Saturday, 15 January 2011

Mr. Bass chips in

It wasn't just Mr. Allsopp who got pissed by the allegations about strychnine in Pale Ale. His great competitor, Mr. Bass, was equally peeved. Quite understandably, really. Suspicions of your beer being laced with poison aren't likely to boost sales.


[To the Editor of the Medical Times and Gazette.]

Sir,—In your Number of the 3rd instant you are pleased to express your approbation of the letters from Mr. Ind and myself, which have been followed by one equally explicit from Mr. Allsopp, "denying in indignant terms the alleged falsification of bitter beer with strychnine;" but you add, "it is the middlemen who are the guilty parties, if any be guilty." I apprehend that the drinkers of bitter beer would not give one farthing for choice whether they are to be poisoned by the brewers or the "middlemen," and that this last suggestion is scarcely less mischievous than the original insinuation. Like many other allegations, however groundless and unreasonable, it may be difficult to demonstrate its absolute impossibility; yet I am perfectly persuaded the public will not yield to suspicions so improbable, and resting on no tangible foundation.

You suggest, that the "middlemen" may, by adulteration, make one bottle of stale beer into two. How can that be accomplished ? Certainly not with strychnine, which would be a substitute for the hop only, according to your theory ; what is to represent the malt ? But permit me to assure you, that the idea of making pale ale of presentable appearance and flavour by means of stale beer is preposterous,—the characteristics of tolerably good pale ale absolutely forbid it; it must be pale and quite brilliant in colour, and of pure and delicate flavour: how can such a metamorphosis be made from stale beer? I aver that there is no brewer of experience, whether ale or porter brewer, who will venture to deny, that pale ale is of all malt liquor the most difficult to adulterate. I believe it to be quite impossible, preserving at the same time the ordinary features of pale ale, to adulterate it.

In your original article on this subject, on the 20th of March, you state, that the strychnine manufactured in Paris was "discovered to be intended for exportation to England in order to fabricate bitter beer." How was it so discovered ? What proof have you offered to the public of the truth of so astounding an assertion ? Have you, as has been done in the case of many suspected articles, caused analyses to be made of bitter beer? Have you even made any inquiries as to its adulteration ? Have you thought it incumbent upon you to ascertain by any investigation the destination of the strychnine imported into this country ? Then, if you have not traced the employment of strychnine in "bitter beer," why should you fix your aspersions upon that article?—why not on other beer, on ale, on porter? Are the "middlemen," as you call them, who sell those beers, supposing it possible there should be one single retailer so profoundly vile as to justify your suspicions,—are they to confine their poison to bitter beer and leave the competing articles untouched ? Where are your dead men—the victims of the wholesale slaughter your ingenuity has conceived ?

I am assured by sensible men, or I would not have believed it, that there may be some people so nervous, or so unreasonable, as to attach importance to this "fable." I regard it as one of the most unjustifiable attacks on the interests of an important trade that ever appeared in print. But on the part of the entire trade, brewers, and "middlemen " too, I undertake to offer every possible facility for testing the truth or falsehood of the allegations you have published to the world. 
I am, &c.

M. T. Bass."
"Medical Times and Gazette, Volume 4", 1852, page 402.
Mr. Bass makes the perfectly reasonable complaint that the magazine had made no effort to find any evidence of adulteration of beer with strychnine. Nor to discover where French strychnine went to in Britain. But had just repeated a vague accusation without any research of their own.

The editors had tried to wriggle out of their accusations of reputable brewers like Bass by blaming shadowy "middlemen". Though, as Mr. Bass rightly points out, it would make no sense to use strychnine to revitalise stale beer. Of course, for the business of Bass and Allsopp, it made little difference if they are some third party were the culprit. Drinkers would still be suspicious their beer might be poisoned, even if they trusted the brewer. The revised accusation was potentially just as damaging.

I can't resist one final remark. Note the way Mr. Bass uses the terms "bitter beer" and "pale ale" interchangeably in his letter. Who better to know if there was a difference between Bitter and Pale Ale than the owner of the world's most famous Pale Ale brewery?

The editor's response is pretty predictable: he makes a personal attack on Mr. Bass. Very much as an editor today would likely do when he realises he's published a crap story but won't lose face by admitting it.

[Mr. Bass is as bitter as his own beer, and, like most men in a passion, has written a letter which can do him no service. Mr. Bass professes to have read our original article on this subject, and yet he puts several questions to us, with the answers to which he should be well acquainted. We will, however, answer the questions once more. The author of the statement, that strychnine has been made in Paris, and exported to England to give bitterness to beer, is M.Payen, who has delivered a course of lectures on public hygiene in Paris, which, we understand, has been reported in the Constitutionnel. The paragraph relating to this falsification was inserted in a well-known medical periodical, L'Union Médicale, of the 6th of March. In our usual reading of the foreign journals, we met with this statement, and it appeared to us to be of the greatest importance. We had not then, and we have not now, any reason to believe that this deliberate statement of M. Payen was a "fable." We gave it publicity because it was our duty to do so, and, until the Government have examined into the matter, we shall not let it drop. If we find a statement in a respectable journal which concerns the health of thousands of our countrymen, it is our business to make it known ; but it is not our business to analyse beer. It is not our business, but that of the Government, to ascertain the destination of the strychnine which is imported into England. Mr. Bass appears to have most indefinite notions of the duties of the public press, when he puts such questions to us. We must, also, say, that Mr. Bass has written his letter very disingenuously, when he leaves it to be inferred, that we made this statement without authority. On the contrary, in our first article, which he has read, we gave most explicitly the source from whence we derived the information. With regard to one of Mr. Bass's remarks, we must state, that we never understood M. Payen's assertion to refer only to the beverage called by the trade "pale ale," but to all sorts of bitter beer. If Mr. Bass wishes this question sifted to the bottom, and we do not hesitate in believing that he does so, let him call with us on the Government to cause inquiries to be made of the French Government as to M. Payen's assertion, to learn what quantity of strychnine was manufactured, when and by what channels it was imported into England, and what led the French police (for we presume M. Payen derived his information from them) to suppose that it was intended for the adulteration of beer. The result of these inquiries may satisfy the public, but it can never content any one to have a deliberate statement met simply by a brewer's assertion, that it is a "fable." For ourselves we disregard the offensive tone of Mr. Bass's letter. We only advise him, if he writes to us again, to show his letter to some judicious friend.—Ed. Medical Times and Gazette.]
"Medical Times and Gazette, Volume 4", 1852, page 402.

The editor's defence is pretty feeble. Which is probably why he began with a personal attack on Mr. Bass. He admits having repeated the remarks of the French chemist without further investigation as being in the public interest. That's a typical journalist's cop out. He's adamant the story wasn't a "fable", despite having no real evidence to back it up. Isn't that the definition of a fable? A story unsupported by facts.

Moving on from century and a half old arguments, there's an interesting statement: "we never understood M. Payen's assertion to refer only to the beverage called by the trade "pale ale," but to all sorts of bitter beer." This is different to Mr. Bass's use of the two terms. It implies that Pale Ale was a subset of Bitter Beer. It's a shame he doesn't expain the difference between the two more fully.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Blimey, Mr Bass, Mr Allsopp and Mr Ind! I wonder if Mr InBev had anything to say on the matter ;-)