Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bottled beer in the 1930's

Sydney Nevile is a particular hero of mine. In his 70 plus years in the brewing industry he not only witnessed huge changes in British brewing, he was one of the forces driving those changes. He was a member of the Central Control Board during WW I and later a director of Whitbread.

Which is why the article I'm about to quote from is of special interest: it was written by Nevile. When, writing in 1936, he talks about the situation 50 years ago, it's not based on things he'd read or heard. He was already working in the brewing industry then.

This is a point I'd never heard before:

"Half a century ago price and quantity were more dominant considerations than quality. Beer was indeed the national beverage, at any rate with the industrial classes, and many consumers displayed a capacity for consumption which would appear startling to-day. It was customary to have a cask of beer on tap in all but the poorer industrial homes; the household regarded beer as an essential food. Large business houses who employed staffs who lived on the premises, supplied them with beer as a matter of course."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 520.

He's saying that back in the 19th century, most consumers weren't to fussy about the beer they drank as long as it was cheap and alcoholic and there was lots of it. Draught beer at home sounds weird now. But in the days before there was much bottled beer (and when bottled beer was expensive compared to draught) it made sense. The number of advertisements for beers in cask in 19th century newspapers demonstrate how common it was. The practice did live on in working class households even beyond WW II, but by then casks were only bought in for special occasions, such as Christmas.

Let's move on to what Nevile had to say about bottled beer:

"Bottled Beers
The critical demand for brightness and uniformity of palate, coupled with the fact that beer is stored in many houses in comparatively small quantities, is probably responsible for the great growth of the demand for bottled beers. Fifty years ago bottled beer formed less than 10 per cent., possibly not more than 5 per cent, of the total production, whereas to-day many breweries find their bottled beer represents at least 30 per cent., and in some cases a greater proportion of their total production."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had some figures to back up that assertion of 30% or more of a brewery's output being in bottles. As look would have it, I have such figures. And not from any old brewery, from Whitbread. Where, at the time of writing this article, Nevile was a director.

Whitbread Draught and Bottled sales 1901 – 1919
total draught Bottling Burton
Year barrels % barrels % barrels % Total
1901 538,097 73.63% 188,525 25.80% 4,153 0.57% 730,775
1910 446,477 55.72% 353,534 44.12% 1,325 0.17% 801,336
1920 400,605 57.14% 298,873 42.63% 1,660 0.24% 701,138
1921 359,301 55.20% 289,869 44.53% 1,714 0.26% 650,884
1922 299,946 54.05% 253,270 45.64% 1,713 0.31% 554,929
1923 256,578 53.59% 220,855 46.13% 1,372 0.29% 478,805
1924 282,014 52.34% 255,291 47.38% 1,530 0.28% 538,835
1925 266,580 52.30% 241,643 47.41% 1,462 0.29% 509,685
1926 260,247 53.31% 226,640 46.43% 1,290 0.26% 488,177
1927 230,463 51.76% 214,752 48.24% 993 0.22% 446,208
1928 235,754 50.84% 227,549 49.07% 911 0.20% 464,214
1929 244,410 50.83% 236,384 49.17% 869 0.18% 481,663
1930 251,760 51.19% 240,069 48.81% 776 0.16% 492,605
1931 239,744 51.48% 225,941 48.52% 533 0.11% 466,218
1932 207,793 49.91% 208,558 50.09% 272 0.07% 416,623
1933 219,942 51.53% 216,910 50.82% 250 0.06% 437,102
1934 242,688 50.99% 233,287 49.01% 230 0.05% 476,205
1935 257,542 52.08% 236,957 47.92% 216 0.04% 494,715
1936 264,388 51.84% 245,666 48.16% 206 0.04% 510,260
1937 269,513 50.99% 259,015 49.01% 197 0.04% 528,725
1938 270,726 50.25% 268,014 49.75% 174 0.03% 538,914
Whitbread archive document number LMA/4453/D/02/16
Year ending July

As you can see, at Whitbread the percentage of bottled beer was much higher than the 30% Nevile quoted. Note how Whitbread produced significantly less beer after WW I. At the interwar nadir of 1932 they produced 43% less beer than in 1900.

There was a big jump in bottled beer output in the early decades of the 20th century. Poor-quality draught beer (mostly caused by the inexperience or incompetence of landlords) and improvements in bottling techniques were two of the underlying causes for the increase.

Nevile describes the old bottling techniques wonderfully:

"The advance in the technique of bottling beer has made striking progress. It might be said 50 years ago that bottling consisted of pouring beer into bottles, allowing it to mature naturally for six or eight weeks and then sending it out to the public."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.

If you remember what I've written about bottled Stock Pale Ale, you'll know that that's a simplification of the process. The beer might well have been matured for months in cask before even arriving in the bottling store.

Why did brewers move away from the old method? Public demand:

"The demand of the public for a beer free from sediment has resulted in a greatly enhanced production of light beers either artificially carbonated or conditioned naturally in bulk and then chilled and filtered before being bottled. Practically all brewers who bottle their beers have adopted one of these methods, and some of the largest brewers who previously relied on naturally matured beer have changed over to the modern process. The development of this class of trade has led to great attention and ingenuity being devoted to bottling plant, a description of which would be out of place in this portion of the review, but the net result has been that the vast majority of the bottled beer distributed either to the homes of the consumers or for consumption in restaurants and licensed houses is brilliant, free from sediment, and of striking uniformity."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.

Naturally conditioning fell rapidly out of favour after WW I, though some brewers stuck with for certain styles. For example, Bass and Worthington continued to bottle condition some of their Pale Ale. It's ironic that Nevile should talk so glowingly about chilled and filtered bottled beers. When Whitbread offered him a job they made him promise not to chill and filter their bottled beer.

This new-style bottled beer might have been free of sediment and incredibly consistent but how did it taste? Nevile makes no mention of this important attribute.


Martyn Cornell said...

Interestingly (well, I think so) the continuation in Ireland of local bottling by the pub or distributor from casks sent out by the brewer for the purpose meant naturally conditioned bottled beers, both stouts and ales, were common there until the early 1960s, because the small bottlers couldn't afford to install "modern" kit to filter and/or pasteurise ...

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, based on this and numerous other articles I've read in the Journal dealing with production of bottled beer, the palate was inferior to the naturally conditioned product, i.e., this was recognized by many brewers and some of the scientists. The taste was considered less complex and less full-bodied. Indeed this was keg beer basically, especially when pasteurization accompanied the process as it frequently did.

There are parallel discussions from earliest days in the Journal (1890's) about chilling and carbonating beer for draft service. Tank beer started in the 1920's at least and some pubs were selling a form of draft brewery-conditioned beer even earlier.

THus, while palate was discussed in some of the articles, the most important considerations were stability and consistency.

The new bottled beer forecast the keg beer revolution of the 1960's, it formed the template for it and it all succeeded very well except today the form of the beer mostly is lager.

The American form of draft craft beer prevalent at least until now (I say it that way because a lot of it today is coming cloudy, chilled and fizzy but cloudy), was this same brilliant keg beer except with a full flavour. In my view, the reason was use of an all-malt grist and generous hopping.

Perhaps some of the early U.K. tank and chilled and filtered bottled beer attained this quality. There is no reason it should not have, even if it (and the American beer I mentioned) would never taste like real ale in CAMRA terms.

However, by the 1960's-70's, the British keg beer and many of the bottled beers seemed quite pallid in taste. I attribute this to a combination of low average gravities, increasing use of adjunct, moderate hopping and pasteurization. In contrast, the American craft keg and bottled beers were usually all-malt, higher gravity, unpasteurized and decently hopped. The new keg beer of the U.K., the challenge to the CAMRA model, is based from what I can see on the American model.


Rob said...

"Draught beer at home sounds weird now."


Ive always been a bit weird, but I didnt think the kegerator was the reason why.

Anonymous said...

Let's Brew!

kaiserhog said...

I would have to agree with Gary. At the risk of sounding a bit chauvinistic, I would argue that the Americans Micro/Nano/Craft do keg much better than the British. It seems to me that someone will take the best of keg and the best of cask and produce an ale for the ages in both USA and UK.