Barging Beer to Belgium

I’ve been focusing lately on unexplored riches of newsreel archives. (When I say unexplored, I mean to my knowledge by others who do beer historical research. If I have overlooked any such commentary by others, by all means tell me, so I can cite and link it here).

For millenials: a newsreel was a short film that profiled a news or other event of general interest, popular from the end of WW I until about 1970. Generally these were distributed for public viewing in film theatres, but often industrial and educational or training films were made for a specialised audience.

Movietones and Pathe were perhaps the best known newsreel producers, but there were others, e.g. Associated Press, and many from all these sources can be viewed on YouTube.

Frequently full view is afforded, sometimes only with the producer logo on the clip with HD, video or other higher-quality format available for a fee.

The publicly available material is usually sufficient for our purposes, and here is such a gem from U.K.-based Huntley Film Archives. It is a mid-1950s film, with good detail yet smartly paced, showing how beer is exported to Belgium by Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street, London.

The steps are shipment of beer to a Belgian port, probably Antwerp, in hogsheads or other large wood barrels. The destination is a Whitbread depot where casks are brushed clean, emptied into tanks, and filled into bottles for sale in Brussels and elsewhere in the country.

Based on various branding and advertising shown, Whitbread pale ale seems the main type exported, but probably stout was as well. One sign seems to say Export Pale Ale, likely a higher gravity version of Whitbread Pale Ale. We drank a Whitbread Pale Ale with a  blue label in the late 1970s but likely not made at Chiswell Street as brewing operations there ceased in 1976.

Notable in the film are the clarity and foam on the beer when poured invitingly over the Channel. Now that was a good drop of beer, as I remember that 1970s version sent to Montreal: mealy, flowery from hops, a touch caramel sweet.

British or British-style beer in Belgium was a significant subset of the country’s beer scene as first chronicled by the beer authority Michael Jackson in his landmark early books. The photo-essay style of the 1977 The World Guide to Beer was a key stage in understanding this history.

And some British and Irish beer is still sent to Belgium, and some local beer made in styles of those places, although harder to find today with the restoration of Belgian artisan brewing and now the encroaching influence of craft beer.

But in a time when the main beers in Brussels were the decidedly sour lambic family or relatively mild lagers, Whitbread Pale Ale made an impression, as its stout surely did too.

What happened we wonder to the Whitbread Depot shown? To those brushes, to that antique-looking filling equipment? To the very taste of the beer ca. 1955? Gone with the wind, likely. (To the punning mind, not an unsatisfactory fate given the context).

N.B. For more background, see Ron Pattinson’s article on Whitbread Pale Ale in Beer Advocate from 2017, here. It is a useful aid when watching the film, and indeed an export version of Whitbread Pale Ale at 1057 OG is mentioned.

2 thoughts on “Barging Beer to Belgium”

  1. Nice find. Incredible to see the amount of manual labour involved in shipping casks before containerisation. A few decades later when Scottish & Newcastle still brewed Scotch Ale in Edinburgh, it was sent across to Antwerp by road tanker where John Martin bottled it locally as Gordon Scotch.

    One of the things that fascinated me when I first visited Belgium was the way that British brands had survived there that were extinct in their country of origin – Whitbread Stout being the classic example.

    • Good to hear from you, and thanks.

      I’ve got a new one just up, on a Whitbread half-hour documentary, take a look. I make a similar point to yours about the manual labour involved, viz. brewery operations generally.


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