Monday, 25 July 2011


I thought I knew a thing or two about 19th century beer types. Then I come across one I've not heard of before. Amber.

This passage explains something about what Amber was like. What it doesn't say is who brewed it.

[Mr. J. J. Homer giving evidence, wine and spirit merchant, publican and committee member of the Licensed Victuallers' protection Society of London and of the Incorporated Society of Licensed Victuallers.

"4014. Are there not people in the trade supplied by brewers who cannot get a living without diluting or adulterating the beer, at the price at which they advertise to sell it ?—My impression is, that there are houses which do not dilute the beer at all; they sell it genuine as they receive it from the brewery, and there are others who have an inferior article, which they draw with the beer, and thus escape the penalties to which they otherwise would be exposed for diluting their beer.

4015. Are they exposed to any penalty for diluting the beer, distinguishing diluting from adulterating ?—I think they are.

4016. A publican has stated before this Committee, that they cannot sell beer at at 3d. a pot at the price which they pay to the brewer?—He is not a good tradesman, or he would not say so.

4017. How does the fact stand ?—If the people will have beer at 3d. a pot now, it must be manifest that it cannot be a good article ; if the publican pays 3d., he never can sell that beer at the same price, and live ; they have, therefore, an inferior article, which is bought very much lower, and which they draw with the porter.

4018. Is that inferior article some of the New River water?— It is an article called amber, bought at a low price, and mixed with the porter.

4019. Do you deny the practice of diluting the beer in order to be able to sell it cheap?—I do ; by far the greater portion of the houses sell the beer as they receive it from the large brewers, without adulteration at all. If a man sells beer at 3.5 d. or 4 d. a pot he sells it, I believe, as genuine as he receives it. In some places they are now selling beer at 3d. a pot. I do not think they draw the beer as they receive it from Hanbury's or any other of the large houses, but they have from the small brewers an inferior article, which they draw with that beer. Instead of paying 36 s. a barrel for it they would not pay more than 20 s., and that is how they realize a profit: but it is a very inferior article.

4020. As far as you know the trade, the publicans are under no such terms with the brewer who supplies them, as necessitates their resorting to this practice of either adulterating with water or inferior beer ?—No.

4021. Mr. Gregson.] Some persons sell Hanbury's entire, you think?—No doubt, when they sell the beer full priced.

4022. Are there many parties who do that ?—I think since the last rise of price some parties who used to sell threepenny beer before, have gone up a halfpenny, and, therefore, they give the public a good article.

4023. Selling the pure beer ?—Yes.

4024. Lord D. Stuart.] Is that inferior article, which is called "Amber," sold as amber ?—I never had it, I do not know what it is ; I never tasted it; it is a very dark beer, and resembles, in its colour, porter as much as possible; at least so I am told.

4025. Mr. Gregson.] It is called beer?—The little brewers send it in as beer ; what it is made of I do not know.

4026. Chairman.'] It is the case also with spirits, that some houses sell them lower than they could do profitably if they were genuine?—Some people dilute gin more than others.

4027. Should you say that these things occur more in brewers' houses than others?—I think not.

4028. Mr. Gregson.] Do those houses which sell the beer pure get more custom, and are they better conducted houses ? — I think so; I think both are well conducted houses. There is a large amount of competition in the beer trade, particularly amongst seme gin-shopkeepers and other publicans; the people will have a cheap beer, and they do not care whether it is inferior or not; the publican says, " I must keep two sorts of beer, I must keep iburpenny beer and threepenny beer."

4020. Chairman.] You do not think that the Beer Act, and the consequent competition in the trade, has improved the quality of the article; the public do not get cheaper and better beer in consequence ?—I do not think they do; although some say so.

4030. Do the beersellers profess to sell beer cheaper than the publicans ?—I think not.

4031. Mr. Gregson.] I presume, by the aid of the taps which are to be seen in a public-house, any quantity can be sold ?—Yes ; I was at Sheff1eld two or three years ago, and I saw 2.5d. beer marked up; I suppose that was to suit some customers.

4032. Chairman.] You cannot inform the Committee what ingredients are put in besides this peculiar stuff, which is called amber ?—I do not think there is any inducement to do anything else ; some years ago there were a great many Excise informations laid against publicans for adulteration ; so I am told; and the publicans said, " As the people will have very cheap beer, and will not give our price for it, we cannot sell the same sort;" and that gave rise to this amber.

4033. Mr. Gregson.] Is the amber a universal ingredient?—I imagine so; I am not speaking from my own knowledge, but only of what I have been told ; I am speaking from hearsay, that is all.

4034. Has the amber been analysed?—I have not the least idea; I know nothing about it; it has been described to me.

4035. Chairman.] Has there been any information laid for selling amber?— No. A good tradesman, for instance, who has found that it will suit the palate of the people, their taste, and so on, would have this amber.

4036. Lord D. Stuart.] It is not sold openly as amber?—It is mixed with the beer ; so much is drawn of one and so much of the other. I believe they have an arrangement to draw both from one tap.

4037. Do you mean that a man who goes into a public-house and asks for one beverage gets another in place of it, while he thinks he is drinking beer? — If a man wants threepenny beer, I do not think he gets it genuine as it is sent from Hanbury's, or other large brewers. I think half a pint of genuine beer is worth a pint of threepenny.

4036. Mr. Gregson.] Of course the customer names his price, and the publican gives him quality accordingly?—Yes. When the last rise took place, consequent on the increase of the malt duty the people said, " We will not drink any beer; we will make them reduce the price of beer." The result was, that some of the publicans in very low localities, for instance, in the New Cut, there is one class selling at 3.5d. in the upper part of the New Cut, and in the lower part of the New Cut they are selling it at 3d. The beer which is sold at 3.5d. I have no doubt would be sold just as it came from the brewery at Hanbury's or Barclay's; whilst at 3d. men could not live if they did not mix amber with it.

4039. Lord D. Stuart.] Do not they advertise to sell amber; is there not at some houses "Fine ale and amber" written up?—I have never observed it.

4040. If they sell it as amber, and do not profess it to be anything but what it is, it is no fraud ?—None at all.

4041. Mr. Gregson.] Is this amber sold at houses belonging to the great brewers ?—I dare say it is in some cases.

4042. Chairman.] Have they not an interest in keeping up the character of their beer ?—Yes.

4043. Mr. Gregson.] Do they allow amber to be sold ?—A man may have borrowed £2,000, £3,000, £1,000, or £500 to go into the house; if he says, " Well, I cannot sell my beer at 3.5d., the people will not buy it, and my trade is going away, I must have threepenny beer;" the brewers say, " We do not like to supply you, because we know you cannot sell it genuine, therefore you will get our house a bad name." He then obtains some article from some other brewers who do not sell good beer; I know one case myself in which Hanbury's did interfere at the east end of the town ; they said, "You cannot afford to sell our beer at 3d. per pot."

4044. Chairman.] Was that man one of their tenants?—He was not a tenant of theirs, but the man was under some pecuniary obligation ; they advised him to sell the beer at 3.5d.; he did f1rst raise bis beer from 3d. to 3.5d. when the rise in beer took place, and because his trade fell off he reduced it to 3d. ; the publicans in the neighbourhood complained of the breach of faith on his part in reducing the price, and as I understand Mr. Hanbury interfered in the matter, and said, "You must sell a good article, and sell the beer as it comes from the brewery, and that will give you a fair living profit and keep up the reputation of our article," and the man raised it up to 3.5d. in consequence of their representation. He might, however, have sa1d, "I have resolved not again to rise the price of my porter; true it is I owe you money, but 'Reid's' or any other brewer, will lend me enough to pay off your loan."

4045. To pay off Hanbury's ?—Yes.

4046. Would Reid's allow him to sell their beer at 3d. ?— I do not know.

4047. The brewers have an interest in the men selling a large draught of beer, does he sell more when he is adulterating and charging a low price ?—I do not suppose he sells more of their beer.

4048. Does not the goodwill of the house sell for more, if he can prove that so much is sold ?—No ; they calculate the amount of profits.

4049. Do the brewers look after their tenants to see whether they sell their beer diluted or adulterated ?—1 believe they are exceedingly anxious that they should sell the beer genuine. They were, in reference to the late movement) anxious that all their customers should supply beer at a pr1ce at which they could get a living profit, and sell it genuine, namely, 3.5d. and 4d. per pot.

4050. Are you alluding to the tax recently on made?—Yes.

4051. They were anxious that the publicans who took their beer should raise the price, in order that they might sell a genuine article ?—Yes.

4052. You say that has been done generally throughout the town ?—I should say very generally; there are a few exceptions ; if they raise the price to 3.5d. they can make a very fair profit indeed.

4053. Is it not more than the tax?—Yes; but the public get a better quality, which they did not before, through this amber being used.

4054. Mr. Gregson.] I see beer is still advertised at some of the houses at 3d. Is all the 3d. beer adulterated with this amber?—1 should not like to go so far as to say that.

4055. Is that your impression?—Yes; because it is charged 36s. a barrel; a man cannot sell it for the same price, and live, and pay his expenses."

"The Sessional Papers of the House of Lords in the session 1854; Reports from Select Committees of the House of Commons, and Evidence; Public Houses" "Minutes of Evidence Taken by the Select Committee on Public Houses, etc." pages 230 - 233.

Let's see what we've been told about Amber:

- it cost 20 shillings a barrel rather than the 36 shillings Porter cost
- it was very dark in colour, similar to pOrter
- it was mixed with Porter to make a beer that could be sold at 3d. per quart
- it wasn't sold straight, only mixed with Porter
- it was pulled through the same tap as the Porter so customers couldn't see it being mixed

Based on that price of 20 shillings a barrel, I calculate that Amber had an OG of about 1031º (that's based on Porter being about 1055º). Mix it 50-50 with Porter and you get something at 1043º.

Mixing Strong Beer and Table Beer (and selling it as Strong Beer) had been one of the favourite dodges of publicans. A easy way of increasing the profit on a barrel of beer. And avoiding tax. Which was why it had been illegal. After 1830, when the tax on beer was abolished, it no longer mattered to the Excise if beers of different strengths were mixed. The tax had been paid on the malt and hops. So, while it might have been misleading to mix Amber and Porter, it wasn't the serious offence it would have been 30 years earlier.

Wouldn't it be great if we had some analyses of the Porter sold in pubs in the 1850's? Hang on, I do:

Let's start with Porter at the brewery or brewery tap:

Porter analyses from the 1850's
OG FG ABW ABV app. attenuation
From brewery
Reid No. 1 1051.40 1014.00 3.94 4.95 72.76%
Reid No. 2 1055.80 1013.00 4.51 5.66 76.70%
Truman No. 1 1052.30 1015.00 3.93 4.93 71.32%
Truman No. 2 1053.70 1014.00 4.18 5.25 73.93%
From taps
Druce (Chelsea) 1043.00 1009.00 3.58 4.50 79.07%
Meux 1058.60 1017.00 4.38 5.50 70.99%
Reid 1049.50 1014.00 3.74 4.70 71.72%
Combe 1042.10 1011.00 3.27 4.11 73.87%
Truman 1055.50 1018.00 3.95 4.96 67.57%
Barclay Perkins 1013.00
Whitbread 1035.00 1012.00 2.42 3.04 65.71%

"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, pages 632-633

ABV, OG and apparent attenuation my calculation

Then the same beers as sold in pubs:

Porter analyses from the 1850's
OG FG ABW ABV app. attenuation
From publicans
H. Weston, 242 High Holborn 1050.40 1014.00 3.83 4.82 72.22%
Hospital porter 1049.70 1012.00 3.97 4.99 75.86%
G. Goddard, 22 Berwick Street, Soho 1047.10 1015.00 3.38 4.25 68.15%
Messrs. Coates & Co., 25 Whitechapel High street 1046.30 1018.00 2.98 3.74 61.12%
Mr. Scarfe, 100 Berwick Street, Soho 1045.60 1016.00 3.12 3.92 64.91%
J.H. Hutchinson, 19 Little Pulteney street, Golden square 1044.50 1017.00 2.90 3.64 61.80%
H. Brand, 77 Leman street, Whitechapel 1042.40 1014.00 2.99 3.76 66.98%
H. Rennell, 16 High road, Knightsbridge 1042.10 1014.00 2.96 3.72 66.75%
T. Sulway, 7 Little Newport street, Soho 1041.90 1014.00 2.94 3.69 66.59%
J. Brown, Whitechapel High street 1040.70 1015.00 2.71 3.40 63.14%
W. Hancock, 1 Whitechapel High street 1040.00 1013.00 2.84 3.57 67.50%
J. Cotton, 5 Edgeware road 1039.50 1012.00 2.90 3.64 69.62%
J. Bishop, 48 Gerrard street, Soho 1039.30 1016.00 2.45 3.08 59.29%
H. Hubbard, Holborn hill 1038.90 1009.00 3.15 3.96 76.86%
R. Skipper, 3 Cable street, Wellclose square 1038.80 1009.00 3.14 3.94 76.80%
H. Ridler, 9 Brewer street, Golden square 1035.45 1010.00 2.68 3.37 71.79%
Messrs. Young & Co., 13 Hemming's row 1035.35 1010.00 2.67 3.35 71.71%
J. Medworth, 167 Oxford street 1034.95 1017.00 1.89 2.37 51.36%
H. Lloyd, 28 High row, Knightsbridge 1034.30 1012.00 2.35 2.95 65.01%
T. Bell, 25 Cable street, Wellclose square 1031.20 1014.00 1.81 2.28 55.13%

"Food and its adulterations" by Arthur Hill Hassall, 1855, pages 632-633

ABV, OG and apparent attenuation my calculation

Of the 20 pub samples, 11 are in the range 1038º to 1045º, suggesting they were about 50% Amber and 50% Porter. Four samples are in the range 1034º to 1036º, suggesting a 75-25 split in favour of Amber. The weakest sample looks like it could be 100% Amber. Only the two strongest samples look like they could be free of Amber or water.

Let's look at the financial aspect. If a pub mixed Amber and Porter 50-50, they'd effectively be paying 28 shillings a barrel. Or 2.33d. per quart. Selling the mixture at 3d. a quart would give the publican a decent profit. No wonder they did it, really. If no-one wants to pay a realistic price, what else can a publican do?

Is there any evidence in the brewing records of Amber? Not underthat name. But remember, the name is misleading. The beer was very dark. In 1850, Barclay Perkins brewed something called Table. It had a grist of pale and black malt and an OG of 1039º. Sounds a likely candidate for Amber.

Can beer be too cheap? I think this proves it can.


treble9man said...

The small book: Old British beers and how to make them - published by the Durden Beer Circle - lists a number of old beer recipes, including some Amber brews. The lowest gravity example being Amber Small Beer(1823) with an OG of 1042 and made from Pale and Amber malts. This is a very informative book and well worth a read. It may be out of print now but the ISBN on my copy is 0951775219.

Bailey said...

Great post, Ron.

Could this mean that, even though beer was theoretically stronger, people were routinely drinking something much weaker and not minding too much? Do modern session ales actually reflect the strength of these adulterated brews?

('Scuse daft questions. Really behind on my studies.)

Ron Pattinson said...

Treble9man, I do have a copy of that book.

Ron Pattinson said...

Bailey, yes and no.

The period in question wasn't typical. Pub analyses from earlier (1820's Accum) and later (1870's British Medical Journal) show much less evidence of watering. It's the effect of the Crimean War.

People were much less used to price increases in the 19th century. Which explains why they would want to continue paying 3d a pot, even though it was impossible for an unadultered article to be sold at that price.

Martyn Cornell said...

John Tuck mentions a recipe for amber ale in 122, put that and other listings for the beer seem to suggest a stronger brew than the one implied here. Amber ale was also the traditional drink used to make hot purl (with gin). However, it does seem to have died out as a style by the 1830s - except in North America, where it continues to pop up in Victorian ads.