Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate

Extract plus water equals beer.

This morning, David Martin asked us if we knew anything about Cave’s Solid Beer. We didn’t, but we do now; here’s what we found out.

CSB, Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate, was founded by George Gordon Cave in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire – now part of Milton Keynes – in around 1898.

Cave was born in London in 1841. He worked in various parts of the UK including Bristol, where he shows up in the 1871 census as a ‘hotel keeper’, and Merthyr Tydfil where, in 1881, he was working as a brewery engineer. By 1891, he had arrived in Fenny Stratford and was a brewer, full stop.

His own firm, CSB, specialised in producing beer extract for shipping overseas using a patented method of Mr Cave’s own invention.

Amazingly, you can see what is probably some packaged solid beer in a photo from around the turn of the century hosted at the Talk About Bletchley website – wooden crates marked CSB CAPE TOWN.

Here’s a brief description of CSB from the Leighton Buzzard Gazette for 5 May 1903:

During his whole time in Fenny, Mr. Cave had been working at these patents, the object being to produce beer in condensed form to save enormously on the carriage of it to foreign countries and the colonies, where it could be developed under his patent process.

And here’s a note on the company registration from the International Brewers’ Journal for 15 June 1898:

Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate Company, Ltd.,with a registered capital of £25,000, divided into 25,000 shares of £1 each, to acquire from Mr. George Gordon Cave, of Fenny Stratford, the invention protected by Letters Patent No. 2,889, of 1894, for improvements in the treatment of yeast and any further improvements and additions thereto, and all further patents granted to the said George Gordon Cave in respect of the invention above mentioned, together with the right to apply for letters patent in any foreign country or British colony in respect of the invention of any improvements thereof or addition thereto, and for the manufacture and sale of ale and beer in a solid and compact form for export as at present authorised by the Excise officials.

A few references in later local history publications refer to Solid Beer as being sold ‘in slabs’ for reconstitution with water but this syndicated news article, published in various local papers on or around 8 November 1900, specifies, as we suspected, that it required fermentation before drinking:

The Central News learns that the military authorities in South Africa have reported favourably upon the latest invention in the way of concentrated beverages, known as ‘solid beer’. This is a jelly made from malt and hops, and by its use beer, said to very wholesome and palatable, can be made anywhere and fermented, the process being exceedingly simple. practically indistinguishable from beer brewed in the ordinary manner, and it can made with equal facility and success in hot or cold climates.

That’s backed up by earlier instances of ‘solid beer’ as a synonym for ‘malt extract’, this being one of those products that people kept claiming to have invented every few years.

Here’s an example from 1856:

Will the inhabitants of London ever carry their beer in their pockets? A question, this, not so strange as at first may appear; for a Moravian, M. Rietsch, has invented a mode of making what may be termed solid beer. He brews a malt-extract; he bitters it with hops and sweetens it with sugar; he concentrates it by heat; he pours the thickened mass into wooden boxes lined with tinfoil; and he sells it in this form. The purchaser, when inclined for a draught of beer, takes some of the concentrated extract, dissolves it, ferments it, and — lo! the beer appears. It is obvious that the only question here is — not whether such beer can possibly compete with draught beer where brewers and malt and hops are plentiful — but whether it may not be a valuable addition to the commissariat stores of travellers or sojourners in distant and ill-provided countries; since the concentrated extract is suited for keeping.

Here’s another reported by the Scientific American in April 1870:

The age produces some queer paradoxes, and none more so than in the results of manufacturing science. In former days it was the custom to buy bread and even beef by the yard; but we believe that it is only in the present day that we can get our beer by the pound. By a very simple process, introduced by Mr. Mertens, the wort, after being made in the mash-tub of malt and hops in the usual manner, is sucked up by a pipe into a large vacuum (exhausted by an air-pump), and then persistently worked round and round while the moisture is evaporated. The wort emerges from its tribulations with a pasty consistency, and is allowed to fall from a considerable height into air-tight boxes, in which it reposes, like hard-bake. It soon gets so exceedingly tough that it has to be broken up with a chisel and mallet, and in that condition is easily sent abroad, or to any part of the world, for people to brew their own malt liquor.

A couple of years ago, we wrote about the tendency in journalism to get excited about this kind of beer innovation – instant beer! Beer in pill form! The Keurig of beer! And so on. But none of these Victorian ‘solid beers’ were any such thing – only proto-beers, requiring further work on receipt.

Still, clever stuff for the time, requiring ingenuity in processing and packaging, and we can imagine soldiers thousands of miles from home were glad to have something even vaguely resembling the ale they were used to drinking in Blighty. Our guess, pending further research, is that an army cook could take a block of this stuff, unwrap it, pound it up in warm water, chuck in dried yeast, and a week or two later have drinkable beer to serve up to the troops.

Unfortunately, George Cave died suddenly in 1903 at the age of about 62 and the company was wound up before 1914 when the premises was advertised for sale.

As ever, more information, especially if it’s based on primary sources, would be welcome.

4 thoughts on “Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate”

  1. The anachronism desk suggests that dried yeast was not developed until WWII, although the compressed blocks we now call fresh yeast had been around for around a century before that.

    1. Yeast has been dried in farmhouse brewing since forever. There are even accounts of dried yeast from Egyptian sources from antiquity. But for dried commercial brewing yeast this might be right.

      I’m not sure this malt extract was really of much value in the colonies. Fermentation and sanitation must have been the biggest challenges for anyone wanting to produce beer there, and the extract doesn’t help with that. Is there anything to suggest the extracts were ever commercially successful? (My guess is that if it was “reinvented” every few years, that meant the previous attempts had not succeeded commercially.)

    2. Guinness is still exported to Africa in a similar way, I think, but it doesn’t need fermenting; the concentrate is diluted with local lager.

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