Why Did Brewers Use Sugar?

Illustration: Sweet Tooth brand can sugar cube.

It’s good to be stopped in your tracks occasionally, as when Ron Pattinson challenged us last week over our assertion that brewers used sugar to cut costs.

Here’s what we actually said, in our post on David Pollard:

Sugar has been used in British brewing for centuries not only to increase alcoholic strength while saving on raw material costs, but also to thin the body of the beer (to make it more ‘drinkable’); to add colour, in the case of dark sugars; and to add a range of often subtle flavours.

To which Ron replied:

I don’t think you’ve got it right about sugar. Its principal functions seem to have been flavour and colour, especially in Mild. That it wasn’t particularly about cost is demonstrated by the fact that brewers continued to use sugar even when it was more expensive than malt.

That made us pause and think about our assumptions.

We knew for sure that there was a perception in the 1970s that all-malt beer was purer and generally superior. Here’s what Michael Hardman, co-founder and first chair of CAMRA, said in his 1976 book Beer Naturally:

Sometimes the brewer will add sugar to the boiling wort to complement the natural sugars extracted from the malt. This practice, which was illegal until 1880, is now widespread, though many brewers proudly adhere to recipes which use only malt and hops.

But we realised that, yes, Ron was right — we had taken for granted that brewers used sugar to save money without any particular evidence in mind. It was just an idea we’d absorbed, somehow.

To answer the question about why brewers did use sugar we turned to one of our favourite historical sources: the online archive of the journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). It can be a pretty dry old thing — lots of formulas and lengthy debates about piping materials, or food for brewery horses — but if you want to know what brewers were saying to each other about a particular issue behind closed doors, it’s hard to beat.

Item 1: The Economical Production of Modern Beers, 1895

In a paper read before members of the Yorkshire Institute of Brewing in Leeds (link to PDF) Fred Maynard complained about the tendency of brewery owners to demand top notch beers while providing their brewers with mediocre ingredients — an entertaining read, as it happens — while acknowledging that there were some ways to save a bit of cash without excessively compromising the end product. On sugar in particular he says (our emphasis):

The oldest method of effecting economy, and the one most generally adopted, consists in the employment of sugars as a partial malt substitute… In cases where a heavy, well-cured Yorkshire or Scotch barley malt is in use a cheap glucose may possibly be employed with advantage, but the same glucose would give rise to thin, harsh beers utterly devoid of character, if the malt used consisted of a light, under-cured English variety, or a highly diastatic foreign grain. 

That seems pretty unambiguous and makes us a feel somewhat more confident in our original assertion.

Item 2: The Manufacture and Use of Brewing Sugars in America, 1899

This paper, by Rolfe and Defren, was read at a meeting of brewers in Manchester, and contains commentary that supports Ron’s point above:

From an economical standpoint glucose and grape-sugar are sometimes used, although at times the prices of these substitutes have been higher than malt or prepared grain, which would contain equivalent amounts of extract. A little more than a year ago American glucose was selling pound for pound at less then half the price of malt. To-day the market conditions have placed the price of glucose and malt on a more uniform basis, although it is still a decided economy for the brewer to use glucose at present quotations in combination with malt.

In other words, depending what the market is up to, sugar (relatively plain varieties) might contribute to savings, but that’s not the only reason to use it.

Item 3: Invert Sugar, 1896

At an 1896 meeting in Manchester a paper by John Heron was read and discussed. After a detailed description of the process for making invert brewing sugar, he has this to say on the question of economy:

For a number of years, in fact, not until 1875, did the use of sugar make much headway in brewing, very severe restrictions being placed upon it, so that it was only in those years when good barley was scarce that it paid the brewer to employ sugar at all…

Which would seem to suggest that the decision to use sugar, if not driven purely by economics, was certainly influenced by the relative price of malt vs. sugar. This section, meanwhile, suggests that sugar became popular because it helped to make the kind of beers the public wanted:

Slowly a taste for a lighter and less alcoholic class of beer began to spring up. This meant storage for much shorter periods, so that quickness of consumption was thus fostered. This necessarily involved earlier conditioning and brightening in cask, and to meet this new state of things the brewer has been led to use less malt, fewer hops, and more sugar… For the last 50 years the use of sugar in brewing has been recognised by Government as a legitimate material in the manufacture of beer, and whilst the public taste generally demands a light beer of such a character as can only be produced with the aid of sugar, no agitation of so called protectionists will ever be able to prevents its use in the brewing of that beverage which we claim as our national drink.

Item 4: The Economics of Brewing, 1969

All the above examples date from the very tail-end of Victorian period — what about later? This paper by J.O. Harris of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries gives a fantastic overview of where savings were really being made at the dawn of the CAMRA era, which is to say not through using sugar to replace malt:

Little need or can be said in this connection which is not obvious. Cane sugar (per unit of extract) remains expensive and its replacement by cheaper glucose preparations is a matter of individual consideration.

Instead, Mr Harris suggests, the real economies are to be made through using replacement cereals (wheat, corn), extracts (especially from barely-malted malt), hop extracts, and changes to fermentation processes.

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We’ll try to do more reading around this but our feeling is that, yes, it is probably fair to say the use of sugar was sometimes motivated by profit concerns, but not solely; and that by the 1970s when sugar was used in brewing, it wasn’t to save money.

In that context, ‘all-malt’ as a marketing angle was probably more about corn, wheat, potato and onion starch (Protz, Pulling a Fast One, 1978) and other adjuncts than sugar per se, although we wouldn’t be surprised to find lingering ancestral memories of the Victorian period continuing to inform consumer perceptions.

So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

Continue reading “So Low You Can’t Get Under It”

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.

GALLERY: Pub Architecture, 1846

We’ve been reading Victorian Pubs by Mark Girouard (1975; rev. 1984) which pointed us toward J.C. Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture published in 1846. This being the 21st century, it’s available in full online via Archive.org, and has about 50 pages on inns and pubs (pp.675-726).

These designs are ideal templates rather than referring to specific pubs — has anyone ever seen an Italianate or Swiss-style inn in the wild? (Serious question.)

Pubs: Forget Sky Sports, Get Rats!

Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog.
Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog, 1822.
The grand consumption of rats… is in Bunhill-row, at a public-house kept by a pugilist. A rat-seller told me that from 200 to 500 rats were killed there weekly, the weekly average being, however, only the former number; while at Easter and other holidays, it is not uncommon to see bills posted announcing the destruction of 500 rats on the same day and in a given time, admittance 6d. Dogs are matched at these and similar places, as to which kills the greatest number of these animals in the shortest time.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor1851.

Mock up of a flyer quoted by Mayhew.
Our mock-up of a flyer quoted by Mayhew.

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I now propose laying down a few abstract questions for the due consideration of our worthy magistracy, as to the propriety of their interference in rat-matching, &c. The first point I would wish to draw their attention to, is the case of the rat-catcher of Witnesham in Suffolk, who brought, in twenty-one weeks, to one public-house in Ipswich, no less a number than 11,465 rats, which he sold at two shillings and sixpence per dozen. This man, in this short space of time, took from the public-house the sum of £254; and all these were genuine barn-rats, which were brought for the purpose of training dogs, matches, &c…

I shall now lay before you the complaint of a landlord of a tavern. His house was situated about a stone’s throw from the police-station. Here he was landlord for seven years and, though considered something of a sporting house, still, during that period, he declared that not one case of disturbance ever went from his tavern to the station… Yet because this man had rat-matches in his establishment, and trained dogs in the art of rat-killing, he was persecuted… till he was compelled to leave his house.

James Rodwell, The Rat: its history & destructive character, 1858.

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In 1812, a RAT of astonishing Size, was killed at a Public-house, in East Clandon, near GUILDFORD; it measured from the tip of the Nose, to the end of the Tail, two Feet three inches, and was of proportionate Bulk. It is supposed, he had infested the Cellar, where caught, for Years, and the Landlord calculates, he had drank at least a Barrel of Beer, out of the Tap-tub, and eat upwards of a Bushel of Bread, besides a Quantity of Other Provisions.

William Barker Daniel, Supplement to the Rural Sports, 1813

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With apologies to the squeamish, this post was inspired by reading E.S. Turner in Angus McGill’s anthology Pub (1969), and Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld (1970). Now let us never speak of rats again.