Birmingham Beer Detectives, 1937

City of Birmingham Hires Beer-Samplers

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, Ormston stated the temperance group 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, by that period, 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 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 an instance, but our readers may know more.*

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




1 thought on “Birmingham Beer Detectives, 1937”

  1. Of course today we have industry-sponsored quality programs, and independent consultants, which are really an extension of the role large brewers provided directly in the past as Lord Askwith noted in 1928. What is noteworthy under the Birmingham plan is paying people to buy and drink beer, i.e., using the public payroll. An irony given that temperance concerns apparently led, or at least contributed to the plan.


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