Brewing in WWII

History by the Glass by | Jan 2015 | Issue #96

I’m back on the topic of war again. You can’t ignore it if you’re interested in British beer because war, more than any other factor, drove its evolution.

The war impacted brewing both directly and indirectly. Government action is a good example of a direct influence. As always, the tax on beer shot up. But the government also got involved with the day-to-day details of the trade, telling breweries how many and what type of ingredients they could use. Understandably, interference in the brewhouse pissed off brewers no end.

“With the rationing of food early in the war came the rationing of brewing materials. The amount of malt each brewer was allowed to use was not to exceed the amount he used in the year immediately previous to the war, while the amount of sugar was also restricted. Brewers were obliged to reduce the average gravity of their beers by 20 per cent, of the pre-war strength, mainly with a view to conserving materials as much as possible, and this of course was strictly enforced.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 52, Issue 3, May–June 1946, page 117.

When a third of the 1940 hop harvest went up in smoke in a single London air raid, brewers were ordered to reduce their hopping rates by 10 percent. And some of the crop had remained on the bine. With the Battle of Britain raging above the hop fields during harvest, many pickers were too frightened to travel to Kent.

Temperance campaigners, who managed to get the ear of the government in WWI, pushed for total prohibition. But this time the PM wasn’t a teetotaller. Churchill was an enthusiastic drinker—he had a half bottle of champagne with breakfast—and told them to shut up or be locked up. He insisted that Britain’s front-line troops receive a beer ration, considering it essential for their morale.

There were some strange indirect consequences of the war, like the introduction of combine harvesters to replace agricultural laborers called away to war duties. When the barley was relatively damp, as it was in several war years, combines tended to damage the barley, making the work of the maltster and brewer that much more difficult. British barley was only up to scratch in two of the six war years.

Nevertheless, you can see in the table that there was a huge increase in barley production during the war, though not all of it was malted. Brewers were encouraged to use flaked barley as it saved on both labor and fuel. But when the U-boats really started to bite in 1943, brewers were asked to use flaked oats instead, allowing more barley to be allotted to bakers. No brewer would voluntarily use oats in Bitter or Mild.

The following summarizes the difficulties facing Britain’s brewers:

“Reviewing the actual operations carried out in the brewery and considering the innumerable difficulties with which the brewer was faced, with limited supplies; the very variable and often extremely poor quality of his principal materials; reduction of gravities; increased beer duty; regulations of all kinds which necessitated the filling up of countless forms; vexation of the black-out and in many cases endurance of continuous air raids of every kind; shortage of transport; the almost insuperable difficulty of obtaining new plant; with shortage of labour becoming ever more serious, his lot has not been a happy one.
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 52, Issue 3, May–June 1946, pages 123–124.

It makes you wonder how they managed to keep on brewing at all. But they did, and the British nation was grateful for it.


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