Mild on the Main

How to Brew at Sea

As I mentioned earlier, the Royal Navy’s floating brewery plan of WW II has received attention from beer researchers and historians. Our interest is more on the technical side of the plan, of which more below.

But some general background: George Adlam, an old-established brewing engineering works in Fishponds, Bristol, was selected by the Admiralty to create the design. Adlam’s was one of a number of firms in Bristol that offered these services, extending to equipment design and fabrication and architectural planning.

A 2010 study by the Brewery History Society, for English Heritage,* has good background on the history of both brewery design and commercial brewing in Bristol. If we add to this that Bristol was a major port, the selection of Adlam was a natural choice.

The study notes of the firm:

George Adlam, a Bristol company, was established around 1800 as a brewery production plant manufacturer, and became one of the best known firms of brewers’ engineers in the country during the latter part of the 19th century. As brewers’ architects, the firm’s first recorded brewery design dated from 1885, but Adlam’s would certainly have fulfilled this function in earlier years. The firm, which eventually became George Adlam & Sons Ltd, had large engineering works at three sites in Bristol in the early 20th century; it finally went out of business in 1965.

This 1947 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing offers a concise account of Adlam’s design for the only ship that got afloat with the plan, HMS Menestheus. It does this by summarizing a colour documentary film on the project. I wish I could link it, but it seems not available online. Still, anyone in London, once the museums open, can travel to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to view it. See details of the holding, here.

(One has to be impressed with the concise yet readable account in a technical journal of the day. It’s the perfect midpoint between the discursive 19th century style and today’s lapidary, PowerPoint influenced style).

The Brown mentioned in the account had been employed by Truman’s brewery in London. He served as an officer in the Naval Reserve to operate the brewery on ship.

Briant and Harman, a firm of analytical chemists, are mentioned as the film’s producers. Harold Harman was long-associated with the Institute of Brewing, see this compact summary of his career. In his mid-60s at the time, he was outside the range for military service but ideally suited by his occupational background and organizational activities to handle this project.

Notable points of the brewing include use of malt extract, use of hop concentrate (exact type not stated, maybe distilled hop oils), closed fermentation, and use of distilled sea water. Heat for the brewing kettle came from the ship’s boilers, an early example of the recycling so lauded today (it’s not new).

I suspect the beer may have tasted like the microbrewery beer of 30 years ago that was extract-brewed. Most of this, by my memory, wasn’t great, with a tell-tale “chlorine” note. However, I understand malt extracts have been much improved since then.

Maybe, too, the Admiralty worked extra-hard with Adlams to make a quality product. Of course anything resembling fresh beer would have been received well by HM armed forces.

The IWM summary of the film (from link above) adds additional points of interest:

View of white-painted MV Menestheus in port (presumably at Hebburn-on-Tyne after return in 1946 from maiden cruise from Vancouver via Far East to UK) introduces detailed views of the technical processes and equipment necessary to brew beer at sea. Diagrammatic flowsheet dated 31 August 1945 summarises the elements of brewing: distillation plant, dissolving vessel for malt extract, hop concentrate, fermenting vessel (Head Brewer Lieutenant Commander George Brown RNVR pointing), Bright Beer Tank, container filling, pasteuriser and container cold room … Technical examination of installation concludes with view of Lieutenant Ken Morison and Captain Peter Purkis consuming English Mild Ale at 9d per pint on ‘the world’s only floating brewery’ in the ship’s own Davy Jones bar.

I am not certain, but that flow sheet, at any rate another technical description of the brewery, is also available at IWM, authored by Tarrant Hobbs, see here.

One wonders why pasteurization was thought necessary for a draught product dispensed fairly quickly. In the wake of VE Day the war in the Pacific was thought likely to be a long, hard struggle and the beer was meant for consumption in the Far East.

This further account of the brewery, from the site War History Online, states that the beer was meant to be transferred to other ships and stations for service to forces – not just served on the Menestheus, that is.

These factors suggest why pasteurization was used, to ensure the beer’s stability in a hot climate under variable handling conditions.

In the result the atomic bombing of Japan ended the war summarily, in September 1945. Hence the one ship that got afloat with its mild ale returned to Britain in 1946. The baby brewery was soon dismantled. The ship was restored to civilian purpose with the Blue Funnel line, where it had started in 1929. Due to a fire off Mexico in 1953, she was scrapped in Baltimore, Maryland that year.

Quite remarkably a picture of the Menestheus leaving Vancouver for its Far East mission survives.

N.B. Menestheus was a mythical King of Athens. In the matter of ships, famously he is associated with those painted black, the ones he brought to Troy. The colour scheme during the war was grey for its minesweeping role, then white for the South Pacific tour. The ship was painted a sleek black though when launched as a cargo liner in 1929 by Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line. See in general on the ship the entry in Red Duster, the website of the Merchant Navy Association.

Note re image: The above image is from this Wikipedia account of HMS Menestheus. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*A previous version of this post misstated the report’s authorship. Thanks to Tim Holt for indicating the correct information. Tim is editor of the Brewery History Society’s journal, Brewery History.