Ballin’s Bitter (Part I)

Bier Ahoy!

I don’t think it’s ever been established who brewed the “iced Munich lager” listed on the first-class lunch menu for the Titanic dated April 14, 1912. A number of sources in recent years suggests that Wrexham lager brewery in Wrexham, Wales brewed it.

This has been stated in numerous blogs and at least one recent book, Veronica Hinke’s 2019 The Last Night on the Titanic. The idea seems more a (logical) inference than strictly documented as such. The brewery was known earlier as a supplier to the White Line, but I don’t think there is more than that.

It wasn’t the only beer on the ship, but perhaps the only draft beer. The website Gjenvick Archives lists in some detail provisions on the ship, mentions beer, and actually includes an image of a warehouse store of beer meant for the ill-fated craft. The crates are marked “Titanic” and “C. G. Hibbert”, a well-known bottler of the time.

Various accounts attribute between 15,000 and 30,000 bottles of beer (1000 of wine, about 800 of spirits), so there is no doubt British beer was carried, probably pale ale and stout.

For the draft, Munich could mean, brewed in Munich, or, in the style of Munich. Either way, in 1912 this normally would mean dark lager. That was the typical form of Munich beer then. Blond lager became generalized in the city after WW I.

On the other hand, an 1890 news record of Wrexham lager states it was a Pilsener-style, “pale” in colour: see my research a few years ago, here.

Wrexham Brewery could have brewed more than one type of beer. And again, Titanic’s draft lager might have been Munich-brewed.

However one cuts it, no beer was actually brewed on the ship. Ship-board breweries seem to have come later. Still, one must be cautious in such matters; I’d be surprised if a ship-board brewery before 1923 is not uncovered some day. Perhaps it was beer brewed from a concentrate in a Royal Navy experiment, a matter that preoccupied naval provisioners for some time before rum became standard for the liquor ration.

Why 1923? That is the earliest year I know of for a ship brewery. The ship was the “Albert Ballin”, a newly-built liner of the Hamburg-Amerika line. It was named for Albert Ballin, a German shipping executive. Ballin, of Jewish birth, had Kaiser Wilhelm II’s confidence but with the war lost, he despaired of losing his fleet to the Allies. He died by his own hand in 1918, at 61.

A.C. Hardy’s Merchant Ship Types (1924) describes the Albert Ballin in detail (see at 25 et seq). It was a medium-sized liner meant for the North Atlantic run. Ballin had innovated in late-19th century shipping to handle large-scale emigration traffic. He also basically invented the cruise ship business, starting in the Mediterranean.

Hardy mentions no brewery, perhaps it wasn’t felt important enough. As well it was Prohibition-time, and the book was published in New York.

But brewery there was, as reported in this story in April 1924 in the New York Sun. The story explains that the ship had some trouble with Prohibition agents in New York. There was bottled beer and spirits on board in excess of the medical exemption, and a fine was paid.

But the mini-brewery, of course idle in port, was left alone. It would commence operation past the three-mile limit. The logic, unassailable, was an inoperative brewery in New York harbour was akin to any other shuttered American brewery.

The story noted dryly ahem the beer was of “anti-Volsteadian tendencies” but gave few details on the brewing. We know, however, that malt extract was used. See this earlier report in the New York Evening Telegram, in January of that year:

 

 

The reference to the beer being superior to Munich lager seems newsy hyperbole, but no doubt it was accorded nectar-like status. We can assume the same for HMS Menestheseus’ mild ale that I discussed recently.* And I suppose if anyone can make malt extract beer taste good, the Germans can.

The scheme neatly avoided the problem of the Volstead law. Beer sourced in Germany was used on the way in. The small brewery remained idle until the ship left New York harbour and was past the international limit. Presto, Americans deprived of legal liquor at home could enjoy a fresh beer.

Why was the baby brewery not used when outbound from Germany? Perhaps the German pure beer law played a role. Malt extract is, I believe, prohibited for lager under the Reinheitsgebot. Or, it may have been a point of pride for a German-owned line to provide all-malt beer to the extent of its ability.

The image below, from another page of the Gjenvick Archives, shows the Albert Ballin in its glory days. The ship was re-named under Nazi rule, later used for war transport, and hit a mine in 1945. It was salvaged by the Soviets and restored, and lasted until 1980 whence it was scrapped.

 

 

In the last link above images of staterooms and other facilities on Albert Ballin may be viewed. Even more clear photos cab be seen in this YouTube upload. Cafe-garden, bar, dining rooms, all areas where the ship’s brew would have been consumed.

PART II continues this discussion, with an account of ship breweries of Hamburg-America’s competitor, North German Lloyd.

Note re images: First image above was sourced from Fulton Historical Newspapers as identified and linked in the text. The second was sourced from the Gjenvick Archives as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Completists will want to buy the latest issue of the journal Brewery History for inter alia a bang-up article by Geoff Dye on the Menestheseus’ brewery and other amenities. Much information is disclosed not previously available, and it is quite a story.