Secrets in the Cellar
Cracking the Codes of Centuries-old Brewing Recipes
Buried deep in the cellars of Britain’s oldest brewery, records of recipes from Victorian times stored in a dust-covered box were found to be written in a code that would baffle modern spy masters. The brewers’ books—large leather-bound tomes like those used by Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—were discovered by John Owen, historian and company archivist at Shepherd Neame, a large family-owned brewery in southern England.
Shepherd Neame was founded in 1698, and it’s not surprising that some of its earliest records had gone missing. John Owen is the author of several books and pamphlets on the history of the company, and he endlessly searches the company’s highways and byways in search of ancient artifacts. His task is not made easy by the higgledy-piggledy nature of buildings that have been added, redesigned and refurbished over long periods. It was in one dark, dank and malodorous corner of the cellars that he discovered the ancient logbooks.
When Owen dusted off the cobwebs, he took the volumes to the more elegant and salubrious surroundings of a wood-paneled and book-lined room set aside for meetings and study. He sat down with brewer Stewart Main, and they spent months of painstaking work breaking codes that were written with a series of letters, such as GBX, JBX and SBX. As a result the brewery has been able to re-create three beers from the 19th century—Brilliant Ale, India Pale Ale and Double Stout—that shine a light on brewing practice at the time.
Shepherd Neame is based in the market town of Faversham and makes great use of local hops, the prized East Kent Goldings in particular. The Neame family controls the brewery, which today produces upward of 200,000 barrels of beer annually, and also owns 345 pubs, mainly in Southeast England and London.
Its best-known ale is Spitfire, which commemorates the Battle of Britain fought in the skies above Kent during World War II. The work carried out in the brewery’s archives recalls another crucial wartime activity—the cracking of the Nazis’ Enigma codes, which shortened the war and saved many lives.
Why was it necessary for brewers to guard their recipes like state secrets? The answer lies in the ferocious competition that erupted in the 18th and 19th centuries as breweries fought to sell beer to pubs in their areas of production. In turn, the rush to market reflected the changing nature of Britain’s economic base.
By a quirk of history, the Industrial Revolution—the change from an agrarian economy to one based on heavy industry—started not in large European countries such as France and Germany but in the smaller offshore islands of Great Britain. Oliver Cromwell’s republic in the mid-17th century may have been brief, but it broke the power of the monarchy and the old feudal landowners. When the monarchy returned, it was controlled by Parliament, and a new class of entrepreneurs was given free rein to develop and manufacture.
In Industry and Empire (1968), the social historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “The Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world recorded in written documents. For a brief period it coincided with the history of a single country, Great Britain. An entire world economy was thus built on, or rather around, Britain, and this country therefore temporarily rose to a position of global influence and power unparalleled by any state of its relative size before and since. … There was a moment in the world’s history when Britain can be described, if we are not too pedantic, as its only workshop, its only massive importer and exporter, its only carrier, its only imperialist, almost its only foreign investor.”
British brewers were in the vanguard of this profound social and economic metamorphosis. There were prodigious thirsts to slake as the population grew and people left the countryside to work in factories. London, once a loose conglomeration of small towns and villages, became the greatest metropolis on the planet, while Burton-on-Trent, the home of pale ale, was for a while the biggest and most important brewing center in the world.
Brewing moved from a small-scale operation carried out by tavern keepers in their pub cellars or by small commercial brewers. Mechanization, refrigeration, improved malt production and a scientific understanding of yeast with the aid of the microscope changed brewing out of all recognition. Beer-making, after wool and cloth, became a mighty industry and with it came a scramble for market share.
In 1830, the Beerhouse Act enabled any householder, for a small annual fee, to turn his or her dwelling into a pub and brewery. Many of these rudimentary and often squalid “Tom and Jerry” houses rapidly went out of business and were snapped up by brewers. They developed what is known as the “tied trade”—pubs directly owned by a producer and selling only beers from that brewery. But before the tied trade, most inns and taverns were owned by independent publicans who had no allegiance to any one brewery. These “free traders” wanted good-quality beer sold to them at a keen price to enable them to make a decent living. It was essential for breweries to hold on to sales in their trading areas, and both maintaining quality and safeguarding recipes were vital.
This story appears in the September issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.