A Tang of Beer History. Part II.

In Part I, I discussed that “returned” beer was consumed by painters at Bass-Worthington Brewery, Burton on Trent, in the mid-1950s. It was decanted by a labourer into large bottles, and left for the men in their shed to use daily, so much a head.

We can infer reliably in most cases this beer was sour, as returns in the British industry generally meant this, at least until pasteurization was widespread for keg beer and lager.

The source I referenced described the work of the painting department such as maintaining delivery vehicles, other equipment, and keeping premises spruce.

The source did not address whether such beer was distributed to other workers or office staff, vs. that is fresh brewery beer.

I know I read once that Potteries workers in Staffordshire drank sour beer, something about the synergy of the beer and chemicals they encountered at work.

Despite a careful search I could not locate the reference, but found others that serve effectively not just as confirmation but explore the rationale for such use. They suggest as well, implicitly, that the sour beer ration was probably confined to painters and others who worked with lead, not the workforce at large.

In 1893 a Report was issued by the U.K. Home Department on hazardous conditions of workers in chemical industries. A focus was potteries workers in Stoke-on-Trent, who worked with lead, both white and red, to prepare glazes for ceramics:



The fear was to contract the infamous blue line in the gums, denoting over-exposure to lead, with lead poisoning a distinct risk. The Report contains numerous references to acid-diluted drinks consumed by workers to parry such risk.

It was believed acid drinks, or so-called rinsing the mouth, reduced absorption of carbonates and other dangerous lead compounds by the gastric system, in that they became less soluble.

Sulphuric acid was mixed into beer, see #8395, also into ginger beer and lemonade. One factory used oats and water – oats are lightly acid. To find specific references, consult Index at p. 419.

A 1911 United States Bureau of Labor study challenged this belief, suggesting alkaline drinks be used instead. As one sees from this study, some factories still operated on the older belief.

I think this now explains why Potteries workers preferred or were required to drink (if alcohol at all) sourish beer, or as evident above, normal beer or other beverage diluted with an acid.

As to paint, it often contained lead into the 1970s, including vehicle paints. The lead poisoning risk likely explains, here as well, why Bass-Worthington painters drank hard ale (sourish beer) for the daily beer ration.

Needless to add for beer historians, but a general audience might wish to know, in Victorian times sulphuric acid was sometimes added to beer to make it hard, for palate reasons. See eg in Henry Watt’s 1883 A Dictionary of Chemistry.

As I mentioned earlier, then as now sour beer was appreciated by some although for a long time in British and even world beer cultures, it has been a minority taste.

But all to say, if some reading might think normal beer dosed with sulphuric acid, and returned sour beer, were different, they were not, in the context under discussion.

A brewery would use returned beer for the painters since it was easy to hand, and actually saved the company money. Its use therefore, far from being an economy measure, was actually the reverse, win-win for Bass-Worthington, we might say.

Correlatively, an inference arises that shop or office workers who did not encounter lead in their work got fresh beer as the ration.


2 thoughts on “A Tang of Beer History. Part II.”

  1. All of this about trying to mitigate the effects of lead is horrific, but I appreciate the reminder of how thinking can skip from prevention to mitigation. It’s a useful lesson for today and Covid.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: