Monday, April 8, 2013

Cool Story Brew #1 - The Great London Beer Flood of 1814

It's been quite some time since I last put virtual ink to webpaper on this blog, not that I have been short of beer-spiration with the local craft beer scene continuing to flourish much in the same way that, say, Nickelback's credibility doesn't. However, I've felt the need to get back to what my original idea for my contribution to this page, the strange and bizarre of the beer world.

So with that, and the cobwebs that accompanied my laziness-induced hiatus now out of the way, I offer you the first in a series of strange and bizarre happenings from history, involving... well, beer obviously. (Terrible set up... this is what happens when you don't write for 15 months...) This is the bittersweet tale of a beer, free in both price and spirit, that finally got fed up with fermenting in a large vat and decided it wanted to see the world.... killing eight in the process, (though unofficial reports put the number anywhere upwards of 30.)

Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery

Like many of the mass beer manufacturers of the recent era, Meux's Brewery Co Ltd, the  beer-producing cash-cow (or possibly penny-oxen at the time?) of Sir Henry Meux, had made a small fortune buying out smaller breweries in the area and brewing ales on the grandest of scales. From its humble beginnings in 1764, it had risen to be one of London's main suppliers of porter,  and had amassed a large collection of local breweries under its wing.  One particular brewery under the control of the Meux empire was the Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Rd. In 1785, construction began on the company's flagship brewing set-up, a series of massive barrels, the largest of which, designed to hold over 510,000 litres of their best selling porter, the Meux's Nut Brown Ale. So large was this tank, that it required 29 iron hoops to hold this monstrosity together (fabricated reports suggest this was much like what Mama Cass had in her later years),

The morning of 17th October 1814 began the same way most did in Georgian London, under a thick cloud of industrialisation. The people went about their business like the fodder of future Dickens novels that they were, or would be. The porter had been fermenting away for months in these giant vats at the old Horse Shoe brewery, which had started to show signs of distress and aging, and, as maintenance was expensive and money was good, had been generally unattended by repairing hands. At around 6pm, the iron hoops gave way with an ear-shattering eruption that was reportedly heard up to 5 miles away. The 510,000-odd litres of beer, glorious beer, crashed down to the brewery floor causing a domino effect in rupturing the other giant vats surrounding the largest. In all, nearly 1,470,000lt of beer (about... *sniff* 2,655,000 pints... *sniff*) smashed through the walls of the brewery and flooded out like a tsunami of porter into Tottenham Court Road and New Street, with waves as high as 15ft bearing down on anybody in it's path.

Somewhat creepy 19th century etching depicting the event. 

The area surrounding the brewery was filled with slum housing primarily for Irish immigrants, many of whom dwelled in the basements of the streets, and as the time of the accident was before most of the working men had arrived home from a long day manually turning the wheels of industry, all eight of those who were officially reported to have died were women and children. Adding further insult to injury and a smattering of irony, the wave of beer also destroyed the local Tavistock Arms, killing 14 year old barmaid Eleanor Cooper.  Although many rushed to the aide of the scores of people injured in the flood, many locals began gathering pots and pans, kettles and anything else that could house the beer and began transporting it back to their surviving dwellings. Reports in the local press at the time (after the page 3 girl revealing a bare ankle) told of the workers beginning to arrive home, then great jubilation erupting in the flooded streets as men began swilling the porter and generally 'ladding' about. In early 19th century London, a street full of free beer was something one wouldn't celebrate lightly.

The Great Beer Flood of London Recreation Society
during one of their daily re-enactments.

Of course, the Meux Brewing Co Ltd was hauled before the courts, lawyers were involved, wigs were worn and those hammery things did hammery type duties. Eventually, the whole thing was deemed to be an "Act of God" which was odd, as he was not on the books of the brewery at the time, nor later tried for his actions. Although the whole ordeal did just about bankrupt the Meux company, who lost a modern day equivalent of close to 100 million dollars, but did succeed in becoming the first mass-producing beer manufacturer to flood the market with their product to the detriment of all who suffer it, a tradition that is lovingly carried on today.