Sunday, 11 December 2011

Adulteration in 1937

Time for another of those exciting government reports. It's truly a white-knuckle ride on this blog. Maybe you should go and lie down for a while to calm yourself before reading any further.

Drinkers have long - and often justifiably - been suspicious about what was going into their beer. As we've seen earlier, during the Crimean War it was virtually impossible to buy unadulterated beer in a London pub. There were very special circumstances in that case - a war tax that had increased the wholesale price of beer while customers insisted on paying the old retail price. Publicans had no option but to water their  beer, if they didn't want to sell it at a loss.

But how widespread was adulteration at other times? It's very hard to say, because there aren't that many figures to work with, especially from before 1900. My guess is that with increased regulation of all foodstuffs in the final decades of the 19th century adulteration became much less widespread. And limited itself mostly to adding water or slops.

Finally I've got some real data to work with, in the form of this government report. It's no wonder I'm jumping around in my seat. here it is:


The total number of samples examined in the year in connection with the. duty on beer was 47,796. The object of the examination in most cases is to determine the original gravity of the beer, that is. the gravity before fermentation, as it is on this basis that the charge for duty is raised.

Materials Used for Brewing.—The number of samples examined was 363. of which 232 were malt, com. brewing sugars or exhausted grain, and 131 yeast foods and miscellaneous substances either used, or proposed to be used, in the preparation of beer.

Wort, or Beer in the Unfinished Condition.—As a check on the declarations of gravity made by brewers for assessment of beer duty, 4,141 samples taken by the local Officers of Customs and Excise were submitted for examination. One hundred and one samples were found to be under-declared, the extent of the under-declaration in most of these being one or two degrees of gravity.

Spoilt Beer.—Samples of beer to the number of 2,909. submitted as having become spoilt for various reasons and unsaleable, were examined in connection with claims for repayment of duty.

Beer as Retailed.—Under the provisions of the Customs and Inland Revenue Act, 1885, it is an offence for a dealer in, or retailer of, beer to dilute beer. For the purpose of checking whether dilution has taken place 614 samples of beer were taken by Officers of Customs and Excise from the premises of publicans and other retailers and submitted for examination. In 19 instances there was evidence of dilution, and in 13 cases the dilution was equivalent to the addition of over three gallons of water per barrel.

Non-alcoholic Beer, Herb Beer and Beer Substitutes.— Thirty-three samples were examined in respect of their liability to beer duty. In 10 instances the alcohol ranged from 2 to 4 per cent, of proof spirit.

Beer Exported on Drawback.—On exportation, beer is entitled to drawback, which is based on the quantity and original gravity of the beer, both of which must be declared by the exporter. The laboratory checks the original gravity, and. in the case of bottled beer, the capacity of the bottles: 15,767 samples were examined, and only seven were found to be over-declared, in one or other of these respects.

Imported Beer.—Almost the whole of the beer imported into this country comes from the Irish Free State, and it consists principally of stout, whereas beer from the Continent is mostly of the lager type. All consignments are examined in order to determine the original gravity; during the year under review 20,682 samples of imported beer were examined.

Examination of Beer and Brewing Materials for Arsenic. —The number of samples tested, including beer, wort, malt, sugar and other materials used in brewing, was 2,083. Of these, 27 were found to contain arsenic in slight excess of the limit recommended by the Royal Commission on Arsenical Poisoning -namely, the equivalent of one-hundredth of a grain of arsenious oxide per pound in solid materials or per gallon in liquids.

Miscellaneous Samples. —One thousand, two hundred and four samples of beer, concealed worts, sugar, solutions, etc., were examined in connection with special inquiries, control of brewers' operations and suspected irregularities, including the illegal addition of sugar or brewing by unlicensed persons. The analytical results in a number of the samples afforded evidence of revenue offences."
"Brewers' Journal, 1938", page 7
It's the Beer as Retailed section that interests me most. 19 out of 614 samples had been watered. That's about 3%. I'm pleasantly surprised at how low that figure is. If that's typical (I realise the sample size is quite small), 1930's publicans were a fairly honest bunch.

Let's see how responsible brewers were. The checks on drawback found even fewer examples of misdoing: 7 out of 15,767 samples. A tiny 0.04%. Though more brewers under-declared their worts, 101 out of 4,141 is about 2.5%. 

On the face of it, checking specifically for arsenic in brewing materials is odd. But there's a good reason for it: the contamination of beer with arsenic in 1900 which caused dozens of deaths. The source of the outbreak was brewing sugar than had been produced with non food grade acid. I fond it slightly worrying that they found any samples with quantities of arsenic above the recommended limit, by however little it may have been.

So there you have it. Was British beer a chemical stew of adulterants in 1937? No, not at all. Just a few dodgy landlords throwing a few pails of water into their barrels.


StuartP said...

Yes, yes, but you can only get so far by consulting historical documents.
What you need to do is listen to a real expert, like Garret Oliver:
"I wrote a piece myself on adulterations, and we tend to think of the past as being some place where things were pure, but what you find out, for example, is that in the mid-1800s, porter — which was the great beer style of its day, especially in England — was in fact pumped full of drugs."

Ron Pattinson said...

StuartP, I read that. He got things all mixed up and accused brewers of adulterating beer, while in the majority of cases it was publicans.

There were never any prosecutions of the large London Porter breweries for adulteration.

StuartP said...

A pre-emptive strike for the Papazian Cup!