Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A brief history of Britain's Beer! Part 3: The 1800s

Did you make it here by reading Part 1 where we discussed the origins of Britain's beer, and the influence of successive invasions upon this fine beverage? Perhaps you read Part 2, as we looked at how the length and breadth of the British Empire shaped our drink of choice? Or maybe you've just landed here unannounced. Regardless - welcome!

If you've not read the other articles, it doesn't matter, for this post shall focus solely on the evolution of Britain's beer in the 1800s. As a scientist, this is where my real interest lies, and I'll try not to lose you along the way.

One of the major items to discuss when talking of beer in the 1800s is yeast. If you don't know what yeast is, that's fine, neither did any of Britain's brewers pre-1857. Yeast is magical. Yeast is wonderful. It's (usually) a single-celled fungus that digest plant sugars, and under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), produce a happy combination of alcohol and Carbon Dioxide. We call this fermentation. No one really knows why it does it, but the production of alcohol has been theorised to be a defence mechanism to halt the growth of rival microorganisms - such as bacteria. Whatever the reason, the yeast by-product alcohol is why beer enjoys a massive industry today.

In beer, the sugar that yeast so happily munch upon comes from the grains - usually barley. When ale ferments, the yeast crop at the top, the single cells bunching together to form floculent clumps, before all the sugars and other digestible material are used up; then they fall to the bottom, dormant. The short video below, from the Sierra Nevada brewery in the USA, shows this wonderful process far better than I can explain:


Impressive stuff. That foam, in the highest concentrated places, will contain around 4.5 BILLION yeast cells per ml! The word yeast actually comes from Old English, borrowed from somewhere else no doubt, and means 'foam' or 'bubbles'. So if it's an Old English word, how come we didn't know it existed to produce alcohol until 1857?

The brewers of old were far from stupid. They knew if they cropped the yeasty foam from the top of the fermenting beer, and repitched it in their new batch, that the magic of sweet wort (the sugary liquid extracted from grains) turning into beer would happen quicker, and with less chance of souring than if they just left it the open air. In the 1830s the Burton Union system was developed to crop yeast more efficiently, for the sole process of repitching into the next batch. So brewers did use yeast knowingly, they just didn't know what scientific process it went through.

Burton Union system of harvesting yeast.

In brewing history there is a lot of emphasis on the 'discovery' of yeast, as if all beer up to that point was unworthy. Not so. I'm sure the beer was wonderful both before and after yeast was established as the converter of sugar to alcohol. Take, for example, baking a cake. With help, any ten-year-old can do it. Do they know there is a certain amount of neutralisation going on? Emulsification? Gelatinisation? Or the complex reactions between amino acids and larger whole proteins with sugars - known as the maillard reaction - producing hundreds of flavour compounds? Probably they don't understand any of that, yet I bet the Victoria sponge is great all the same (just jam in mine please, no butter-cream).

Saccharomyces Cerevisiae - Ale Yeast cells.
Yeast was first recorded under the microscope in 1680 as a globular structure. In the late 1700s to early 1800s, scientists started to regard them as single-celled living organisms. Unfortunately though they misclassified them as animals that lived in fermenting beer! The globular structures were thought to be eggs, with swelling and hatching observed, and animals containing stomachs, intestinal tract, anus and organs of excretion all recorded and drawn! These scientists were looking for evidence of a chemical reaction involving yeast.

This research in microbiology and the behaviour of cells was carried on and built upon by the famous Louis Pasteur. He reclassified yeast as a fungus, and proved in 1857, through a series of experiments, that it undoubtedly transformed sugar into alcohol. Travelling around breweries of France and Germany he inspired other scientists, and they soon identified two separate species used in the production of beer - Ale yeast and Lager yeast (the later of which was established in the Carlesberg brewery no less).


Some of Louis Pasteur's original drawings - www.nlm.nih.gov

Through his other work, he also established a number of unwanted off-flavours - tart, sour etc - as a result from other microbial activity, both from wild yeast, and from bacterial infection. Such an expert he became, that when he visited British breweries, he impressed upon the importance of his discoveries, and breweries started to employ top chemists for good money.

Yeast was not the only change to happen to the British brewing industry, and not the only reason why scientists were employed. The other key area of interest was water.

In Part 2 we spoke of the rise of the IPA (India Pale Ale). They seem to have originated in London, even though there were no doubt many pale ales, equally highly hopped and aged in a similar way from all over Britain, but it was in London they were first called India Pales, Indian Pale Ales, Pale Ales for India etc. This was mainly a logistical choice for the ships coming in and out of the capital.

The water of London is relatively soft, with high levels of carbonates. This gives the water a certain alkalinity, that when used with dark roasted malts (which have an acrid bitterness), beautifully balances to create dark ales and rich porters. I assume this is why oysters were historically thrown into the boil of some stout porters too - the carbonates of the shells raise the alkalinity - leading to the style 'Oyster Stout'.

In the early 1800s, noticing current trends, rival breweries in Burton began to emulate the highly hopped pale ales of the Indian market. The results, when compared to the pale ales of London, were described as crisper, cleaner, clearer and a better all round balanced flavour. The Burton IPA was a success. By 1888 thirty one breweries had sprung up around the hills of Burton, including such famous breweries as Bass, Everards, Allsopp, and Worthingtons. The beers were described as having a sulphurous smell, and that they held its hop aroma and bitter flavour far better than the London varieties.

The effectiveness and flavour difference on different wells owned by the same breweries were compared, and it was found that water taken from further away from the River Burton were less likely to foul and sour than those taken from deep wells in the hills. Another early lesson in hygiene. It goes without saying that the river was no doubt filled with the filth of society.

Many of these Burton breweries became massive - such as Bass, which employed over two thousand people, and exported their beers worldwide.
Un bar aux Folies Bergère - Edouard Renoir - Note the bottles of Bass!


A chemist in the mid 1800s set out to discover why. His name was Charles Vincent, and he analysed the water from all the wells he could gain access to. When compared with water from outside of Burton, he discovered high levels of sulfides, sulfates and calcium compounds. The water was hard water, and it owed its properties to the mineral of gypsum abundant in the local hills. Vincent took his research further - he provided a way for brewers around Britain to replicate the Burton water with additives - such as gypsum - if they did so desire. This technique is called Burtonisation, and is used by brewers the world over to achieve the perfect brewing water to this day.

When Vincent's results were shared with breweries, it was just another reason why scientists were so highly regarded in the brewing world.

To summarise: The 1800s saw a massive development in water chemistry and microbiology. Because of this, better beers and consistent beers could be produced. The tart and sour off-flavours caused by bacteria and wild yeasts (consistent with the original style of the IPAs) were successfully eradicated, and the biggest change to brewing came into effect. Previously, brewers had to age these beers for long periods of time to mellow out the sour tones of their infected beer, but no longer. Beer could be produced not in a matter of years, but in mere weeks!

These were dubbed 'running beers'. A brewing process still used by the majority of the brewing industry, and new styles of beer began to emerge such as the British milds (previously mild referred to a weak beer, but now its the distinctive sweet and malty dark beer we know today) and bitters. If either are your tipple of choice, then you have scientists to thank for your favoured pint.

There were other reasons for this evolution too of course, not least of all the development of a National Railway throughout Britain, allowing the fast and efficient transport of beer and its ingredients.

In Part 4 we'll discuss how the two world wars - and the resultant rationing - had a devastating effect on British brewing, and we'll look at the reemergence of wonderful ale in the 1970s. Until then, crack open a beer!

For more boozy goodness see:


Cheers!