Monday, 7 September 2020

Dodgy crown corks

Court case often give a brief glimpse into one aspect of the brewing industry. This article provides several insights. I'll explain exactly what later. 

First read the article:

Alleged faulty corks, resulting in beer being spoiled, are the subject of action by Dundee firm against the cork suppliers in the Court of Session.

Alexander Graham Dunn, bottler, sole partner of Messrs William Smith, bottlers, 160 Nethergate, claims £475 12s 2d from the Defiant Crown Cork Co., Thames Iron Works, Lewisham, London.

Dunn states that in September 1948 customers said bottled beer he supplied was defective, because it had musty smell and flavour, and was undrinkable. They rejected the beer.

On inspection the corks were found to defective, and the beer was spoiled. Beer returned was as follows:—290 dozen bottles Guinness, valued at £159 10s; 25 dozen bottles Barclay Perkins Red Label stout, valued at £15; and 172 dozen half pints of bottled Bass beer, valued at £107 10s.

He alleges that the defective state of the corks was due to breach of contract by the London firm. The corks after use were discoloured, blackened, with musty smell. Dunn believes and avers that the corks were of inferior quality and contained pitted holes when delivered. It is also believed that the holes contained bacteria which were invisible to inspection, but which caused mould and caused the bad taste.

Dunn also states that his suppliers did not sterilise or pasteurise the corks before delivery, the normal and proper practice. Had they done so the corks would not have become mouldy and discoloured.


It is denied that the cases of corks were deposited on the floor of a damp cellar. They were stored in a dry cellar. Other corks from the same suppliers, stored in the same cellar, were perfect for at least year. In any event, the corks were not damp when put in the bottles, and would not have been used had they been damp. Prior to being used in the bottles they were clean and normal in colour, and had no visible defect or bad smell.

The sum claimed represents the value of the beer and stout returned, cost of carriage of the bottles to and from the customers, and loss of profit.

The Defiant Crown Cork Co., who deny liability, state that corks returned to them by Dunn were affected by mould, caused by the corks being stored in damp conditions. Corks in a full and unopened case also returned were in perfect condition. They explain that cork is a natural product, and all corks contain pitted holes which are inherent in their nature. When the corks were delivered to Dunn they did not contain bacteria.

The corks underwent a heat treatment in manufacture, and were thoroughly sterilised. These corks form only a small fraction of a batch made on the same day, and no complaints have been received from other users. If the contents of the bottles became unusable it was not caused by any defect in the corks.

It is also denied that any discoloration, blackening or mustiness arose in the corks only after use in the bottles. The case of corks complained of was at least six months old and cases sent to Dunn after the one complained of had been used, before it.

When examined by their Glasgow agent, the case was deposited on the floor of a damp cellar, and appeared to have been there for some time. It was lying opposite a wide door through which dampness could come.

The defect in their condition was due to being kept in the damp cellar since February 1948. Dunn knew that corks should be stored in a dry place, and that dampness encouraged the growth of various moulds. Moreover, he failed to use the corks in the order in which they were sent to him. Further, he or his servants ought to have inspected the corks within a reasonable time after delivery, and in any event prior to using them.

It is believed that any discoloration or blackening was due to iron sulphide and iron tannate, and could not have communicated a foreign odour or flavour to the contents of the bottles, but the presence of such discoloration or blackening should have attracted their attention prior use, and have caused them to make the further simple examination by smelling them. This would have revealed at once that the corks had a musty smell.

Proof will be heard on October 31."
Dundee Courier - Wednesday 04 October 1950, page 3.

 Where to start? With the beers themselves.

Guinness and Bass are exactly the type of beers you'd expect to be seeing bottled by a third party. But Barclay Perkins? Unlike Bass and Guinness, it wasn't a brewery which got its beers into lots of other breweries pubs. And Scotland is an awfully long way away from their usual London market.

But I'd already found several advertisements for Barclay's Stout in Scottish newspapers.  I expect that they had to pull out of it due to zoning during WW II. Only a select few brewers - such as Bass and Guinness - were allowed to distribute nationally. Everyone else was only allowed to sell beer within a certain distance of the brewery. Distant tied houses were supplied by brewers closer by.

Clearly, Barclay's Scottish trade did return after the end of zoning. Though I could have surmised that from their brewing records. As one of their post-war beers had the brew house name of IBSt Sc. That is a version of Russian Stout especially for the Scottish market. In 1950, weak enough to count as a session beer.

We also get to see what the wholesale price of the three beers was. I'll spare you the maths, but the Guinness works out to 11 shillings per dozen, Barclay's Stout 12 shillings and Bass 12 shilling and sixpence. It says something of its perceived quality that Barclay's was more expensive than Guinness, itself not a cheap beer.

Third-party bottlers - companies whose sole business was bottling other breweries' beers. It was quite a big thing in the first half of the 20th century, but slowly petered out in the 1960a and 1970s.

This case illustrates the danger for a brewer. By farming out bottling to another company they lost control of the quality. You could end up with undrinkable beer through no fault of your own. That's probably one of the main reasons the practice died out.

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