A Macardle Makes his Case in Pall Mall

Among the nuggets in the War Office Report of 1903 on managing army canteens is the testimony of an evidently ebullient and witty Thomas Callan Macardle. He represented the Macardle Moore brewery of Dundalk, Ireland. Dundalk is in the northeast, just below what became the border with Northern Ireland.

The inquiry was presided by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, a name well-known in Canada due to his service here as Governor-General (appointed 1904).

Macardle’s testimony is both instructive and entertaining. After explaining why he wanted to speak the Earl asked him – unfairly I think but probably with a smile – if he had an “Irish grievance”. Macardle’s neat riposte: “You never saw an Irishman who had not”.

Macardle argued before the committee that the army should not be solely guided by price when choosing a brewer. Other considerations applied, he said, including quality, reputation, and the fact of being a local business.

He suggested Britain could boost the popularity of its troops in Ireland if it dealt with local firms. He also noted that Irish brewers bought Irish malt made from Irish barley. He said if Irish malting declined the fields would “turn to grass”, with yet more emigration.

He was prepared to offer in his line beer from Bass (England) as well as Scotch Ale so his range would not be considered too narrow.

The Committee continually reminded Macardle that its mandate was solely to decide how to manage canteens in the best interests of the soldiers.

But the discussion wended. Asked if Irish brewers bought a lot of malt in England Macardle agreed they did, especially Guinness given its size. But he insisted that Irish barley accounted for a majority of the malt used in Ireland. Pressed to provide barley acreage figures, he countered: “I suppose this does not come within your scope”. Touché.

Macardle pointed out he had lost contracts through a small price difference. Explaining that on one occasion a “Burton brewer”, probably Bass, trumped him he noted the oddity of Burton sending porter and stout – and even “Irish whiskey” – to Ireland. (Where the whiskey came from, I don’t know).

Macardle stated baldly an opinion held by many then: nowhere was better stout and porter brewed than in Ireland. The implication was, the army was overlooking quality.

Asked why he didn’t sell his beer in England Macardle retorted that transport costs made it impracticable: the price would rise by a third.

An interesting exchange occurred concerned beer gravity. The army in England stipulated OG 1053, or a little over 5% ABV, as the minimum strength to supply porter. In Ireland, the starting gravity was set at 1058, about 6% ABV, I believe under the same garrison regulations. Macardle thought 1058 too strong, likely because (or how I read his remarks) soldiers drank less strong beer than weaker.

Asked why a difference of five degrees, which only applied to porter, existed, Macardle offered a reason connected to Guinness, but I don’t find it persuasive. More likely, I think the difference was explained by Irish porter having a higher average strength than English porter before WW I, although I need to check further on this.

Macardle wanted to sell the army porter at 1045 OG, so about 4.5% ABV. That was the level in England to supply army mild ale, the weakest beer for which tenders could be made. In his testimony (see my earlier post) the Reading brewer Louis Simonds argued that even 1045 was too high.

As brewing science became more sophisticated, and with excise taking an ever-larger share, brewers soon understood it was in their interest to lower beer strength. It’s a story familiar in the beer history of Britain and Ireland and for many other countries.

Macardle’s is an excellent case study in business adaptability. The firm thrived under both British and Home rule notwithstanding its close association with HM forces for decades which continued through WW I. Indeed a son of Thomas was killed at the Somme.

The brewery continued into the 1960s when it formed a grouping with Smithwicks and Guinness. By the 1980s Diageo had taken over completely. Diageo still produces an Irish red ale under the Macardle name.