Wednesday 24 July 2013

Seventy Rolling Years by Sydney O Nevile

One thing I remembered from the Ronathon I recently enjoyed was the mention of a book about a brewer's seventy year long career that sounded right up my street. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology a 50 year old book had soon landed on my doormat and more fascinating facts were making their way into my head.

The book covers Sydney O Nevile's 70 year long career in the brewing industry from a pupilage aged 14 in 1888 through to being on the board of Whitbread and just about every industry committee. Though he tends to focus more on policies he was involved in shaping, rather than technical details of brewing, there was still plenty to keep me interested.

His tale of the tribulations suffered by breweries in the early years of the twentieth century really make it look like we're having it easy in the early years of the twenty first.

"There must be few today who realize the manifold trials and tribulations of the brewers in those days; the continual political attacks, and the absurd prejudices of the licensing authorities, to say nothing of the reckless purchase of public houses at high prices and cut-throat competition for the trade of free houses at prices below the cost of production; a combination of disasters and ineptitude which lead to many large concerns in the metropolis and elsewhere being unable to pay dividends on their shares, and in some cases interest on their debentures."

The anti-alcohol lobby today really aren't a patch on the miserable puritans that at one point had a disturbing degree of influence. That in the middle of the First World War the Prime Minister can say: "We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink" really shows quite how over the top their influence became. Intriguingly later on in the book the author states that one of the reasons there were less restrictions on drink during the Second World War is because it had caused industrial unrest, but provides no further details.

Surprisingly the author was in favour of the restricted pub opening hours brought in during WWI, which were to a large extent still in force when I started drinking and still influence my drinking habits to this day. I've got the hang of drinking through the afternoon mind, but I'm still seldom up to drinking past 11 pm.

The author describes how he was involved in a long battle to improve pubs, something that I don't think would be controversial today, but was very problematic back then as it was seen to be encouraging drinking.
In fact he was keen to not only improve the buildings but change their character by doing things like serving food and soft drinks. Eventually he won support from the industry and the authorities, and one of the pubs he talks about is near me in Guildford. Sadly it's now a shop, but then again a pub changing use is not quite as big a change as the fact that Whitbread is no longer a brewer.

This used to be the Bull's Head

 During Nevile's career the number of breweries in Britain went from over 10,000 to under 500, which makes the current rise in brewery numbers seem relatively modest. As now, many were very small though, and he unambiguously states that industrial beer was of better quality. His policy was that "quality not cheapness is the foundation of success" which really makes me wonder when the big breweries decided to reverse it! Certainly the management of Whitbread were concerned about the flavour of their beer, when Nevile got a job on the board he had to promise not to carbonate the bottled beer (though that didn't stop him doing it in the end).

Another delight in the book include confirmation that White's Golding was the original name of Whitbread Golding Varitey. I'd not been too happy only having The Encircling Hop as a reference for that so it's good to hear it from the man at Whitbread who bought Beltring farm where the variety originated.

I was also interested to see that there used to be an exception from beer duty for very small producers, a situation that still exists today for cider makers.

His comments on cellarmanship, made before 1910 are rather depressing though:

"My attention was particularly directed to lack of training when studying the difficulties of the brewing trade during the early years of the century. At that time, as a result of minor research by way of systematic sampling from a number of houses during a period of some months, I found the average quality of the beer offered to the customer fell far below standard. I found, too, that cellars were not always as clean as they should have been; they were often badly and uneconomically designed, in many, the temperatures (so important a consideration) were neither uniform nor consistent, and there were other defects traceable to the scanty knowledge of cellar management among those in charge and their unskilled employees. The natural result of such mismanagement of cellars already unsuitable was of course that the quality of the beer which reached the consumer was unsatisfactory."

I wouldn't be surprised to something like that written today, it's enough to turn you to keg beer!*

The mystery of milk stout is also made clear thanks to his involvement in making Mackesons a national brand, firstly how it initially had problems from the customs authorities and secondly how the term 'milk' came to be dropped:

"Some years before our acquisition of the brewery, the Mackeson company had taken up certain patents in connection with the use of lactose, a form of sugar obtained from milk, and had put on the market a stout sold as 'Mackeson's Milk Stout'. The merit of lactose lay in its being non-fermentable and it gave the stout a smooth taste as well as dietetic value. The output when we bought the business was small and at first there was doubt whether the product would be worth continuing. But presently inquiries came from different parts of the country, asking where Mackeson's Milk Stout could be got, the inquirers having been on holiday in Kent. It looked as if the demand might be greater than expected. I found on investigation that the quality was impaired by certain restrictions imposed by the customs authorities on the use of lactose, restrictions which seemed to me capable of revision. I was able to arrange with the heads of Customs for these to be modified."

Not entirely certain what the restrictions were, but with customs involved it probably related to duty, milk stouts having a high original gravity but low ABV due to the non-fermentability of lactose. He continues:

"After the end of the war the Ministry [of Food] embarked on a campaign to ensure the correct terminology of food sold for public consumption. They held that the term 'Milk' was an incorrect description, since 'whole' milk was not used, the 'milk' element - lactose - being merely a sugar obtained from whey, one of the by-products of cheese making. There was much criticism of the Ministry's action as officious interference, but they stuck to their guns and indicated that if the term was continued in use, a restrictive order would follow. So the word 'Milk' was dropped and, so far as were were concerned, the term 'Mackeson's Stout' was established in its place. 

So no actual ban of the term was put in place, just the threat of a ban.

The book details Sydney O Nevile's 70 year long career, but in his obituary written in 1969 it talks of his 80 years in the brewing industry, and mentions how it was his foresight and work that eventually lead to the foundation of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation for which I'm sure we're all grateful.

The book was an interesting account of a long and active life in brewing. Thanks to Ron for the recommendation!

* Only joking.


  1. Excellent to find confirmation of there being no formal ban on the term Milk Stout, and also an indication of where primary sources might be found: in the correspondence between Whitbread and the Ministry of Food, assuming it survives.

  2. I thought you'd like that bit!