Friday, 16 March 2018

On the management of Beer in private houses

Before WW I it was quite commonto buy in a cask of beer to drink at home. The newspapers were full of brewery adverts for exactly this purpose.

Yet I can't remember ever finding anything before about how casks were handled in this doemstic setting. Until now. It's a delightful insight into what used to be a common practice,

Of course, if you've ever handled a cask of beer you'll know that there's a lot more to serving it than banging in a tap and turning the tap on. It's no surprise, given that plenty of landlords cock up handling cask beer, that it was often mistreated in private homes.

"On the management of Beer in private houses
TO begin with, every consumer of beer must fully realise how many advantages pertain to the system of keeping one’s own cask of beer in the house, rather than sending out to the nearest publichouse every time a draught of beer is required, and for the following reasons. First and foremost the price charged by the publican is 25 per cent. over and above that charged by the family brewer; the inconvenience of making such trips, no matter what the weather; whilst the beer so obtained is seldom a family bitter ale at all, and the quantity must be a standard measure either more or less than is required, causing a slight waste in the former, or an unsatisfied appetite in the latter case.

These arguments may be met with some such replies as, “Oh, the beer does not keep in our house," or, “It is thick, and there is always a waste in the bottom of the cask.” To the first of these I would reply, “There are many good brands now offered to the public as near perfection as beer can possibly be." Notwithstanding all Messrs. Lawson, Quilter & Co. may say to the contrary, such beers are guaranteed, and do keep sound, as proved by the large private trades built up by such beers; whilst how many cases of thick beer and out of condition are caused by want of a little care on the consumer's part, which I will now endeavour to explain. Certainly there is no nation or people who appreciate more fully or better understand what a glass of really good beer is than the English, and yet how small a percentage take the least trouble to have their beer in good condition, the majority imagining that with the drayman placing the cask on the stand all need of any further care is at an end, and that what follows is a matter of chance, good or bad.

A little consideration, however, will prove how fallacious such an idea is; for although any amount of care and trouble bestowed will not make bad beer good, yet, with a modicum of attention and a few common sense practices, good beer may be preserved as such, instead of utterly spoiling same and returning to the brewer what has, through carelessness, become a muddy, sour article, very unsatisfactory to both consumer and brewer alike.

First, to begin with, the consumer usually takes in only a small cask, which small bulk is much more difficult to bring into sparkling (gaseous) condition, owing to the smaller amount of normal fermentable matter contained in so small a bulk (generally four and a half or nine gallons); such a quantity will also be more easily affected by temperature—either extreme heat or cold—both of which act detrimentally on beer, the former to force false ferments if present into active life and so set up putrefaction, whilst the latter produces flatness and general want of condition.

The small casks, too, are of such little weight that the least jarring or shake disturbs the whole, whilst the stands on which the casks are placed consists ofttimes of the most primitive arrangements, such as unsteady and shaking boxes, which are continually vibrating; as an extreme case, the beer cask is occasionally placed on a flat surface, such as a board, with the natural rolling and oscillation due from the introduction of a ball to a plain or flat surface. The cellars are very seldom cellars at all, for this useful store connected with the old-fashioned house has been wofully ignored in these days of jerry-building, and in consequence the beer cask is stowed in the most outrageous places, such as the closest of little cupboards, sometimes only separated from close friendship with the kitchen fire by the flimsiest apology for a wall ; and occasionally even the bedroom is made to serve the double purpose of beer cellar and sleeping apartment, which, if it proved of any advantage to the wakeful and thirsty occupant, is certainly not conducive to good beer; whilst, as an extreme case, I may mention that of a laundress who stored her ale on top of the copper lid, and when washing day came had it removed with regularity and precision worthy a better cause, and as a subsequent fact always had thick beer, in consequence of which she gave vent to the usual abuse of the brewer.

In dealing with wine it is possible to rack or fill it quite bright ; not so with beer, which under such circumstances would remain flat and undrinkable owing to the want of a little fermentable matter to keep up a mild discharge of carbonic acid gas, the same gas as soda water and such other effervescing drinks are charged with, which gives to beer its sparkling fresh ness, and which sedimentary matter will subside to the bottom of the cask if properly treated by being firmly set up and allowed a day or two to rest before drawing from for use."
The Brewers' Guardian 1893, page 173.

It's a sign of how little markup pubs made that fetching beer in a jug was only 25% more expensive than buying in a cask.

But I was particularly intrigued by this phrase: "the beer so obtained is seldom a family bitter ale at all". That's implying that what was usually drunk at home was Family Bitter. And what was the classic Family Bitter? AK, of course.

I'm slightly confused by the stuff about it being harder to bring a small cask into condition. Surely the proportion of unfermented sugars would be the same no matter what size the cask? Though it is true that a smaller cask would be more prone to become too cold or to overheat.

I love the complaint about houses being jerry-built. People always seem to moan about the same things, usually harking bacjk to a better past.

There's a part two which I'll post later.


Anonymous said...

I like the idea of having a cask beside the bed instead of a teas made - right up your strasse I would have thought, Ron.

Perhaps Dolores could have a nice Harvey's Best on her side to match your AK.



Matt said...

I too was struck by his seeing the nine-gallon firkin as too small to condition beer properly in given that it's now pretty much the standard size in pub cellars.

Mike in NSW said...

If you Youtube Alf Garnett Christmas 1966 they are sitting around drinking half pints out of dimples and there's a few shots of a wooden pin of beer on the sideboard (next to that famous round clock) with wedges under it.

The Maltese Penguin said...

Although since "most" were getting the smaller sizes, "some" must therefore still have been buying bigger sizes. Were family homes in some cases really buying beer by the barrel? Even given the larger households of those days, that's a lot of beer to get through. How many days supply was a container (of whatever size) expected to be, in the home?

Re the 25% thing: would pubs not be getting their beer in rather cheaper than the home consumer (wholesale vs retail) and therefore charging considerably more than a 25% mark-up?

Unknown said...

Matt ,
The small casks would have been either a pin @ 4.5 gallons or , a half anker@ 6 gals ,

qq said...

Careful on markups - you're assuming that households bought beer at the same price as pubs did. In modern times, I've seen brewers put a 50% markup on retail cask sales over their prices to pubs.

Still, it's not great for pubs, but equally they had a whole lot fewer costs to deal with, health & safety compliance etc!

Compare with the wine trade where people still prefer wine aged in magnums over bottles, as maturation happens more slowly and "better" in the greater volume thanks to the lower surface area:volume ratio. I guess potentially a pin could have relatively more headspace to lose condition into than a kil? But the real problem is temperature stability in an age before air conditioning - cellars can have very stable temperatures but a laundry room won't!

qq said...

@Edd - the quote is "generally four and a half or nine gallons".

One can imagine country houses employing 10+ staff generally doing a lot of manual labour could easily crack through a firkin of smallish beer in a few days.

Sic1314 said...

When did it cease being common for larger country houses to have their own brewing kit a la Traquair?
Presumably in the times of your recent post showing almost 30,000 licence holders as recently as 1870 knowledge of how to take care of beer would have been very widespread; when many of these people surrendered their licences it would not have been unusual for them to still keep beer at home.

Ron Pattinson said...


towards the end of the 19th century. In 1881 there were 71,876 brewing licences for beer not for sale. By 1910 it was just 7,006.

Sic1314 said...

That's an amazing number for 1881. Would it have been common for some heavy industrial firms, say shipbuilders, mining companies, etc to have brewed for their own workers prior to fresh water being readily available?

Martyn Cornell said...

Sic1314 - don't fall for the "fresh water wasn't readily available" myth. And since the UK had some 220,000 farms in 1881, 72,000 brewers-not-for-sale licences strikes me as quite low: since farm brewing must have once been almost universal, it suggests that at the most fewer than a third of farmers were still brewing: and that's without knowing how many urban not-for-sale brewers there were.