Home | Membership | News | Diary | Courses | Noticeboard | Books | Journals | Links | Database | e-papers | Contact

From the hop to the steam engine: How developments in technology affected London's brewers

Martyn Cornell

For hundreds of years, London was the biggest brewing centre in Britain. As recently as the early 1970s the capital had eight big breweries and two or three smaller ones, producing around seven million barrels of beer a year, a fifth of all the beer brewed in the UK.1 London was, in fact, one of the greatest brewing cities in the world. Until the 1870s it was home to the biggest breweries on the planet, and it can lay claim to having invented more important beer styles than anywhere else: porter, the first industrial beer, stout, and India Pale Ale were all first brewed in London. The vast majority of brewers were, in the past, generally conservative in nature, believing that if a method worked, it was best not to change it. This was certainly true away from the capital. But the pressures of competition made many London brewers eager to adopt new ways, from hops to coal, thermometers to steam engines.

The first picture of brewing technology in London we have comes from 1335. An inventory of the property of the late Laurence le Long, made on behalf of his son Richard, 'a child under age', said that Laurence owned a brewhouse and three shops in the parish of St Martin, Ludgate, and in the brewhouse were items of equipment valued at ten shillings and eightpence. It included two leaden vessels, doubtless for holding water; one leaden cistern, probably for steeping barley; one 'tappetroghe' of lead, probably meaning a pipe with a tap at one end; one 'masshfat' or mashing vat, value 18 pence; one 'raryngfat', or rearing vat, an old name for a fermentation vat, probably because the yeast 'rears up' as it ferments, value six pence; one 'heyr' or hair-cloth 'pro torell' (for a kiln), value 12 pence – this confirms that Le Long was doing his own malting, spreading the green malt over the 'heyr' suspended over the kiln; three sets of handmills, value four shillings, for grinding the dried malt; one piece of lead, value two pence; one tun, and one half tun, value eight pence; one 'yelfat', or ale vat, value 18 pence; five 'kemelynes', or kimnels, tubs used in brewing, value ten pence; one 'clensingbecche', or cleansing-back, where the fermentation would have been finished before the ale was put into the tuns, value four pence; and an 'alegiste', or ale joist – defined in 1598 as 'a thing laide under a barrell to keepe it from rouling [rolling] or falling' – value two pence.2

This was obviously a professional brewery, though we have no clues as to whether Laurence le Long was supplying alehouses or private customers, or both. One obvious missing item in that list is anything to heat water in.

In 1486, however, a list of brewing equipment at a brewhouse in the parish of St Mary Somerset in Queenhithe, apparently being operated by 'William Robynson, bruer', included a 'bruyng ketyll of coper' with a 'courbe of waynscot'; that is, a framing round the top made of good-quality oak.3 The Queenhithe brewery also had a 'masshe fatte' with a 'lowse botom'. The oldest method of getting the wort out of the mash tun was to thrust a wicker basket, known as a huckmuck or strum, into the mash and let the wort drain into the basket, then ladle it out using a 'ladegorn', a large wooden ladle (Figure 1). Having a mash vat with a loose or false bottom was a technological advance that would mean that the wort could drain away through the false bottom, which would have been perforated, into the real bottom of the vat, and then out via a tap, which would save a considerable amount of labour. However, the brewery also had among its equipment three 'stotyng Baskettes' of 'wykers', or wicker, which may mean huckmucks. Certainly the huckmuck system continued to be used for at least a couple of centuries more: when the brewers' livery hall was rebuilt in 1673 after the Great Fire of London, a depiction of brewing equipment carved into the panelling of the hall clearly showed a strum or huckmuck.4 Other equipment at the Queenhithe brewery included a 'wort fatte', six 'Roders of Tree', wooden rudders, presumably used for stirring the mash (Figure 2); three 'hande ketils' of brass; two 'sesterns of ledde for licoure', about the earliest known use of 'liquor' as the brewer's usual term for water – by the 18th century you could be fined if you said 'water' in a brewery rather than 'liquor'; twenty little 'Tubbes' for yeast; a 'stepyng sestern' (steeping cistern) of lead, for steeping barley to make malt, and a 'Blacke haire for a kiln', showing that this brewery, too, was doing its own malting; a 'fyrehoke', necessary in case any of the fires found in a building where boiling water and kilning malt were taking place got out of hand; a malt mill with all apparel; and to show that this was a brewhouse delivering its product to a wide customer base, a 'Bere dray' with two pairs of 'wheles'; and twenty-four 'kilderkyns', casks half the size of a barrel.


The expression 'Bere dray' shows that Robynson was brewing the new Continental-style hopped beer, rather than unhopped English ale, something hinted at by the listing among his goods of 'kilderkyns'. The word 'kilderkin' is Dutch in origin, from Middle Dutch kinderkin (which was ultimately, via Arabic, from the Latin centenarius, 100 pounds), and its use shows the influence of immigrant brewers from the Lowlands, who had been coming to London to open breweries since the beginning of the 15th century. 'Brewery' itself may be from the Dutch brouwerye – the word is not recorded in English until the middle of the 17th century. Gyle, originally 'wort in process of fermentation' and now used to mean 'a particular brewing batch', as in 'gyle number 15', is from medieval Dutch ghijl, related to gijlen, ferment; firkin, the name for a cask half the size of a kilderkin, comes from the Dutch vierdekijn, 'fourth-kin' from it being a quarter of a barrel; 'back' meaning vessel or tun, as in 'hop back', the vessel in which the hops settle out as the wort flows from the copper, is from Dutch bak, trough or tub; 'bung' appears to be from the Middle Dutch bonghe; 'shive', the thin bung that goes in the top of a cask, may be from West Flemish schif or Middle Dutch schξve; 'spile', the wooden plug that goes into a shive is from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German spile; 'isinglass', the substance used for fining ale and beer made from fish swim bladders, is from an obsolete Dutch word huisenblas, literally 'sturgeon's bladder'.

However, the two biggest contributions the Dutch gave English brewing vocabulary are the words 'beer', from bier, and 'hop', from Middle Dutch hoppe, the ingredient that marked the difference between old English ale and continental bier. The arrival of hopped beer was probably the biggest single technological advance in brewing ever, since it transformed a product that had only a limited life into one that could be stored for months, even years, and that could be shipped on long journeys, thus vastly widening a brewer's potential market.


Although hops are mentioned in connection with brewing in 822, when Abbot Adalhard of Corvey, in Picardy, Northern France, talked about making beer with what appear to be wild hops, it took several centuries before beer brewed with hops became commercially successful, and then in Northern Germany.5 The export possibility of hopped beer soon occurred to the traders of cities such as Bremen, which was shipping beer to the Netherlands by 1274. However, there is no good record of beer being shipped to England until some arrived in Great Yarmouth in 1361-2, and the capital may not have seen beer until Henry Vandale bought four barrels of 'beere' in the Pool of London in August 1372.6 (Vandale was attempting to 'forestall', or buy the beer up privately with a view to enhancing the price, and as a result the barrels were seized and adjudged forfeited to the Sheriffs of London.)

The first known beer brewer in England was apparently in Shrewsbury in 14097, but locally brewed beer was certainly being sold in London in 1424/5, when the London ale brewers complained about 'aliens nigh to the city dwelling,' probably in Southwark on the other side of the Thames, who 'brew beer and sell it to retail within the same city.'8 Southwark stayed a popular place for brewers from the Low Countries for around 150 years, and it was still an important brewing centre through to the 1960s.

Because their trade meant heating water in large quantities, London's brewers were early users of coal, less bulky and generally cheaper than wood. The street called 'Sacoles Lane' – Seacoal Lane – near Ludgate was in existence by 1228, doubtless named for the unloading of ships moored in the Fleet.

Complaints against brewers because of the pollution caused by their burning coal have been found dating from 12839, and continued for the next four centuries. In 1578, in an attempt to placate Elizabeth I, who was 'greately greved and anoyed with the taste and smoke of the sea cooles' used in the furnaces of the brewers near the Palace of Westminster, the Worshipful Company of Brewers offered 'to burn no more sea coal but wood only' in those brewhouses nearest to the palace.10

The smoke was still bothering her successor, James I: the House of Lords passed an Act in 1623 forbidding the use of sea coal by brewers within one mile of His Majesty's Court and the Court of the Prince of Wales, though the Act failed to get through the House of Commons. All the same, in the 1630s and 1640s London's brewers in London were frequently fined sums of up to several hundred pounds by Charles I's officials, advised by Archbishop William Laud, for polluting the air with coal smoke and, according to Laud, damaging St Paul's Cathedral as a result.11 But by the end of the 16th century, a brewer who switched from to coal could halve his fuel costs, and Laud's fines failed to deter breweries from the technological advantages coal brought.12

Early in the 18th century came the next big technological development after the arrival of hops – the invention of porter. The beer began to be developed, it appears, during the reign of Queen Anne as a stronger, more hopped more aged version of the heavy, sweet brown beer that was the staple product of London's brewers in the late 17th and very early 18th century. It used highly dried brown malt, known as 'blown' malt, which had popped like popcorn in the hot kiln, and which gave a very dark brown drink. Brewers quickly discovered that the new version of London Brown Beer could be made at higher fermenting vessel temperatures than pale ales or the older-style brown beers. This meant that, in a time before artificial cooling was available, it could be brewed for more weeks during the year, when the weather was too hot to make other beers, and in larger vessels, which also created the higher temperatures that other types of beer suffered at. These two important developments, bigger breweries brewing for longer, helped the porter brewers outgrow their rivals. The new beer, which was fermented out as far as possible and therefore comparatively unsweet, was also aged until it lost the flavour of smoke picked up from the wood-dried malt used to make it. One brewing manual from the 1730s, The London and Country Brewer, said it took nine to 12 months for beer made from wood-dried malt to lose its smoky tang.13

Strong beers, matured for some months in butts – casks holding 108 gallons – were known as butt-beers. Normally, strong beers were made from the first, most powerful mashing of the malt, but this one was made from four or five mashings of the same malt which were blended together. Such beers were called 'entire' or, in 18th century spelling, 'intire'. So this beer made from a combination of all the mashes and stored in butts was 'entire butt-beer', entire butt or entire for short, and it continued to be referred to by brewers as entire for more than a hundred years. Entire-butt quickly became extremely popular with the thousands of men who unloaded ships on the river – 'Fellowship' porters – and those that carried goods of all kinds around the streets of London – 'ticket' porters, so called because they wore a pewter 'ticket' or badge.14 As a result it soon took their name, being referred to as 'porter' by 1721 at the latest, when it is mentioned as an accompaniment to beef and cabbage.15

Over several decades the big porter brewers gradually improved their technology for maturing porter. Maturing it in butts was expensive in both money and space: in the late 1740s Whitbread's brewery, for example, was hiring cellars in 54 different locations around London for its porter butts to mature in, at a cost of £100 a year, while Thrale's Anchor brewery in Southwark, one of the biggest porter brewers, had almost 19,000 butts in 1748, worth more than £8,500, or around 11 per cent of the brewery's total capital. It could also be dangerous. In 1758 it was recorded that the 'abroad cooper' employed by Mrs Hucks's brewery (the eighth-largest in London, and probably the one in Brewer Street, Bloomsbury) – to look after beer stored off-site had died when he went down into a cellar in Pall Mall to check on 40 butts of unstoppered beer. Contemporary reports blamed the 'steam' off the beer, but the cooper, and the sedan chair man who went down after him, and who also died, were undoubtedly suffocated by the carbon dioxide being given off by the beer as it underwent secondary fermentation in the butts.16

The answer, apparently discovered by the Parsons family, owners of the big Red Lion brewhouse by the Thames at St Katharine's in Lower East Smithfield, just to the east of the Tower of London, was to store the maturing beer in huge vats rather than casks, keeping it in the vats for two years or more. In 1713 a publication called British Curiosities in Art and Nature noted: 'At St. Catharine's, the Brewhouse, and Store-houses of Sir John Parsons, are not unworthy of a Stranger's View, there being one Vessel in the latter, which containeth 155 Barrels of Beer.'17 This appears to be the start of ageing beer in bulk, the development that let London's brown beer/porter brewers grow so large. By 1729 brewers were regularly, except when prices were high, brewing large quantities of beer 'for staling, as they call it', 'which they keep by them as a Stock in Hand, to be ready to answer any future Demand. This is more particularly the Case with respect to those Sorts of Strong Beer or Ale, which the Brewer may keep several Years in his Cellars, and is generally the better, the longer it is kept.'18 'Staling' made 'stale' beer – meaning aged, not off – which was then mixed by the publican with new or 'mild' beer to the customer's taste.

While the 1713 vat was clearly remarkable for the time, it was eventually massively exceeded, as brewers found by experience that even larger vessels meant even better beer: Sir John's son Humphrey Parsons was building vats at the Red Lion brewery in 1736 that would hold 1,500 barrels each (54,000 gallons, equal to 500 butts), ten times the size of his father's, at a cost of £562 a vat. They were repaired in 1766, for £124, and still being used in 1774, after nearly 40 years, so that the initial considerable capital outlay proved far cheaper long-term than the equivalent capacity in casks, which would have had a maximum life of 15 years.19 Other London porter brewers copied the Parsons' innovation: a visitor to Thrales's Anchor brewery in Southwark in 1775 recorded that one building alone contained four vats each holding 1,500 barrels, 'in one of which 100 people have dined with ease', while elsewhere on the brewery site were another 36 vats of 750 barrels each.20 According to George Watkins, writing in a book called The Compleat English Brewer in 1761, this storage 'in a large body' for such a long time was the reason why 'the public brewed porter will always be superior'. Other brewers followed Parsons with larger and larger vats, culminating in 1795 when Richard Meux of the Griffin brewery in Liquorpond Street, Clerkenwell, erected a 20,000-barrel vessel, holding 5.8 million pints, more than 3,000 cubic metres. Inevitably, this ended in tears: in October 1814 at Henry Meux's brewery in Bainbridge Street, off Tottenham Court Road, one of the huge iron hoops on a 22-feet-high vat at the brewery fell off without warning. Shortly afterwards, the vat, filled with some 3,550 barrels of 10-months-old porter, burst apart, releasing a black tsunami of more than a million pints of beer, weighing around 570 tons. The huge wave of porter demolished the east wall of the storehouse and flooded out into the surrounding slums of St Giles, killing eight people, all women and children. Fortunately the men were all at work, or the toll could have been much greater, but the disaster does seem to have curbed the big porter brewers' enthusiasm for building bigger and bigger vats.21 All the same, the popularity of porter, the first 'industrial' beer, capable of being produced on a larger scale than the ales and beers that had gone before it, requiring large amounts of capital for its production so only a few large operators could produce it successfully, selling in enormous quantities, with attendant advantages of economies of scale, concentration and standardisation boosting returns, saw the leading London porter brewers rapidly pull away from the smaller London brewers in terms of production – names such as Parsons and his successor at the Red Lion Brewery, Henry Goodwyn; Sir Benjamin Truman; Samuel Whitbread; Henry Thrale; and the Calvert family (who owned two breweries, one near the Barbican and the other by the Thames near Charing Cross, which later merged). In 1760 there were five breweries in London each making more than 50,000 barrels a year.22 By 1781, the six biggest London brewers were now making more than 80,000 barrels a year each.23


In 1790 the eight largest breweries, all porter brewers, with an average output of more than 100,000 barrels a year, each, produced almost half the total of beer made in London: 1,323,900 barrels of strong and 444,100 barrels of small, leaving the remaining 152 brewers in the capital with an average output 17 times smaller, at just over 6,000 barrels a year each. At Whitbread, to take one example, production rose between 1762 and 1794 from 55,000 barrels a year to 189,000 barrels, almost three and a half times higher, with profits rising pro rata from just under £14,000 in 1763 to almost £47,000 in 1791 (Figure 3). Unsurprisingly, the big brewers become, as Dr Samuel Johnson said at the sale of Thrale's brewery to the partnership of Barclay and Perkins in 1784, 'rich beyond the dreams of avarice'.24 They bought big country estates in Hertfordshire and Surrey, acquired knighthoods and seats in Parliament and married into the aristocracy.

Meanwhile their breweries grew larger and larger, engulfing the buildings around them, and swallowing whole streets, such as Black Eagle Street in Shoreditch, which became the dray walk in the middle of Truman's brewery. The big London porter brewers benefited enormously from economies of scale: at Truman's in 1769-70 a single 'guile', or brew, took 126 quarters of malt, enough to make around 500 barrels of porter, at a total cost of £382, which brought in receipts of £501. After expansion of the brewery in 1774-5, a single brew now used 176 quarters of malt – 40 per cent more – but at a total cost of £511, only 34 per cent more, with receipts of £701. Profits per barrel were thus up more than 12 per cent.25

As they grew, the porter brewers sought greater technical efficiencies, to keep down their costs. One of the first steps to greater efficiency was adoption of the thermometer. Brewers today aim for a mash water temperature of around 65 to 71°C (150 to 160°F). Before the arrival of the thermometer in the brewhouse, brewers used several ad hoc methods of judging when the temperature of the water used to mash the ground grain was correct. One was to heat the water to near boiling, then leave it to cool, either for a set time or until the steam had diminished enough so that the brewer could see his own face reflected in the surface. Another, it was alleged, was for the brewer to put his hand in the water and move it in circles: if he could only bear one or two revolutions, it was still too hot, but if he could manage three, it was the right temperature for mashing. No actual recommendation has ever been found for that, but a writer in 1765 did urge brewers that to test the temperature of their mash liquor as it was heated, 'as soon as you see the little bubbles rise, or rather the whites begin to roll under the top or of the liquor, dip your four fingers in, and if you find it bite sharp, then damp and let off into the malt.'26

This was already old-fashioned. In 1758 the Hampstead ale brewer Michael Combrune had published a book called An Essay on Brewing, with a View of Establishing the Principles of the Art, which was the first technical text to recommend the mercury thermometer, invented in Amsterdam by Daniel Fahrenheit in 1714, rather than the hand, for gauging the temperature of the mash liquor. The advantages were twofold: it avoided wasting fuel by heating the water beyond the temperature required, and it meant having a more efficient mash: if the liquor were too cold, the wort would be under-strength, while if it were too hot, there was a danger of the mash setting into a porridge-like lump.

According to the author of Every Man His Own Brewer, published anonymously in 1768 by 'a Gentleman lately retired from the brewing business', the thermometer had been 'universally' adopted by commercial London porter brewers by that date, just ten years after Combrune's essay. Certainly the Fleet Streetbased instrument maker Benjamin Martin was advertising a 'Brewer's Thermometer' from at least 1766. The big porter brewers were keener to adopt new technology than country brewers, it appears: James Baverstock, who helped run the family brewery in Turk Street, Alton, Hampshire from 1763, read Combrune's later Theory and Practice of Brewing, published in 1762, and bought a thermometer on the strength of it, but wrote later that he had to hide it from his father, who declared his opposition to 'experimental innovations', and use it 'by stealth'.27 Many brewers, though, used what was called a 'blind' thermometer, with no numbers, and no scale other than marks at the brewer's preferred temperatures for mashing, fermenting and so on. This way he kept his trade secrets from 'the impertinant pryings of those about him,' as one brewery manual said in 1822.28 Even in the 1880s, Watney's brewery in Pimlico, London still used a thermometer marked with letters, not numbers, to hide the true reading from those without the code.29

The thermometer also empowered another important technological innovation, the attemperator. For millennia, brewing could only be a seasonal operation: from May or June through to September, the weather was generally too warm to brew successfully. To begin with, the wort took longer to cool down after boiling, leaving it more likely to become infected, as it lay in the shallow coolers high in the roof of the brewery that were the usual method of cooling, and even if it survived that, the ferments would be too violent and the resultant beer unpalatable. While the invention of porter pushed the brewing season on a few more weeks, there was still a gap in the middle of the year. This was the reason behind the importance of March and October beers, made strong to last through the period when beer could not be brewed. The first man to come up with a method of controlling the temperature in brewing vessels was a Dubliner, John Long, who patented a temperature-control system in 1790 that was based on submerged coiled copper pipes in mash-tuns and fermenting vessels through which water at a set temperature circulated.30 Three big London brewers, Whitbread, Felix Calvert and Barclay were sniffy about the proposal when asked to comment by the Commissioners of Victualling, who ran the naval breweries in places such as Portsmouth, but by 1805 cooling 'worm' attemperators, to control the temperature of fermenting beer, were being described by Richard Shannon, a non-brewer who had patented cooling apparatus, as part of the normal equipment of a commercial brewery, though using an attemperator was still called 'cooling in the new way'.31

London's brewers themselves were tackling the problem of cooling worts. In 1801 a brewer called Henry Tickell, of Mansell Street, Goodman's Fields, Whitechapel, patented a 'refrigerator' to cool worts rapidly by passing them through pipes surrounded by circulating cold water, or under water sprays.32 By 1819, Whitbread's brewery had a system invented by its head porter brewer, Philetus Richardson, son of the John Richardson who we shall meet shortly, involving thermometers showing the temperature of the wort as it flowed to the fermenting vessel, with a brewery hand watching the temperature as the wort flowed in, ready to turn a cock if the temperature was too high, so that the cold water supply from the brewery's main well could flow through a cooling jacket over the fermenting squares' supply pipe.33 Brewers were paying large sums of money for wort or fermentation cooling devices: Barclay Perkins stumped up £1,900 in 1817 for what it called a 'refrigerator', the equivalent of £125,000 today.34 But the results of these technical innovations in temperature control were an extended brewing season, so that eventually brewers were able to brew all year round, and much less likelihood of infected or unpalatable beers.

Meanwhile perhaps the most important technical advance in brewing since the arrival of hops – the hydrometer, or saccharometer – was having a huge effect on brewing methods, brewers' profits and even the taste and colour of London beer. The hydrometer had been in use in the distilling trade from near the beginning of the 18th century for measuring the amount of alcohol in spirits. It seems only to have dawned on people quite slowly that the same device could measure the amount of sugar dissolved in wort. This was important to brewers, because it enabled them to work out how efficient their mashing methods were, and to compare how much extract they were getting from different sorts of malt. By the mid-1740s brewers were being advised that the hydrometer could be used in 'Discovering the Goodness or Quality of Malt'.35 But it was at least three decades before anyone began to promote this idea seriously.

In the 1770s, however, James Baverstock, the Alton brewer who had such problems persuading his father to accept the thermometer, and a rival brewer, John Richardson, both began to promote the hydrometer as a tremendous tool for efficient brewing. Baverstock was the pioneer, having met the scientific instrument maker Benjamin Martin of Fleet Street around 1768, who was advertising a hydrometer as an instrument 'useful in discovering the strength of beer, ale, wine and worts'. Baverstock experimented with hydrometers for two years at his brewery in Alton until he felt he had a system that would be of use in a brewery, and eventually, in 1770, went to Samuel Whitbread, by then one of London's largest brewers. Unfortunately Whitbread declared that he had built up a large and successful business without having to use such a device, and dismissed Baverstock with the words: 'Go home, young man, attend to your business and do not engage in such visionary pursuits.'36 Shortly after, however, Baverstock met Henry Thrale, the ambitious owner of the Anchor brewery in Southwark, who was always seeking ways of growing his business and outbrewing his rivals, and who took up the hydrometer with enthusiasm, saying it was 'an instrument of great use to the brewer in various parts of his business.'

Despite Thrale's patronage, however, few if any other brewers followed up Baverstock's ideas. It was Richardson who finally brought the hydrometer to wide attention in the brewing trade when he published a book called Statical Estimates of the Materials for Brewing in 1784.37 Richardson had been born in the village of Folksworth in Huntingdonshire, and worked as a brewer in Britain and Europe before forming a partnership at the North Brewery in Hull in 1783. It was Richardson who coined the term 'saccharometer', literally 'sugar measurer', for the hydrometer used as a way to gauge the amount of dissolved sugar in wort, and though Baverstock bought out his own book in 1785, Hydrometrical Observations and Experiments in the Brewery, it was Richardson who was credited with the rush of brewers to adopt the hydrometer/saccharometer in their breweries. He was helped by the 80 per cent rise in 1782 in the tax on malt, which made it more important to ensure as a brewer you were buying the raw material that gave the best fermentable extract. By 1791 the Burton on Trent brewer Benjamin Wilson could write that 'almost all brewers' used hydrometers.38

The most dramatic effect Richardson's work has on brewing practice came because the saccharometer enabled London's brewers to see what poor value for money the brown malt they used to make porter was compared to pale malt. If a good pale malt produced an extract of 82 pounds per quarter, Ware brown malt from Hertfordshire, the sort used by London porter brewers, might give only 56 pounds of extract per quarter, 32 per cent less.39 Brown malt gave porter its colour and flavour, but it was poor value compared to pale malt for producing sugars that could then be fermented into alcohol. With rising prices for malt, and a retail price for beer that did not alter between 1760 and 1800, the big brewers were under pressure to try to use as much better-value pale malt as possible, and make up the colour some other way. Different methods were tried, including boiling wort, or muscovado sugar, in an iron pot until it was like treacle, and then setting fire to it, and using that to colour a mostly pale ale brew, or using 'Spanish juice', liquorice boiled in water and then evaporated, but all eventually ran into problems with the excise authorities, who wanted nothing going into beer that had not been taxed, and the public, who were suspicious of alleged adulteration of their favourite drink, and by 1816 they had all been banned.40

Fortunately for the brewers, the following year a man called Daniel Wheeler unveiled a patented method of roasting malt at 400°F or more for up to two hours in an apparatus very similar to a coffee roaster. The resultant black malt, or 'patent malt' gave 'extractive matter of a deep brown colour, ready soluble in hot or cold water ... A small quantity of malt thus prepared will suffice for the purpose of colouring beer or porter.' The Excise authorities could not object, since the colouring was made from malt upon which tax had been paid, though they did insist on the roasting house being at least a mile from the malthouse, and malt roasters had to have a special licence. The big London porter brewers all took up Wheeler's black malt (which, in fact, he was eventually unable to patent, though it continued to be called 'patent malt'): Whitbread in 1817, Barclay Perkins in 1820, Truman by 1826.41 The introduction of patent malt must have made a considerable difference to the taste of porter, and to its colour, since it could now be made as black as night, even with a huge proportion of pale malt in the mash. However, the public did not seem to mind, and it remained London's favourite drink.

Higher taxes and the search for economies led the big porter brewers to invest in more new technology: steam engines. Until the 1780s all rotary power for grinding and pumping in even the biggest breweries came from horses plodding round and round while attached to the horsewheel. Old, often blind horses were used for this job, but they still needed feeding, at £40 a head per year, stabling and regular replacement. By getting rid of mill horses, a big brewer axed £400 a year or more of expenses. Their replacement, the steam engine, might cost £750 to buy and install and £90 a year for running and repairs, plus £100 a year on coal, but it would last for decades, unlike a horse, and could run for 14 hours a day. Indeed some brewery steam engines such as Whitbread's remained in service for a century or more.42

The first concern in the London area to install one of Watt and Boulton's steam engines was actually a distiller, Messrs Cooke & Co, of Bow Bridge, Stratford-le-Bow, in Middlesex.43 A small 18-inch cylinder machine, only the third to be supplied by the partnership of Watt and Boulton, was installed in 1777 at a total cost of £350, though Boulton later complained that they had 'lost all the profit in the engine we made for Messers Cook [sic] & Co by the repeated journeys of ourselves and men.' However, this was useful for pumping only, and not for driving machinery. It was not until 1782 that Boulton and Watt started making rotary steam engines, and within a couple of years London's brewers began ordering them to replace their mill-horses. The first was Henry Goodwyn of the Red Lion brewhouse at St Katharine's, Wapping (formerly Parson's), who ordered a four-horsepower steam engine at a cost of £500. It arrived in the summer of 1784, during the closed season for brewing. When Samuel Whitbread saw how successfully Goodwyn's four-horsepower engine was working, he ordered a ten-horsepower model for the Chiswell Street brewery, which was running by the spring of 1785, at a total installation cost of around £1,000. However, one brewer at Whitbread's estimated that the engine actually saved the cost of 24 horses, which needed almost £1,000 a year spent on feed alone.44

In succession most of the other big London porter brewers bought steam engines from Boulton and Watt: Felix Calvert at the Hourglass Brewery in October 1785; Barclay Perkins, the new owners of Thrale's brewery, in 1786 (closing off Globe Alley, which once led to Shakespeare's theatre, to give it a home); John Calvert of the Peacock brewery in Whitecross Street and the Gyfford partnership in Long Acre, both in 1787; John Stephenson at the Horseshoe brewery, Tottenham Court Road, St Giles in 1789, Cox & King of the City Road in 1793, Clowes of Stoney Lane, Southwark in 1796. Truman's stood back, after cancelling a provisional order in 1788 because the partners could not find a free spot to erect the engine house on the brewery site. (It took nearly 20 years before the Black Eagle brewery finally had a steam engine to replace its mill horses.) The partners at Meux Reid's Griffin brewery off Leather Lane were also slow, not getting their first steam engine (from a company called Hornblower and Maberley) until 1797.45

The new steam engines were used at first for driving mills to grind the malt, and for pumping liquids. Within a short while they were also being used to mechanise other areas, such as moving the malt to the mills, and mixing of the grains in the mash tuns, where the sugary wort was extracted. Nine different mashing machines were patented between 1787 and 1810, including one by Edward Biley of the Horse Shoe Brewery in Tottenham Court Road in 1793 which was also adopted by Whitbread's brewery, and another by Henry Goodwyn junior of the Red Lion brewery at St Katharine's.46

By the start of the 19th century, therefore, technology of all sorts had transformed London's biggest breweries dramatically, as they took part in their own industrial revolution. They were, by now, by far the biggest breweries in Britain and would continue to be so until finally overtaken by the pale ale brewers of Burton upon Trent in the 1870s.

The author

Martyn Cornell is a journalist and author, and a member of the editorial board of Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society. He has written several books on beer and beer history, including Amber Gold and Black, the history of British beer styles. He blogs at

Notes and references

1. Derek Prentice: personal communication

2. Riley, Henry Thomas. Memorials of London and London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth and XVth Centuries. London, 1868 p 194

3. Sharpe, Reginald R ed, Calendar of Letter-Books Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City Of London at the Guildhall, Letter-Book L. London 1912, p 232

4. Ball, M. The Worshipful Company of Brewers, London 1977, p 34

5. Unger, Richard, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. University of Pennsylvania Press 2004, p 54

6. Thomas, A H ed, Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls, Parts 1364–1381. Cambridge University Press 2015, p 147

7. Cornell, Martyn, Beer: The Story of the Pint. Headline, London, 2003, p 64

8. Bennett, Judith M, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 80

9. Hatcher, John, The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume I: Before 1700. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, pp 24–25

10. Kreuzke, John R, 'Change Is Brewing: The Industrialization Of The London Beer-Brewing Trade, 1400-1750'. DPhil dissertation. Chicago, 2014, p 51

11. Kreutze, p 52

12. Kreutze, p 162

13. Cornell, Martyn, Amber Gold and Black. The History Press 2010, pp 53–68

14. Stern, Walter M, The Porters of London. London, Longmans, 1960

15. Cornell, Beer, p 101

16. Cornell, Amber, p 61

17. Hutchings, Victoria. The Red Lion Brewery Hoare & Co. Umbria Press, London, 2013, p 29

18. Chandler, Richard, The History and Proceedings of the House of Commons from the Death of Queen Anne to the Present Time, Vol IV. London 1742, p 200

19. Mathias, Peter, The Brewing Industry in England 1799–1830. Cambridge, 1959, p 58

20. Clifford, James L ed, Dr Campbell's Diary of a visit to England in 1775. Cambridge University Press 1947, p 51

21. Cornell, Amber

22. Pryor, Alan, 'The Industrialisation of the London Brewing Trade' (part 1), Brewery History No 161 Spring 2015, p 76 London 's Industrial Archaeology 14 47

23. Monckton, pp 207–218

24. Cornell, Beer, p 106

25. Mathias, p 38

26. Anon, The Complete Maltster and Brewer Being a Brief Dissertation in Defence of Long Grown Malts. W Nicholl, London 1765, p 56

27. Baverstock, James, Treatises on Brewing. London, 1824, p xiii

28. Tuck, John, The Private Brewer's Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale and Porter. London, W Simpkin & R Marshall, 1822

29. Serocold, Walter Pierce (ed), The Story of Watneys. London, 1949, p 19

30. Mathias, p 74

31. Richard, Shannon, A Practical Treatise on Brewing, Distilling, and Rectification. London, 1805, p xi

32. Hornsey, Ian, A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, London, 2003, p 452

33. Rees, Abraham, 'Porter'. In The Cyclopζdia: Or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Vol 28. 1819

34. Mathias, p 77

35. Sumner, James, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700–1880. Pickering & Chatto, 2013, p 94

36. Baverstock, pp xiv–xv

37. Sumner, pp 93–7

38. Mathias, p 71

39. Richardson, J, Philosophical Principles of the Science of Brewing. York, 1784, p 161

40. Mathias, pp 419–422

41. Mathias, p 423

42. Mathias, pp 78–98

43. Roll, Eric, An Early Experiment in Industrial Organization: A History of the Firm of Boulton & Watt 1775–1805. Frank Cass & Co, Abingdon, 1968, pp 32–3

44. Mathias, pp 78–98

45. ibid.

46. ibid.

© GLIAS, 2016