Monday, 22 September 2014

Belgian Brewing in WW II

I can't believe I've never used this article. It ticks so many boxes. More proof that I've more material than I can cope with.

It was written by De Clerq, a distinguished Belgian brewer and writer. First he describes the situation in the early part of the 20th century.

"Before the first world war, there were many breweries in Belgium, more than 3,000. Beer consumption was very heavy, more than 200 litres per inhabitant per year (44 gallons). Almost exclusively top fermentation beer was brewed and sold in barrels. A few breweries started making lager beer; their products were more regular; they gained in the favour of the public and soon these breweries grew to become very large ones. In between the two world wars, two-thirds of the breweries disappeared and it was chiefly the bottom fermentation breweries that extended. The consumers lost their taste for the flat draught beer and the top fermentation brewers readjusted their methods by conditioning their ales; so doing they succeeded in competing successfully with the lager type. The flat draught beers disappeared completely."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 55, Issue 5, 1949, page 291.

Belgium had crazy numbers of breweries before WW I. As did the bit of France bordering it. Exactly where most of the fighting on the Western Front took place. War damage and German looting of copper put lots of breweries out of action. Many never reopened.

What does he mean by "conditioning their ales"? Some sort of lagering? Were Belgian brewers doing something similar to their American counterparts? It sounds like they were replacing cask-conditioned beers with filtered and carbonated ones. Depressing the way De Clerq nmakes that sound like progress. You can see that Belgium came to bottom fermentation quite late - only between the wars.

Now something about WW II:

"Beer prices going up steadily because of continuous rise in taxation, the consumption per capita fell to 175 litres (about a barrel). The sale of bottled beer grew continuously. During the last war beer became necessarily very weak as the shortage of malt was severe, gravities ranging from 2.4 to 4.7 per cent. extract (sp. gr. 1.009-1.019). The small quantities of malt brewers had at their disposal were not sufficient to provide these gravities and it was necessary to look for other materials. At first, sugar was used, but these supplies soon ran out and finally beetroot was the only material available. The beet was cut in strips, dried on a kiln and then ground, so as to get grits or flour. For those light beers, beetroot gave reasonable results. A simple extraction was sufficient and very often beers were brewed with 50 per cent, malt and 50 per cent, beetroot. Fermentations were good and the foam on the beer was firm and persistent. Even today, certain breweries still use beetroots, because this material gives a good head, perhaps through the pectin it contains. This pectin often produced a persistent turbidity in the tanks, but the flavour of the beetroot was not noticeable, because the beers were so light that they did not, in fact, contain much of this material.

In order to give a pleasant flavour to these war beers, the brewers used chiefly sweetening products, colour and hops, which were still plentiful, but the latter could easily produce an astringent taste in the light beers. Vinegar was also used. In Belgium the sour beers, like Lambic, still meet with a certain favour and blendings were made of Lambic with ordinary beer. As there was no Lambic left during the war, beer-vinegar was manufactured to take its place. Notwithstanding all these efforts to keep one flavour, if nothing else, in the beer, the consumption dropped to one half of the pre-war figure."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 55, Issue 5, 1949, pages 291 - 292.

1009 to 1019 even weaker than British beer got during WW I. Isn't that fascinating about the use of beetroot? No reason why you shouldn't, I suppose. It's as good a source of starch as anything else. But I would have thought the colour might have been a problem. Beetroot stains like buggery, as i'm sure you know. I wonder if there's still anyone using beetroot for head retention? I doubt it. Making a beetroot war beer might be fun. Though I suspect professional brewers might take some persuading.

There are those who would argue that Lambic is beer vinegar. Why did Lambic run out? Maybe they didn't make any after 1940. A low-gravity beetroot Lambic probably wouldn't work.

It may sound odd ending up with a surplus of hops, but that happened in Britain in WW I. As beers weakened, fewer hops were required.

Now what happened after war's end.

"After these innumerable difficulties with which the brewers had to cope, all their hopes lay in the return of peace; but it turned out to be a deception. When beer came back to its normal gravity in the beginning of 1946, consumption went up, but the beer was too expensive, because the State had naturally raised the taxes and cereals remained very dear. The total of brewing materials used dropped to 70 per cent, of the quantities of 1938. Since, in Belgium, the excise duties are calculated on the weight of materials used, they are the only correct basis to appreciate the beer consumption. The beers remained, however, slightly lighter than before the war, so that it must be said that the consumption fell by 25 per cent. The reasons for this setback are naturally much discussed among brewers. The opinion is often expressed that the habits of the population have changed. In fact, more coffee, fruits and chocolate are imported into Belgium than before the war. Nevertheless, the principal cause must be the price of the beer, which is too high; indeed, considering the purchasing value, in glasses of beer, of the workman's salary, it will be found that it lost exactly one-quarter since before the war. This fall in consumption is the cause of a grave economic crisis in the Belgian brewing industry. The means of production being so important, and competition so strong, each brewer tries to keep his customers, selling the best possible quality at the lowest price. It is this crisis which stimulates the technical developments in the breweries; they are dominated by the necessity to manufacture at a lower cost without impairing the quality. Some of the innovations designed to achieve this will now be examined."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 55, Issue 5, 1949, page 292.

Brewers the world over love a good moan. Especially about being over-taxed. They were lucky to be able to brew full-strength beer again in 1946. In the UK gravity continued to fall. As this table shows:

UK average OG 1939 - 1952
Year OG
1939 1040.93
1940 1040.62
1941 1038.51
1942 1035.53
1943 1034.34
1944 1034.63
1945 1034.54
1946 1034.72
1947 1032.59
1948 1032.66
1949 1033.43
1950 1033.88
1951 1036.99
1952 1037.07
Brewers' Almanack 1955, p. 50

Gravity never returned to its 1939 level.

It's true that Belgian beer consumption was lower after the war. But it had been insanely high. The only other place I can recall averaging over 200 litres a head is Bavaria. You can see in the table below that between 1930 and 1950 consumption per head almost halved. I can see why that would worry a brewer.

Belgian brewing 1900 - 1960

1900 1910 1920 1930 1939 1950 1960
No. breweries 3,223 3,349 2,013 1,546 1,120 663 414
Production (hl) 14,617,000 16,019,000 10,408,000 16,099,000 12,488,000 10,140,000 10,110,000
Imports (hl) 149,000 272,000 201,000 228,000 65,000 97,000 378,000
Exports (hl) 5,000 9,000 47,000 10,000 7,000 5,000 205,000
Consumption (hl) 14,761,000 16,282,000 10,562,000 16,317,000 12,546,000 10,232,000 10,283,000
Consumption (per head) 221 219 143 202 149 118 112
"Het Brouwersblad" June 2004, p.6, p.7

Note, too, how WW I and the Depression whittled down the number of breweries. By the start of WW II two-thirds of them had disappeared.

There's plenty more of this to come. Unless I hear the siren call of Lager again.


Anonymous said...

Quote ;"It sounds like they were replacing cask-conditioned beers with filtered and carbonated ones. Depressing the way De Clerq nmakes that sound like progress"

In view of what you've posted about beer quality in the 1920s there was clearly a lot of bad beer around.It may have seemed a good idea to minimise this by brewery conditioning.

Jeff Renner said...

I suspect that the beet root mentioned was sugar beet, which is white. According to Wikipedia, modern sugar beets contain 12-21% sugar. No mention is made of mashing, so,the brewer may have been relying on the sugar alone. If some malt were available, any starch present could be converted as well, but there doesn't seem to be much of it, per Wikipedia.

Unknown said...

I think Jeff is right about the sugar beets. Beetroot adds a strong earth taste to beer as well as a very obvious colour. I think one of those points would come up in the literature

Unknown said...

Beetroot also comes in white and yellow varieties and was much more popular in potagers in France (so perhaps in Belgium too) many years ago. The sugar content of beetroot is 7-8 %, starch 2%.

The earthy taste of beetroot is considerably lessened if boiled after being peeled.