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”.

A review of biographical materials on Shimwell indicates 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 was born in 1901 and died in 1964. During 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, was a successful mystery writer under the pen name Harriet Rutland. The Passing Tramp website in 2015 reviewed her career and noted a 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. See, for useful background, Curtis Evans’ introduction to the reissue (2015) of Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock!.  A good discussion (2017) also appear in the website Promoting Crime Fiction. Both include details of J.L. Shimwell’s career as well.

So in Shimwell we have both man of theory and practice. Dr. Raymond Anderson, the U.K. brewing historian, has written of Shimwell that he 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 had to do with scientific classification especially for acetobacter, the family of bacteria that cause souring in ferments.

However, unlike many brewing scientists, he held, or at least publicly expressed, firm views on how the taste of beer was affected by modern technology. Perhaps his frankness arose from his practical experience in brewing. Perhaps it was a personal trait, the combativeness noted.

Specifically, from my review of a number of his articles, Shimwell would not concede that technology always made a 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 by vaunting its Hoffman Draught Beer in the Bottle as unpasteurized. A beau geste almost unheard of for the time.

Shimwell adds on the same page 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 discussed in his article, Shimwell had a higher regard for the role of Brettanomyces, or wild yeast, than most in the British brewing establishment.

It seems likely that Shimwell’s appreciation of Brett’s role in maturing beer was derived from its ongoing practical relevance in Irish brewing. Whereas in British brewing, that lore of vatting and re-ferments had long been bypassed by 1937.

Of course in time, as Shimwell had to know, Irish brewing would follow by filtering, carbonating, chilling, and finally pasteurizing its stout, a drink that became world-famous under alternate circumstances when Shimwell still brewed in Cork.

Tilting against the windmills of his time, Shimwell would be astonished (but also gratified) at the current success of unpasteurized beer, a heartland 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.

Why is it technical challenges viewed as indomitable in the 1930s are of less importance today? It is probably due to improvements in brewing science. In particular, brewing in the all-enclosed Nathan fermenter offers better temperature and bacteriological control than the old open vats. This minimizes the risks of acetobacter infection.

Better sanitation in the brewery, and use of easy-to-clean brewhouse materials such as stainless steel and aluminum, have helped as well. Likely too, improvements in transport and logistics.

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

In effect, this has come to be. Of course the danger of infection is always present. Nonetheless, beer can be distributed over a wide area today, not only in unpasteurized containers, but those containing unfiltered beer, and remain both stable and excellent to drink.