1929, a British Cooperage, a Canadian Angle

A press item in 1929, short as it is, neatly encapsulates some major themes of British beer history. It appeared in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on September 21 that year (via British News Archive).

An extract:


Brewers’ Preference for Baltic Oak Staves.

The creditors and shareholders of Dunbar’s Cooperage, Limited, Millwall, met at the offices of the Board of Trade, London, yesterday.

Mr. H. S. Russell, managing director, said the failure was due to the decreased demand for casks for exportation of English brewed beer to France and Belgium, coincident with the decreased consumption of beer, following the demobilisation of the troops at the end of the war. It was also due to the insistence of English brewers upon casks being made of Baltic oak staves as soon as they became available in 1921, as a result of which the company was left with very large stocks American oak staves, which could only be disposed of at huge loss. A contributory cause was the gradual decline in the consumption of beer.

Unpacking this, three reasons appear for a decline in a London cooperage’s fortunes:

– brewers sent over less beer to France and Belgium, as millions of British troops returned home after Armistice

– domestic beer consumption fell since the war

– American beer staves, which had replaced traditional Baltic sources (Crown Memel oak) during the war, were now surplus with return to market of Memel wood

American oak was disliked by most British brewers due to imparting a vanillin flavour to beer, as I have discussed in numerous posts here. Memel wood had a much milder effect on the beer and was liked for other reasons, mainly ease of working and its straight, almost knot-free character.

The long-term decline in per capita UK beer consumption has been well-documented. See e.g. the graph in this collection of sources, in Parliament Publications.

The British still had troops on the Continent, indeed until 1930 via the Rhineland Army of Occupation. This complement by my studies never exceeded 10,000, a couple of brigades.

Thirsty as they undoubtedly were, there is reason to think the need was supplied by German brewers in this period – apart the fact that 10,000 is not a great number compared to about 3,000,000 troops under British flag in Europe by end of the war.

A series of photos at Imperial War Museum, London shows objects connected to German brewing for British troops, using (it seems) British malt. UK malt was probably sent due to privation and food shortages in Germany after the war.


THE BRITISH ARMY OF THE RHINE, 1919-1929 (Q 7595) The British Army of the Rhine have a special brew of beer for which a German brewery is supplied with malt. A German brewer explaining the use of the gas engine to British soldiers. The officer of the 10th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the left was the Brewery Officer. Near Cologne, 7 May 1919. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205239411


As a result British brewers had little benefit from the postwar troop complement, which meant their cask needs did not grow on that account.

Hops are not mentioned in the IWM items, so likely British malt was flavoured with German hops, as sometimes occurred in British brewing.

Interestingly, the photos pertain to Cologne, which had and still does a tradition of top-fermentation, as Britain ancestrally. Cologne is a fairly warm city, perhaps one reason top-fermentation hung on although its brewing adapted (as well-known) partly to resemble lager, produced by chilled bottom fermentation.

At the same time, Cologne is in the Rhineland-Ruhr, so its selection as a jumping point for UK army brewing might have been coincidental.

I cannot recall any further information on this transpontine brewing by John Bull. It sounds, if you will, two sandwiches short of a picnic. Note the gas pressure to pull the beer, not typical for British beer dispense then.

Yet, and to mix metaphors further, any port in a storm – sort of the history of beer in a tea pot. (He is on a roll).

Regarding Dunbar Cooperage, our searches show this enterprise established initially in Eastcheap, London per the Timber Trades Journal and Saw-mill Advertiser. It moved to Millwall Docks before the war.

An English website, Isle of Dogs: Past Life, Past Lives, notes that the cooperage was founded by a Canadian, Alexander Dunbar, a barrister, in fact, who hailed from Guelph, Ontario.

Further information is provided by Stephen Porter’s 1994 study Poplar, Blackwall, and Isle of Dogs: The Parish of All Saints.

Alexander had a particular interest in cooperage, having taken out patents for its machinery in numerous countries. Here is an example for the United States, from its Official Gazette for the Patent Office.

Guelph is in Wellington County, Ontario. A GenWeb site devoted to the County, drawing on a pre-1914 sketch of County pioneers, mentions this Dunbar, stating he is now resident in London, so this is clearly our man.

Alexander’s North American origins incline one to think he may have favoured quercus alba, the North American white oak type, as a suitable wood for British beer casks.

His Canadian connections surely helped to make contacts among timber suppliers here. At the time, Quebec was a noted supplier of wood to Britain for many industries, but his North American background probably favoured locating quercus alba in general for anticipated UK brewing needs.

Perhaps the Canadian underestimated the conservative streak then manifest in British brewing.

The English website has a good photo of Millwall in the early 1930s. What were evidently the cooperage yard and sheds clearly appear dock-side. Later, the area was cleared and redeveloped, as the site explains.

Note re image: used for non-commercial, research purposes pursuant to the authorization and license set forth in the source.


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