Beer for a Time

Above all, beer is a social drink, and one of the great pleasures in life is buying supplies for a film night, a meal, or a weekend away. Even the act of getting in a couple of boxes of canned lager for a barbecue has its pleasurable side. More pleasurable, some might say, than actually drinking the stuff. There’s something about the planning ahead, and the knowledge that whatever happens, there is at least enough beer, which appeals to the survivalist hidden inside us all. Beer to last the evening. Beer for the weekend. Beer enough until we can get to the shops again. But what about beer for a much longer span of time than this? How would we plan, for example, to provide beer for fifty men, for five or six months, when the supplies you take with you are all the supplies you have?

“Large quantities” is the obvious answer, and for the arctic whalers of the early nineteenth century, whose summer voyages took them into waters uncharted even by the Royal Navy, large quantities were what they took. I’ve written before about the amount of beer taken by whaleship Esk, on its summer voyage to the Arctic in 1814: approximately 3520 gallons of ale, from two separate breweries, including a cask of “fine ale” to toast their success. They took more ale than fresh water. The Master, William Scoresby Jr., also had 120 bottles of Porter in his personal supply.

The quantity–three to four pints per man per day for the voyage–was provided as much as a source of energy as anything else. Whaling was physically hard, and the days were long. In the Arctic summer, working in daylight around the clock, they could seem endless. But the choice of beer was also important. Though the contents of the ship’s hold were kept mostly above freezing by the surrounding seawater, the ale they drank in sub-zero temperatures must have been bitingly cold. High alcohol content helped stop it freezing, but even so, Scoresby reports standing a bottle of Porter mere inches from the fire in his cabin, and watching ice form.

Yet even with all that ale on board, and the additional ‘cabin bottles’ the men were given in exceptionally bad weather, sometimes it was still not enough. In 1816, the ‘year without a summer’ which followed the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, temperatures in the Arctic were low enough for even these tough men to put on mitts. Old hands had a personal supply of spirits for these occasions, which they exchanged for coffee and sugar with the ill-prepared first-timers. We can learn a lot from these Arctic whalers, about keeping a cool head in the face of danger, about perseverance and fortitude. But the lesson I take from this is that whatever you’re planning, always have something in reserve. Because even at temperate latitudes, when it comes to your beer supply, it’s not worth taking chances.

This post was written as an entry to Zak Avery’s competition.