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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Beer class continues....

Week Four: The Industrial Revolution

Posted on Thu, Feb 7, 2008 at 1:32 PM

This semester, Kings College is offering a course titled "Brewing Science: The History, Culture and Science of Beer," taught by professor Gordon Mcouat, an instructor in King's History of Science and Technology program.

I managed to get myself enrolled in the class, and so will be posting regular updates on its progress.

I suppose it was too much to ask that each class session would hold the excitement of the first three.

Truly, there was a general lack of enthusiasm all the way around this week. Any Thursday night class has to face the early weekend syndrome, which naturally hits a plateau a month into the semester, but this week saw some additional sources of energy-sapping: Friday was a King’s holiday, King George III Day (US readers will be pleased to hear that King’s was once located in New York City, in the buildings now occupied by Columbia University, and moved northward only because of that ugly revolution business, hence the King’s celebration of the monarch most hated by Americans) and many of the students who hadn’t left town were evidently in the grip of the same nasty cold virus inflicting the rest of Halifax, including Yours Truly and Dr. Mcouat.

More, the progression of our journey through the history of brewing has brought us to the Industrial Revolution. “This was just as revolutionary and just as important as the invention of agriculture and the start of civilization,” Mcouat quite rightly pointed out. But good lord, I heard enough about cotton gins and steam engines when I was in high school, 120 years ago, and that’s what the bulk of Mcouat’s lecture covered.

In other words: it was a real yawner.

But Mcouat did get around to the point of the thing an hour and a half in. I’ll summarize: even though craft industries like brewing were (as argued in Week Three) the cause of the Industrial Revolution, the revolution didn’t come to brewing until well into the process, after the early 19th century introduction of the steam engine.

The rest of the Industrial Revolution happened out in the countryside, in such polluted nightmares as Manchester and Waterloo, but the brewing revolution was brought right to the heart of London herself. Mcouat described gigantic brewing skyscrapers, six or eight storeys of beer making: the watering of the malt on the top floor, the mashing on the next down and so forth, with the steam engine operating the machinery and huge elevators lifting the bottles and barrels and such.

There were many dozens of these breweries, taking up entire districts of the city. To give an idea of their size, consider the Meux Brewery, each of whose vats weighed 24 tonnes and held 35,000 barrels. To show off their size, the brewery hosted a seated dinner for 200 guests inside one of the vats.

On October 14, 1814, there was an accidental spill at the Meux. Some 8,000 barrels of porter poured down the streets, killing eight people. Authorities reported the cause of the deaths included drowning, “and drunkenness,” said Mcouat.

Not everyone was happy with the Industrial Revolution--- I don’t need to recount the horrors of the 19th century factory, do I?--- and so in 1811 and 1812 a group of Nottinghamshire workers took matters into their own hands and began smashing up factories. I’ve always a had a soft spot for the Luddites--- their actions seem immensely sensible, and they get a bum rap, in my considered opinion--- but the usual collection of monied interests who call the shots saw things differently, and so in 1813 machine wrecking was made a capital offence.

There comes soon after a fellow named William Cobbett, a “radical reformer, pamphleteer, and shit-disturber,” said Mcouat, who argued that the Luddites were the logical, if extreme, response to the lost of craft trades to the factory. A better approach, Cobbett argued, would be to return to the self-sufficient household. He therefore published a series of pamphlets teaching how to run a household economy, brew beer, keep pigs and so forth.

The mostly boring lecture did have the positive effect of leaving me thirsty for knowledge and looking for something to blog about besides, so the next day I went and did what I should have done a few weeks ago: I bought the class readings. It’s an interesting strategy, this, boring the students into reading the book. Next time I see him I must congratulate Mcouat for being on the cutting edge of pedagogical innovation.

Anyway, the class readings included a couple of selections from Cobbett’s 1826’s Brewing Beer which, as its title suggests, is mostly a practical manual explaining how the average person can brew decent beer inexpensively. I’ll leave those details aside, though, and concentrate instead on Cobbett’s contextual argument: why the heck should people brew beer anyway?

Understand that by 1826 the Industrial Revolution had taken hold and had brought Britain full into its Dickensian miseries. Life had changed completely, in a generation. Said Cobbett:

In former times, to set about to show to Englishmen that it was good for them to brew beer in their houses would have been as impertinent as gravely to insist that they ought to endeavour not to lose their breath; for, in those times (only forty years ago), to have a house and not to brew was a rare thing indeed. Mr. Fillman, an old man and a large farmer, in Sussex, has recently given in evidence before a committee in the House of Commons this fact: that, forty years ago, there was not a labourer in his parish that did not brew his own beer; and that now, there is not one that does it…

Why the change? Partly because people had shifted to working as wage earners in the factories and so had given up their old home craft pursuits. Partly because they could use their cash earnings to buy beer from the new “common brewers”--- the large steam egine-powered breweries. And partly because beer had been replaced with tea, the spoil of empire or, as Cobbett put it, the product of “the slave-drivers and plunderers of the East and West Indies.”

Cobbett really had a thing against tea, and went to great lengths to show just how stupid it was to drink it instead of beer. “Even at present prices,” he noted, “home-brewed beer is the cheapest drink that a family can use, except milk, and milk can be applicable only in certain cases.”

Cobbett calculated that:

It is impossible to make a fire, boil water, make the tea, drink it, wash up the things, sweep up the fireplace, and put all to rights again in less space of time, upon an average, than two hours. However, let us allow for one hour; and here we have a woman occupied no less than three hundred and sixty-five hours in the year, or, thirty whole days, at twelve hours in the day; that is to say, one month out of twelve in the year, besides the waste of the man’s time in hanging about waiting for the tea!

I’ll spare you the details, but Cobbett also calculated the exact cost of tea making---just over 11 pounds a year---and compared it to the cost of brewing your own beer---about 7 pounds a year. That amount would allow a fellow to brew enough beer such that:

…he uses in his family two quarts of this beer every day from the first of October to the last day of March, inclusive; three quarts a day during the months of June and September; and five quarts a day during the months of July and August; and if this be not enough it must be a family of drunkards.

It wasn’t just time or money that concerned him. Cobbett continued:

But, I look upon the thing in a still more seriously light. I view tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effiminancy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.

To test the comparison, Cobbett suggested that you feed a hog beer for a while, and watch as you are rewarded with bacon. Then, feed a hog tea and watch it die of malnutrition.

Well, I, for one, am convinced.

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