Draft Beer on the RMS Queen Elizabeth

I have had numerous posts discussing shipboard breweries or service of beer, commencing with the Titanic and into the 1940s for naval shipborne breweries. This three-parts series limned the innovative system pioneered from 1923 by (then lately deceased) Alfred Ballin’s Hamburg-America Line and its competitor North German Lloyd.

Vaulting to a later period, a 1965 article in a catering supplement to Shipping World and Shipbuilder explained succinctly how the Queen Elizabeth was fitted with nine 360-gal tanks to carry Harp lager. The article gives every indication the lager emerged in glass as crisp and clean as UK trade journal writing evidently was then.

The Queen Elizabeth was commissioned on eve of the Second World War as sibling to the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary. After a detour for war service the Queen Elizabeth long served the North Atlantic run. De-commissioned and sent to the Far East in the early 1970s for re-fit as a floating university, the ship was broken up in Hong Kong’s harbour after a ruinous fire onboard.

Numerous details of interest appear in the 1965 account, see pg. 241 (via Google Books). It explains that before the new tank beer facilities were installed the ship had loaded beer in kegs, with the extra handling this entailed.

Nonetheless, as a working technology tank beer – brewery-conditioned beer stored chilled in bulk – had been available in Britain since the 1920s. I discussed this for a rare iteration of Bass ale, Bass Purple Triangle, in my Part I study of beer and breweries in British Malaya.

In that case the beer was bottled from the tanks for export, but in some cases prewar tank beer was sent to high-volume retail outlets for draft service. In today’s craft beer terminology, broadly this is “tap beer” vs. cask-conditioned “draught”. It is sometimes called “keg” but keg beer had a more specialized meaning in the 1960s and 70s.

Although the 1965 article does not explain the reason Cunard ships had lagged on tank beer service, two reasons, or at least one of them, may explain it.



Another article in the same issue (pg. 239), dealing with catering for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, stated tank beer caused problems with “Customs and Excise” when inshore. Hence its ships carried barrel beer in preference.

It was noted such barrel beer could last three months and barrels might be refilled in foreign stations, with the East given as an example.

Why the customs issue did not apply to barrel beer is not clear. Maybe the relevant exemptions applied only to bottled or barrel beer, vs. beer in larger containers. Alternatively, perhaps the exemptions applied only to closed containers, whereas a 360-gal. tank might defeat even the most heroic thirsts of HM naval personnel.

In the end customs issues proved no obstacle for tank beer on the Queen Elizabeth. A second issue did clearly take time to resolve, or at least clarify: the concern that rocking of the ship would impact tank beer quality.

The earlier use of barrels evidently had not posed this issue – I think probably because it was easier at point of dispense to regulate the proper gas pressure.

In Alton, UK, at the brewery newly erected by the owning consortium (Guinness + others) to brew Harp, staff had installed two test tanks with a rocker to assess beer quality under simulated sailing conditions.

Imagine the trouble they went to, one has almost a Jules Verne impression of serious-mien, clipboard-bearing technicians working out optimum conditions under which to store Harp in bulk for open-sea dispense.



The final arrangements for Queen Elizabeth involved careful calibration of the size, materials, and length of the conducting pipes, in particular. While far from an ideal short length, which the article hints at, the beer tubing used nonetheless produced beer of pristine quality.

There were two bars, one for staff and of course the passenger bar. The effort was a clear success as, other sources confirm, similar facilities were later installed to dispense Harp on Queen Elizabeth II and a sister ship.

A point that might be noted, though not mentioned in the article, was the service by a marquee ship of a marquee UK liner of lager, a non-British beer style (not ale or stout in other words).

Even though keg bitter was coming on strong in the Sixties, the beer selected by Cunard was Harp lager – British to be sure, as brewed by then in the UK, not just in Ireland where it originated, at Dundalk as I discussed earlier.

Lager was still relatively novel though in Britain, so why, according to this article at any rate, was its selection non-controversial? I think the main reason is the international audience served by the ship. Draught lager was also carried on the Titanic, even before World War I that is.

Lager was by the interwar period the lingua franca of international brewing. And, as noted, Harp was brewed in the UK, so British in that sense (a limited one, imo). Still, the point is worth making how attitudes to beer had changed in Britain, just as the Stones were getting rolling.

The article just before the one I am discussing – look again at the link – took pride to explain that food service on a Royal Mails’ ship, Andes, retained a British stamp. Yet no similar spirit attended draft beer selection by Cunard, or a British trade article covering the development.

Time had moved on, as remorselessly as Cunard made time between Southampton and New York.*

Note re images: Ship image sourced from this Wikipedia link. All intellectual property therein, and in source of first image included, are sole property of lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Numerous articles in the 1960s UK trade press covered installation of tank Harp on Queen Elizabeth and other Cunard liners. It is possible one of these articles, especially in a brewing review, did comment on beer type selected. It is possible too that some liners carried, or at certain times, tank bitter. Certainly Barclay Perkins, which co-owned the Harp subsidiary distributing draft Harp to liners, made such beer. The other articles I found on such shipboard beer service are not open-view, at present.








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