Various horror stories were bandied about claiming all sorts of poisonous substances were added to beer, including drugs like opium. However hard of evidence of most of the claims is lacking. Prosecutions for adulteration mostly concerned either watering beer down or adding heading agents.
This article, reprinted in the brewers’ Guardian seems to confirm that. Adulteration does seem to have been pretty rife, but mostly in a harmless way
“THE ALLEGED ADULTERATION OF BEER.
BY J. MUTER, Ph.D.
So much has been said and written about the adulteration of beer, that we, doubtless in common with most of our readers, looked upon the publican as the great arch-adulterator, whose whole time was spent in poisoning his votaries, and we confidently expected to have some terrible revelations to make. But it is not really so, because we have not been able to find any single injurious adulteration. That some of the smaller brewers use tobacco, coccculus indicus, etc., has been only lately made clear by the reports of the chemists of the Excise, but that the practice is not so widespread as. imagined is quite apparent. The only thing which we have found that should not be there, is water, sugar, and in some cases salt. The following are the results:
I.—PORTER. No. Price per Quart. Specific Gravity. Alcohol. Solid Extract. Grains of salt per Gal. Other adulterations. ABV 1 3d 1.014 2.6 4.3 30.1 none 3.30 2 3d 1.014 2.7 5 42.5 none 3.43 3 3d 1.015 3.4 5.4 63 none 4.32 4 3d 1.017 2.5 5.7 43 none 3.18 5 3d 1.019 2.9 6.3 30.8 none 3.68 6 3d 1.015 3.2 5.4 30.1 none 4.06 7 3d 1.017 3 6.4 23.8 none 3.81 8 3d 1.010 2.8 4.2 48.8 none 3.56 9 3d 1.016 2.8 5.1 30.1 none 3.56 10 3d 1.021 2.3 6.2 35.7 none 2.92 II.—STOUT. 1 8d 1.021 6.1 7.5 18.1 none 7.75 2 8d 1.025 6.6 8.8 19 none 8.38 3 8d 1.025 5.5 9.2 42 none 6.99 4 8d 1.020 4.3 9.1 39 none 5.46 5 8d 1.015 4.5 6.3 40.5 none 5.72 6 8d 1.020 5.3 7.1 20.3 none 6.73 7 8d 1.015 3.3 4.5 18.2 none 4.19 8 8d 1.014 4.7 5.7 30.5 none 5.97 9 8d 1.020 2.5 5.9 22.1 none 3.18 10 8d 1.015 2.3 5.8 42.5 none 2.92 III - BITTER ALE. 1 8d 1.011 3.7 50.5 18.9 none 4.70 2 8d 1.011 4.4 5.1 27.3 none 5.59 3 8d 1.020 3.6 5.9 30.8 none 4.57 4 8d 1.013 3.5 5.7 22.4 none 4.45 5 8d 1.012 3.7 5.5 10.6 none 4.70 6 8d 1.014 4.2 5.5 14.4 none 5.33 7 8d 1.013 4.2 5.5 21.4 none 5.33 8 8d 1.012 5 5.2 14.8 none 6.35 9 8d 1.004 4.6 3.5 14.3 none 5.84 10 8d 1.013 3.5 5.7 22.4 none 4.45 IV.—OLD ALE. 1 8d 1.009 5.3 5 18.9 none 6.73 2 8d 1.012 5.3 5.8 39.4 none 6.73 3 8d 1.021 3.6 5.9 30.8 none 4.57 4 8d 1.010 5.6 5.4 63 none 7.11 5 8d 1.012 5.6 6.1 33 none 7.11 6 8d 1.011 5 5.5 14.3 none 6.35 7 8d 1.020 6.4 7.9 14.8 none 8.13 8 8d 1.016 7.3 7.1 14.3 none 9.27 9 8d 1.009 6 5.2 22 none 7.62 10 8d 1.020 6.2 7.3 20 none 7.87
These results speak for themselves, and require no comment. The porter is in most cases watered, salted, and the body restored by “foots” sugar. The stout is in some samples simply undiluted porter, and in others, it is treated as above. The two honourable exceptions were purchased in a good district in the south of London. The bitter ale seems to be the least tampered-with article of all, as the whole of the results were very uniform; while the old ale is not by any means the terribly potent fluid which people imagine it to be. While, therefore, it is evident that the publican knows the use of “liquor” as well as the milkman does that of “Simpson," we shall never more believe in the awful and occult mysteries of the cellar, and when we hear any of our friends complain of a violent headache “brought on by that terrible bad stuff, you know," we shall privately put the malady down to quantity rather than quality.—-Food Journal.”
"Brewers' Guardian, vol. 1, 1869", July 1871, page 316.
Their results – the only adulterants found being water, salt and sugar – do make some sense. While you might want to squeeze some extra profit out of each barrel of beer, you wouldn’t want to kill your customers. Because, while there were a few rogue brewers, most of the adulteration was performed by publicans.
To demonstrate just how much the beers had been watered down, I’ve assembled some details of beers as they left the brewery.
|London beers 1867 - 1871|
|1870||Barclay Perkins||KK||Stock Ale||1084.5||1028.8||7.37||65.90%|
|1870||Barclay Perkins||KKK||Stock Ale||1095.3||1046.0||6.52||51.74%|
|1870||Barclay Perkins||KKKK||Stock Ale||1106.1||1037.7||9.05||64.49%|
|1871||Truman||KXX Ale||Stock Ale||1075.9||1015.0||8.06||80.29%|
|1871||Truman||KXXX Ale||Stock Ale||1081.4||1018.0||8.39||77.89%|
|Whitbread brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers LMA/4453/D/09/065 and LMA/4453/D/01/036.|
|Barclay Perkins brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers ACC/2305/1/572, ACC/2305/1/573/1 and ACC/2305/1/573|
|Truman brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers B/THB/C/152 and B/THB/C/072|
Assuming the Porters were London-brewed every single example had been heavily watered. When it left the brewery, Porter was 5 - 5.5% ABV, while the strongest sample in the analyses was just 4.32% ABV.
Bitter I would expect to be 5.5 – 6.5% ABV at this date. Which means samples 2, 8 and 9 could only have been lightly waters, if at all. That the weakest examples are still around 4.5% ABV indicates nothing too crazy has gone on.
With one exception, sample 3, the Old Ales don’t look that bad. The examples from brewing records are in the range 6.5 – 9% ABV. Pretty much exactly the same spread as the remaining 9 samples. Though whether or not they had been watered depends on exactly what type of Old Ale they were. If a KKK of KKKK was under 8% ABV, then something was wrong.
My conclusion: rampant adulteration but of a mostly harmless kind. And in the years that followed it would be reduced as local authorities started checking foodstuffs, including beer, to clamp down on adulteration, which was by no means just limited to beer.
"Simpson", according to Partridge, just meant "water used to dilute milk" - or as they said at the time, the product of "the cow with the iron tail" (i.e. a pump).
I like the comment that Old Ale isn't as fearsomely strong as all that - at 7-9% it's stronger than anything you'll get over the bar in most pubs now. Unless you're drinking craft beer, that is.
Nice, clear array of beer styles though: Porter, Stout, Bitter and Old.
That'll do for me. As long I was in an honest pub.
In Germany there is a very common belief that the beer tax law of 1516 (commonly referred to as "Reinheitsgebot" for some reason) only allowed barley, hops and water, because brewers back then would use different kinds of poisonous herbs or fruit to boost the intoxicating aspect of their product.
I believe this is nonsense, because nowhere in the original text does it mention any such occurences.
If it were true, why is the law not in this form:"Beer may only be spiced with hops. Using other herbs to adulterate beer will be fined. Brewers who use drugs or poisonous substances in beer will have their license revoked/get imprisoned/be whipped publicly/be drowned in their beer."
Or am I wrong and brewers in the 15th century did really use belladonna to adulterate their beer? (this claim is common in various german news articles dealing with the Reinheitsgebot and it's legacy)
I'm reluctant to believe the tales of drugs in beer without seeing some real evidence. Something German RHG fans never mention is that at various time other ingredients, such as corander, were allowed. The history of the RHG is much more complicated than is generally made out.
the Old Ales look pretty damn strong to me, too.
Among craft and home brewers in the U.S., there are whispered tales that the Brits adulterate their beer with caramel (gasp).
What was the purpose of adding salt? I'm not well versed in what it would do for a beer that didn't already have it.
I assume anyone who was watering their dark beer also had to add caramel or something else to color it?
The poison in beer reminds me of two things, 1) French brewers accusing the English ( et al ) of using Arsenic etc to bitter their beers (early / mid 19th cent?), and 2 , the real story behind the arsenic in the beer scandals ( 1900 - 1903 ).
The salt (if NaCl / Common Salt ) is meant to soften the water according to 1) The gyle/ beer , balanced with :
2), The latent mineral salt content of the brewing liquor water @(town/well etc) the original brewery (@ the time period),
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