Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Good Old Days?

Last night I attended a lecture on 'Chemists, Brewers & Beer-Doctors' by University of Manchester Historian of Science, James Sumner. He turned out to be a bright and personable professor who delivered his talk with enthusiasm and aplomb. More of this later.

First of all liquid refreshment was needed, so I met my companions for the evening in the Knott Bar. This is under a railway arch near Deansgate station and you can wonder at the Victorian, brick vaulted ceiling while hoping the train thundering above doesn't fall though it. There was a few beers to try. I was a little disappointed with my Skipton Brewery Copper Dragon Golden Pippin. It was slightly off the boil and probably getting a bit too far down the cask. Much better was Salamander Mud Puppy which had failed to impress me in Leeds and finally a rather good Marble Bitter on Bernie's recommendation. Sue tried the Ginger Marble which had her cooing happily.

Then a short stroll to the venue, the Briton's Protection, a marvellous, Victorian, multi roomed, tiled wonder. We all chose Jennings Cumberland which was very good indeed.

The talk was given upstairs by the rather young looking prof. He explained the close relationship both Victorian and pre-Victorian brewers had with chemists, how the thermometer changed brewing and went on to describe that many different substances were added to beer, some of them such as caramel, relatively benign, but most of them were at best noxious and at worst highly toxic. The reason for all this chicanery? As the prof said, "when in doubt, follow the money!" If they weren't added to save money, they were added to increase appeal and thus sales or to disguise watering down etc.

A number of substances were passed around, all of them legal, for us to sniff and add to either our beer or handy little glasses of water. Compounds that weren't handed round but which you might find in your 18th or 19th century pint included, arsenic, strychnine, sulphuric acid, various sulphates of iron, copper and many more. At best you might not notice them or would attribute your fearsome hangover to strength and excess. At worst, you'd wake up dead!

Most of the substances were added to bring beer back to how it should taste, its taste having been monkeyed about with in the first place to make more money. A couple of interesting points: one, it seems our drinking forebears liked a head on their beer and the ability to re-create a lasting creamy head using various salts and cream of tartar was demonstrated to us by the prof creating a lasting head on a watery, flat, caramellly beer sample. Two: the press and public opinion saw the end to most of these practices in the mid 1800's. This was illustrated by a particularly good cartoon showing all the contaminants as demons being poured into beer by the very fat brewers, while the twin angelic nymphs of malt and hops were forlornly at the back of the queue for the mash tun.

The last point I'll make on this one is that the brewers blamed the publicans for the adulteration, while the publicans blamed the brewers. In fact they both had a hand in it. Some just things don't change!

All in all a fascinating and different night out.


Tom (OBBD) said...

Interesting stuff. Made me think of the 'heading liquid' sold in some homebrew shops. Anyone know what it is exactly? I remember trying it out in one of my first batches of homebrew as a student - must have been, ummm, 17 years ago. I can't remember what the result was like, but I only used it the once so it can't have been good...

The Beer Nut said...

Careful that illustration doesn't prompt a letter from Frederic Robinson's solicitor.

Tandleman said...

It was Oldham Brewery Old Tom so I'm all right. Wait. Damn Robbies own that "brand" too!

Ron Pattinson said...

The text of Frederick Accum's "A Treatise on Adulterations of Food" from 1820 is avaible on the web:

There's a fair amount of dispute as to how widespread adulteration really was. There were very stiff penalties for using illegal ingredients, or even having them in the brewery. The culprits seem to have been mostly small brewers or publicans.

Tandleman said...

Cheers Ron. Given the email I've just sent you this is spooky!

Tandleman said...


The good professor's researches show this is what headings were then (1794). Now I know not,

The Heading is a mixture of half Allum [sic] and half Copperas, ground to a fine powder, and is so called from giving to Porter that beautiful head or froth which constitutes one of the peculiar properties of Porter, and which landlords are so anxious to raise to gratify their customers.

See the so called Northern head goes back a long way indeed!

Tom (OBBD) said...

Hmmm... a compelling argument in favour of the tight sparkler :-)

Ron Pattinson said...

I've just read a passage in an old book where it stated that a frothy head was a sure sign of adulteration and that healthy beer should be flat.