Thursday, 27 August 2009

When McEwan spied on Bass

I've been feeling a tiny bit embarrassed that Ron made it to the Scottish Brewing Archive before I did, even though I only live a half-hour's bike ride away. Yesterday I finally got around to paying them a visit. It's a tremendous resource with some fascinating stuff.

This is such a great letter that I'm sure someone must have written about it before. It was written by William McEwan in 1852, while he was still serving his apprenticeship before setting up his own brewery. He describes visiting Bass and Allsopp in Burton-on-Trent with descriptions of their practices. Seems brewers were still quite cagey about revealing their secrets back then. Nonetheless, he doesn't seem to have been impressed either by their methods or by the resulting beer.

Cordeaux's
6 New Basinghall St
London 12 Augt 1852

My dear Uncle.

I arrived the last night. I left Burton in the forenoon, and spent a few hours in Birmingham. There was no occasion for me to remain longer in Burton as the object of my visit was attained in the morning. I have been from one end to the other of both Bass and Allsopps breweries. I had however to put conscience altogether out of the question for the nonce [sic] and declared I was not at all connected with the trade. The method of conducting the process in both establishments is exactly alike, but now that I have seen their mode of operations I am not at all surprised that the gravity of the Beer should vary so much in different brewings.

You will recollect the gravities to which the beer was attenuated as quoted in the Somat [?] newspaper varied from 16 to 6. It appears to me that they can have very little control over it after it goes out of the fermenting square. From what I could ascertain and see it appears that the beer is fermented in squares (in which there are no refrigerators) where it generally remains 2 days, it is then let off into a receiver (Yeast and all.) from which it is pumped into an immense number of Butts. These Butts are kept constantly full, so as to allow the yeast to wash out which it does most beautifully, (but it wd. be rather difficult to describe it in a letter although it will be easily explained by word of mouth. After the whole of the Yeast is worked out of it, which is generally in 4 days, it is run off into Squares. But so particular are they that the dregs of the Butt are not allowed to go into the square, after it has been in the square 1 Day it is considered ready for cleansing, and it is at once racked off into the casks in which it is to be supplied to the Customer. No such thing as storing it in Vats; but our common sense has already told us such a thing is ridiculous.

The man that showed me over Allsopps was rather intelligent, and I asked him how long they keepte [sic] the beer by them before sending it out to the customer. He said 3 Months was the soonest at which they liked to send it out — He said, however, that they sometimes sent it out when only 6 weeks old, but this was only when they were given to understand that the customer did not intend using it for some weeks, but would keep it the proper time in his own cellar. They press their hops under a pressure of 14 Tons. There was one circumstance which much surprised me, viz the pressing of the Yeast. The Yeast is put into large coarse calico bags, and thrown into a vessel similar to our Hop press, where it is subjected to a pressure of 4 Tons. One would suppose the bags would burst, but the pressure being equal on all sides they cannot. The liquor flows out quite pure, but is strongly tainted with the yeasty bitter. When the liquor is all extracted the yeast has become as consistent as clay. This yeast is sent to Ireland [?] for Distillers, and a precious morsel it must be. This extract of the yeast and also the dregs of the Butts are mixed along with an inferior beer which is sold in the neighbourhood. It appears to me from all this that we have not racked [?] our ale sufficiently.

I have made a point of tasting Burton Beer in every large town through which I have passed viz in L'pool Manchester, Birmingham and London, and I can assure you in very few instances indeed has it had the fine mellow flavour which we so much desire — it must nearly all have been brewed at the end of this season.

Birmingham is a thriving town, and much beer must be consumed there, but like Manchester it is cursed with the licensed victuallers brewing their own. Now this practice is little known in L'pool. In all my travels I have seen no place where I feel so certain a Brewer of a genuine article might so certainly be successful as L'pool.

I was over Barclay Perkins & Cos premises today. It has rained incessantly since I came here, and if it continues I shall not visit the Hop district — but as this would be a disappointment I hope the weather may improve.

If nothing comes in my way I shall leave this by the Bath [?] steamer which sails at 10 oclock on Saturday night.

With kind regards to Uncle Tom; Aunt Jane [?] and all friends assembled with you, of whose names I am ignorant believe me to be yours and faithfully

Wm McEwan

4 comments:

  1. Sir, I can confirm that Birmingham is indeed a thriving town, and much beer is consumed here. It is with good humour that I report the dark days of Brew XII are nearly over.

    (Great post, very interesting!)

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  2. How fascinating. My wife has just come back from Polesden Lacy where McEwan's daughter was a renowned society hostess. This letter was on display. My interest is that my great great grandfather was Richard Cordeaux who owned the boarding house in Basinghall Street.

    Thanks for the transcription which I shall pass to National Trust

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  3. How fascinating. My wife has just come back from Polesden Lacy where McEwan's daughter was a renowned society hostess. This letter was on display. My interest is that my great great grandfather was Richard Cordeaux who owned the boarding house in Basinghall Street.

    Thanks for the transcription which I shall pass to National Trust

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  4. David, thank you very much for commenting.

    ReplyDelete