Journalist Alan Tomkins on Beer and Pubs

I completed recently a series in five parts on London-based journalist Alan Tomkins, writing on beer and pubs between 1938 and 1944.

The series title is “Alan Tomkins Tipples”.  A summary and index follow.

  1. Tasting Beer at the London Brewers’ Exhibition, 1938

  2. (Continuation) Tasting Beer at the London Brewers’ Exhibition, 1938

  3. Using the Public Bar vs. Saloon Bar of the Pub, 1944

  4. (Continuation) Using the Public Bar vs. Saloon Bar of the Pub, 1944

  5. Impact of Special War Measures on Beer Attributes, 1941







Birmingham Beer Detectives, 1937

The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette of July 10, 1937 covered a speech by L. Ormston, of the Sunderland and District Licensed Victuallers’ Association.

He sought to counter proposals by a temperance lobby – an attenuated influence in interwar Britain but not quite expired – that would

  • ban alcohol advertising

  • withhold drivers’ licenses from anyone not signing the temperance pledge

  • create a city council beer inspection system

On the last point, the temperance group, said Ormston, envisaged

…plain-clothes Government beer inspectors, to watch over the interests of beer-drinkers.

Ormston replied, as industry people often do when confronted with regulatory challenges, that he was not against inspection as such but “experience of the working of officialdom” suggested this “addition” was not necessary.

He cited the example of improper washing of glasses and appealed to his members to take greater care for this.

A preoccupation with beer quality seems at odds with the temperance sensibility. It was a legacy of the 19th century, when concerns arose in the emerging industrial society to ensure food and beverage safety.

Adulteration, the initial preoccupation, merged in time with quality control issues such as ensuring clarity and stability, especially beer not going sour.

The beer industry itself, as Ormston knew, had made some efforts toward controlling quality at least since the early 1900s.

An item in the Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for Buchan District, July 14, 1906, stated in part:

Although the fact may be little known, the various large brewery firms have “private detectives” always on the road. They visit the various public-houses and call for a pint of a special kind of beer.

The story is somewhat imprecise but makes clear the visitors did not identify themselves, drank only a small quantity over thirty minutes, and the tying brewery would fine the publican if the visit proved unsatisfactory.

The “special kind of beer” was probably a specific brand, say the XX mild ale of the brewery which supplied the house. Breweries always wanted to know, first and foremost, it was their beer in the handpumps, the correct quality called for, and otherwise fit to drink.

Because some beer was tasted in this exercise, evidently taste, and appearance, were judged by a personal, vs. lab-based assessment. This and more are confirmed in Lord Askwith’s (George Askwith, 1st Baron) 1928 book British Taverns:



So this is the general background to a suggestion by the 1930s that cities take over the role to ensure drink quality “in the field”.

(A separate but not unrelated question is how the state-managed pubs of Carlisle and District handled this area, but this must await another day. Certainly the “Experiment”, as it was known, was in operation between the wars and aspects would continue into the 1970s).

While Sunderland itself did not appoint municipal beer inspectors (to my knowledge), another city did: Birmingham. This is stated very clearly in a June 20, 1937 story in the Sunday Pictorial (later Sunday Mirror):


BEER-INSPECTORS, in plain clothes, are to protect the interests of the beer-drinking public, who last year contributed £60,000,000 to the Exchequer.

They will visit public houses during trading hours, order their glass of beer, test its quality on their highly trained palates. If the beer is “off,” they will show an official badge, issued by local authorities, and demand to see the cellars, for they have power to inspect any place where food and drink are served.

Up till now, the only official inspection has been by Excise officers, testing specific gravity, though many brewery companies have their own cellar inspectors. Birmingham recently appointed sixteen beer “detectives,” who are now at work; Liverpool is putting its usual inspectors on the job, and the London County Council are following Birmingham’s example.

Brewers are discussing this latest development, and will decide whether to retain their own men or to rely on the local authorities.

In every case, beer leaves the breweries in perfect condition; the damage is done when it is handled by careless and inefficient cellarmen.

This seems very similar to a Campaign for Real Ale, Cask Marque-style program. Or, a recreation of the ale conner system of many centuries ago. Avant la lettre, but also après.

Yet I’ve never seen reference to it in any other source, popular or scholarly, in beer studies. I’d have expected Andrew Campbell’s 1956 The Book of Beer to have covered this, but it does not. (I thank Tim Holt, editor of the Journal of the Brewery History Society, who kindly confirmed this for me).

I am not aware that Liverpool or London followed Birmingham’s steps, but maybe they did, or one of them.

It seems tempting to think the plan was a damp squib, but the Pictorial story is categorical, inspectors were on the ground in Birmingham in latter 1937, with other cities to follow – drinking on the public payroll.

Why Birmingham in 1937? While beyond my scope here, some suggestions: In the same year in July a major international health conference was held in the city.

Details are set forth in this link, extract from a 1936 issue of the Journal of the Army Medical Corps, viz. (bolded words are mine):


THE RIGHT HON. THE EARL OF DUDLEY has consented to act as President of the Health Congress, which is to be held at Birmingham from July 12 to 17, 1937. He will deliver his Inaugural Address on Monday afternoon, July 12.

The Minister of Health, the Right Hon. Sir Kingsley Wood, will address a general session of the Congress on Tuesday. The deliberations of the Congress will be divided among eight sections dealing with:-

Preventive Medicine.
Engineering, Architecture, and Town Planning.
Maternity, Child Welfare, and School Hygiene.
Veterinary Hygiene.
National Health Insurance.
Hygiene in Industry.
Tropical Hygiene.
Sewage Disposal.

In addition, there will be conferences of Representatives of Local Authorities, Medical Officers of Health, Engineers and Surveyors, Sanitary Inspectors, and Health Visitors.


It would not have hurt the city to get its licensed premises shipshape for the penetrating eyes, and palates, of convention members, many of international background.

In addition, the local brewing industry was consolidating, with Ansells playing a leading role. With competition declining and despite industry assurances, city stewards were likely concerned to ensure a minimum set of standards.

It seems therefore, at least for a time, a two-track beer-tasting inspection system existed, city and industry, to control beer quality in pubs. Perhaps the whole thing, at city level, collapsed with the Second World War – bigger fish to fry, if you will, but this remains to be known.

Certainly at industry level, tasting onsite continued into the postwar era. A number of press reports, one pertaining to Ansells in 1949, attest only too graphically, a conviction of an inspector for drunk driving.

See in Coventry Evening Telegraph, September 13, 1949, “Beer-Taster was Drunk in Charge of Car”.

A 1962 report by Birmingham City Council makes no reference to inspection by tasting although it does refer to public house issues, e.g., where the “economiser” used to return overpours to the barrel was also used to recycle leavings in glasses.

Letters were sent to warn of such “malpractice”, and prosecutions undertaken for failure to comply.

A 1953 report of Birmingham Council focused on issues like replacing rubber pipes with plastic or monometal. Beer was also analysed for lead and arsenic content, but again there is no reference to tasting and hence, the quality issues that would address.

From the public standpoint, this had to await creation of CAMRA and programs such as Cask Marque.

It would be useful to obtain a copy of the enabling by-law or other set of rules by which the Birmingham Beer Detectives of 1937 did their work. My efforts have not been fruitful to date.

Likely the directives were inspired by brewery company policies for similar efforts. One can imagine that some inspectors – they were newly hired in the case of Birmingham – were former brewery inspectors.

Given the ongoing consolidation in the industry, and the lingering Depression, likely suitable persons were available.

Internal company policies on tasting in pubs for inspection would be salutary to read in this light, and for their own value of course. Have any come to light? Offhand I can’t think of examples, but our readers may know more.*

*See my further comment below (in comments section).




Alan Tomkins Tipples. Part V (Final).

Oddly perhaps for a man whose second name was blasé, Alan Tomkins comes down to brass tacks with beer in 1941.

He is examining the impact of falling strengths resulting from duty increases and other constaints of wartime.

As beer historians have noted, over the war years, as in the First World War, strengths fell with rising tax burdens and imposition of quotas for raw materials.

For World War II Ron Pattinson has explained the picture well, in part through tables at 217-222 of his 2013 book War!

Against this background, we can consider Tomkins’ article in the Sunday Dispatch on March 23, 1941 (via British Newspaper Archive).

His editor tells him he has heard beer strengths have gone down. He asks Tomkins to investigate the impact of possible future decreases, by adding 10% water to beer as a test.

So off Tomkins goes to his beer “stockist”, an odd-sounding term to North Americans, used in Britain into the 1990s at least, not sure about today.

The shopkeeper is aghast anyone would add water to beer, which inclines with Tomkins’ intuition, viz:

…watering is almost as bad as high treason and much more criminal than many kinds of crimes passionels.

The shopkeeper conducts the experiment nonetheless, to “show him”.  And in truth Tomkins finds the watering:

…[caused] an unpleasant, separate, secondary taste, as persistent as though copper coins had been soaked in it.

The stockist explains the result is “mawkish” as the added water was not boiled or subjected to fermentation, and has no “natural gas”.*

The stockist then explains that the price of pints has risen regularly, so to get the same strength as before, you either pay more, or, if you don’t wish that, you get a weaker beer.

He states gravities did fall since start of the war (September 1, 1939), by six points, he estimates.

This seems too high, see Ron Pattinson again, but the drift of his explanation is brewers raise the price or make weaker beer by starting from a lower gravity, but don’t water the final result.

He tries to prove this by showing Tomkins could not tell the difference between (undiluted) higher and lower gravity beers, but Tomkins proves him wrong. This hazardous exercise apart, he understood the situation better than Tomkins walked in with, which Tomkins conveyed in his fashion to harried wartime readers.

Although from a later period, this London brewery label, actually a beermat, should resonate in light of above (via Brewery History Wiki):



I might add, I add water all the time, not always carbonated, to strong beers to get them to about 5% abv. The result is usually just fine, if I served them even to experienced beer drinkers they would never suspect the beer is off in some way.

It can matter though what water is used. The wrong water will sometimes produce a “flat” result. Only experiment can tell, but in general there is nothing wrong with the practice.

You can use non-fizzy water if the carbonation level of the beer is high to start with. The 1941 stockist clearly had limited knowledge himself, but knew more than Tomkins, clearly.

*It is not clear whether fizzy or plain water was used in their experiment. Perhaps an aerated (fizzy) water was used, but if so, evidently still stockist was wedded to gas produced by natural fermentation, as he bruits the advantage of “natural gas”. Today in so-called high-gravity brewing, high-strength beer is brewed, then diluted with oxygen-free carbonated water to marketable strength, e.g. 5% abv. This was not done in the period, though.







Alan Tomkins Tipples. Part IV.

How to use the Public Bar

Below I include the remaining portion of Alan Tomkins’ June 25, 1944 article introduced in Part I. He boldly enters the public bar from the saloon side with a band of diffident followers. The saloon is rammed with officers and others waiting four-deep for drinks who won’t leave their side of the pitch.

(Via British Newspaper Archive, as in this series generally).

….There were only a half-dozen chaps in the place. They eyed us not perhaps coldly but with reserve. But by supping three halves apiece and talking sense in moderately pitched tones, we won our way into their graces.

Since when, Dear Reader, we have drunk in the public many a time and oft, finding elbow room, peace and uplift. Other cultured people are doing the same, so that I suppose in time we shall have other mass movements.

MEANTIME, here is some


Do not monopolise the darts and shove ha’penny boards. but defer to the locals.

Do not talk loudly.

Do not lay down the law aggressively on any subject.

Learn the different values of the beers and ales, which often differ from those at the posh end.

Do not assume that everybody wants to be treated. Ask a bloke tentatively if he would care to join you. None of this cowboy “I’ll stand the bar” stuff….


Having proferred advice, he then requests it, asking Dear Reader for song and music suggestions suitable to perform when requested by Forces personnel. It seems – in terms of more bio on him – he was an amateur musician, perhaps earning drinks for his band in this fashion.

I don’t know about you, but I had to ask myself: is Tomkins entering the realm of satire with his “Guidance for the Public End”?

The Sunday Dispatch had to count many readers who frequented the public bar, after all. Is he puncturing the pretensions of the movers and shakers, in the way the 1982 The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook did?*

I can’t be sure, but perhaps he was talking “straight”. The advice to avoid loud conversation has an ingenuous ring, it might be summarized as “keep the bray out of the bar”. This would counter the bossy, controlling image his element had at the time.

Similar is the injunction not to offer a free round to patrons indiscriminately, which might be viewed as patronizing.

From a beer historical standpoint, the advice to learn the different types of beers and ale is noteworthy. The public bar staple through the mid-20th century was mild ale, less strong and cheaper than pale ale, exceptional conditions apart.

Stout too, perhaps, and certainly brown ale were more favoured in the public than the saloon bar. Saloon denizens might be expected to order pale or light ale, bitter (the draught form), or strong ale.

As well, non-beer drinks commonly available in the saloon might be absent from the public bar, some spirits or fortified wines.

So he is saying, learn the lay of the land here. Whether public bar types who ventured into the saloon followed an analogous course, I can’t say.

In the event, or 75 years later, an M.O. has emerged, or rather, the whole deal has merged.

Social stratification as ever will exist, but now in one establishment vs. another, not two factions under one roof.

At least, that is my takeaway by a decades-long study, often in situ.**

Series ends with Part V.

*Of the many bon mots and acute observations in the book, for some reason two come to mind. One, I paraphrase, is “The Sloane will drink any kind of beer”. This may have been referring to Sloanes afoot outside Britain. The other is, “Sloanes are either for or against nursery food”.

**I hope again soon. Canterbury.

Alan Tomkins Tipples. Part III.

Tomkins and the Public Bar. Ealing Studios and the Saloon Bar.

I’ve pieced together some bio on Alan Tomkins from his own multi-decade columns in the Sunday Dispatch, and a few other (sparse) sources.

The history of the Dispatch is laid out in this Wikipedia article. Its independence ended by merging in 1961 with the Sunday Express, a victim of changing fashion including the siren of television.

In its time the Dispatch had an impressive roster of journalists, people such as Randolph Churchill, Dorothy Crisp, Gordon Beckles, and Ursula Bloom.

Over a dozen are listed in the piece linked, but Tomkins is absent. This is hard to understand, as he had a long career and wrote well, on a wide variety of subjects.

His columns were not quite the gossip genre, as he does not throw names around, but his style had traits of the genre. He wrote what in the heyday of the legacy press was called the city column.

The absence of his name is perhaps down to the ostensibly light content he dealt in. More likely it is a simple omission. His passing must have been recorded in the British press, but I cannot find an example.

He served in the First World War and by his words took a “Mauser bullet” in the chest. He also suffered injuries in an aircraft crash between the wars as an amateur, licensed pilot.

In the last year of the war (Second) he donned uniform as a war correspondent, reporting from the fields and reporting mixed feelings, when demobbed.

He wrote as an upper-middle-class sort of chap, but of his actual background and living circumstances, I can’t say. The Dispatch itself was headquartered in East London.

Today, historiography reflects the increasing influence of social history and columns like Tomkins’ are gold for this.

A perfect example is his column of June 25, 1944 which describes a visit to an unnamed “saloon”, probably in London.

In Britain, unlike the connotation in North America, the saloon bar traditionally was the well-appointed barroom in a public house or hotel. Drinks sold there for a higher price than in the often adjoining, more sparsely outfitted, “public bar”.

Each attracted a different demographic, to use our terminology of today.

I’ll reproduce a first part below, with the remainder in Part IV to follow. The odd-sounding locutions were Tomkins’ own, for comic effect.

This, Dear Reader, is how I happed upon the most important sociological change of the generation, viz. (as they say), the better elements of the saloon bars are drifting into the public ditto, and the worse elements of the public ditto are doing vice-versa.

Three weeks ago, after a lot of forcing on in trying weather, I guided my hot and tired party into an elegant saloon.

Just inside, we staggered in dismay.

Waves of heat smote us, emanating from a noisy, struggling mass. Chaps and dames were four deep at the bar, clamouring for liquor.

“Force on once again.” I cried, leading to an adjoining saloon, even more elegant than the first. Alas, it was even more crowded. There were more women. The cries were more strident. The queues were even deeper.

But hawk-eyed Tomkins glimpsed, through a door behind the bar, a veritable cool haven.

“About turn”, I said to the dismayed party, who obeyed albeit reluctantly.

Officers and other ranks stared in amaze when I halted outside the bar marked “Public.”

“We are not going in here?” said one.

“l am”, I replied sternly. “You can jolly well please yourself”.

So in we went….

The upstairs-downstairs confronted by Tomkins and his clan reflected an old settled pattern in Great Britain. People recognized differences among themselves, of which pub organization was an index, among thousands.

Britain was still a democracy – an important point – but an evolving one. The old system, including the part that was imperial Britain, started to break down during World War II. In part this arose from diverse groups coming together, often quite literally, to win the war.

The tenacity of pub spatial rules is shown by Tomkins’ friends resisting his suggestion to enter the public bar. Even though their patch was overwhelmed and they could get a quick drink paces away, it did not occur to them to do so, until Tomkins insisted.

This is particularly noteworthy as beer was often scarce during the war, with pubs sometimes closed for lack of supply or other stresses.



In connection with an earlier post (this one), our reader Clark drew my attention to British writer Mollie Panter-Downes. In her wartime diary published in 1971 as “London war notes, 1939-1945″, she wrote:

Villagers may not be hungry this summer, but they are likely to be thirsty for their traditional pint at the end of the day’s work. In many rural districts, beer is so scarce already that pubs only open certain days of the week. This is due in part to the labor shortage and second-front traffic priorities and in part to the presence everywhere of troops who cheerfully drink the place dry before the locals can put on their clean corduroys and toddle round to the Dog and Pheasant.

And further:

Now that the British have got around to revising their food and clothing habits, it looks as though the nation’s drinking habits, already considerably affected, are in for further alteration. Liquor is not officially rationed, but it often seems as if it might as well be, since shops handling it won’t sell more than a bottle or so a month to a regular customer and won’t sell any at all to others. There are, of course, good reasons for this. Distillation of grain for whisky-making was prohibited last September. Gin, which is manufactured from imported spirits, is in extremely short supply. Wines are scarce, and anyhow are so appallingly expensive that they’re way beyond the average pocket. The demand for beer has accordingly grown, and a glass of it is often hard to come by – especially in country districts whose population has been swelled by evacuated townsfolk and the military. Those who like to drink out usually still can do so, although at prices which range from steep to suicidal.

Despite all this, patrons of a saloon bar would wait four-deep in a hot room for a (possible) drink before buying one in a nonce in the public bar. But finally they did.

The division, public vs. saloon bar, would endure for decades. I saw traces of it myself in 1980s visits to England, but its dominion had started to founder during World War II.*

As to visual traces of the 1940s saloon bar, this must vary inevitably, depending on town and section thereof, and other factors. Still, the scenes in Michael Balcon’s 1940 thriller film Saloon Bar give a good idea.

Alan Tomkins no doubt would have felt at home in the film’s bar, which seems the real thing, Watney’s signs and all.

In one scene the landlord orders an assistant who has made an impertinent remark to go wash glasses “in the public”, if I got the crimped Forties’ accents right.

So that is the more basic bar adjoining, which Tomkins & Co. crashed, in our vernacular. Below is a grab from the film, a barmaid serves a light ale. In lots of scenes handpumps are pulled, too. It was still a pub.



Pictured is Judy Campbell, who had a long, distinguished career on stage and in film. She is the mother of actress and singer Jane Birkin.

To her left a tap appears that may have served Watney’s Red Barrel Ale. Red Barrel signs appear among the Watney’s signage.

Maybe Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. contributed the venue as a film set in exchange for display rights.

We continue with Part IV.

*For home-grown insight on the latter-day significance of public vs. saloon bar, see my recent post The Scotia Bar, Aberdeen. The Scottish context is addressed, specifically.





Alan Tomkins Tipples. Part II.

With inimitable (?) Thirties’ drollery journalist Alan Tomkins described testing beers at the 1938 Brewers’ Exhibition, for a column in the (London) Weekly Dispatch.

Part of the article is set out in my Part I, here is the remainder:

….After about another dozen samples, I thought the day was over and drained the glass with the first beer, about one third of a pint. Please note the quantity of my only drink.

But the tutor said “We now come to the strong ales, also known as old ales. They are darker and have a higher alcoholic content”.

These were sweeter and stronger. On went the ritual. More beer, more sawdust. Then we moved to another hall, lined with thousands of bottles of beer.

Instead of waiting nervously, as at first, I ordered bottles from odd places, and found much amusement in my own jests.

Everybody I saw seemed to be an extraordinary good fellow.

A dreadful suspicion crossed my mind.

“Is it possible”, I asked, “even if one does not drink much, that a lot of this testing can sort of…?”

“Oh yes”, agreed my mentor. “If you are not used to it, the fumes, and the taste, of all these mixed beers…”

Well, I thought bitterly, I have not had a single decent drink, and here I am.

“Would you like to test the mineral waters?”

I shuddered at the thought. We parted after mutual exchanges of good will.

I walked very fast round the public part of the show, and, seeing the post office, did a curious thing.

I sent myself a facetious post card. The fact is presented without comment.

An enormous vat, barrel or tub intrigued me. It was like a section of the tube railway. There were lots of funny railways that sent thousands of bottles, beer cases and syphons whizzing about. Heaven knows why.

The clatter did not improve my head so I went out, with a raging thirst, and bought half a bitter. Automatically I took a sip and turned my head –

The innocent on my left will never know what a narrow escape his trousers had.

What do you think his postcard said?

Something like this, perhaps:

Dearest Alan:

What a jolly time I am having, despite the silver-tongued assurances of Mine Host – worthy of a Harry Ellison!

I’m about to leave now, and must mind the gap when entering the Tube. It’s hard enough as it is to reach our stratospheric flat without slipping!

I will pick up some beer on the way, I can malt and hop it with the best of them now. The country curiosities at the Exhibition are all very well, but Whitbread Pale Ale is just the thing.

The Beltring hops, you know, like the placards say at the newsagent.

One can’t be at sixes and sevens for beer in London, dear boy!

Yours always,


*The hyperlink is to a 2009 blog post by Eleanor Cracknell in the blog for The College of St. George, Windsor Castle.

Alan Tomkins Tipples. Part I.

In the (London) Sunday Dispatch of November 6, 1938 journalist Alan Tomkins reported on a visit to the Brewers’ Exhibition.*

The Exhibition was a longstanding annual event, covered with fervour by the press at each appearance. The tasters did not swallow, but ejected the sample in the way wine tasters do stereotypically.

Procedure has changed on the beer side in recent decades; we taste, but small amounts. Even if you get a pint down over an afternoon this is no disadvantage to a proper assessment.

Wine is on average much stronger than beer, which gives the expectoration a justification it doesn’t need in beer circles, but I suspect beer was striving for status, then.

I described one such interwar tasting in my post The Bitter Test.



(Sadly I will miss an upcoming judging in Toronto due to being in France, but at least I’ll be in beer country, the Pas-de-Calais. I’ll send in the odd rapport).

I had no luck in tracing biography on Alan Tomkins. He was a skilled city journalist evidently, with a light-hearted style that is the antithesis of journalism today.

His lines read like dialogue from a screwball comedy except the subject is a stodgy industry event vs. boy meets girl.

Part of the article appears below (via British Newspaper Archive).


Beer Testing Is Thirsty Ritual

Gay, and friendly, that’s me. But I wilted a bit when told to take a course of beer testing at the Brewers’ Exhibition.

Anyway, I duly trotted to Islington, my tutor taking me to a great hall, barricaded from the common herd, and lined with hundreds of barrels.

A chap with a red nightcap produced two small glasses and drew off beer into same, into the glasses I mean, not the nightcap.

At this juncture I did not know a malt from hop.

My tutor held his glass to the light and said, “Examine it for brilliance, also polish”.

I did.

“Examine the head, for creaminess.”

I did.

“Savour the aroma.” (Waving the glass dainty fashion under his nose.)

I did.

“Take a little in the mouth, roll it round.”

I did.

“Now eject it on the floor.”

Well, let people say what they may, Tomkins has a certain amount of culture. He has not gone round spitting since he was a very small boy, and even then he was conscious that it was not quite the thing.

But people have undertaken sterner tasks in the line of duty.

There was a thick layer of white sawdust on the floor. Even so, the act was performed in hesitant, clumsy fashion.

“Did you get the smooth, bitter taste of the hops?”

“Yes. A very good beer.”

Soon the counter was lined with glasses, from each of which a small quantity had been taken. And thick and fast they came at last and more and more and more.

By now I was spitting with a casual skill, in fact a grace, which just goes for to show how quickly man may conquer inhibitions.

Between samples I partook of trifles of biscuit, cheese, bread and an occasional olive, to bring back the palate to its original freshness….

See Part II for the remainder.

Note re image: image above, and as elsewhere may appear in this series, are sourced from British News Archive linked above, except where otherwise indicated. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*A Pathé reel covered the exact event. Its arch tone complements well Tomkins’ blase style.

**The genre is well-defined at TV Tropes.

A Real Shot of Joe

Alcohol from Coffee

A report June 20, 1882 in the Bangalore Spectator stated a Mr. Bavay at Ceylon Brewery succeeded in distilling alcohol from coffee berries (via British Newspaper Archive).

It noted the idea was not new and that a brewer at Ootacamund – the brewery I discussed recently in Nilgiri, South India – succeeded in the plan, but asserted Mr. Bavay perfected it.

This Bavay is well-known in brewing history. He is Auguste Joseph François de Bavay, and had a long career in Australia, initially in brewing and later in mining and other industries.

He is well-profiled (1981) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The 1882 article concluded in this felicitous way, with a little re-arrangement almost as free verse:

If Caffey becomes a fashionable spirit, a new impetus will be given to the planting enterprise in Southern India, which has suffered much from bad seasons, the labor difficulty, the bug, the borer, leaf disease, and, not least, – the Gold mania.

“Coffee-Royale” will have to make way, we suppose, for a “coffee peg”.

Much coffee is grown today in South India, particular the Southwest, but for usual drinking purposes, not alcohol.

A peg in British India was a measure of alcohol, often whisky, the standing drink, along with or superseding brandy, in the late Colonial era. See brief explanation in Wikipedia.

In our time, it seems no commercial application has been given coffee distilling. Yet in 2013 Iberian researchers found a way to make booze from spent coffee grounds. Seemingly a sweet example of sustainable management and recycling.

Sugar in this case was added to bulk out the fermentable base. A report the same year in the Daily Mail has good background.

Maybe distilled coffee alcohol, on this or another basis, will be the rage one day. The hope entertained in 1882 did not come to pass, for that period.

Coffee of course is used to mix with whiskey or other alcohol, either brewed coffee or an extract of some kind. That is different from distilling ethanol from coffee berries though, or their detritus.

Home distillers have discussed the idea, one trying it recently with good success according to a discussion at Home Distiller. He made two batches in Costa Rica using two different yeasts, and blended the liquors.

Coffee-Royal, for its part, is a mixture of brandy or whiskey and coffee, sweetened, sometimes topped with whipped cream.

A modern recipe is offered in the 1993 Black Enterprise, by Eunice Fried. An ancestor of the recipe appears in the 1850 book Coffee as it is, and as it Ought to be by P.L. Simmonds.

The recipes are similar except the older one employs a much larger ratio of spirit to coffee. So particular is Simmonds on its “exhilarating powers” and digestive properties that it seems worth trying, but Fried’s surely is more temperate.

Map image below is via Wikipedia Commons, picturing Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1914.





Colonial English Pub in India – Index

Between April 28 and May 5 this year I completed six installments of a series, “British India Greets the English Pub”. These are listed below with a brief description.

1. British Army Engineers Build Replica Pub Near Madras, 1946.

British India Greets the English Pub. Part I.

2. Scholarly Perspectives on Colonial Pubs and Hotels in India.

British India Greets the English Pub. Part II.

3. British Soldiers’ Yorkshire-Style Pub in Deccan, India, 1943.

British India Greets the English Pub. Part III.

4. India Pale Ale at Nilgiri aka Neilgherry Brewery, 1883.

British India Greets the English Pub. Part IV.

5. Alcohol Strength and Other Details of South India brewing, ca. 1900.

British India Greets the English Pub. Part V.

6. Tavern Resisted in Bombay Neighborhood, 1862.

British India Greets the India Pub. Part VI.

J. Burnitz Bacon Dates American Lager to the 1700s

Martyn Cornell has authored a new article, ‘Tishonest Prewers’ and Lager Bier Operas — Uncovering the True Origins of American Lager Brewing, published on May 5, 2022 in Good Beer Hunting.

He argues, persuasively in my view, that the generally credited account of lager’s origins in the U.S., that John Wagner introduced it in Philadelphia in 1840, is not correct. It appears another Wagner was involved, and in 1842, going by the confirmable record.

At the very least the traditional account likely is part of a larger, more complex, multi-Wagner story.

Other theories of lager’s origin in the U.S. have been advanced over the years, some placing it in the 1830s. See scholar Maureen Ogle’s canvass in her well-known Ambitious Brew: a History of American Beer.

In the wake of Cornell’s article a Twitter discussion ensued over the weekend among beer historical writers. Alan McLeod and Jordan St. John raised the issue whether lager brewing in North America well preceded the 1840s but has not been traced due to passage of time and early records being in German.

I mentioned I knew a later-1800s magazine article that argued for lager brewing by American German communities in the 1700s, and undertook to find it again.

It is J. Burnitz  Bacon’s Lager Beer in America. How it Came Here, What it Should be. What it is” published in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. XIV, No. 2, August, 1882. I actually tweeted it earlier, in October 2018, so some in the beer community are aware of it.



The Frank Leslie publication was a general interest magazine. The compilation linked includes topics as diverse as the history of shoes, the varying advantages of modern travel, and history of the Gypsies (as then termed).

Bacon sets out different lines of argument for his idea that settler Palatines brewed lager in the Mohawk Valley, New York, in New York City and states beyond.

In come cases he advances unfounded speculation. He states the Bernitz brothers brewed in Pennsylvania and finally Baltimore, Maryland, and surely it was lager since its use was well known in Germany. Not very satisfactory.

On the other hand, he refers, stating building owner’s name and specific location, to a lager brewery in New York City that functioned between 1810 and 1850. It later became a church.

He credits a Rev. Kern and his (unnamed) descendants as source of an oral tradition that winter lager was known and appreciated by early Palatines in New York.

Bacon also states he visited the Tulpehocken Valley near Reading, Pennsylvania in 1836 – 46 years earlier – and was told a man called Fritz (surname, first name?) brewed real lager there in a bark-covered brewery.

What his various accounts share is lack of corroborative evidence of the period – a church document, tax document, book, legal document or other writing. Even when Bacon was writing, late-1800s, I am not aware anyone else advanced or commented on the theory.

Bacon states his idea was discussed at “the late” brewers’ convention in Chicago and derided by those present. They considered a later generation of German-Americans responsible for introducing lager to America. This is generally believed today, and typically the 1840s or sometimes 1830s is cited as the decade of origin.

It would be interesting to find that discussion among the brewers, if it occurred, and was documented.



Bacon further states that 18th century Palatine Americans finally adopted American ale brewing techniques, so their lager was forgotten until re-introduced by later German incomers. That is how he explains lack of knowledge of the tradition in contemporary American brewing.

Settler Palatine records, church and other, many of which have been studied and compiled,* would be a good place to start to test Bacon’s thesis. Likely much of this material is in German.

Another factor to consider is to understand what was brewed in the Palatine regions where the incoming brewing families originated. The German Palatinate included historically a western section, or kreis, of Bavaria but was I understand mostly outside Bavaria, heartland of lager.

Did the Rhinelanders who came to America actually brew lager in Germany, vs. top-fermented beer? Some Palatines however came from other parts of Germany, or from Austria or Switzerland, albeit dubbed Palatines once Stateside.

(Their wending migrations were prompted by war with the French, famine and disease).

Then too, even if 18th century Palatines called some of their beer “lager”, it may not have been lager. It may have been stock ale, also traditionally brewed in one season to drink in the next. Ale can be fermented at 58 or 60 F too, in some cases…

Bacon gives no satisfactory account how his lager-brewers obtained the correct yeast. He rejects the idea that a short (three-week) clipper trip from Europe was necessary to preserve such yeast in living form.

Yet, in 2011 it was determined that lager yeast, or pastorianus, is an early mutation in Europe (c. 1400) of traditional, top-fermenting yeast (for ale, porter) and a wild yeast from Patagonia that presumably arrived in Europe on a trading vessel long ago.

Subsequently, researchers have considered that a related species in Tibet is even closer to the non-European element of pastorianus. See Victor Jiminez’ article in 2020 in Brew & Hub, “Unsolved Mysteries of Lager Yeast”.

So it may have come on the Spice Route, possibly as a wine yeast which acted as intermediary for an ultimate brewing purpose.

Whatever the particular origins, how could pastorianus in viable form, adapted to work cold, have been brought to America in the slow-ship days by migrating Palatines, particularly after sojourning first in England and even Ireland, as many did?

Perhaps in bottled beer, or stored in a stone jug? Not beyond the realm of possibility.

Might the mutation in question have arisen in Northeastern United States, via in part trade with Argentina or the far East?**

Maybe an old Palatine record sheds light, or offers other satisfactory proof of genuine lager-brewing, but much spadework needs to be done to find it.

I might note, a historical conclusion can be arguable without a “smoking gun”, provided enough period indicia point to it. We are not there based on Bacon’s article.

Nonetheless we have it to ponder. A few modern writers have noticed the article. It is cited in a general way as evidence of early German-American brewing in a paper included in (1993) Interdisciplinary Investigations of Domestic Life in Government Block B: Perspectives On Harpers Ferry’s Armory and Commercial District, Paul A. Shackel, Ed.

Andrew Smith in his 2014 Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages mentions the article. Due to the restricted view at Google Books I cannot determine what weight he attributes to it.

*See e.g., at Family Search Palatine Records in the United States. It references the many works of Henry (Hank) Jones, a well-known Hollywood actor turned professional genealogist. See Jones’ website for more information. One volume specifically dealt with the Palatine families of New York City, for example.

**See my comment added to post.