In Homage of J.L. Shimwell

A Brewing Iconoclast and Visionary

In 1937 John Lester Shimwell, a bacteriologist and (at the time) brewer, authored a paper for the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, “Practical Aspects of Some Recent Developments in Brewing Bacteriology”.

Biographical sources on Shimwell indicate he held a B.Sc from Birmingham University. He was a prolific author of papers in his chosen field, brewing bacteriology. In recognition, the same university granted him a D.Sc, not long after the article was published.

English-born Shimwell lived from 1901 until 1964. In the 1930s he was head brewer and on the board of directors of Beamish & Crawford brewery in Cork, Ireland.

A side note of interest is that his wife at the time, Birmingham-born Olive Seers, wrote successful mysteries under the name Harriet Rutland. The Passing Tramp website in 2015 reviewed her career and noted a recent revival of interest in her work.

The couple lived in a village near Cork, St. Ann’s Hill, and removed to England in 1939. A  “hydropathic” institute in St. Ann’s Hill formed the setting for Rutland’s first novel but in altered, “Devonised” form.

For useful background see Curtis Evans’ introduction to the reissue (2015) of Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock!  A good discussion (2017) also appears in the website Promoting Crime Fiction. Both include details of J.L. Shimwell’s career.

So in Shimwell we have both man of theory and practice. Dr. Raymond Anderson, the U.K. brewing historian, wrote that Shimwell was a “great reforming” figure in brewing bacteriology but also “combative”. See his article (2012) on the origins of pure yeast culture in top-fermentation brewing, in the Journal of the Brewery History Society.

Shimwell worked in the 1940s for Whitbread Brewery in London, and later in the British vinegar industry. Much of his work concerned scientific classification, especially for acetobacter, the family of bacteria that causes souring in ferments.

However, unlike many brewing scientists, he held or at least publicly expressed firm views on how modern technology impacted beer taste. Perhaps the frankness arose from his practical experience in brewing, perhaps from personal traits, the combativeness noted.

Specifically, Shimwell did not concede that technology always made for better beer to drink.

From the 1937 article:

No one, surely, would contend that pasteurised, carbonated beer is better than unpasteurised, naturally-conditioned beer, and it is therefore perhaps not untrue to say that the quality of beer, as at present retailed, is just as good as bacteria and yeast will allow it to be, since pasteurisation is enforced at the dictation of yeasts and bacteria.

Hoffman Beverages Co. in Newark, New Jersey, only a few years earlier (see my last post) underscored the point, quite unusually. It vaunted its Hoffman Draught Beer in the Bottle as unpasteurized: a beau geste in that time from the industry or science ranks.

Shimwell added in his article that chilled, filtered, pasteurized beer, while biologically stable, is “not very palatable”. That was a nervy thing to write in a staid industry in a staid country, at the time.

As Dr. Anderson wrote in his article, Shimwell had a higher regard for the role of Brettanomyces, or wild yeast, than most in the British brewing establishment.

Likely it is that Shimwell’s appreciation for Brett‘s role in beer maturation was derived from its continuing relevance in Irish brewing. Whereas in British brewing, that style of vatting and re-ferments had mostly been abandoned in 1937.

In time, as Shimwell had to know, Irish brewing would follow suit by filtering, carbonating, chilling, and finally pasteurizing its stout, a drink that became world-famous under alternate conditions, still obtaining (almost certainly) when Shimwell brewed in Cork.

No doubt Shimwell would be astonished (but also gratified) at the current success of unpasteurized beer, a spiritual centre of the craft movement. He would be no less amazed at the niche “wild” beers have established, the group that includes Brett-injected and barrel-aged beers.

How is it technical challenges viewed as indomitable in the 1930s are less significant today? Because brewing science moves on. In particular, brewing in the all-enclosed Nathan fermenter provides better temperature and bacteriological control than the old open vats. This minimizes the risk of acetobacter infection, the greatest danger to beer stability then or now.

Better sanitation in the brewery, and easy-to-clean brewhouse materials like stainless steel and aluminum, help as well. Likely too improvements in transport and logistics.

Shimwell stated in the same article if a way could be found to ensure infection didn’t rule brewing, “brewing trade conditions might be very different from what they are today”.

In effect, that has come to be. Yes, the danger of infection is still present. But beer can be distributed over a wide area today, and remain not only unpasteurized but unfiltered, and still remain stable and excellent to drink.