Lager Drinkers and India Pale Ale

The last few years have seen a revival in interest in IPAs (India Pale Ales), with brewers such as Brew Dog, Thornbridge, and Marble, among others, leading the charge to make ever more bitter, hoppy, bright, and flavoursome ales. Some of these, including Thornbridge’s Jaipur and Fyne Ales’ Avalanche, are among my favourite beers of any kind and I urge you to try them. But more than that I think they have a potential to change the landscape of British beer drinking in ways that have not yet been realised.

IPA has been in this culture-changing position before. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was the ale that travelled around the world, quenching the thirst of British soldiers in India and elsewhere. Sulphate-rich Burton water suits the large quantities of hops used as a preservative in IPA, making their bitterness more appealing. This happy coincidence made IPA key to the rise of Burton on Trent as Britain’s brewing powerhouse.

As a twenty-first century distribution centre Burton is nearly ideal, being right in the middle of the country. But in the years before the railways, ale had to travel from landlocked Burton along the river Trent to Hull or by canal and road to Liverpool. Traditional ales did not travel well, but the quantity of hops used in IPA to help it survive the journey to India was also useful on its 100-mile journey to the coast. Burton IPAs were introduced into port cities and allowed Burton brewers such as Bass to compete with local brewers in other regions. By the 1840s, when the railways had begun to make national distribution easier, Burton brewers such as Bass already had agents in many of the major port cities. As other brewers scrambled to compete, the national spread of Burton-brewed ales was responsible for a change in tastes across the British Isles so that by the twentieth century brewers routinely ‘Burtonised’ their brewing water.

A similar shift in taste took place in the twentieth century. Since the late 1960s British drinkers have swung away from traditional ales and settled on lager as their beer style of choice. Most of these lagers are bland, nondescript and at best inoffensive, but they are certainly popular. Carling, which is brewed, ironically enough, in Burton on Trent, is Britain’s best-selling beer. In the last few years though, things have been changing. In the face of rising commodity prices, rising taxation, declining pub sales, and downward pressure on price from the supermarkets, traditionally brewed ales have been making a comeback and small brewers seem to be springing up everywhere. In fact sales of ‘real’ ales are rising despite an otherwise flat or falling overall market. Where there is quality, the effects of financial crisis and fiscal meltdown seem to be felt least of all.

So what about IPA and where might it stand in the apparent trend back towards real ale?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a group of friends and the subject of beer came up, as it often does. One of the women asked what that delicious lager was that they had been drinking a few weeks earlier and interestingly the ‘lager’ in question turned out to be Innovation, an award-winning, hoppy American-style IPA brewed by Adnams. One of the great things about Innovation, and many other ales of its type, is that it can stand being drunk straight from the fridge without losing any of that wonderful flavour, making it ideal for the exact situation where lager has dominated. Curiously, while the big name lagers are mostly bland affairs, aimed at the undiscriminating palate, what this little anecdote suggests is that big flavours are not necessarily a problem.

This is a small point, but an interesting one I think. The woman who asked the question is not an ale drinker and would turn down a pint of bitter. But she loved Innovation and what’s more she remembered it, even if she didn’t know what it was. Crucially, she would drink it again, if she saw it. If brewers could get IPAs of this type in front of a enough drinkers of premium lagers I think we might have a real cultural shift on our hands. A problem for smaller and independent brewers is that two generations of drinkers have grown up with the idea that lager is more refreshing, more ‘easy drinking’ than other kinds of beer. Hoppy, zesty IPAs could be the ales to change that perception.

Beer and Brewing in the 1940s

Mitchel Adams, licensee of the Thatcher’s Arms is preparing a carnival float representing the British pub in the 1940s and he asked on Twitter what people would have been drinking then. I looked back through my research notes and books for some information and came up with a few interesting snippets.

Obviously, for most of the 1940s British life was dominated by war and its consequences. Lives lost, buildings destroyed, ordinary life disrupted. There were shortages of just about everything. Beer and pubs were seen during the war as important for morale, but barley, sugars and so on were needed for food so pubs had a weekly beer ration and when it was gone they had to close. They kept going all week by limiting the opening times quite severely. In major cities, especially when the risk of bombing was at its highest, pubs were deserted at night anyway as people headed for the shelters.

Great efforts were made to distribute beer fairly, though not all the measures were popular with brewers. According to H.A. Monckton in his A History of English Ale and Beer (1966) brewers set up the ‘Beer for the Troops Committee’ to make sure beer was supplied to servicemen. Temporary ‘zoning’ regulations were less popular, since breweries were forced to supply to a set geographical area. This meant that some ‘tied’ pubs had to take their supplies from another brewer, while some larger brewers were allowed to deliver nationally, setting up a network of agents and distribution systems that would give them an advantage after the war.

Shortages also meant that the strength of beer declined further. Allowing for a slight blip in the early 1920s the strength of beer declined fairly steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. Monckton gives the average original gravity of beer in 1900 as 1055°; by 1950 it had fallen to 1034°. In other words, at under 5% ABV Guinness in 2010 is weaker than the average bitter ale in 1910; modern Guinness is around half the strength of the average stout before World War I.

Bottled beer became more popular as bottling technology improved in the 1930s. Before WWI the availability of bottled beer was quite limited, but by 1939 it was about 30% of the market. During WWII paper shortages meant that a lot of brewers didn’t use labels on their bottles, so different ales were distinguished only by the colour of the crown cap, or by a narrow strip of paper over screw tops. Barley wine was popular, perhaps because low gravity beers didn’t last more than a few weeks in bottles.

During the war pine and other woods took the place of oak in making casks, which must have affected the flavour of beer. Beer cans arrived in the late 1940s and Monckton concluded in 1966 that the days of bottled beer were numbered:

Because of its weight and fragility the glass bottle is by no means an ideal container and, doubtless, its days are numbered. Inevitably bottles will be replaced by some other type of container. The metal beer can, used extensively in America, was introduced to the English market after the last war but so far has not been widely or enthusiastically welcomed.

We take a little time to adapt on this side of the Atlantic.

Prices rose fast in the war years and after, partly because of rises in duty, but also because of shortages. According to Monckton, after WWI a pint was about 7d and it was still about that in 1941. By the end of the war it was a shilling and by the mid-1960s, it was 1/6d–nine times what it was at the beginning of the century. On the subject of taste Monckton is instructive, attributing a rise in the demand for sweeter beers, including Barley Wine, to the rationing and shortage of sugar in the 1940s. Following this argument the rise of bitter, hoppy IPAs in the early twenty-first century might be attributable to the excess of sugars in many modern foods.

Scoresby’s Map of Greenland, 1822

In 1822 William Scoresby Jr., commander of the ship Baffin of Liverpool, spent the summer months in the Arctic, catching whales and mapping the coast of Greenland. It is sometimes difficult, looking back from the twenty-first century, to remember where to leave gaps when making sense of history, to remember what wasn’t known. This map, which you can click to see in more detail, is a good example. Scoresby’s voyage of 1822 came in the wake of two significant voyages of discovery funded by the Admiralty under John Barrow. As a mere whaler Scoresby had been passed over in the search for the North West Passage in favour of Captain John Ross, whose failed expedition of 1818 met with widespread public ridicule, and William Parry, who was more successful in his expedition of 1820.

Scoresby was not a man to harbour grudges, but he must have felt wounded by the rejection, given that he was widely acknowledged at the time to be the foremost expert on the Arctic region. His voyage in 1822, commanding the ship he had designed and had built for the purpose in Liverpool three seasons earlier, was primarily to catch whales. Without government assistance, Scoresby had to make his voyage pay. And pay it did: despite sailing outside the usual fishing grounds around Spitzbergen, and despite narrowly avoiding shipwreck, Scoresby brought back a full ship.

More importantly, Scoresby’s map of the Eastern coast of Greenland, as well as his examinations of the ‘mineralogy’ and botany of the region, were a significant advance on what had existed before. In the section of the map shown here the gaps are obvous. Huge areas of the land back from the coast are uncharted; the assumption was that rather than being a single large landmass, Greenland was in fact a series of small islands joined together by ice. At the end of his 1822 journal, published in 1823 as A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, Scoresby quotes a letter from Sir Charles Giseiké on ‘the Structure of Greenland’:

It is past doubt, that the whole coast of Greenland formerly consisted of Large islands, which are now, as it were, glued together by immense masses of ice.

Such inlets, or rather firths (fiords), which once formed sounds or passages, terminate always, according to my observations, with glaciers filling up the valleys at each end. Such is (to confine myself to the more northern latitudes), the ice-firth, or ice-bay, of Disco Bay, in 68° 40′. Such, also, is Cornelius Bay (North-east Bay, or Omenak’s Fiord), 71½°, the north-eastern arm of which is blocked up at both ends with ice running through a valley, and bending rather towards the ENE.

Scoresby named many of the headlands and islands he discovered after his friends and acquaintances back in Liverpool. If you look closely at the map you will see ‘Scoresbys Sound’ (named after his father) and ‘Jameson Land’ after his mentor Professor Jameson of Edinburgh University, but this section of coastline he names the ‘Liverpool Coast’: names such as Holloway Bay (after a Liverpool minister) and Rathbone Island (after the famous Liverpool shipping family who were close friends) betray Scoresby’s affection for the city. Many of these names did not make it onto the official Admiralty maps or were replaced by later navigators.

Reasons For Self-Publishing: Lessons from History

… Owing to my having been my own publisher and thereby displeasing all London bookseller/proprieters of reviews I am to be most severely handled in the Quarterly, Westminster, Monthly Lit. Gazette &c–but how Edin. will treat me I do not know. You will, however, be glad to learn that I have the consolation that I have 7,000 subscribers amounting to no less than £7,000!–My first object in being my own publisher was to get the book up so as to be a credit to the nation and all concerned, my 2nd object was to give it to the public cheaper, and to show thereby how the booksellers impose on both the authors and the public–and lastly that I might keep the property in my own hands.

–From a letter by Sir John Ross to William Scoresby, 28th April 1835. Quoted in Tom and Cordelia Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist (1976).

Freeing Up the Pub Trade: A View From 1872

In the mid-nineteenth century the brewing industry was in flux. Technology was changing the way beer could be produced and the larger or ‘common’ brewers were steadily growing, squeezing out smaller operators and buying up their properties. Public drunkenness was a real problem and the number of pubs and beerhouses, many of which were unpleasant places, was widely seen as contributing to the problem. To make matters worse, the way that licenses were handed out by magistrates favoured publicans tied to the bigger, wealthier brewers who were able consequently to control the market in whole areas of some cities.

In Liverpool in 1862 the magistrates tried an experiment. At the time Liverpool was widely seen as one of the worst cities in the country in terms of the amount of public drunkenness and the number of offences committed; it also had an unusually high number of beerhouses and pubs, many of them in a poor state. There was a desperate need to solve Liverpool’s problems with drunkenness and at the same time lessen the influence of brewers on the political and social life of the city. What these far-sighted magistrates did was free up licensing altogether, making it possible for anyone who could show they had suitable premises and were of ‘good character’ to set up a business selling beer.

Critics, including the common brewers and many tenant publicans who saw their local monopolies threatened, attacked the plan, arguing that more liberal licensing would lead to more public disorder and crime. The policy lasted only four years and was widely believed to have failed miserably; in 1872 the Spectator commented on the subject saying that “free licensing has been tried by the Liverpool magistrates and has produced results so ghastly that they have recoiled from the experiment.” As always the truth is more complicated. By 1866 the magistrates’ bench was once again dominated by individuals influenced by the larger brewers who had a vested interest in tighter controls–on their own terms–over licensing. This is not very far from the way large brewers in recent years have defended the ‘beer tie’.

In a letter to the Times dated May 21, 1872, a ‘Liverpool Man’ believed to be S.G. Rathbone, an opponent of the ‘free trade in licenses’ when he sat as a magistrate, suggests the experiment was much more successful than generally thought. Indeed Rathbone seems to have changed his mind about restriction:

… I know of no evidence which shows any ghastly results followed the introduction of free licensing; certainly the police statistics do not point to such a conclusion. The free licensing system was adopted at the licensing session held in the autumn of 1862 and abandoned in the autumn of 1866. The number of apprehensions for drunkenness during the official police year which closed in autumn, 1862, was 12, 362, and for the year 1866, 12,494; so that at the end of the free licensing period the apprehensions had not increased in proportion to the increase of population. The restrictive system of issuing licenses having been returned to at the licensing session of 1866, and Sir Selwyn-Ibbetson’s Beerhouse Act of 1869 having brought the issue of beerhouse licenses under magisterial control, there has been a steady decrease in the number of drinking houses; and the number of publichouses and beerhouses, which in 1865 amounted to 2,805, is now only 2,313. The steady decrease in the number of drinking houses has been accompanied by an equally steady increase in the number of apprehensions for drunkenness, which, for the last year of free licensing, 1866, was 12,494; while for the police year ending in autumn, 1871, after five years of restrictive policy, it was 22,947. These figures are, of course, in themselves not conclusive, many causes combining to influence the apprehensions of drunkenness; but, at all events, they show that the police statistics of this town, so much relied upon by the advocates of restriction, afford no evidence that free licensing injured the morals of the inhabitants.

The ‘Liverpool Man’ goes on to show that the number of licensees unable to pay their rates rose substantially during the unrestrictive period, indicating that the profit from selling beer had fallen substantially. Much of this was put down to licensees keeping open houses in ‘bad situations’ hoping for the return of the restriction; these licensees were no doubt assisted by the larger brewers who owned the houses in question. Our ‘Liverpool Man’ concludes wisely and I’ll leave him the last word:

No human ingenuity can devise a law which shall at the same time place liquor within the reach of the sober and keep it out of the reach of the drunken: yet this is really the impossible aim of all systems of partial restriction. The restrictive system, at least in our large towns, entails all the evils of monopoly without any corresponding advantages …

The real solution to the liquor question is, then, to throw the trade open on equal terms to all willing to enter it and to pay a good high Excise license duty [there was no excise duty on beer until 1880], and thus destroy the monopoly out of which many of the moral and all the political evils of the trade now arise.

Text Messaging Before the Telephone

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time recently reading personal letters between various members of Liverpool’s merchant elite in the early nineteenth century. By the late 1700s Liverpool had an established local mail service and was connected to London by direct mail coach in 1785. By 1800 the penny post was a sophisticated and efficient means of communication with several postal deliveries each day within the city. It has been interesting to see just how frequently people communicated with one another. The content of letters was in many cases no more significant than a text message or a quick email might be today; they are ephemeral and insignificant. In fact many of the letters I have been looking at do away with the date and distinguish themselves only with the time of day, suggesting that ‘real time’ conversations were carried out this way even between people living less than half a mile apart.  Here are a couple of real examples from the 1820s and 1830s, both of which went by post (I’m keeping the names to myself until I have permission to publish this material properly):

My Dear Madam

We shall be most happy to wait upon you tomorrow evening, and I shall have much pleasure in the opportunity of seeing your sister and in the mean time I always am

Faithfully and affectionately yours

My Dear Madam

I shall be most happy to visit you this evening. In the mean time I always remain (though more briefly expressed than I could wish being in haste),

My Dear Madam
I am faithfully and affectionately yours

Monday Morng.

It is interesting to see that impromptu and short-notice social engagements were as much part of early-nineteenth century life as they are now. Finding out this kind of thing will be almost impossible for future historians looking back at us.

Liverpool’s Floating Churches and a Famous Chaplain

Yesterday I came across (via Twitter) a post about New York’s floating chapels and this started me thinking about Liverpool’s own floating churches. It seems there were two, one of which was a nonconformist chapel based on board a former whaling ship the William, which in its heyday as a whaler would have looked something like the one in the picture, the James. The William had been built in Liverpool for the Greenland fishery in 1785 and became a chapel in 1822. The William remained in the King’s Dock until 1850, when she was broken up. The journal of Robert Day, (1848-1850), Agent to the Liverpool Seamen’s Friend Society, held in the Liverpool Records office, records that “she sold for £105. The amount of dock dues incurred for 28 years and 7 months amounted to £1277 13s 7d”.

The other floating church in Liverpool belonged to the Church of England. Based in the donated former frigate HMS Tees, the Mariner’s Floating Church opened its companionways to worshippers in 1827 and remained in place in George’s Dock until 1872, when it sank at its moorings. The first chaplain of the Floating Church was William Scoresby Jr., the former whaler and arctic scientist turned minister. Scoresby had always had a strong religious sense and was well known as a whaling captain for refusing to catch whales on a Sunday. This was partly because he believed in observing the sabbath, but also because he believed that a day of rest would be beneficial to the crew. He was deeply concerned for the moral and spiritual health of sailors and was also a Temperance campaigner, arguing that drunkenness at sea was at least partly responsible for the large numbers of ships lost. Scoresby first moved to Liverpool from Whitby in 1819 and built his ship the Baffin there. He returned to the city as chaplain in 1827 and stayed for five years before moving on.

Baffin of Liverpool: The Last Liverpool Whaler?

The Liverpool Whaleship, Baffin, by Francis Hustwick, c. 1834

I seem to be developing a minor obsession with whales and whaling. I’ve been reading recently about William Scoresby Jr, a Whitby whaler who built and sailed the Liverpool whaleship Baffin on a famous voyage to Greenland. Scoresby, besides being a whaler, arctic explorer and naturalist, designed the Baffin himself, overseeing her construction at Liverpool. In his Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery Scoresby describes the ship:

The voyage was accomplished in the ship Baffin, burden 321 tons, built at Liverpool, under my personal inspection, expressly for the whale-fishery, in the year 1820. No expense having been spared in the construction of this ship, every known principle calculated for producing strength, accommodation, sea-worthiness, and fast sailing, in so far as these properties were compatible, was adopted, and with such good effect, as to answer, upon trial, our highest expectations.

As far as I have been able to work out, Baffin was the only whale ship based in Liverpool in 1822*. Scoresby made one last trip to the Arctic before he gave up the sea and became a clergyman. The Baffin–almost certainly the last Liverpool whaler–also sailed out of  Leith, before being wrecked in the Davis Strait off Greenland in 1830. The ship with its bow towards us in the picture above is thought to be the Baffin. The painting is held at the Hull Maritime Museum.

*Text originally claimed Baffin was one of two whalers sailing from Liverpool in 1822, and that Lady Forbes was lost that year. In fact she was wrecked off Greenland in 1821.

Edited, December 17, 2009 and February 11, 2015.

The Changing Face of Brewing

thenookA week or two ago the 37th (2010) edition of the Good Beer Guide was launched. The last few years have been tough for the pub trade, but the 2010 guide lists almost 1300 new pubs and 71 new breweries. That’s right: 71. According to the trade paper The Morning Advertiser there are now 711 operational breweries in Britain, which is more than at any time since the end of World War II.

The number of breweries in Britain declined steadily through most of the twentieth century as brewing businesses merged into ever more enormous corporations, most of which have chased profit and low costs at the expense of quality and distinctiveness. In fact the last time the number of breweries grew like this was in the mid-nineteenth century, when brewers like Robert Cain, Andrew Walker, Timothy Taylor and others began to be successful.

Nineteenth-century brewers benefited from a relaxation of licensing laws following the Beer Act of 1830, after which the number of small brewers–what we would now call ‘micro-breweries’–grew enormously. Over the next few decades the laws were gradually tightened up under pressure from the Temperance movement, but in the middle of the century many small brewers managed to get a toe-hold in the market and some of them did very well indeed.

It strikes me that there are quite a few similarities between our time and the mid-Victorian period; similarities that might explain this growth in brewing. These include improved (and cheaper) equipment, the growing supply of commercial property, and less quantifiable factors, such as the desire to start businesses and be your own boss. As in 1860, so in 2009, but the single most significant external influence on nineteenth-century brewing was Temperance and in 2009 an increasingly hostile attitude towards pubs and drinking has once again opened up the market in an interesting way.

The idea that Temperance campaigners could improve the beer and pub trade might seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. In the decades after the 1830 Beer Act drunkenness became a major public worry, especially in cities like Liverpool and London. By the 1870s and 1880s, as the Temperance movement began to gain popular support, smart brewers began to develop more civilized atmospheres in their pubs. Then, as now, brewers tried to ‘move to quality’ and establish a ‘respectable’ image for themselves. This was the era of the brightly-painted dray and fine horses, but also of the luxurious city centre pub and what became known as the ‘improved public house’ movement. We no longer have a Temperance movement as such, but worries about street violence, alcoholism in the young, and other medical effects of alcohol have led to what many regard as a concerted attack on pubs and the drinks industry in general.

A lot of people are pessimistic about what is going to happen to pubs in the coming years, but I’m not. The ‘traditional’ English pub is already quite different from the way it was twenty-odd years ago when I was in my late teens. The best pubs are cleaner, more pleasant places to drink than they were back then. The beer is better too; and there is more choice, not only in terms of the beer available, but the range of places in which to drink it. This is not to say the last few years haven’t been difficult, or that it isn’t going to keep on being tough, or that there aren’t issues that need to be addressed, but I see the best pubs and brewers adapting to those difficulties and, importantly, moving towards quality.

I’m still worried about aggressive supermarket price campaigns and about what we might lose if pubs keep closing. And more pubs will close no doubt. But as CAMRA’s figures suggest, brewing itself is thriving; there is even evidence to suggest that the pubs are beginning to beat off the competition. We are in the middle of a dramatic change in the way our towns and cities work, and the way we live our lives. Politics, economics, and simple demographic change are all putting pressure on that indefinable place, the ‘traditional English pub,’ but change is not necessarily for the worse. On the subject of those 711 breweries, the only sensible question is: where to start?

Coronet Midget: Tiny and Shiny in the 1930s

Coronet MidgetManufacturers of electronic gadgets know only too well that small and shiny sells and that bright colours mesmerise the ape brain. Modern electronics and plastics make wondrous things easier to achieve in miniature, but in fact not much is new.

Dropping in after a picnic lunch at the rather lovely Angus Folk Museum a couple of weeks back I found this little beauty in a glass case. It’s difficult to appreciate how small this camera is from the picture–since it’s behind glass I couldn’t slip a ten pence piece in alongside it–but that thing just in front of it is a roll of 16mm film, so just over 1.5cm tall. The camera itself is about the size of my thumb.

According to this article at the Coronet Midget was in production from 1935 and was advertised as ‘the world’s smallest camera’. While it’s a long way from that now it is still a lot smaller than most current ‘point and shoot’ cameras. Like many current cameras it also came in a range of colours, including blue, red, and black. The down side of course is that the standard prints that came from the six-exposure film were so small they had to be viewed with an accessory magnifying glass–just one of a range of accessories available apparently. It seems that the Coronet company, which was founded in 1926, ceased production in 1967, but with marketing ideas like these it might have done well today.

In terms of practicality Ephotozine has this to say:

Picture taking with a Midget was a straightforward affair as there are no camera adjustments available. In fact apart from the shutter release, the only control is a lock to prevent the camera being fired accidentally. The photographer’s only real choice is whether to take the picture in landscape or portrait format. The claimed shutter speed is 1/30 of a second and the lens has an effective aperture of f/10.

The Coronet Midget was discussed on the Instructables forum earlier this year and there are some good pictures showing the camera alongside familiar objects, including the obligatory coin. Still more pictures of Coronet Midgets here.