Friday, 12 February 2016

Cornbrook Brewery and tank beer

Cornbrook  was a Manchester brewery bought by United Breweries, the successor to Hammonds, in 1961. It was a mid-sized brewery like many others. But one thing made it special: replacing cask with tank beer.

DCM was David Constable Maxwell, managing director of Cornbrook,

“Under DCM's tutelage, Cornbrook had pioneered their system of handling draught beer through delivery by motor tanker wagon into bulk containers in the outlets and dispensing it by measuring pumps on the counters. It was popularly called tank beer, and had its origins in a system used by Hull Brewery company in that city from the 1920s. It had been updated in the light of modern scientific application and was manufactured by a Lancashire company Porter Lancastrian, with which DCM was connected, although, unusually for him, he did not reveal this until actually asked. As stated, bitter beer was taken from the brewery by tanker and filled into metal tanks in the cellars of public houses and kept under carbon dioxide pressure, and thence through a measuring pump into the customers' glasses. The principle was good, in that all responsibility for quality was removed from the licensee, as was the necessity to ensure the scrupulous cleanliness of all utensils in the retail outlet exposed to the atmosphere.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 75.

The Hull Brewery used large ceramic jars to store beer in pub cellars. There was a bit of a controversy back in the 1970’s whether their beer counted as cask or not. It was rough filtered and the ceramic vessels it was served from weren’t pressurised, unlike Cornbrook’s metal tanks. I seem to remember CAMRA accepting it nationally, but the Hull branch not putting any pubs in the Good Beer Guide that sold it.

Just checked the 1978 and 1980 Good Beer Guides. Hull counted as cask in 1978, but not in 1980, when the GBG notes that all their beer was filtered. Obviously CAMRA had a change of heart.

Obviously, for the free trade Hull didn’t use tanks. The Town Hall Tavern in Leeds used to sell their Bitter, presumably from a cask, but filtered. I don’t recall it standing out in either a good or a bad way.

The move to tank beer was prompted by a recurring theme in the 20th century: publicans messing up the beer in the pub cellar. Keg and tank beer were seen as a way of taking a landlord’s incompetence out of the equation. Foolproof beer was the aim. Of course, it never quite worked out like that. 

The enthusiasm of some management for tank beer saw United Breweries rather rashly rush into adopting it more widely in the group.

“DCM sang the praises of the system extravagantly, as did his general manager, Joe Barlow, when Cornbrook came into the UB group. Lightning and carefully controlled tours of the brewery and as carefully controlled inspections of selected pubs, were arranged to make its virtues known more widely to other executive managers in UB. Since the system was new, it had not been tested on a large scale - of time, dimension or its tolerance of draught beers brewed differently to that of Cornbrook. Apart from the assertions of the system's success by the Cornbrook directorate, independent actual and factual statistical evidence was hard to come by; it was therefore difficult for an objective assessment of its merits to be made. However, WTD [William Tudor Davies] who had advanced his career from being the outside management consultant from Urwick Orr & Partners to being the managing director of Hammonds, and then the sales director of UB, was convinced the system should be adopted, despite doubts within the company that it still had to be proved. The compromise was to have a field trial of the system on a grand scale, in that all the group's outlets in the Bradford area were converted to the "tank beer" system.

WTD was convinced it was a significant breakthrough in brewing technology and product service to the customer.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 76.

No-one really understood the technology that well. But went ahead anyway. You can probably guess what happened. But I’m saving that for next time. I will leave you with a couple of Cornbrook beers:

Cornbrook Brewery beers 1927 - 1961
Year Beer Style Price size package OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation colour
1927 Flagon Ale Mild pint bottled 1028.2
1927 Barley Stout Stout pint bottled 1049.3
1959 Barley Stout Stout 12.5d half bottled 1046.3 1013.8 4.21 70.19% 250
1961 Keg Mild Mild 16d to 17d pint draught 1035 1002.3 4.09 93.43% 20
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001.
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/002.

Note that the Keg Mild is pale in colour.


John Lester said...

I share your recollections of Hull beer in the 1970s: not particularly memorable, but certainly not uniquely bland or flavourless. The Hull Brewery was certainly one of the pioneers in the provision of filtered tank beer, but it may well not have been the first. A E Part, in 'The Art and Practice of Innkeeping' (published in 1922) says that 'in London and some of the large towns beer is supplied through a tube, or hose, from a tank cart or motor into a receiver. This beer is suitable only for a quick sale, say forty-eight hours, and is ready to sell at once, is always bright and clear to the last drop, and has no deposit'. It would be interesting to know which breweries in London used this system in the 20s.

Curmudgeon said...

If the brewers had concentrated on tank beer rather than full-blown keg or top pressure, they might have been more successful in eliminating cask. My recollection is that tank, being pumped, lacked the fizziness of keg and also retained more flavour. At times it could be hard to distinguish from cask.

Ron Pattinson said...


bright beer served through electric pumps could be hard to distiguish from cask beer sold too young. At least in the case of Tetleys.

John Lester said...

More on this topic from Martyn Cornell here:

One curiosity on the London beer scene in the 1970s was Fuller's Bitter, which was a filtered cask beer. As with most Fuller's beers at the time, it was normally served by a system provided by Porter Lancastrian (see above) which provided a measured half pint (under pressure) at the push of a button. A few Fuller's pubs did retain handpumps, and their number increased as the 1970s wore on. Fuller's Bitter disappeared from the Good Beer Guide after the 1976 edition (probably for similar reasons to the proscription of Hull beer mentioned above), though it continued to exist until it became the cask-conditioned Chiswick Bitter in 1980.