An English Brewer in Belgium, 1924

‘Some time ago,’ begins S. H. Evershed’s account of his travels, ‘I was commissioned by a gentleman who had bought a small brewery in Belgium to fit up the brewery with the necessary plant’.

Martson, Thompson & EvershedYou might recognise the name Evershed from old labels for Marston’s of Burton-upon-Trent. Evershed was a brewery taken over by Marston’s in 1905 and there were two generations of men called Sydney Herbert Evershed, father and son.  We can’t be quite sure which of them is responsible for this account but our guess is that it was the Sydney Herbert the younger, born in 1886, who would have been in his thirties in 1924, and later, as MD of the company, went on to introduce Marston’s Pedigree, in 1952.

This detailed account of his Belgian jaunt appeared in the May 1924 edition of the Journal of the Operative Brewers’ Guild, an organisation based in the north of England which eventually became part of the IBD. The journal was written by brewers, for brewers, and generally explored minute practical details of the brewing process, including what to feed horses for the maximum efficiency, and the price of Isinglass on the world market.

The Belgians’ motive was simply to ‘brew under English conditions in order to get inside the Belgian tariff wall’ — that is, to provide English-style beer to Belgians who were thirsting for it without paying high import duties intended to keep out German goods in the post-war reconstruction phase. (Think of Boston Lager being brewed at Shepherd Neame.)

I found the brewery premises in excellent state — beautifully constructed — on the tower system — with tiled floors on every storey… Almost all the windows were broken, and half the roof tiles were off, while every particle of brass or copper had been removed by the Germans, including the copper, with its dome, mash tun taps and pipes, refrigerator, and every bearing form the shafting and boiler house fittings.

With his Burton-centric way of thinking, he saw ‘the Belgian method of brewing top fermentation beer’ as ‘really the Burton Union system on primitive lines’:

The wort is left in the cooler all night. In the morning it is run over the refrigerator and into a large collecting back. There yeast is added and left for a further 24 hours, and the wort is then run… into casks… yeast working out of the bung hole. However, the beer turned out astonishingly good and cheap.

In the summer, however, the quality dropped off, not least because he could not get the wort cool and was, he declares with horror, forced to pitch yeast at 72°F (22°C): ‘Needless to say, the beer hardly kept a fortnight.’

Shenanigans in the Fog

Water seems to have been Evershed’s biggest challenge. The previous brewer had brought it to the brewery from a nearby well by cart — ‘a terribly slow game’ — so Evershed installed a pump an used a hose.

As the pipe had to cross a town street it was very difficult… for the only time I could pump with any safety was between 2 and 7 am, and even then had to have a man in the street holding up carts…

He sought permission to install a permanent pipe under the road way but was refused.

Eventually we did put a pipe under the road and under someone else’s land during a thick fog. When each section was in and covered I went along and camouflaged the newness of the soil.

Farewell, Coolship, and Other Improvements

Despite having admired the quality of beer being produced on the existing set up, Evershed set about instituting other improvements, too — purifying the well water with chlorine, for example, and, with some regret, doing away with ‘the large flat cooler’.

I am myself still a believer in the old large flat cooler, provided it can be placed in a lofty situation, free from the danger of infection from malt or mill room dust.

Now the Good Stuff: Beer

Mr Evershed helpfully recorded the most popular styles of beer at the time:

Belgian Beers, 1924.

Most of those figures refer to original gravity which you can very roughly translate to alcohol by volume (ABV) as, e.g., 1060 = 6.5%, so those weak beers were apparently very weak indeed.

He notes that Belgians, if they have the money, ‘like their beer strong’, which went some way to explaining the popularity of British imports despite crippling duty. He decided to concentrate on brewing top fermented beers and to worry about lagers later.

But first, he hit a stumbling block: there was a flavour in the locally brewed products that he simply could not replicate. Then someone whispered in his ear: use Saccharine. It was illegal to do so but, Evershed observes, ‘laws in Belgium… are only made to be broken’. Another sweetener, Glychyrizzine — licorice root powder — was legal, and another secret tool of Belgian brewers, when added to the fermenter or even after fermentation.

It has 40 times the sweetening power of cane sugar, and if used in small quantities… I think it is a splendid adjunct for weak beer or stout.

(One for you home brewers to try?)

“MOAR HOPS!”

There’s another bit of interesting practical advice in the article: after accidentally under-hopping one brew, Evershed found that, although it kept for six weeks, ‘almost every barrel was complained about and returned to the brewery’. His conclusion is that, for all the worrying over how to improve the shelf-life of beer back home in Britain, not enough consideration was being to the tried and trusted method of adding more hops.

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If any of you scholars out there are desperate to see the full text, email us and we’ll see what we can do.

2 thoughts on “An English Brewer in Belgium, 1924”

  1. Excellent. I’d like to have the full article please, with thanks in advance.

    The first two in the table were clearly table beers, and these still exist in both colors and you see them in the far north of France too – or at least this was so 5-10 years ago during my last visits.

    The continuity of top-fermentation techniques is pleasing, I’d think for barley beers right across northern Europe there was an “ur” way to do it which was later refined and altered here and there but presented a core similarity. I knew a Nord-Pas-de-Calais brewer who once described to me top-fermented beer sent unfinished with finings to private homes. It was very similar to English cask-conditioned beer, and he agreed I should add.

    The part about hops is instructive, but it goes to flavor as much as to stability in my view. I think it was the late Bert Grant who said in the early years of craft brewing that all beers were underhopped – he meant the commercial derivatives of pilsener and cream ales and such – and while stability was no longer a problem by then palate clearly was – for the many who turned their interest to the burgeoning craft brewery movement.

    Gary

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