Monday, 10 January 2011

The Great Bitter Beer Puff

I was tempted to make a tasteless joke about the title. But managed to refrain when I couldn't think of a funny one. Not that that's bothered me much in the past.

In case you hadn't already guessed, we're still with the Pale Ale strychnine scare of the 1850's. It seems ridiculous now that anyone could have believed this outrageous claim. Yet 50 years later dozens were killed or made seriously ill by arsenic-laced beer. At a time when inspection of food and drink had become much more rigorous.

The medical press was full of stuff about the scare. Some of it in the form of advertisements by Allsopp, which was keen to clear its name. And perhaps more. This article is critical of  the methods and motives of the brewery's response.


In the beginning of the year we happened to notice, in a leading article, the statement of a French chemist, that large quantities of strychnine were manufactured in Paris for the purpose of adulterating bitter beer in England. Our remarks were immediately seized hold of by one of the great Burton brewers, who indignantly protested against a statement so much calculated to do serious injury to his trade. With this counter-statement, which, we doubt not, the Profession and the public in general thought perfectly satisfactory, we imagined the subject at an end, and that a man might henceforth enjoy his glass of bitter beer without fear or reproach. Not so, however; our little statement has gradually given rise to a fierce controversy. Scientific men, whilst calmly pursuing the even tenor of their way, have been suddenly seized upon and dragged into the arena to do battle for the beer barrel; the newspapers have been overshadowed with gigantic advertisements, and Allsopp's Pale Ale, in the largest type, floats like the banner of a triumphant conqueror, in every broad-sheet of the three Kingdoms. And what is it all about? asks our reader. Really we can hardly tell ourselves. As in the great Whistonian controversy, the original point in dispute has long been lost sight of. It is no longer asked, whether the public stands in danger of being narcotised and jactitated* by strychnine; but—Who brews the best bitter beer?

To settle this point, which might have been deputed to a tapster, Messrs. Allsopp have thought proper to have recourse to a philosopher. It used to be the boast of a celebrated blacking-maker, that he "kept a poet;" and Allsopp, in like manner, parades his retention of a natural philosopher. The illustrious chemist, whose genius aims at revolutionising the agriculture of the world, is degraded into the position of Bacchus bestriding an ale-cask. The headings, "Allsopp's Pale Ale and Baron Liebig," or "Professor Liebig on Allsopp's Pale Ale," meet the eye so constantly on every advertising sheet, that the mind cannot separate the two ideas.

And how does all this come about? asks the innocent reader. Why the Baron has given a testimonial, and here it is :—


"The specimens of your pale ale sent to me afford me another opportunity of confirming its valuable qualities. I am myself an admirer of this beverage; and my own experience enables me to recommend it? in accordance with the opinion of the most eminent English physicians, as a very agreeable and efficient tonic, and as a general beverage, both for the invalid and the robust.

"Giessen, May 6,1852." Justus Liebig.
This testimonial might have passed as the good-natured opinion of a savant after having been warmed by "specimens of your pale ale;" but there are many celebrated brewers besides the Messrs. Allsopp, who either—as the latter gentlemen assert—acting from "an unworthy jealousy," or from a natural dislike of seeing other people's wares unduly puffed, thought fit to put themselves in communication with the Baron, and a second letter from Giessen was the result. This letter, which is said to be at the Jerusalem Coffee-house**, where any person might inspect it, contains the following passage:—

"If I wished to associate with any individual brewery my remarks on the alleged adulterations of bitter beer with strychnine, it would have been only natural to have mentioned another brewery, in which alone, and not in Mr. Allsopp's, I was engaged in investigating the Burton mode of brewing; and it was also in that brewery, and not in Mr. Allsopp's, that the Bavarian brewers acquired all the instructions they obtained at Burton. The admiration I expressed of this beverage in my letter to Mr. Allsopp, is advertised in such a manner as to lead to the inference, that my praise was exclusively confined to Mr. Allsopp's beer; this was not the case; my remarks referred to that class of beer.
"July 24, 1852. "(Signed) Justus Liebig."

This extract, as chance would have it, generally appeared as an advertisement close to the original letter, and formed, we must confess, a very damaging postscript to it. At all events, the Messrs. Allsopp seem to have felt it as a dreadful thorn in their side, and the poor Baron was accordingly put under contribution for another letter from his original tormentors, extracts from which have been diligently advertised in the most prominent manner as a triumphant rejoinder. Here they are:—

"To my great astonishment and concern my attention has lately been called to several anonymous articles and advertisements headed by my name, such as in the —, whose author altogether misrepresents the motives of my remarks, and even goes so far as to say, 'that I had never analysed your beer, nor, perhaps, ever tasted it in my life,' and to allege a retraction on my part of the original statement. I emphatically declare, that I had not the slightest knowledge of these anonymous articles, the contents of which I entirely disapprove of, and that, in every respect, I adhere to the statement made in my letter to you, which certainly you were and are at perfect liberty to publish.

"(Signed) Justus Liebig.
"Munich, Sept. 15, 1852."

From these extracts, it is clear that the Baron does not deny the authenticity of the Jerusalem Coffee-house letter; on the contrary, by not referring to it he would seem to endorse its genuineness. What, then, are we to think of such a contradictory correspondence?—how account for such a melancholy exhibition? Really one half suspects that "the specimens of your pale ale sent to me" must have possessed an extra stroke of malt, and that the Baron must have taken up his pen while under the influence of John Barleycorn. Be this as it may, however, one thing is certain, the incautious gift of a testimonial has caused a dispute which has ended in placing in a very undignified position a very eminent man. We should not have wasted one moment's time upon the quarrel respecting the relative merits of different brewers' pale ale, but we have gone into this correspondence at some length, in order to show how adroitly the trading spirit can turn to account a great name, and, by this instance, to warn others against the chance of having theirs bespattered with the dirt in a similar manner. Messrs. Allsopp, not content with one victim, drag at their dray-wheels a score of physicians and chemists who have thoughtlessly given them testimonials, and who are now doomed to see themselves day by day paraded before the world as pendents to a very unseemly controversy. The great bitter beer puff is, however, only a bloated likeness of hundreds of others, to the of which medical men have thoughtlessly lent It is positively painful for any high-minded member of the Profession to skim over the advertisement sheet of the Times, and see how his brethren demean themselves and their art by testifying, right and left, to anything that is brought under their notice, from British brandy down to digestive bread,—from pulmonic wafers to patent water-closets. In some instances, we are aware, these so-called testimonials are impudent forgeries.

In all such cases it is the hounden duty of the medical man whose name has been so unwarrantably employed, to expose the deception in the most public manner possible. A little moral courage expended in this way would go far to abolish a practice which has become a reproach to our Profession."
"Medical times and gazette, Volume 5", 1852, page 439-440.
To kick off, I'll again point out that Bitter Beer is used as a synonym for Pale Ale. Just in case there's still someone out there whose dense skull this fact hasn't yet penetrated.

Those crafty devils at Allsopp used Liebig's remarks out of context as a recommendation for their particular Pale Ale. When it turns out Liebig had studied the Burton brewing method in "another brewery" and it was really this brewery's Pale Ale that he had praised in his initial letter. I wonder which brewery that might have been?

This remark gives it away: it's where "the Bavarian brewers acquired all the instructions they obtained at Burton". Does he mean Sedlmayr and Lederer by Bavarian brewers? If he does, then the brewery he means is Bass. Allsopp's biggest competitor in the Pale Ale business. A bit naughty then to use Liebig's remarks as an endorsement of their beer.

"the newspapers have been overshadowed with gigantic advertisements" for Allsopp, article says. We've seen one of those in an earlier post. It takes the form of testimonials from various medical men saying that their beer isn't poisoned with a handy reminder at the end of where their Pale Ale can be bought. The same advert appears in just about every issue of "Medical times and gazette" of 1852.

In a way, you have to admire Allsopp's nous. Turning adversity to their own advantage.

* jactitate: to move or stir about violently. Not I word I can remember coming across before.

** I wondered at first if this might be what's now the Jerusalem Tavern. I know it was once a coffee house. It wasn't. It was somewhere East India Company men gathered.

"JERUSALEM  COFFEE-HOUSE, 1, Cowper's-court, Cornhill, is one of the oldest of the City news-rooms, and is frequented by merchants and captains connected with the commerce of China, India and Australia:
    "The subscription room is well furnished with files of the principal Canton, Hong Kong, Macao, Penang, Singapore, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Sydney, Hobart Town, Launceston, Adelaide and Port Philip papers, and Prices Current; besides shipping-lists and papers from the various intermediate stations or ports touched at, as St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, &c. The books of East India shipping include arrivals, departures, casualties, &c. The full business is between two and three o'clock P.M. In 1845, John Tawell, the Slough murderer, was captured at the Jerusalem, which he was in the habit of visiting, to ascertain information of the state of his property in Sydney." The City, 2nd edit., 1848."
"Curiosities of London" by John Timbs, 1866, page 202.

1 comment:

Arctic Alchemy said...

It's my belief that what was really at the heart of the matter was a genuine jealousy, greed and loathing directed at the success and profits of Burton's famous breweries. Dominating in England, the Baltic, India and though out much of Eastern Europe,Bass and Allsopp where celebrated for their taste and purity, because of what we know of water composite today, it was simply not possible for other brewers to create the clean hop bitterness and clarity of Burton's exceptional water profiles. Without exception, this created a competitive malcontent as surely someone had "puffed" an odious rumor. It simply must be poisoned !