A Tang of Beer History. Part I.

The National Brewery Centre in the U.K. has posted an interview with a former English brewery worker who painted vehicles and other equipment or plant in the 1950s.

The document was archived with numerous accompanying photos. An ostensibly jejune subject reveals some interesting detail.

Among the points, the ex-employee giving evidence, Terry Bassett, did not drink. One tends to assume particularly in that setting everyone did, barring a health issue perhaps. Not the case.

The brewery was Bass Brewery in Burton on Trent, the great hub of pale ale brewing. Burton as a brewing centre was in long decline, at least since the interwar years, but Bass was still a busy place. Departments served many functions, from wheelwrights to the painting force.

As vehicle “livery” provided an important, and otherwise free advertising function, a smart vehicle and plant appearance were prized. The best example is pub signboards, referred to in the exhibit.

A sample of the painters’ work is shown, on a gleaming black Fifties lorry, a tanker that ferried filtered, pressurized beer to pubs.

Also of note is that returns, or substandard beer sent back by the pubs, served as the painters’ allotment. I wonder if Bass had always done it that way, vs. a postwar economy measure.

Returned beer would frequently have been sour or infected. Neither was dangerous to health but had a non-standard twang in the taste. This didn’t stop the men – most of them – from enjoying their ration:

Ale allowance
Terry didn’t drink but he still received the ale allowance. This was returned ale, 1 quart a day, put in bottles on a shelf in the cabin, a rest area for the workmen. A labourer received the allowance and filled up the bottles, which had a person’s name on, from a large enamel jug. Terry would leave his bottle on the shelf but others would drink it for him often before he started work at 7.30am.

I cannot recall now where I saw this, but it was said men* working in the Potteries favoured hard ale, or beer naturally sour from long aging. There was some synergy between the acid in the beer and the chemicals encountered in their daily work.

Interestingly, Burton is also in Staffordshire, classic locus of the Potteries industry.

I wonder if it was similar with the brewery painters at least, that sourish beer was actually preferred to onsite fresh material. Or did the Bass allotment take this form for all its workers?

At the time, and not just in Britain again, returned beer was sometimes added to a batch of brew being dispatched to the trade. This reflected an old practice in breweries, sometimes to balance the taste, but more often probably to reduce a deadweight loss.

This further use, to supply workers in the brewery, seems at odds with the first traditions that offered them the freshest beer possible, in quantity too. Countless brewery accounts from around the world attest to it, from the early 1800s until the 1960s.**

Today, sourish beer is a well-established niche in the inventories of craft breweries globally, kettle sours you know, the Belgian wild types, and yet others. Those who enjoy it represent a long tradition, although never a very weighty one, at least not since brewing industrialized in places like that very Burton on Trent.

See now Part II, which gives the likely answer as to use of this sour beer.

*By all evidence I’ve seen, workers such as I refer to were all male at the time, barring wartime emergency replacements.

**After that industrial, if not cost efficiency, eliminated the practice, at least the onsite drinking part.







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