7 1024.9 7.11 68.31%
Whitbread brewing record held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/01/035.

I’d say that anything under 4% ABW (5% ABV) – and 14 of 25 samples were – had been watered in some way. That’s pretty bad.

Norman found some odd stuff – why on earth would you add tobacco to beer? Sugar and salt are obvious enough. Sugar to provide extra fermentable to cover up watering, Salt obviously to encourage a healthy thirst amongst customers. Though surely that must have been noticeable.

It’s interesting that he didn’t find any containing cocculus indicus, which is widely quoted as an adulterant. Gentian was a hop substitute and liquorice usually used in Porter or Stout, not Mild Ale.

I like the comment about some of the trouble being down poor brewing or handling in the pub. The latter is a recurring theme across the ages when it comes to cask beer.

Bitter, it seems, wasn’t so badly messed about:

"With regard to bitter beers I obtained somewhat better results, as far as general quality is concerned, with the exception, however, that the use of other bitters than hops seemed to be rather the rule than the exception. Although it is difficult or even impossible always to detect these bitters by distinct chemical tests, yet my experience of such drugs has made me so familiar with their taste that I have no hesitation in saying that quassia, wormwood, gentian, rue, camomile, and orange-peel had been used. Quassia  and wormwood, however, seemed to me to be the bitters in most general use, the quantity of the latter in one case being so great as to make the beer positively nauseous. One sample, which appeared to me flavoured with orange-peel, possessed a warm, somewhat spicy taste, which was very apparent in the residue after evaporation, indicating the addition of something more than the ordinary ingredients.”
Liverpool Daily Post - Tuesday 05 July 1870, page 6.

That’s an intriguing list of hop substitutes. Quassia and gentian are the ones most commonly mentioned. Camomile, wormwood and orange peel are new to me. Orange peel doesn’t sound so bad. Not sure I’d want to consume the others.

The question is: why were they using hop substitutes? Purely to save money on hops? It sounds as if this adulteration must have occurred in the brewery. Because what would be the point in the pub?

Next time we’ll be taking a closer look at adulterants.


Phil said...

You can add quite a bit of salt to a sugar solution before you taste anything recognisable as salt - to begin with it even seems to accentuate the sweetness. Presumably that's what was going on with those milds, with the added benefit of heightening the drinker's thirst.

J. Karanka said...

Wouldn't you want to raise bitterness in a diluted beer?

Ron Pattinson said...

J. Karank,

I think that's what the dangerous bittering agents were for,