Monday 2 September 2013

Horace Tabberer Brown

I first heard of Horace Brown when I was at Heriot-Watt and someone mentioned that Graham Stewart had won the Horace Brown Medal. Ignorant as I was “who on earth’s that?” was all I though, Horace being one of those antiquated names that sounds vaguely amusing. It was not until his 1916 lecture “Reminiscences of Fifty Years’ Experience of the Application of Scientific Method to Brewing Practice” was put online that I learnt quite why the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s highest award is named after him.

His reminiscences, that in length and depth certainly live up to the title, detail the role he played in applying the scientific method to brewing, moving it from what seemed barely altered from medieval superstition to recognisably modern rationality. I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time, but it’s only with the entirety of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing archive going online, and library facilities at my new workplace that I’ve got all the papers about him I was after. Boak and Bailey’s call to “go long” has spurred me on to pull my finger out but as I type away at 11pm on Sunday I'm still pushed to meet the deadline.

Born on the 20th July 1848, Horace Tabberer Brown was the posthumous son of Benjamin Tabberer. His mother married Edwin Brown and Horace adopted his name. I’ve not yet managed to find exact details of his family, though I know he had a sister called Beatrice, and a younger half brother Adrian Brown who also became an eminent brewing scientist, being appointed the first professor of brewing at Britain’s first university brewing school, after 25 years as the chemist at Salt and Co.

His step father was a bank manager and keen amateur naturalist and geologist. He was friends with many scientists, including Dr Henry Böttinger, then manager of Allsopp’s brewery, who had a profound influence on Horace:

“He used often to express a firm and certain belief that the principles of brewing, which at that time were based, like those of many of the sister arts, on mere empiricism, would in time come to admit of a rational and scientific explanation … These conversations with Böttinger had the effect of arousing in me a great desire and ambition to help on the good cause, and if I have been able in any way during the last 50 years to assist in this, it is in great measure due to the sowing of good seed by an old and valued friend in ground which I trust has not been altogether stony and unproductive.”

He was educated at home until aged nine and then at then Burton-Upon-Trent and Atherstone Grammar schools until 16. In his spare time he studied many branches of science at home: he was given telescope at the age of 12 and studied astronomy, before developing an interest in then electricity and then examining pond life using a basic microscope.

From around 14 he studied chemistry seriously and mastered the preparation of common gasses in the kitchen, though he was banished to an old store room after making hydrogen sulphide, a poisonous gas with a foul stench of rotting eggs. At this young age he decided he wanted to be a chemist. Peter Griess, a friend of Böttinger, was the chemist at Allsopp’s brewery and allowed him in the lab in evenings and gave him lessons in chemistry.

His parents couldn’t afford to send him to university, but in 1865 he had six months training at the Royal College of Chemistry in London (which was affiliated to the Royal School of Mines and became part of Imperial College). He studied under August Von Hofmann, shortly before he left, and his successor Edward Frankland, both giants in their field. One of the laboratory assistants was Cornelius O’Sullivan, who was later chemist at Bass (from 1867) and a fellow student was Henry Armstrong, who became a lifelong friend and who had a long association with the brewing industry.

On the 1st Jan 1866 at the age of 17 ½ he became the junior (3rd) brewer at Worthingtons, a brewery next door to his father’s house. In those days brewing was seasonal between October and May but the hours were long. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week but still continued his lab studies at home during afternoons when on late shift in a small laboratory his dad built him.

Fermenting vessels at Worthington's

His colleagues were “old school” and suspicious of science and “theorists”, the only science he was initially allowed to carry out was determining original gravity, and the weighing equipment for that was purchased.

Horace had to bide his time:

“I used to wonder how it was possible to apply an unvarying code of rules to the manufacturing processes like malting and brewing, which deal with raw products exhibiting such seasonal differences of quality, and yet expect consistent results”

When he was allowed to establish a small lab at the brewery, it was on the condition that the windows were obscured so as not to scare customers that the beer was being doctored! According to Barnard, this was the first brewery in the world to use a microscope.

At this time many advances were being made in microbiology, and the fermentation industries were in the forefront of this. Advances in brewing science were applicable across range of areas such as medicine, surgery and sanitation, the study of microorganisms in diseases of beer lead to insights in the microorganisms of diseases in people. For example, Pasteur’s “Studies on Beer” lead directly to his work in infectious diseases.

Another example of the cross over was Horace Brown being able to apply his knowledge to improving the sanitation in Butron-upon-Trent. At close of brewing season in 1868 he spent a few weeks at Frankland’s laboratory studying water analysis and then analysed the well waters at Worthington and other breweries, as well as the parish pumps and the Trent. He found many traces of sewage and was able to clean up the local water supply.

In 1869 he started to use a microscope in the brewery looking at yeast and soon after he read Pasteur’s “Studies on Wine”: “The immediate effect was that of a ray of light piercing the darkness and illuminating a new path into the unknown.”…

“In a short time, by a comparative study of the sediments of normal and faulty beers of various ages I had worked out, and could recognise, the particular organisms which produce most of the irregularities of bacterial origin.”

He discovered by microscopic examination that a horrible off flavour in beer similar to corked wine called “caskiness” or “fustiness” was caused by a Penicillin sp. growing on the wood of the casks.

His rigorously study of microorganisms found in sour beer meant that by 1873 he was able to recognise many beer spoilage organisms and the effects they’d have. He became an expert on Saccharobacillus Pastorianus (now Lactobacillus brevis) which caused 90% of the problems in Burton stock beers. His old school colleagues were still blaming the water or “some obscure electrical agency” and the brewing text books of the time were little better.

Using his knowledge of microbiology and influenced by Pasteur he developed “forcing trays” on which he would place aseptically taken 100 ml samples of beer and heat them to 80-85º F for three weeks before examining them microscopically for any contaminants. This gave indication not just of the state of the beer but also general state of the brewery and its plant and processes.

In 1873 at the age of 25 he was appointed manager of Worthington’s manufacturing departments. He married the next year, and though again I have yet to dig out the details I know children followed.

Due to his rigorous work when Pasteur’s “Studies on Beer” came out in 1876 he was probably already ahead of him in his knowledge. It was in this year that Brown was one of the founders of the “Bacterium Club”, an informal dining society of men interested in science. Far-reaching discussions were held on recent discoveries in chemistry and biology, particularly as they pertained to brewing, though a couple of medical doctors were also members.

The laboratory at Worthington's brewery

By 1877 Brown had learnt that problems with beer were could be caused by yeast strains as well as bacteria and was aware of the role of “secondary” yeasts in the normal British brewery fermentations of the time, long before Claussen’s work on Brettanomyces. This later lead to a dispute with Hansen, the developer of pure single strain brewers’ yeast, as Brown was adamant that:

“…. the beers from the pure yeast, unless stimulated by the addition of a little diastatic malt-extract at the time of racking, were slower in conditioning than the corresponding samples from the ordinary yeast”

Brown correctly observed that: “primary yeast demands a crystallisable sugar like maltose or dextrose to keep it going, the secondary yeasts are capable of hydrolysing and utilising malto-dextrins and dextrins which the primary yeast cannot touch unaided by some extraneous ferment.”

He also developed an early method of removing contaminating bacteria by acidifying wort.

At this time he started studying starch and its breakdown products, drawing on the work of O’Sullivan, studies which continued with a range of assistants up until 1899. Starch proved a particularly tough nut to crack though, and Horace stated later that the study of starch had started in 1814, was still not resolve a hundred years later, and predicted people would still be arguing about it in 2014!

In 1883 his studies turned to the geology of Burton and for four years he studied the composition of the local landscape and the chemistry of the water, leading to an article published in 1889, the same year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He looked at barley germination between 1885-6, and gave a scientific basis to the previously empirical world of malting. In 1890 he published with his assistant GH Morris their findings in a major paper in the Journal of the Chemical Society called “Research on the germination of the Gramineae”.

When Worthingon’s was incorporated as a limited company in 1889 he was made joint managing director with William Posnette Manner, but still managed to continue his scientific studies.

Brewers had known for some time that dry hopping in cask encouraged secondary fermentation and ensured good condition in the beer. Browns systematic research into exactly why this was led further than even he envisaged. He found hop strobiles contained a diastatic enzyme, which broke down some of the dextrins in the beer to fermentable sugars. This lead to further research, for if diastase was present in hop strobiles was it present in all leaves?

Detailed botanical investigations into plant physiology followed, culminating in another important paper with Morris in 1893 on “The Chemistry of Foliage Leaves”.

His botanical researches continued after he had left Worthington’s, first looking at outstanding problems on barley germination but this soon lead on to more fundamental research into the uptake of CO2 in plants through leaf stomata resulting in ground breaking scientific breakthroughs on gas diffusion.

His initial enquiry into dry hopping ended with him winning a prize from the Royal Society and ultimately giving the 1905 Bakerian lecture on “The Reception and Utilization of Energy by the Green Leaf.”

His 28 year career at Worthington’s had ended because his working relationship with his co-manager was not harmonious and in late 1893 he was forced out of the company by due to trade complaints. Early in 1894 left Worthington’s and moved to London.

Armstrong wrote:

“His was too sensitive a spirit to brook the strenuous conditions and jealousies of a rough and tumble business life: he had never learnt to kick back and kick hard or even to swear internally. As he said to me at the time, he hoped he would henceforth be able to do what I had often counselled him to do, feeling that he was far too fine and valuable a weapon for industry – devote himself to scientific work.”

He may not have been suited to the rough and tumble of business life but he clearly respected as a scientist and was awarded the Longstaff medal of the Chemical Society that year.

In London he carried out consultancy work and continued his researches at a number of laboratories.

In 1901 he was employed by Guinness to set up a research laboratory. He started work investigating “The Nitrogen Question” in beer, looking to see if careful control of the nitrogen level and composition of beer could control the growth of contaminants. The findings of research at the Guinness laboratory were only published privately, and due to a policy change the lab was closed in five years later.

In 1903 he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society “For his work on the chemistry of the carbohydrates and on the assimilation of carbonic acid by green plants”.

His researches on “The Nitrogen Question” continued after he had left Guinness but ultimately he had to conclude that beer infection could not be controlled by the nitrogen content. He had had some success with bacteria but contaminating yeasts proved too robust. Despite this research not having the outcome he had hoped for it was not without merit: he developed a method for determining Free Amino Nitrogen in beer and learnt about the importance for yeast of the “initial oxygen charge in the cell” 50 years before the role of sterols in fermentation was established.

He frequently travelled to America as he was director of an American brewing company, though I’ve yet to find out which one. He lectured to the Institute of Brewing on American techniques of bottling filtered beer and investigated the effects of head space oxygen content on shelf life.

His travels also took him to South Africa, where he had bought a son a vineyard, so he also lectured to the Institute of Brewing on wine making. The son died during surgery in 1909 and the vineyard was sold at the start of the First World War.

In 1908-9 he was active as a member of the Royal Commission on Whisky and Potable Spirits.

Between 1909 and 1913 with Sir Edward Thorpe he carried out a thorough revision of the table of original gravities of beer for the Board of Inland Revenue.

In 1916, his fiftieth year in the business, the Institute of Brewing presented him with a portrait of himself and he gave his lecture on his reminiscences. Armstrong's opinion of the portrait was that it was "undoubtedly a likeness but a hard presentation of his features, lacking his wonderful eyes and the alluring smile which usually rested upon his face".

"We are no longer exploring without stars, compass or map to guide us ..."

The next year his health broke down and he was forced to all but give up work. He made some recovery but in 1919 he suffered paralysis down his left side and though again some recovery was made his career was now completely over.

In 1920 he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. Armstrong related he was delighted to receive “the highest distinction which can fall to the lot of any man of science in any country”.

He died on the 5th February 1925, the most respected and highly awarded British brewing scientist.


RG Anderson, Horace Brown and ‘Friends’: A Triumvirate of Sesquicentenaries. Ferment, 1992
HE Armstrong, Adrian Brown Memorial Lecture. Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1921
HE Armstrong, Obituary Notice, Journal of the Chemical Society, 1928
HE Armstrong, Horace Brown Memorial Lecture, Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1937
JL Baker, Obituary Notice, Biochemical Journal, 1925
A Barnard, The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland Vol III, 1890
LR Bishop, Horace Brown Memorial Lecture A Conspectus of Brewing Progress. Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1971
HT Brown, Reminiscences of Fifty Years’ Experience of the Application of Scientific Method to Brewing Practice. Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1916
JH Millar, Obituary, Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1925

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