“Death in the Pot” – Beer Adulteration in the 1800s


Here at the Black Creek Historic Brewery, our standard roster of beers is made from four ingredients: malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. That’s it, as per tradition, the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) and several British Acts of Parliament. (Some of our specialty brews are different—but hey, they’re specialty brews for a reason!)

Frontispiece of Frederick Accum's treatise on the adulteration of food. Found on Archive.org!

Frontispiece of Frederick Accum’s treatise on the adulteration of food. Found on Archive.org!

In the 1800s, however, things could be less cut-and-dried. Adulteration of food and beverage ran rampant in an era before modern regulations, and beer was no exception. I found two treatises from the 1820s bemoaning impurities in their flour, their tea, and their beer. These writers identified some main reasons for adulterating ales:

Increasing intoxicating effects

Basically, the alcohol content is beer is determined by the sugar content (yeast metabolize sugar to alcohol), which is in turn dependent on the proportion of malt you’ve used. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the price of malt spiked. Some brewers, therefore, found other ways to add some “cheer” to your cup.

Opium, poppy extract, and tobacco could all be added to beer to make it feel like you were getting drunk more quickly. More common was cocculus indicus: the fruit of the Indian berry plant: a potent narcotic.

Increasing bitterness

Say you’re a little short on hops. What else can you use? Bitter herbs and plants like aloes, wormwood, horehound, bitter oranges, and quassia (a flowering tree) could all be used to mimic hops’ particular astringency. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with flavouring your beer with herbs—medieval gruit beers took a combination of rosemary, bog myrtle, and sweet rosemary. However, hops contain oils that act as preservatives. Beers made without them simply don’t keep as long.

Colouring dark beers

In the 1820s, brewers were making porters from a blend of brown and pale malts. As mentioned, the Napoleonic Wars increased barley prices—and brewers discovered they could make more wort from pale malts. However, customers expected porters to be dark, and the pale malts weren’t cutting it.

So instead, brewers boiled down sugar to a black colour. Once added to the wort, it would darken it. Burnt treacle and sugar also mimicked the roasted tastes and sweeter finish of a porter. Sugar and molasses could also add fermentable sugars if your grain bill was lacking.

“Aging” beers

In the early modern period through the early 1800s, it was common for brewers to make two types of beer: aged (or “stale”) beer and mild beers. Aged/old beers had a sharper taste, whereas mild beers were…well, milder and a bit sweeter. In taverns, it was quite common to order and serve a mixture of both, but sometimes, unscrupulous brewers and tavernkeepers added a shot of old ales to mild ones in order to “age” them. Apparently, combining assorted dregs and leftovers into a single cask wasn’t unheard of, either!

Now, adulteration was generally slammed as a means of cutting corners and saving costs. But looking to early-nineteenth century Ontario, I wonder if adulteration sometimes resulted from necessity or desperation. Adding molasses when you didn’t have enough barley would result in a higher-alcohol beer, and additives like capsicum might well have helped liven taste when brewing ingredients were scarce (both molasses and capsicum/cayenne were ingredients in Thomas Benson’s ale, incidentally—he seemed unbothered).

While I certainly don’t want opium or tobacco in my beer, I’m all right with a bit of ginger. Maybe even treacle, depending on the style. Then and now, transparency about brewing method and ingredients is the key. 🙂

-Katie

 

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