Sunday, 28 February 2016

Cornbrook Brewery and tank beer (part four)

Wow. Have I really managed to spin out Hammonds tank beer fiasco to four posts?

You’ll be happy to learn that it all ends here. Doubtless I’ll find something else to pester you with interminably.

Here’s a pretty obvious flaw in installing tanks in every pub:

“In many pubs, doing only about four barrels of beer trade weekly, there would be two five barrel containers, and this would result in over age beer being stocked. It began to be realised that only large trade pubs could take the system. All these problems tumbled one over another at the same time; for a time it was a nightmare situation. The flags and bunting outside the pubs were removed, and the rival brewers put away their share certificates, knowing full well that a revolution was not in the making, and revelled in the discomfiture of UB. Then the licensees and free trade customers realised there was no accurate way of measuring large quantities of a liquid which foamed, so they alleged they were being short delivered. Compensation had to be paid out, on a generous scale because of ignorance of true loss, and that was the beginning of a trade custom which continued for as many years as the system, namely, that a customer received an allowance of four gallons for every thirty six gallons delivered, even after accurate systems were devised.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 78.

One important thing that paragraph tells me: United Breweries pubs in Bradford only usually sold two draught beers, presumably Bitter and Mild.

Four barrels isn’t a huge amount of beer: 1,152 pints. At an average retail price of 1s 6d, that’s £144 the pub would have taken from draught beer in a week. Which is quite modest. Many publicans can’t have been making a huge amount of money. It’s pretty obvious that if you delivered 2.5 weeks’ worth of beer there was a good chance of some going bad before sale. Especially if you didn’t think the tanks needed cleaning before each delivery.

I can think of another problem with having two 5-barrel tanks. If Bitter and Mild were selling in roughly equal quantities, fair enough. But what if one were selling significantly more than the other? Say double the amount. You’d be committed to taking 5 barrels of each, but it would take you twice as long to get through the slow mover. With barrels that wouldn’t be a problem. You’d just buy fewer or smaller barrels of the slow seller. Tanks seem a very inflexible system.

Those four extra gallons per barrel must have cost the brewery a stack. That’s 11% extra beer. And, whereas there’s always some waste with cask beer, presumably the landlord could sell every drop that was in the tank. I’m sure publicans loved having tanks. Lots of free beer to make a profit on.

Another thought: what happened if, say, your tank of Bitter was emptied half way through a session? Unless you had a spare tank to switch over to, you’d be buggered.

It didn’t do United Brewery’s trade in the Bradford area much good:

“Of course, tied and free trade fell in the Bradford area alarmingly as customers lost confidence. Several years passed before all the difficulties were sorted out, and by that time technology had developed other beer storage and delivery systems, notably with traditional draught beer and keg beer. The tank beer system was perfected just in time for it all to be withdrawn from service. Today one may still see the odd rusting tank beer container around and wonder what was its purpose.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 78.

That’s ironic. By the time they’d sorted the system out, it was redundant. Quite a few brewery’s tried out tank beer in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I can remember seeing the tankers driving around. Though I’m struggling to recall any pub I drank in that sold tank beer. Obviously, being a cask fan, tank beer pubs weren’t likely to be amongst my regular haunts.

The fiasco seems to have had a long-term impact on both United Breweries and their successor, Bass Charrington:

“The only beneficiaries of all this uproar were the manufacturers of the equipment and their shareholders; and the relieved rival brewery companies who furled their white flags of surrender in derision. UB, CUB and BC spent thousands of pounds putting the system right, and to their credit, they did it thoroughly and handsomely. Somewhere, mouldering in the document storage cellars of the company, will be the fading minutes of the Tank Beer Committee set up by Hammonds, as on a Plague or War footing, meeting daily to receive reports from the front line and issuing directions to the troops in battle. Gradually, as one reads the minutes, the light of remedy, falteringly at first and then stronger, bathes the stricken field of conflict with the beam of understanding and healing, sweeping through the necromancy of wild surmise and onto the reason of scientific application. A cautious corporate wisdom, unnoticed at the time, grew out of the affair, and it marked the decline of individual, untutored enthusiasm. There remained however, one more contra-orthodox scheme to run its course - the three dozen beer bottle case.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 78.

I wonder how much the whole exercise cost United Breweries? When you add up the initial cost of the equipment – not just the tanks in the pubs, but also the delivery tankers – the cost of lost trade and all the expense of fixing the system, it must have come to a pretty penny. Though I doubt anyone ever added it all up. It would have been too depressing.

It makes you realise the attraction of keg beer. You could deliver it on a normal dray, no special equipment was required in the cellar, other than CO2, and it could be delivered in flexible or small amounts. I understand now why that’s the way big breweries eventually went.


Jeremy Drew said...

I have a half-memory of watching a bulk tanker delivery to a pub in Liverpool in the mid eighties. It may have been Guinness. Have I imagined this?

Anonymous said...

Do you know if David Constable Maxwell had much familiarity with brewing or if he was an outside financial/business guy? The tank system has all the hallmarks of a consultant parachuting into a business he knows little about.

Ron Pattinson said...


David Constable Maxwell seems to have been at Cornbrook for quite a while. I'm not sure what he did before that.

Unknown said...

Are these the tanks that we call grundies now? We have a few of them in our brewery that came to canada from England. They look like some kind of Sputnik satellites. Fortunately we have a system in place to clean them regularly! Ha!

Ron Pattinson said...

forbidden ales,

I've no idea, to be honest. Maybe someone else can chip in.

John Lester said...

Anthony Avis’s book says quite a bit about David Constable Maxwell, though not much about his background other than that he came from “an old recusant family from Leicestershire” (but family sources say that the Constable Maxwells originated in Inverness-shire, though living since the last war at Bosworth Hall in Leicestershire). He was apparently “a charming and persuasive man”, who somehow managed to have a new Bentley supplied to him each year by the Cornbrook Brewery until it was taken over. Avis sums him up as “an engaging personality, with an enchanting inability to see any point of view, or interest, other than his own”.
Constable Maxwell remained a fairly big cheese in Cornbrook/United Breweries until around the mid-1960s. But he was involved in other breweries as well: he had been a director of Ind Coope and Allsopp and some of its subsidiaries from at least the early post-war period until the early 1960s; this overlapped with his term of office at Cornbrook, which began around the late 1940s/early 1950s. From the early 1960s, David Constable Maxwell’s son, Robert Constable Maxwell, was also involved in various subsidiaries of Allied Breweries, as a director at various times of Tetley’s and Allied Breweries (UK), ending up as Chairman of the Aylesbury Brewery until the early/mid-1980s.