All About Beer Magazine - Volume 21, Issue 4
September 1, 2000 By

Earlier this year, while at the Chicago Real Ale Festival, I started thinking about the first time I tasted cask-conditioned beer at Bert Grant’s Yakima, WA, brewery about 1983. But then it came to me that it might have been much, much earlier than that. I might actually have tasted my first cask-conditioned beer in Yokosuka, Japan, in the early days of our occupation of that country, say sometime early in 1946.

During World War II, I had, at ages 17, 18, and 19, my first real experiences with alcohol beverages, mostly beer. In those days, if one wore a military uniform (and I think older Boy Scouts may have managed it, too), one was served, no questions asked, although the drinking age was 21 for the most part. In combat zones, no consideration whatever was given to one’s age. We all had the right to die, and no one questioned our other rights.

I have related some details of that era already (AAB 20:6). In 1945, American beer, both at home and overseas, was rather pitiful stuff, not even as good as the pre-war, post- Prohibition brews to which most folks had become accustomed. By 1940, beer had made some progress out of the Prohibition morass. That blight had lasted 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours, 32 and one-half minutes from 12:01, 16 January 1920 to 5 December 1933 at 5:32 p.m. EST. By then, most drinkers were accustomed to drinking sweet, mellow wines and mixed drinks (to hide the awful taste of homemade gin), so brewers had reduced the profiles of their beer by lowering the hop levels and mellowing the taste of their product with adjuncts to accommodate this new market.

As the war progressed more modifications were incorporated, and most beer was reduced to infamous “3.2” alcohol level. This meant 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, which was 4 percent by volume (abv). Perfectly satisfactory if (like me) you didn’t know better. This was really ALL the beer available to the foot soldiers of that time, but even that pitiful level of brew was severely rationed to something like six cans a week. Most of my friends, who were my age, didn’t worry much about this. We weren’t hooked on beer all that much anyway.

Wartime Beer Degradation

Suffice it to say that American beer continued its wartime degradation even from the modest levels of post-Prohibition recovery. At home, there was rationing of many staples (sugar, meat, flour, gasoline, butter and many other items). We had become the suppliers of the free world, and the malt content of beer fell from slightly over a bushel (34 lbs) per 31-gallon barrel to about 3/4 of that (25.5 pounds per barrel), even though malt production rose from about 70 million bushels before the war to about 103 million in 1945.

The difference was made up by the addition of adjunct grains, which had been mostly corn and rice before the war. As the war progressed, brewers experimented with other possibilities, such as corn sugar, beet sugar, wheat, soybeans, whey, potatoes (both white and sweet), manioca (from cassava), and sorghum grains, such as kafir corn and milo maize. Even hops became scarce when many hop farmers (encouraged by the government) switched to growing other crops more important to the war effort.

The Prohibitionists would dearly have loved to reinstate their vile program, but Americans who had suffered through the last Prohibition would never have stood still for that and everyone knew it. Instead, they wanted to impose prohibition on the military. In those days, it was the southern Democrats who formed the Christian erroneous. The rest of the Democrats and most Republicans repudiated the idea entirely. They killed it in Congress.

General George C. Marshall, chief of staff during the war, said, “It would be harmful to the men in the service to direct a prohibition against them that did not apply to other citizens. To do so would inevitably lead to intemperance.” As a matter of fact, it was recognized early in the war that beer constituted an important morale factor for the troops.

But I digress.

British Brewery Ships

Our British allies were in even deeper trouble, beer-wise, than we. Their beer had deteriorated, too. And on the continent the poor Belgians were trying to brew beer at gravities of 1009 to 1019 (2.4 to 4.7 Plato) at something less than 2 percent abv, with only 50 percent malt and 50 percent beetroot. They had ceased production of lambics entirely. German beer was not much better either, and more than half of the Japanese sake breweries had been closed or converted to munitions factories.

Often the sake used to send young Japanese kamikaze pilots off as suicide bombs was completely synthetic, with no rice at all used in its production. Of course, by mid- 1945, our side had mostly won the war, but the Japanese army had not taken note of this phenomenon. They were preparing for the long haul⎯to defend Mt. Fuji every foot of the way.

It was our British friends who grabbed the bull by the nether parts. They were outfitting BREWERY SHIPS! What a noble gesture for their troops, and what a brilliant new weapons system this represented! Ten of these fine ships of war were planned (the Brits, like the Japanese, were preparing for the really lo-o-ong haul). Sadly, I suppose, the war was over before those grandiose plans materialized. They settled on just two: the HMS Menestheus and Agamemnon, ex-ocean liner mine layers.

The war was winding down very fast in late 1945. The Germans had surrendered and the atom bomb was being readied for its debut as these two ships set out for western Canada to be fitted out. The war was over by the time they reached Vancouver, BC, in September of 1945. Only HMS Menestheus was actually fitted out and finished.

Her equipment was designed to brew beer from malt extract; there was a brew kettle but no mash tun. An ingenious closed fermentation system was developed to brew 250 British barrels (350 US barrels) a week. Brewing was to be done while the ship was at anchor or at dock, not while at sea.

The ships’ brewers had to overcome many problems, not the least of which was the fact that no one had planned for yeast propagation. Some 500 tons of malt extract had been ordered for the two brew ships and sent to Canada. George Brown (of Truman’s, London) was sent to Vancouver as head brewer for the Menestheus, and he brewed his first batch on that ship 31 December of that year, followed by another on 7 January 1946. The beer, an English mild of 1037/9.25 Plato, and about 3.7 percent abv, was finished out in 1200 5-gallon drums, after eight days fermentation and settling.

The ship sailed off to the Far East, stopping first at Yokohama, headquarters of British occupation troops, next to the US base at Yokosuka where I was stationed.

No Figment of the Imagination

During this early part of the occupation, we shared space with some British Royal Marines assigned to our base at Yokosuka. They drank at our “gedunk” (enlisted men’s pub and restaurant) and shared our khaki-canned American beer, lacking any of their own. They were interesting people, and we got to know some of them fairly well as time went on. Suddenly one day, they invited a few of us to their small canteen, where they shared some new “draft” beer they had obtained “from a brew ship,” they said.

We knew better than to believe that nonsense⎯”brew ship” indeed! They said the ship was anchored in Tokyo bay but, of course, that wasn’t so. They said the ship had been there since the war ended, but that wasn’t the case either. Plainly, they knew little more than we did, but Marines of any nation are seldom prone to allow lack of knowledge to color their perceptions of reality or ruin a good story.

The beer was very interesting, if only because it was dark and not chilled very much. Our mothers had all warned us about the perils of drinking dark beer, so we knew it was very strong stuff indeed. It tasted great, but other than pleasure, I have no particular memory of that episode. I was, after all, only 19 and had no experience with varieties of beer. It tasted very good and that was that.

I had a flight into Shanghai and north China the next day and little further association with those guys. I often pondered the fate of that ship brewery, because I found it really did exist. There was even a training film made (1947⎯no current record of this, however). In fact, the Menestheus moved on to Kobe (Japan), Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Aden, Malta, and Gibraltar, returning home to Portsmouth after a six-month cruise. My own cruise ended in June of that year before I was mustered out of the marines in July of 1946.

It was only recently that I was able to speculate that this may have been my first taste of cask-conditioned ale. Sadly, that, too, was impossible, because the beer from the HMS Menestheus was carbonated! Another true story ruined by an eye witness. This, according to a chapter (“Davy Jones’ Delight”) in Brian Glover’s lovely book, Brewing for Victory: Brewers, Beer and Pubs in World War II.

The British deserve full credit for the development of one of WW II’s great secret weapons. A brewery ship would have been a fine addition to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, for example, not to mention the Falklands War in 1982.

Could such a weapon change the nature of war as we know it? Imagine, a weapons system with a civilizing influence on the conduct of war!

Author’s Note: Glover’s wonderfully nostalgic book (Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, England, 1995; ISBN 0 7188 2928 X) may be ordered from James Clark & Co. Ltd., PO Box 60, Cambridge, CB1 2NT, England, for £24.50, including airmail printed matter postage to the United States. Use your credit card. FAX them in England at 01223 366951.

Fred Eckhardt
Fred Eckhardt lives, writes and drinks beer in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Essentials of Beer Style and Saké (USA).