Thursday, 12 September 2013

Forged brands

The bottling fun just never ends. You'll regret ever encouraging me with the enthusiasm of your responses.

We're back on the topic of counterfeit beer. There's been some speculation on internet fora as to whether this goes on today. The obvious candidate being Westvleteren, where there isn't even a label to worry about. An unscrupulous beer trader could also refill the bottle of a highly-desired Stout with something more easily available - how many would really be able to tell?

We'll start with confirmation that few brewers bottled in the 1870's. And a very good reason why they didn't:


Sir,— It appears to be entirely overlooked by your correspondent that there are very few brewers who bottle their own beers, for the very obvious reason that enormous extra expenses (in proportion to the value of the goods) would be incurred in the packing and railway carriage of such heavy merchandise as bottled beer, and these would tend either either to raise the price or annihilate the profit upon it— neither of which conditions is it desirable to bring about.

When the bottling is deputed to a second person — and in the case of beer the deputees are necessarily thousands — "labels over the corks" and "branded corks" are alike useless and impracticable, and the respectability of the firm from whom the goods are purchased is the only practical guarantee.
We are Sir, your obedient servants,
January 29. A FIRM IN THE TRADE."
London Standard - Wednesday 30 January 1878, page 6.
I seem to remember that in the 20th century some brewers had bottling stores at more than one location. This would explain why. It was much cheaper, for example, for Whitbread to ship beer in bulk to Scotland and bottle in there, rather than sending it already bottled.

I'm starting to be pretty much 100% convinced that empty Bass and Allsopp bottles were refilled with crap beer. Now it's the turn of the Irish to be accused of such fraud (we've already had railway stations and country inns accused).

Sir, — Messrs. Bass, Allsopp, Guinness, Kinahan, and others whom I need not mention, lose every year a good deal of reputation and not a little money by their own fault. So long as their trade labels are on the body of the bottle the bottle on being returned to the retailer is liable to be filled with any filth he chooses to put into it, and this is sent forth with all the prestige of a well-known name attached to it. In Ireland I have found the red triangle of Bass upon bottles containing stuff of which I may say mildly that it never was within a hundred miles of Burton-on-Trent.

It would be such a very simple thing to put the label over the cork, or to make some mark on the cork which the entrance of the screw would deface. If I buy a pack of cards the government takes very good care that I shall not be able to play with them until I have destroyed the stamp; and the same remark applies to every bottle or box of medicine. It does seem to me that a bottle of genuine beer ought, to be at least as sacred as the ace of spades or a duty-paying poison.
I am, Sir, obediently yours,
London, January .24. BRITISH BEVERAGE."
London Standard - Friday 25 January 1878, page 6.
Now there's a weird idea - taxing poison. I knew playing cards had been (maybe they still are). All sorts of strange things had excise duty on them in the past. Bricks, for example.

Were the brewers themselves partially to blame for counterfeit beer?

SiR,— your correspondents on the subject of forged brands seem, as far as I have noticed, to be ignorant of the fact that the leading brewers supply retailers with an unlimited number of their labels with the beer they send out in barrels.

I saw a heap of Messrs. Allsopps' labels lying on the counter of a retailer's bar the other day, and assuming that person to be dishonest, what is easier than to affix these labels to bottles filled with the trashy compounds brewed by some of the petty brewers? That this is done in innumerable cases there can be no question. However, the dealer to whom I refer is, I believe, an honest, trustworthy man. Still the temptation is great, and ought not to be put in tho way of retailers.

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
A CONSTANT READER,ST. Mary Church, Devon, January 29."
London Standard - Thursday 31 January 1878, page 3.
 I'm pretty sure that Bass didn't give out unlimited numbers of their labels, for thyis very reason. Did Allsopp? Or did the letter-writer just make an assumption when he saw the labels lying arouynd? You can definitely see from the intricate desigbn in the background that Bass tried to make it difficult top counterfeit their labels. Why bother if you were going to strew them arouind like confetti?

I must say that the Standard's letter page was much more interesting in the 19th century than it is today. Not sure what that tells us, other than that I'm a sucker for the past.


Clinton said...

Love the stuff on bottling. Just curious, but how often was accurate volume an issue?

I did a quick search of my US library's database for newspaper references to bottled beer, and most of the mid 19th century references were to horrible murders involving bludgeoning death by bottles. But there is one bit from the NY Daily Times of Jan 13 1853 which reads, in part:

A "bottle" agitation has just sprung up; the object of which is to compel a reform in the glass receptacles which profess to be pint or "quart bottles," contain an indefinable quantity, constantly variable, and therefore beyond the power of mortal measurement. The Times has not deemed it beneath its dignity to devote two indignant "leaders" to this topic with a view to shame the dealers in bottled beer to better measures.

I noticed the labels you've shown don't include anything about volume, although this could presumably appear on the bottle itself or on another label.

Any ideas when it became possible to trust that a pint or quart was true? How did that come about? (Apologies if I missed something already covered.)

Ron Pattinson said...


I think it was only in the 1960's that they started putting the volume of the contents on labels. Before that there was either nothing or a disclaimer saying "this bottle is for transporting beer only and is not a measure".

As I've mentioned, you had Imperial pints and "reputed pints" in the 19th century. Whether or not retailers were held responsible for bottles holding the amount claimed, I don't know.

In the case of sdraught beer, the law was clear: a pint had to be a pint and a landlord could be prosecuted for selling short measures (or long measures after WW I).

It seems all this might have been sorted out in the US before WW I. I'm just reading an article about bottling from 1914. In it, it's mentioned that there was a standard-sized bottle, used by all breweries, in the US, making handling returned bottles much simpler. If there was a standard size, it must have also had a standrad-sized contents.

JessKidden said...

I see lots of US beer bottles apparently (based on brewery name, etc) from the pre-Pro era which took crown caps -so, dating them roughly 1890-1920 - that are embossed with the volumes of 12½ and 13 ounces - so it doesn't seem like 12 oz. became the universal bottle size until after Repeal*.

It seems that those 13-12 oz. bottles were often referred to as "pints" both by consumers and the industry. Some brewers which used actual 16 US Ounce pint bottles in the pre-Pro era called them "Full Pints", and the smaller bottles used by others "trade pints" or "short pints".

I've seen the term "pint" used for the standard 12 oz'ers in ads and on brewers' receipts even into the post-Repeal period.

The other interesting thing about US beer bottles in the pre-Pro era is how so many brewers used embossed bottles with their names and, sometimes, elaborate logos.

The standard generic 12 oz. long neck "reusable/refillable" deposit brown (also clear and green) bottle that was used interchangably by the majority of US breweries into the 1980-90s seems to have been a post-Repeal convention.

* And even 12 oz. wasn't universal- the West Coast breweries in the US often used 11 oz. bottles, sometimes even when they used 12's for other brands of their beers.

The Beer Nut said...

On the subject of infinite labels, there's a parallel in Spanish wine. Some of the regional authorities issue the seals certifying grand reserva, reserva and crianza based not on the amount of each produced by a winery, but by its capacity to do so. Passing-off is rife as a result, but everyone knows the system.